Insider Research and Objectivity

Spanish School; The Child Papirius Saluting Harpocrates as God of Silence
The Child Papirius Saluting Harpocrates as God of Silence. Photo credit: Wellcome Library

Recently I have been told that it is not ethical to research something I have experienced because I will not be objective. Objectivity is seen as key to the scientific method and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the ability to consider or represent facts, information, etc., without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions; impartiality; detachment.’ 

It is true. I am not objective. I think that the abuse of children is a blight on humanity. How unemotional can we be when we study the human world that we live in? Is anyone unemotional about child abuse? Surely it is expecting too much and may in fact be an unwanted approach.  Sociologist Richard Jenkins argues that if objectivity means being unemotional it is at best misguided and at worst dangerous: the ‘sociologist without politics or values, without an ethical point of view on the human world, sounds too much like [Weber’s] ‘specialists without spirit’ (2002, p.9). 

I think that the use of the term ‘objectivity’ is actually to suggest that I will in some way manipulate the data to reflect my own views. I have no intention of doing so. I will try, as I hope all researchers do, to represent and consider all viewpoints in the data I gather in any research I publish. The conclusions will be mine, as with most research studies and this is why I think it’s important that I state where I am coming from. Also the anonymised data set will be available to other researchers so my interpretations can be evaluated. As Paul Hunt (1981) said, regarding the disability rights movement, ‘Oppressed groups have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from the most precise and thorough understanding of the situation we are struggling to change. To change our oppressive reality we cannot afford to leave out of account any significant factor in the situation’ (p.43) and I completely agree with this approach.

There are people critical of the scientific method itself. Donna Haraway (2004) views science as ‘rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power’ (p.577).  Hunt (1981) argued that experts are more concerned with ‘presenting themselves to the powers-that-be as indispensable’ than questioning the status quo (p.39). Thus the veneer of objectivity when it comes to researching humanity can be seen as just as much manufactured and political as anything else.

Others have suggested that I should not disclose that I am an abuse survivor because it compromises my status as a researcher. Although I am aware of the relative power my position as a researcher brings I do not see the participants as objects to be studied but my equals; people active in their own recovery. I don’t see my experience of recovering as particularly special or having more validity than anyone elses so whilst I have opinions on recovering it doesn’t mean I’m right.

It can be argued that having experienced the issue being studied means I have a deeper understanding which can then be tested against others experience. The ‘only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular’ (Haraway, 2004, p.590). Researching from the perspective of marginalised or oppressed people adds a fuller and thus more complete view of society as well as challenging the status quo (Harding, 2004). I may well approach the subject from a completely different angle than someone who has not experienced it and surely different viewpoints mean a richer understanding?

There also seems to be an undercurrent here, maybe I’m being paranoid, of infantilising people who have experienced abuse. Does anyone say to an Asian British person that they can’t research racism? Or a woman can’t research sexism? Or that they cannot disclose their status as a person affected by the subject of their research? Is it because people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse are seen as inherently vulnerable and fundamentally ‘ruined’ that we are incapable of doing research without further damaging ourselves or others? Do we really believe that all the current researchers in this area are unaffected by it?

Alcoff and Gray (1993) argue that survivor voices are subversive and inherently political because they attack the dominant discourse in society and question truths; ‘At various times and in different locations survivor speech has been absolutely prohibited, categorized as mad or untrue, or rendered inconceivable’ (p.265). There are gender differences in these silencing techniques; women are labelled as hysteric or having a victim personality, men silenced through fears of homophobia and loss of masculine status (Alcoff & Gray, 1993). Ultimately I do see my disclosure of being a survivor of abuse as being political and is, therefore, to me a moral requirement. Other researchers can choose for themselves of course.

References

Alcoff, L. & Gray, L. (1993) Survivor Discourse : Transgression or Recuperation ? Signs, 18(2), pp.260–290.

Haraway, D. (2004) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies. Vol 14. 3. 575-599.

