People embark upon equality, diversity and inclusion research for many different reasons. For some, the work is an exploratory mission to identify key themes and write future research questions. For others, the purpose is diagnostic: where problems are known but underlying causes remain unclear.
The primary purpose of research is to answer questions. However, less discussed, is whether the practice of EDI research (the actual doing of the work) can bring any social or psychological benefits to the individuals involved. Is doing EDI research a form of EDI work in itself?
EDI research must do more than make researchers feel good about themselves but any potential positive effects on participants are worth exploring. We should therefore assess whether well-designed EDI research can operate as something multi-directional, in which researchers get answers to their questions while participants also take-away something meaningful from the encounter.
In some instances, material incentives (such as gift vouchers) can recognise a participant’s contributions and the unpaid time given to the project. But incentives might be something more than material, including social or psychological benefits for project participants.
Imagine a hypothetical research project that seeks to explore recruitment and promotion challenges experienced by disabled staff that work for a large insurance company. To explore this question, research involves one-to-one semi-structured interviews (a mix of specific questions and opportunities for participants to speak freely) with staff working across the organisation.
For Robert, who works in the Finance Department, this is the first time anyone has asked what it was like to navigate the company’s complex recruitment forms as someone with additional learning needs. The method of the semi-structured interview presents Robert an opportunity to tell his narrative with no pressure to present right or wrong answers. Nothing is right or wrong as it’s his perceptions and experiences.
When people participate in an EDI research project they give a piece of themselves to the work. They grant you access into their world.
He speaks from the heart and shares feelings that he had never previously spoken about. In this moment, the researcher is invited into someone else’s world. With this invitation comes responsibility, as it is the researcher’s role to tell Robert’s story accurately.
Participation in a one-to-one interview on EDI issues can also bring dangers. Participants might share perceptions and experiences never previously discussed. As the interview is likely recorded using a dictaphone, for a few months an audio recording of their thoughts and feelings will exist. Even with the guarantee of anonymity and measures to protect data security, there still exists a physical manifestation of something that might have previously only lived in their own head.
And what happens if nothing comes from the research findings? When people participate in an EDI research project they give a piece of themselves to the work. They grant you access into their world. This is an honour and privilege that should never be abused. By inviting participants to present their world, it becomes the responsibility of the researcher to act on the information shared. If the participants’ words lie in an unread or unactioned document it benefits nobody. Furthermore, it risks putting participants off ever sharing their stories again.
Taking part in a one-to-one interview is a unique and personal experience, for both researcher and participant. It goes beyond the borders of simply answering a research question and, when executed effectively, can present an opportunity for people to share personal perceptions and experiences in a way that can bring about change for wider society.
Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.