NEWS17 March 2021

When older, white, middle-class researchers are not right for the job

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UK – A diverse team of young researchers told an audience at Impact 2021 how their ethnicity helped them understand the experiences of a respondent “better than an older, white, middle-class researcher” in a project that was not just “about young people, but with and for them”.


The session, ‘When older, white, middle-class researchers are not right for the job’, took place at this week’s annual MRS conference. It was hosted by Dr Marie-Claude Gervais, research director at Versiti, who said that she hoped “in time, the industry becomes better equipped to understand contemporary society in its diversity and richness”.

The project was conceived by Versiti during the first Covid-19 lockdown, in April 2020, to study ethnic inequalities and the impact of the pandemic on young people.

Gervais highlighted several facts that had raised alarm bells: Youth unemployment was three times the unemployment rate, with ethnic minorities two times more likely to report losing jobs; 46% of ethnic minority households saw income cut compared with 28% of white households; and 70% of 18-24 year-olds had poor mental health.

“The pandemic was beginning to take a disproportionate toll on the mental health of young people compared to older adults,” she said. “It felt really important to document and understand ethnic inequalities and the impact of Covid-19 on diverse groups of young people.”

So Gervais drafted a proposal and took it to the Youth Futures Foundation, an organisation “really well placed to do something with the findings.”

Sope Otulana, head of research at the foundation, explained: “We wanted to focus on the lived experience of a diverse group of young people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and look at how Covid-19 has impacted them, and then what that means for the employment support policies and programmes that aim to reduce youth unemployment.”

Versiti and Youth Future Foundation felt strongly that it needed to put young people with diverse backgrounds at the centre of the project.

“Whereas most research aims for objectivity and neutrality, we aimed for empathy based on an assumption that young people would open up more if they knew and truly believed that we understood their lived reality,” said Amarah Khan, a researcher at Versiti.

One important detail that distinguished it from a typical project saw research groups referred to not as respondents, but as stakeholders and co-producers.

The approach kicked off with building a diverse team with similar profiles to participants. Efforts were made to create an open and welcoming environment where everyone – researchers and participants – felt free to contribute and even criticise, shaping and reshaping the project as it progressed.

“After assembling and training our team, we invited a diverse group of people to a two-week online community, encouraging them to discuss their lived experiences and explore inequalities in a very holistic way, using various formats,” said Cynthia Ko, a researcher on the Versiti team.

“From a research perspective, segmentation tools also allowed us to approach specific issues by allocating questions to certain segments and then analysing this data by segment. We could then explore how different demographic factors such as age, gender and ethnicity intersect to shape experiences.”

A group of 70 black African, black Caribbean, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and white British young people took part. More than 30 research activities in the online community were spread over a fortnight. For example, a ‘wheel of life’ was used by Versiti to encourage young people to think about the impact of Covid-19 on the key aspects of their lives.

The “fact that they stayed in the community and communicated with us freely until the end was a testament to that approach”, said Versiti researcher Shae Eccleston.

“One of the things that we were aware of as researchers is that the world of systems and power often see young people as monoliths,” she added. “This means we can feel restricted when asked to share our true feelings on issues and to inform the same systems of our true feelings around things that impact us.”

Khan gave a powerful example that illustrated this point. “One participant who wore a hijab said she was worried about how her being visibly Muslim could affect her ability to get a job, and then her saying she couldn’t prove that she was being discriminated against, but that was how she felt. She was finding it difficult to describe it.

“But because I’d felt that before, I could draw on my own experiences, she didn’t feel judged by me, she could trust that I would get it, understand her better than an older, white, middle-class researcher.”

In summary, Otulana highlighted “several key reflections from our inclusive approach”.

“Both of our organisations put young people at the heart of all we do and we realise that who we include in every step of the research matters.

“The young researchers who you’ve heard from enriched the inquiry, they helped us ask the right questions and we hope that you will have found hearing directly from them strengthens the case for including those with expertise through experience in delivering research.”

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1 Comment

3 years ago | 1 like

Forgive my ignorance but the title of this article suggests someone did some comparative research to prove that those who are not old, white and middle class (whatever that means these days) are not as good at getting research results as young, non-white, low income researchers. I can only see some research done by young people amongst an ethnic mixed group of people. I would not really call that evidence that white, older, middle class researcher are not equally equipped to gain meaningful insights from a a group of young individuals. Perhaps I can suggest you use a control group to compare results, for a more honest and accurate result.

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