As I’m in the process of developing my research consulting business, one question I’m asked pretty consistently is “what does it mean to do culturally competent research?” Since I want to make sure that people understand what I’m talking about, I figured I’d use today’s post to spell it all out. 🙂
So a major problem that plagues researchers of all types is designing interview/survey/focus group questions that people will actually understand. This is particularly important for folks who do qualitative research (non-statistical research that is typically done face-to-face), since the entire point is to inspire lengthy and thoughtful responses. However, since researchers are often not members of the communities that they are researching, certain speech/cultural cues can make communication between the researcher and the person being interviewed difficult.
For example, I do work in public housing projects that are generally occupied by black Americans living below the poverty line. Typically, the folks I interview speak some form of “black vernacular english” (e.g. slang) of one sort or another. Since I grew up slipping in and out of standard and non-standard english, conducting interviews in this community wasn’t a problem for me. * However, when I did research on HIV/AIDS education in Jamaica, “cultural competency” became a major problem. Most of the individuals I was speaking with spoke some form of patois (a Jamaican variant of english). Because I’ve never spoken patois, communication was an issue, despite the fact that we were both speaking english. Ultimately, these challenges were overcome through building relationships with local students who helped us overcome some of these barriers. However, without their assistance, the project would of probably been sunk.
So what is the point of these stories? The point is that researchers, organizations, journalists, caseworkers or whomever, can’t assume that they know the cultural norms within a given community. Every space, domestically and internationally has it’s own way of doing, thinking and speaking about things. Culturally competent research take’s the time to understand the spaces that they want to enter, before beginning any type of research.
So to further break it down:
By “culturally competent research” I mean research tools that are shaped around the community that is being is being studied and/or engaged with. So the community could be women, low-income folks, Irish men, whatever… my basic idea is that when you do research on communities, you can’t assume that everyone has had the same experience or uses the same language. So as someone that wants to communicate with these groups, you need to create tools that are specific to the people you want to engage with.
*I should note that when conducting research within public housing, other cultural challenges presented themselves that have nothing to do with speech. Primarily, my status as an academic associated with the University of Chicago and the class/income assumptions that come along with that. As a result, there were other “culturally competent” adjustments that I had to make in order to meet the needs of my respondents. However, that is a post for another day!