We’ve seen research that we would all call “unethical” in cases like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.
Some of us might have also read about the Milgram Study, in which participants were supposed to administer electric shocks to other participants for incorrect answers. Maybe we heard of the forced “sex-change” operations in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The list of these kinds of shockingly and obviously unethical research goes on and on. Many would argue that these studies should be considered not only unethical, but violent, for they caused significant physical and psychological harm to their participants, and that harm has been well documented.
In addressing unethical or “violent” research practices, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), international organizations, and others have usually concentrated their efforts on the most obvious and direct forms of violence – like those mentioned above. But what about research that is more subtle in its potential to harm and damage both its participants (subjects) and those whom the research findings are supposed to somehow benefit? What about potential for structural violence?
There is a difference between direct and structural violence. Direct violence is the obvious stuff: wars and murder and in the past several decades terrorism. The central aspect of direct violence is the very physical nature of the harm done.
Structural violence is more subtle, but has just as much – maybe more – potential to inflict suffering, for it can sink its insidious teeth into individuals, communities, even nations and other large populations in sneaky yet powerfully painful ways.
Structural violence includes economic inequality, health care disparities, and inadequate access to quality education. This type of violence is perpetrated by economic, social and political institutions. Structural violence is, essentially, the unequal distribution of power.
So, what does this have to do with research? Research has the potential to perpetrate acts of structural violence in a most insidious and conniving way, for it can – and has, for hundreds of years – dictate what types of knowledge is useful and valuable, what counts as knowledge, and who has the right to create and hold that knowledge. Indeed, it allows some voices to be heard, and others to be ignored, even silenced. By creating a monopoly over the power and opportunity to produce valuable knowledge, research that is not cognizant of its own potential for oppression could leave those populations already stripped of economic, social, and political power even more powerless because their experiences, lives, and voices are devalued, even ignored.
When we think about research in these terms – as something that has the potential to either give or take away power – the notion of empowerment through research becomes importantly different.
Empowerment through research does not mean that some study reveals some finding that gives some level of hope or creates some change for a certain population; rather, empowerment through research refers to the research process itself.
As individuals and communities are meaningfully involved in directing the research process – from the identification of a problem to the collection and analysis of data to the presentation of findings to a particular policymaking body – power over the production of knowledge is redistributed in a way that makes these individuals’ and communities’ life experiences and unique understandings valuable to others. These groups so often marginalized by the process of research become powerful.
They are empowered.
Image Attribution: Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment – By .Jrtayloriv at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons