On keeping people safe in research

On the topic of Research Day, I have a half finished post from this morning on my iPhone about my access to immediate communication perhaps short circuiting my process of reflection, so hopefully I end up finishing that some time soon. As you could imagine, this morning I woke up with a slightly different perspective on Research Day.

I found one presentation yesterday, ‘Accessing female participants in family violence research’, very confronting. It was not so much the stories of violence that left me stumbling into the morning tea break with a tight feeling in my chest and an urge to make contact with anybody outside the Health Sciences School. Rather, something about the way she spoke about her male participants really challenged some fundamental assumptions I have about research.

It was the only presentations I wrote any notes down from, and they were mostly direct quotes. She spoke about having to think about, ‘My safety, her [the female participant] safety and the efficacy of the research.’ I wrote down, ‘no mention of men mattering.’ She spoke about ‘thinking this guy wasn’t that bad’ and that people may be ‘seduced’ into thinking they are redeemable.

As somebody who knows nothing about family violence research, the two issues I felt were at the heart of her presentation were those of trying to get access to female participants when workers are reluctant to facilitate this access and, secondly, how do you deal with research subjects not telling you the truth. I was disappointed that she did not explore why these men who had such conflicting accounts to their female partners. This presentation did come up in conversation later and quite a few students currently undertaking data collection made the point that when a man said he had not heard of some agency, he was not necessarily denying that he had contact with them but rather it is very common for interviewees not to know the names of the agencies they have had contact with.

I am not in any way saying that I did not find it credible that she had reasons to believe the females, but I wonder if her suggestion that we need to be privileging the women’s account in research into men’s behaviour change programs is really side-stepping the matter. Mostly I wondered why nobody asked whether or not this was ethical research. If she was interviewing men, only to then prove that they cannot be trusted to give accounts is this really fair?  Sure, knowing ‘the truth’ in cases where there is violence and ongoing risk does matter. However, I have a strong feeling that being open to complexity matters in research. There are lots of not nice things in the world, but perhaps research can help us in understanding what they are, how they come to be and how they continue to remain in place.

A question this raises for me is whether or not I am only feeling so strongly about this because she is enlisting the men as participants. After all, much collaborative research, action research or even rather theoretical research is willing to paint ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

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