Researching the Vulnerable: A Guide to Sensitive Research Methods

By Pranee Liamputtong . Published by SAGE Publications , December 2006 . Paperback, 256 pages. ISBN 9781412912549 .

Reviewed by Ann Taket

School for Health and Social Development, Deakin University, Victoria

On the back cover, this book says it “looks at the particular considerations and sensitivities of being a researcher faced with a subject group at the margins of society, and explores the ethical, practical and methodological implications of working with such groups”. Different chapters explore different parts of the research process. The layout is designed with teaching in mind and has suggested readings and tutorial exercises in each chapter and a glossary at the back. The concern of the book is with qualitative approaches.

I enjoyed reading this book; it contains a wealth of fascinating information about different qualitative research methods and their use. This is the book's strength, as the author has searched out a rich variety of studies on different topics in different settings with groups that are disadvantaged or marginalised and who sometimes are hard to research. She also draws, to very good effect, on examples from her own research. All this fills a very important gap – my students and colleagues often complain about a shortage of papers and books that discuss the details and dilemmas of actually doing research.

However, I have several different problems with the arguments around which the book is constructed. First is its presentation of particular positions, such as feminism and postmodernism, which fail to do justice to the subtlety and complexity of the many different standpoints that can be identified within these. Given the book's expressed positioning within feminist and postmodern frameworks, there were also some strange omissions in coverage. For example, there is nothing on Foucault or explicitly on discourse analysis; no discussion of power and privilege in the real world (although there is welcome coverage of the power relations between the researcher and the researched); and very little coverage of questions raised by the multiple audience(s) for which the research findings may be written up or presented.

The book also makes use of two particularly problematic categories: ‘the vulnerable’ and ‘sensitive research’ (with associated notions of ‘sensitive researchers’ and ‘sensitive research methods’). Construction of ‘the vulnerable’ as a category is highly problematic. Public health research recognises the very real effects of material disadvantage and the negative effects of lowered or poor expectations of individuals or groups on their actual achievement. Using the category of ‘the vulnerable’ runs the risk of reinforcing the very social and health conditions of disadvantage that public health seeks to change. Through leaving open the interpretation that there is a major inborn dimension to this ‘vulnerability’, it downplays the possibilities of change and ignores the considerable resilience in the face of hardship displayed by those who find themselves in challenging circumstances. It could easily reinforce the ‘victim-blaming’ mentality that is found in some health policy, and there is thus the danger of reinforcing a deficit-based rather than strengths-based approach in research and undercutting capacity building and the facilitation of empowerment.

The category of ‘sensitive research’ is seemingly more straightforward in its definition in the book, defined by drawing on Wellings et al. (2000: 256) as research which “requires disclosure of behaviours or attitudes which would normally be kept private and personal, which might result in offence or lead to social censure or disapproval, and/or which may cause the respondent discomfort to express”.1 However, the definition is hard to use to divide up the research field – as this book invites us to do. The notions of ‘private’, ‘personal’, ‘offence’, ‘censure’, ‘disapproval’, are all strongly contingent, socially structured, created and re-created in social interaction and subject to change over time.

As researchers, I think we have a duty to approach our research informants, all of them, with respect and to treat them in the research process with dignity and recognition of their rights. To imply that we need a different process for different classes of individual, in particular constructed around a dichotomy between the vulnerable and the non-vulnerable (or indeed sensitive and non-sensitive topics) seems to me to rest on several assumptions I find myself uncomfortable with, including that I can identify in advance which informants are vulnerable and which are not (or even which topics are sensitive and which are not). This assumes a knowledge I do not necessarily have and hints of arrogance and paternalism. Vulnerability and sensitivity may well be hidden, and as researchers we need to be alert for these in any research situation.

So while the book has much to commend it from the point of view of illuminating the ‘how’ of carrying out qualitative research, a critical stance in relation to the arguments it presents is vital. The book would also have benefited from a thorough sub-editing.