Researching the margins: Strategies for ethical and rigorous research with marginalised communities

Edited by MarianPitts and AnthonySmith Published by Palgrave Macmillan , Hampshire , July 2007 . Hardback, 224 pages with index. RRP A$45. ISBN 9781403918116

Reviewed by Ignacio Correa-Velez

Refugee Health Research Centre, La Trobe University, Victoria

Conducting ethical and rigorous research to document health inequalities among marginalised populations is particularly difficult, especially when those populations may be seen as politically contentious. In the editors’ words, ‘Researching the margins’ is “a book about how to be a researcher with marginalised communities rather than a book about how to do research”. Undoubtedly the book achieves this aim. Through a series of case studies, the book discusses a number of challenges faced by those researching the margins. These challenges include definitional problems (e.g. who is in the margins and who is in the centre? Who is the researcher and the researched?), ethical problems (e.g. confidentiality and anonymity, payment to participants), operational problems (e.g. developing research questions, sampling and recruitment), and political considerations (e.g. reporting politically sensitive findings).

The book draws from the collective experience of researchers, most of them working at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS). The authors are from a broad range of backgrounds including public health, behavioural sciences, health and community advocacy, gender studies, anthropology, community development, education, disability studies, indigenous health, and epidemiology. The strength of the book lies mainly on how the contributors, some of them members of the communities perceived as marginal, ‘voice’ their day-to-day research experiences and discuss the dilemmas they face when working with vulnerable communities.

The book consists of two sections. In section one, the two editors introduce the book aims, define the key concepts, and provide an overview of the ethical and operational issues of conducting research with ‘marginal’ communities. Section two consists of a collection of case studies that further discuss these issues in a variety of settings. Chapter one of this section examines the ethical and methodological issues faced when working with drug users, and how collaboration between researchers and communities is influenced by the way ‘drug users’ are defined. Chapter two considers the issues of conducting research with lesbians with a particular focus on the methodological challenges (i.e. who is to be included, sampling bias, recruitment strategies), and on the role of researchers as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. In chapter three, the authors use two research studies, one about the sexual lives of people with intellectual disability and the other on motherhood in women who have intellectual disability, to explore the issues of conducting research with this population. This chapter highlights the issues of inclusion and participation.

The significant challenges of working with post-colonial communities, in which research has been in many instances, an additional tool for domination and exploitation is discussed in chapter four. The chapter provides insightful examples of successful participatory research with Australian aborigines. Chapter five considers the ethical and operational issues of researching with young people in three different contexts: schools, homelessness, and same-sex-attracted young people. Issues of consent and duty of care are at the core of this chapter. Conducting research with older people is discussed in chapter six with a particular emphasis in the methodological challenges of sampling and recruitment. Chapter seven presents an interesting conversation between an advocate for HIV positive people and a senior researcher on the field. This conversation highlights the complexities of the community-researcher relationship and the issues of representation which equally apply to other areas of social research.

While the case studies focus more on the practicalities of this type of research, which are common across marginalised communities and therefore tend to be repeated throughout the book, the introductory section and the final chapter (chapter eight) provide a more theoretical conceptualisation of marginality and of researching marginality. These two chapters are particularly thought provoking and complement very well the case studies.

Overall, this book is a valuable and timely contribution to the discussion and understanding of conducting research with marginalised communities. It is a book not only for experienced researchers but most importantly for students and early career researchers. It is a book about integrity. Integrity towards the communities we work with, towards the research process we undertake, and most significantly towards ourselves and our responsibilities and limitations as researchers working with those perceived as living in the margins.