Yukon College Home News Archives Ph. D candidate challenges research ethics and false hopes

Ph. D candidate challenges research ethics and false hopes

June 29, 2016

Gloria Johnston, Sociology Ph.D. candidate

WHITEHORSE—Gloria Johnston is challenging the tendency of health and education researchers to over-promise results to the marginalized people participating in an increasingly popular style of research called photovoice.

The University of New Brunswick sociology Ph.D. candidate’s position is outlined in a paper published in the latest issue of the international journal Global Public Health—Champions for social change: Photovoice ethics in practice and ‘false hopes’ for policy and social change.

Photovoice is a community-based participatory research method that asserts regular people, their personal experience and particular viewpoint are a legitimate and important source of expertise.

Typically used with marginalized communities such as cancer and HIV patients, the homeless, disadvantaged youth, single parents, the mentally ill and seniors, participants take the lead in creating and selecting images that hold meaning for them and sharing life-stories connected to the images.

Johnston is using photovoice for her Ph.D. thesis project researching the transgender population of Atlantic Canada.

“I was drawn to this style of research as it gives a voice to the voiceless and brings hidden stories to light. It is a less clinical approach that sees the participants collaborating with the researcher and the results are more personal and meaningful for both sides,” said Johnston.

However, in reviewing a number of other photovoice projects she became troubled by a particular aspect of the methodology.

“Research is typically conducted with a promise to participants of changing government policy—which is enticing—yet there is little follow through by researchers, and the marginalized people who took part can end up feeling even more powerless,” said Johnston.

Current methodology, developed in the 1990s, seeks to use photovoice to uncover underlying root causes to health, education and social situations and identify policy-oriented actions to address injustices. Johnston believes such high-minded goals, while attractive to researchers and funders, are unrealistic and unethical.

“Meaningful policy change takes time, resources, sustained action and communication—all of which are often beyond the immediate reach of the marginalised people taking part in these research projects,” said Johnston.

Johnston’s research outcomes focus on the value to participants of developing their own narrative, ways they can seek to empower themselves and raising awareness within their community of issues that affect them as transgender individuals.

She would like to see researchers avoid raising false hope by shifting their desired outcomes to “policy informing” rather than “policy changing” and advocates that photovoice researchers must have greater awareness of the challenges social movements face when attempting to changing policy, such as structural inequities and access to additional resources.

“Photovoice is valuable because it shifts power away from researchers to the research participants. If researchers can also shift their perspective on outcomes from goals they would like to achieve to those of participants, this methodology has great potential to effect real change in people’s lives.”