In what sense can and should social research be anti oppressive?
Policy Makers and practitioners determine the allocation of resources through the results of various forms of social research. Therefore it is crucial that social research be anti oppressive in order to ensure that these resources are utilized on appropriate non -oppressive provision. This acknowledgment that social research is a political process has called for an emancipatory paradigm that seeks to ensure that political policy is anti-oppressive.
Obviously not all-social research has to take an anti oppressive stance, the positivist approach to research is their to predict and explain things and for interpretists it is based on common sense to interpret and understand people. However as Oliver (1992) highlights, both positivist and interpretive research is carried out by a small number of so called experts on a larger group of ‘relatively powerless research subjects.’
“Interpretive research is just as alienating as positivist research because what might be called ‘the social relations of research production’ have not changed, one iota.” (Oliver 1992:P106)
As a community educator working with the disabled community, I look at things from a critical or praxis perspective. This research process has the purpose of:
“emancipating, empowering and liberating, that is to get below the surface, to expose real relations, to disclose myths and illusions, to remove false beliefs and ideas and to show how to change the world” (Sarantakos 1998:61)
Having adopted a critical paradigm, the focus of my approach is on oppression and discrimination. Through this approach, I will begin to unravel the complex relationship between power and powerlessness that exist between certain groups within society. Also if I apply this critical perspective to the area of disablism, I will hopefully go some way of combining the relevant readings and research and my own experiences so that anti oppressive practice within social research can be fully explored.
There are justified and important criticisms of the theories and practices of professional researchers whose aim is to offer research into the lives of disabled people. Researchers need a political education to overcome their own conscious and unconscious assumptions and prejudices about certain forms of difference.
Researchers need to adopt a bi-focal approach, which involves having a set of values, such as a belief in social inclusion and human rights. These values need to be combined with the capacity to be in touch with where the research subjects are at the present and where they have been in the past. The disabled person needs to experience empathy rather than an alternative view.
Having an understanding of the kinds of structures and experiences that construct identities, in relation to disability, will prevent disability research from being reductive and oppressive. Therefore the position of the researcher and power dynamics within the research process should be equally emphasized when working with disabled research subjects. Marks’s (2002) research into the relationship between counsellors and their clients can be equally applied to researchers and research subjects:
“It is crucial that counsellors are able to be self critical and reflexive so that they avoid imposing their own world view on the client.” (2002,P2)
The need for research which promotes the active participation of disabled people and which enables them to exert both influence and control over the research process can be clearly seen. Not to promote such research would fail to challenge existing power structures and disabled people would be denied a voice in research that may fundamentally affect their lives.
This is crucial for my own practice working with disabled people, and is compounded by the disillusionment with both the positivist and interpretive research paradigms by disabled people.
“This disillusionment…has raised the issue of developing an emancipatory paradigm in order to make disability research more relevant to the lives of disabled people.” (Oliver 1992:P109)
Recognising the oppression and powerlessness experienced by disabled people as a group is a central argument of this assignment. The research itself should not contribute further to this oppression and disempowerment by treating people as passive subjects with no control over the research process. Participatory research is identified as a potentially emancipatory research methodology consisting of a process of investigation, education and action in which participants work jointly with researchers at every stage of the process. As Oliver explains, the heart of emancipatory research is:
“a political commitment to confront disability by changing:
the social relations of research production, including the role of funding bodies;the relationship between researchers and those being researched; and the links between research and policy initiatives.” (1992:p107).
An inner most tenet of the Social Model of disability, Oliver (1980), is that effective solutions to the problems that disabled people face cannot be imposed from outside or above. Groups working together must find solutions. The social model of disability recognises that for many people coming to terms with the consequences of impairment in a society that devalues disabled people and disabled lifestyles is often a personal tragedy. The tragedy is, however, that our society, continues to discriminate, exclude and oppress people viewed and labeled disabled.
Recently I was approached by a group of adults with learning disabilities and asked if I would work with them to research into a project that would improve their opportunities for a more fulfilling leisure time. Living in a disablist society, I believed we could work together, to implement change:
“The role of the non-disabled researchers has raised similar questions. For some,their lack of personal experience of disabling barriers means that their contribution lacks authenticity; for others, disabled and non-disabled researchers live in a disablist society and can both contribute to disability theory and research.”
(Barnes et al. 1996.p22)
During our first meeting we outlined our current situation, where we wanted to be, and how we were going to get there and we introduced a number of systems that would make the meetings, relaxed and informal and easy to follow. We introduced a card system so that people with communication difficulties could contribute effectively, by holding up picture cards when we agreed on something, when we wanted a break, when we did not understand etc.