Harding, S. (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge. Smith,

Hunt, P. (1981) Settling accounts with the parasite people: a critique of “A Life Apart” by E.J. Miller and G.V. Gwynne. Disability Challenge, (1), pp.37–51.

Jenkins, R. (2002) Foundations of Sociology. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

How many victims?

One of the shocking things coming from the Harvey Weinstein scandal is the sheer number of victims. When it comes to child abusers again the numbers of victims can be staggering. There are different ways of gathering data on this, including identifying the victims such as in the case of Jimmy Savile or asking the perpetrators.

Researchers have tried asking convicted perpetrators. For example, Wortley and Smallbone (2014) examined the criminal history given by convicted offenders in prison. The average (mean) number of victims per offender was 5.6, however, this masks the differences as one offender claimed 300 victims and 49% of the others only claimed 1. The difficulty here is twofold. First you can’t generalise easily and secondly that they are unlikely to admit crimes they have not yet been convicted of.

Abel et al (1987) tried a different approach, one which I’m not sure would pass ethics approval these days. They recruited offenders who were not incarcerated, or presently in the court system. Many were referred by therapists, social workers, lawyers or police. Results are below.

Self reported sex crimes of non incarcerated paraphiliacs

The total reported number of male non-incest victims is very high at 22981. So in this study non incestuous offenders claimed to abuse on average (mean) 150.2 male victims.  The number of acts per victim is much higher for incestuous abuse, presumably because of more opportunity for the offender. This is not to minimise the effects of abuse on anyone. One act or one victim is one too many.

There are similarities between the two studies. There are great differences in numbers of victims per offender from one to hundreds. Both have a problem taking an average number because of these disparities. For each study it is worth considering what the offender gains or potentially loses by taking part and reporting truthfully the number of their victims. Those in prison could gain favour by taking part but also get extra convictions if they tell the truth. Those not in prison were promised anonymity but may still want to please the agency that referred them. Might they also have been motivated by the opportunity to brag?

Taking these factors into consideration, however, I do feel that these figures (if not 100% accurate) are significant. Firstly for law enforcement. People reporting abuse are likely to not be the only victim of that perpetrator as most abuse more than one child. Also it is important for the estimates of the number of active child abusers. It doesn’t take many offenders to cause a lot of damage to many children. Finally the number of male victims bears no relation to the level of crime reported to police or health services. How are these victims coping with their past? What can we do to help? This is one area I am trying to research through my recovery survey.

References

Abel, G.G. et al., 1987. Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Non-Incarcerated Paraphiliacs. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2(1), pp.3–25.

Wortley, R. & Smallbone, S., 2014. A Criminal Careers Typology of Child Sexual Abusers. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 26(6), pp.569–585.

Ready, Steady, Go!

Lakin & Co. (Edwin Hall), R. J.; Sam Crow's Dodgem Track: Race Cars
© Michael Smith. Photo credit: The Fairground Heritage Trust

I’m really pleased that my survey passed ethics approval at the University of Sheffield. I was concerned before I started my PhD that it would be tricky as people who have experienced abuse are seen (in general) as inherently ‘vulnerable.’ My argument has always been that whilst people who have experienced abuse might have mental and/or physical health issues resulting from trauma they must also be extremely resilient to have survived it. Besides if having mental health issues made you unable to be consulted that’d exclude the majority of humans at one point or another!

It is vital to me that people who have experienced abuse (victims, survivors, people or whatever they want to call themselves) should have a say in how their recovery is managed. I don’t believe asking them is particularly upsetting; it is not as though the issue goes away if we don’t ask about it. I also find it quite offensive that we (survivors of abuse) are placed in a different box from normal people when we ARE normal people! We are just normal people who experienced trauma in childhood.

The ethics approval process is very rigorous as the point is to avoid doing any harm to participants. I completely appreciate that, as I’d hate to cause any harm, and I’m really glad that the University supports research such as mine. The next step is to pilot the survey and then get as many responses (and opinions!) as possible. If you are interested in the survey or helping me pilot it please check out my survey page.