- 8 min read

Lessons learned: What can you do to make your research more inclusive?

In every phase and aspect of a research trajectory, there are small and bigger steps that researchers can take to conduct research in a more inclusive way for the benefit of larger parts of society.

Summary

According to the preliminary results of All for One & One for All: How to stimulate more inclusive research, a study on inclusive research carried out at Maastricht University, inclusive research can be characterised by the five following principles and features:

  • Inclusive research is often collaborative – the target group is actively involved in the process of doing the research.
  • Study materials (questionnaires, interview guides, or other study materials) are accessible to the entire target group.
  • The target group is able to exert some control over the research process and outcomes.
  • Inclusive research furthers the interests of people - the research results benefit the lives of the target group.
  • An inclusive researcher is aware of his or her own role in the research process and critically reflects on exclusion mechanisms that may exist in his or her own research design and methodology. 

Symposium on Inclusive Research

The collaborative research project All for One & One for All: How to stimulate more inclusive research, funded by the Diversity & Inclusivity Office of Maastricht University, hosted an online symposium on inclusive research to present the preliminary results of a survey on inclusive research.

During the symposium, three researchers - Kitty Jurrius, Marieke Hopman and Thomas Martinelli - gave examples of how they apply inclusive research practices in their projects.

The event took place on 3 June 2021 and was organised by Maastricht University, Maastricht for Everyone, IVO Research Institute and the Maastricht Platform for Community-Engaged Research.

The line up of speakers consisted of Kitty Jurrius and Mylen Daniels (Hogeschool Windesheim), Marieke Hopman (MPCER, Maastricht University), Thomas Martinelli (IVO Research Institute) and Latifa Abidi and Julia van Koeveringe (All for One & One for all research project, Maastricht University).

What is inclusive research?

At first glance, the term “inclusive research” might sound a bit pleonastic. Doesn't all research strive to be inclusive by definition? Doesn’t all research aim to serve society in a way that benefits everyone?

However, there exist exclusion mechanisms in research that researchers may not be aware of. There are also many steps that researchers can take to make their research process more inclusive.

Originally the term inclusive research referred to research that focused on the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities. The research project All for One & One for All: How to stimulate more inclusive research broadens the approach to any underrepresented or vulnerable group in society, such as people with low literacy, an intellectual disability, or people who do not speak certain languages, to name just a few examples.

What does inclusive research mean for community-engaged researchers?

Much like inclusive research, community-engaged research favours collaborative and participatory research designs from the outset and throughout the research process. However, it can be argued that community-engaged research can achieve more societal impact by applying the guidelines and integrating the principles of inclusive research.

What are the characteristics of inclusive research?

According to the preliminary findings of the research project All for One & One for All: How to stimulate more inclusive research, presented during the symposium by Latifa Abidi and Julia van Koeveringe, inclusive research can be characterised by the five following principles and features:

  • Inclusive research is often collaborative – the target group is actively involved in the process of doing the research.
  • Study materials and results are accessible to the entire target group. Researchers are encouraged to share survey or interview guides or reports, and communicate about their research. This can be done via social media posts, websites, infographics, public events, audiovisual media interventions or popular scientific publications.
  • The target group is able to exert some control over the research process and outcomes. This can be done by helping to formulate and fine-tune the research questions, by co-designing the research project, collecting data, or becoming involved as so-called "experience-experts" ("ervaringsdeskundigen" in Dutch). Experience-experts are individuals who can be considered as experts of their own experience - they are different from and not to be confused with knowledge-experts or scientific experts.
  • Inclusive research furthers the interests of people. When researchers develop and offer local training, knowledge-transfer and capacity-building activities as part of their research process, these activities and their results can be beneficial to the lives of many others.
  • An inclusive researcher is aware of his or her own role in the research process and critically reflects on exclusion mechanisms within his or her own research project. This can be done by being mindful of aspects of representativity, diversity, ethnocentrism (judging other cultures from the perspective of one's own norms and culture), and by including observation methods as research options when other more direct methods are not applicable.

What are the pitfalls, challenges and best practices of inclusive research?

Kitty Jurrius highlighted six pitfalls that researchers need to be aware of when working with "experience-experts": 

  • Not specifying the research context
  • Not taking diversity into consideration
  • Placing the experience-experts in a structure instead of adapting the structure to the experience-experts. It is advised to check the questions, identify the important questions, and (re)design the structure if necessary.
  • Overlooking the exclusion mechanism that comes with the forced split between knowledge-experts and experience-experts.
  • Focusing on the impact or gain of experience-expertise without acknowledging the ethical principle that the production of knowledge should not be related to impact and that it is always a joint process by definition.
  • Believing that the expert should have an education to be an expert. One can be an experience-expert without having an education.

Doing inclusive research can come with a number of additional challenges. In the survey on inclusive research, respondents indicated that inclusive research generally requires more time, energy, and funding. Researchers who want to do inclusive research often depend on having access to certain networks. Furthermore, working with certain research communities can present additional sets of challenges. For example, researchers may need to design and adapt the research for the community under study, and to think about how to weigh opinions. When working with children, researchers may encounter obstacles in getting direct access to children and be limited to working wtih mediators such as parents or teachers instead. For a long time, children have been considered as unreliable sources of information about their own experience. In some cases, researchers need to train community members in conducting research, and to explain the research results to experience-experts who may disagree with them. 

The various panelists gave some examples of best practices in doing research in a more inclusive way. When working with experience-experts, their advice was to let experience-experts do the things that they’re good at doing, to ask through, not to assume the answers, and especially to trust that the outcome would be beneficial. Other tips were to use observation techniques, ask feedback often, send research results to the community first and ask for feedback before publication, let the interviewees opt out of the questionnaire or interview, or leave them the option not to answer. They also advised to diversify methods for data collection (via surveys, social media, printed forms, telephone interviews, photo voice, online channels, or using flexible times for interviews) and to diversify methods to share the results ( via online events, blog posts, guest posts, website, songs, public events).

Why is it important for research to be more inclusive?

First of all it is important to be aware of the disadvantages of doing research in a non-inclusive way. Research results that overlook various population groups cannot be generalised. Non-inclusive research perpetuates the problematic situation in which vulnerable and underrepresented groups remain invisible and do not benefit from certain research outcomes. As a result, the problems that exist among vulnerable and underrepresented groups risk to increase by remaining unaddressed.

In contrast, doing inclusive research brings many advantages. By pursuing an active engagement with the community, researchers will get a better understanding of possible solutions to existing problems. Recovery is often connected to a better understanding of one's experience and finding a place for it. By doing research in a more inclusive way and giving a voice to the voiceless, researchers will better be able to solve issues related to stereotype and stigma and to foster emancipation and empowerment.

Conclusion

Inclusive research refers to research that is performed with, by and/or for the target group. Conducting research in a more inclusive way requires more time investment in research design but proponents and practitioners believe that this approach has a higher chance to achieve more sustainable societal impact. Inclusive research cannot be translated into one particular way of doing things; the range of research approaches and methods is extensive. Put simply, inclusive research means shaping research from an inclusive basic attitude and there does not have to be a high threshold to work more inclusively. 

Resources

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