This exercise proved to be very effective and proved Elrick’s point, that:
“When community participants are supported in undertaking research about their communities or organisation there is a growth in knowledge which creates more self confidence and a better understanding of the context of decision making” (1996,p. 35)
Due to the needs of the group, and the cynicism for researchers by disabled people, I very much wanted this project to be based on a “bottom up approach,” and avoid the view held by many disabled people that research is:
“part of a structure of discrimination and oppression; an activity which is both intrusive and disempowering in its own right and which serves the damaging and oppressive purposes over a service system over which they can exert little or no influence or control.” (Beresford 1999,p36)
In order to gain resources, to improve the lives of adults with learning disabilities, and avoid the aforementioned situation, a balance is required so that the opinions of learning disabled adults are taken seriously. As Hawtin et al (1994) proposed:
” there ideally needs to be a balance between the more objective, expert assistance from outside agencies and the enthusiastic, insider understanding of the community itself.” (Pg. 253)
The key questions when using such an approach are “who needs the research and who owns and uses the data?” (Smith 1993). In our group and our research project these questions could be answered quite simply. The research is required to bring about improvements in the lives of adults with learning disabilities and the data will be used by my organisation in order to bring about these improvements.
Following the core processes mentioned above, the research would have an action orientation. As I believe strongly with Lewin that:
“The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice (Lewin 1946, reproduced in Lewin 1948: 202-3)
I endeavored over time to make a real and measured difference and illuminate the behaviour, needs, resources and barriers affecting an improved situation for members of the group and their peers and counterparts, when accessing mainstream leisure pursuits.
Because disabled people were involved right from the beginning of the exercise, and were consulted and empowered to play an active role in its development, we managed to readdress the usual power imbalance that exists within disability research. As Davis explains:
“The fundamental problem is the disproportionate distribution of power and influence between those who control disability policy and disabled people themselves.” (1996: pg. 15)
My rejection of the positivist view and the timing of this project allowed for an emancipatory approach to this research. The combination of the request from the group of learning disabled adults and this emerging new paradigm for undertaking research allowed the researched and not the researcher to take control. As Oliver explains:
“The issue then for the emancipatory research paradigm is not how to empower people, but once people have decided to empower themselves, precisely what research can then be done to facilitate this process. This does then mean that the social relations of research production do have to be fundamentally changed; researchers have to learn how to put their knowledge and skills at the disposal of their research subjects, for them to use in whatever ways they choose.” (Oliver, 1992:11)
Theorists in the ’emancipatory’ camp argue that all research is political, since it usually represents the interests of powerful white male, non-disabled groups. By giving a voice to marginalised and excluded groups and treating them as subjects rather than objects, the research attempts to understand the world in order to change it. Critical, feminist, participatory, anti-racist and disablist approaches to research all have this explicit purpose as a legitimate and fundamental premise. Lather says:
“Rather than the illusory ‘value free’ knowledge of the positivists, praxis -orientated inquirers see emancipatory knowledge… [which] increases awareness of the contradictions distorted or hidden by everyday understandings, and in doing so it directs attention to the possibilities for social transformation” (1991:p.52)
The research project, I was involved with went beneath the surface of the dominant ideologies and oppressive power relations and enabled praxis to be developed, and as Harvey highlights:
“Praxis is what changes the world.” (1990:p22)
Important methodological questions are raised by the act of researching disablement. Disability research has attracted much methodological criticism from disabled people who argue that it has taken place within an oppressive theoretical paradigm and within an oppressive set of social relations.
Hunt (1981) in his paper entitled ‘Settling Account with the Parasite People’ came to the conclusion that the fundamental relationship between researchers and the researched was that of exploiters and exploited. The depth of feeling this research experience generated is undiminished to this day:
“The inescapable, unacknowledged political dimension of ‘research’ was so obvious it had to be exposed and opposed. Researchers could window shop from an established academic array of ‘respectable’ formulas, select an off the shelf approach trendy enough to catch the eye, command the respect of peers, satisfy funders, give a nod to scientific method, enhance reputations, preserve the prospect of future assignments, and do wonder for careers. And in their make believe, value-free objective world always end up reinforcing the status quo.” (Davis 1999,p55)
With this in mind, before approaching the project, I was aware of my responsibilities toward the group I was working with. Traditionally, disability research has been criticised for failing to have a positive impact on the lives of disabled people (Oliver, 1992). Participatory research and in particular ‘ending’ participatory research gives rise to further, specific dilemmas for the researcher.
By becoming involved with ‘vulnerable groups’ and ending research with people who have limited social networks, as the researcher, I needed to be prepared to provide commitment over time.
“Researchers need to think carefully about the implications of ending the research before they negotiate to work with people with learning disabilities as co-researchers.” (Northway 2000, P30).
Therefore, I had a responsibility to see this research through to the end, making sure there were tangible repercussions from the research that would have a positive impact on the lives of adults with learning disabilities.
