Research for the Culture
Jakevia Green, MPH | Evaluation Manager
With an academic and professional background in epidemiology, I have worked to understand both the biological and socio-cultural risk factors contributing to patterns of disease and other health-related events among various communities. All too often, I am amazed by the brilliance and ingenuity of population-based public health research initiatives, yet I am let down when I realize the ways in which many of them lack consideration of the cultural influences among the people they intend to impact. In my work as evaluator of research initiatives, I constantly reflect on how I engage with, learn about, and represent people of cultures vastly different from my own, recognizing also the ways in which I bring my own culture and lived experience as a young woman of color to the work I do.
Researchers and evaluators [worth their salt] work to abide by objectivity—a long-standing research principle suggesting that the design, implementation, evaluation, reporting, and dissemination of research should be free of bias and the influences of personal interests, beliefs, and/or values of the researcher. Some, however, take this guiding principle problematic steps further by believing that being culturally distant or far-removed from their study populations minimizes the likelihood of their research being shaped by opinion or personal perspective, and that not involving community stakeholders within their study populations [beyond the role of participants] in the research process prevents their research from becoming too culturally-tailored to the point of not being generalizable. The truth of the matter is: despite efforts to remove influence, no research is truly free of it. In fact, a lot of research and evaluation is missing a vital form of influence, that of the communities they work to serve. It is commonplace for researchers and evaluators to work outside of the familiarity of their own cultural and lived experiences. Inevitably, the interests, perspectives, values, and cultures of those that conceptualize and conduct research initiatives affect how community members are engaged to participate in research, what questions get asked of participants, how the data is collected and analyzed, and the way results are reported. Depending on the researcher, this can be an asset or a detriment. As culture is fluid and ever-changing, cultural competence has become an ethical imperative. Conducting research in the absence of cultural competency and/or without consultation with key stakeholders and community members undermines the important role culture plays among the populations studied, which has direct influence on the impact of any research initiative. Cultural competence requires not only that researchers work to understand the communities they engage but also that they are aware of themselves, their cultural position, the perspectives and cultural positions of those within their study populations, and how to interact with their study populations in a way that is both ethical and respectful. Cultivating such awareness is an invaluable lifelong learning process that can never be mastered but can certainly be honed.