Challenges such as these, are those that have led to the development of the ’emancipatory’ research paradigm. A number of principles of emancipatory research have been identified, by the British Council of Disabled People (www.bcodp.org.uk) and it is within these principles that I based the aforementioned research.
Firstly, unlike conventional approaches emancipatory research must fully involve disabled people from the beginning to the end of the research process. Non-disabled researchers may also be involved but they must be accountable throughout the entire research process to a research advisory group controlled and run by disabled people.
Having been approached to research into ways of improving the accessibility of leisure activities for adults with learning disabilities by the adults themselves, my first task was to create an Advisory Committee that would have the responsibility of managing the process. This advisory committee was made up of all the key partners involved in the objective of increasing leisure opportunities for adults with learning disabilities and included 5 adults with a learning disability, 3 support workers, 2 parents / carers, 1 leisure provider and 2 professionals. The process of setting up this advisory committee and organising the training so that each member could contribute effectively was in itself an empowering exercise.
[PB1]Lloyd and her colleagues (1996) acknowledge the current emphasis on allowing users to be involved in formulating plans and defining their needs can be lip service only, especially when users have difficulty communicating. Lloyd and her colleagues observe that:
“Empowerment and partnership will not just happen; they must be resourced, perhaps by challenging the impact on people of powerlessness, disadvantage and oppression, perhaps by providing opportunities for them to acquire knowledge, understanding and support which will increase their self confidence, power, control and choice.” (Lloyd et al., 1996,p60).[PB2]
In order to overcome this, I implemented a mentor / befriending partnership, within the Advisory Group, so that people could work together and help and support each other. This enabled everyone to contribute within their small, informal group setting and then report back their views and opinions within the larger advisory group setting.
According to Johnson (1992), the empowerment process can be seen both as imperceptible changes in consciousness and identity while achieving particular goals (self-discovery), and also as an engagement in public action (collective identity). Central to the process of recognising the personal as political (Ward and Mullender 1991) and a key rule for community educators is empowering groups to take control this in itself is a key process in anti-oppressive practice.
This key process was at the forefront of our strategy and provided all group members with an equal voice and therefore resulted in an equalising of the power relations within the group. Dalrymple and Burke (1995), suggest that empowerment is “about replacing powerlessness with ‘some sense of power’ so that confusion can give way to a feeling of coherence’.” (Rees 1991:21, cited in Dalrymple and Burke 1995:52).
Secondly, by taking ownership of the research we were all accountable and therefore the findings and implications of the research needed to be disseminated in appropriate formats to all parties involved so that we could make informed decisions about how to develop. We achieved this by creating imaginative and creative ways of using information. For example the members of the committee who had difficulty communicating utilized available technology and displayed their findings in the form of photographs. The photographs highlighted examples of local community leisure provision that was not accessible or that the individuals had not had the opportunity to attend because of their impairment. One member of the advisory group who had a learning disability, put it succinctly, when he said
” I would like the people who work with me, to be called my ‘Support Friend’, and I need them to help me so that I feel safe and have a good time at my chosen activity.” (Advisory Group Meeting March 2003)
Thirdly, a key concept within the research project was to produce knowledge, understanding and information that will have some meaningful practical outcomes for disabled people in their struggles to overcome the barriers faced in disabling societies. The goal was to leave disabled people in a better position to confront the disabling barriers in their lives.
Working in such a microenvironment enabled for the research to be action orientated with clear goals and achievable objectives that were set by the advisory committee. Because these goals and objectives were being set by the adults with learning disabilities themselves and those that genuinely wanted to bring about improvements in their lives, the outcomes would bring about improvements in the lives of the research subjects and their counterparts and facilitate social change within the wider local community.
The outcomes from our meetings were forwarded to the representative of the key group for disabled people (a disabled person) who attended the core group of the Local Strategic Partnership. This allowed the outcomes of our meetings to hopefully shape the community plan for the district over the next 10 years and reiterated the point made by Ward and Mullender (1991) of recognising the personal as political.
Emancipatory disability research should adhere to the social model of disability. This reflects the growing demand by disabled people for a more holistic approach to the problems commonly associated with disability. Our research community came up with the following mission statement which provided the focus for our work and a goal at which could focus our energies and attract funding from individual charitable trusts and statutory and private funding bodies.
“We believe all people have the right to leisure, education and self-development opportunities. Currently, many disabled people are denied this by attitudes in society and by environmental and organisational barriers.
We aim to create and sustain equal access and inclusion for disabled people to community provision and facilities.
We strive to raise disability awareness within communities in order to promote good inclusive working practices and facilitate social change.” (Advisory Group Meeting April 2003)
Emancipatory disability research focuses on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by disabled people and their families. Our research identified the key barriers affecting the lives of the individuals involved in the research. We were able to implement systems and procedures for each individual that were person centred. This meant that we could look at each individual and identify their own individual needs and aspirations and find out what they would like to do in their leisure time, what they have not been able to access in the past, and implement systems and procedures that would ensure their safety and enjoyment.
Generally emancipatory disability research has been associated with qualitative rather than quantitative data collection strategies.
However as highlighted by Sarantakos:
“The principles and procedures employed by critical theorists are thought to be the same as those used by positivists and interpretivists.” (Sarantakos 19 :P62)
It is not the research strategies themselves that are the problem it is the uses to which they are put. Thankfully we were in control of these uses and we could make sure that our research was used in an anti-oppressive way.
Finally, discussions of disabled people’s experiences, narratives and stories used for the research should be couched firmly within an environmental and cultural context in order to highlight the disabling consequences of a society that is increasingly organised around the needs of a mythical, affluent non-disabled majority. The needs of one disabled person will be totally different to the needs of another, however through the research certain similarities became apparent, and it was on these similarities that we began to formulate the policies and procedures that would give some tangible infrastructure to the project and make it a viable concept to attract funding, in order to begin to make change.
Having agreed the principles around which the research would be carried out the first challenge was to identify the barriers to participation that disabled people faced when accessing their chosen leisure pursuits. This could not realistically be achieved without carrying out some historical research to gain an understanding of the oppressive forces disabled people face in order to live their lives on a level playing field with their non-disabled peers.
By giving a very brief overview of the historical oppression disabled people have faced, provides a framework around which to implement change. From a political context, the absence of any clear ideological commitment or policy direction from central government has resulted in a largely pragmatic approach to services for disabled people. Because of the hostility by the Tories to the idea that disabled people should enjoy the same rights and opportunities as their non disabled peers the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) encountered wholesale rejection by the disabled peoples movement and its supporters. This rejection came about due to the Act’s reflection of medical definitions, limited scope, allowances for ‘justified discrimination’, and poor provisions for implementation and enforcement.
This act is the one that society and its infrastructure adhere to, however tentatively, when marketing and delivering their services. By looking at the acts carried out throughout history, it becomes apparent that those with power seek to isolate vulnerable groups and collude in order to maintain power in the continuous process of oppression. We needed to overcome this by trying to get leisure providers to operate under the social model of disability. This required effective education through communication.
Harvey clarifies that:
“critical social research is underpinned by a critical-dialectical perspective which attempts to dig beneath the surface of historically, oppressive, social structures”. (1990: P1)
The controlling ethos of society has led Frinkelstein (1997) to consider that the version of community care currently on offer to disabled people is:
“…a pernicious influence in maintaining the boundary between disability and normality, just at a time when disabled people are challenging the artificiality of this and other boundaries that constrain our, and non-disabled peoples lifestyles.” (Pg. 13.)
By examining the historical and political oppression disabled people have faced we can better understand that it is only through challenging and questioning the ideology that controls the power balance within society, that disabled people can begin to reclaim their human rights. There is very little social research carried out on, policy makers for example, because:
“the powerful are so rarely studied because they have the resources to protect themselves from scrutiny. ( Taylor, 1985, p152)
Social research should be anti-oppressive because it yields more valued, accessible and useable evidence that is both qualitative and quantitative and can be used practically as well as ideologically to change paradigms and societies in order to reduce disability and promote emancipation, empowerment and inclusion. Disabled and non-disabled researchers and the disability movement, by working in partnership can influence funding bodies. This influence can feed the desire for positive, practical and empowering change for disabled and other marginalised and disadvantaged groups. This has a crucial role to play in moving forward the agenda for change.
Two funding bodies which are now quite explicit in their requirement that people with disabilities, and their organisations, are fully involved at all stages in research which they fund are the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the National Lottery Charities Board Health and Social Research initiative.
(Ward 1998) outlines the criteria operated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Foundation makes a commitment only to projects which could bring about changes in policy and practice. It requires a commitment to the social model of disability; user involvement at all stages of research and development, and a genuine partnership between researchers and organisations for people with learning disability; the appointment of at least one person with a learning disability to the project steering committee; and commitment of researchers to active and potentially effective dissemination. The National Lottery Charities Board Health and Social Research initiative, has adopted very similar criteria.
The research project that was used as an example for this assignment is proving to meet all of these criteria and therefore is attracting funding from the statutory sector as well as individual charitable trusts. This funding has allowed for a team of Support Friends to be employed, who are working with and for learning disabled adults across South Warwickshire. Feedback so far from the project is very positive from the adults with learning disabilities, their parents/ carers, the Support Friends and the local leisure providers, and goes to show that over a relatively short period of time social research can make a real and measured difference to the lives of oppressed groups.
I feel I have fulfilled my responsibility to see this research through to the end, making sure there are tangible repercussions from the research that are having a positive impact on the lives of adults with learning disabilities.