Ask an expert: Dr Caroline Doyle on researching vulnerable populations

Ask an expert: Dr Caroline Doyle on researching vulnerable populations
30.10.19

For many academics, obtaining the data that is so vital to real world outcomes can be a tumultuous task. For researchers such as UNSW Canberra’s Dr Caroline Doyle, the task of gathering qualitative data from some of society’s most vulnerable demographics brings with it a set of challenges.

Dr Doyle is researching the experience of former prison detainees adjusting to life back in the community. From negotiating time to gathering data from individuals who are apprehensive about providing individual insight, to offering ample compensation for participants, research into the social intricacies of vulnerable populations is a layered subject.

Dr Doyle’s research into recidivism rates in the ACT encapsulates a variety of complex human relationships, along with an extensive accumulation of bureaucratic procedures. Despite the challenges of undertaking such complex social research, Dr Doyle’s ongoing commitment to developing an understanding of how to best approach this area of research, and what way this research can have a lasting impact on people’s lives.

How can we best describe a vulnerable population in research terms? 

Vulnerable populations are generally defined as individuals who are limited in their ability or capacity to provide proper informed consent. They can include children; incarcerated individuals; pregnant women; individuals with a cognitive impairment; victims of traumatic events; individuals who are economically disadvantaged and/or individuals who are not fluent in the language of the study.

What is the overall aim of attaining qualitative data?

The aim of qualitative research is to understand the social reality of individuals as close as possible as to how they feel it or live it. Qualitative researchers can use a range of methods to understand this reality, such as semi-structured interviews or focus groups. By using these methods, researchers need to establish rapport and trust with their participants.

What are some of the biggest challenges academics might face when researching vulnerable populations?

Given that former detainees are a vulnerable population, they may have a distrust of authorities and institutions, such as researchers from universities, and therefore may be reluctant to share their experiences. This distrust can be because of services that may have let them down in the past or, as one participant told me, they thought they could ‘trust’ an institution and they told them confidential information - this confidential information was then used against them.

Former detainees may not have the confidence to call a number on a flyer, as often individuals leaving prison can feel very ashamed and self-conscious. As a researcher, I need to spend time explaining to my participants that any information they provide me will not be shared with Corrections, or other organisations, and that their thoughts and experiences are important and do matter.  It is also important to communicate to participants that information they provide  will only be used in the purpose outline in the consent form.

What is the process involved in undertaking such research?

Any human research, that is research conducted with or about people, needs to gain permission from the Human Research Ethics Committee. The purpose of ethics is to protect the welfare, rights, dignity and safety of the research participants and to protect researchers’ right to conduct a legitimate investigation.

Researchers must ensure that participants give their consent to participate in research. This consent is often in the form of a consent form, which outlines the purpose of the research and what the researcher will be asking the participant to do. Any research on incarcerated individuals also need to obtain permission from the organisation that controls the prison (such as ACT Corrective Services).

I have found how written consent can sometimes hinder the rapport between the researcher and the participant and can turn a ‘human relationship’ into an administrative practice. Previous research has cited examples of how in Aboriginal communities signing a written consent form can make participant suspicious of the research because they may have been ‘duped’ by government officials to sign documents that may have resulted in their displacement.

In some cases, written consent can endanger, rather than protect, participants as any requirement that participants should sign a form that confirms their participation can put them at risk of losing their confidentially.  

Researchers also need to acknowledge why a participant might want to participate in research. Motivations can include an expectation of economic gain or therapeutic benefit. In Australia, and other developed countries, it has become common practice to pay participants.

A range of research projects from the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) offer payments to participants, such as the Quit Smoking Study which offers up to $150 to participants.

In my research, I need to balance that some potential participants may ‘need’ the money they are being offered to participate in the research but others might want to participate because they want to see some change and this might be the first time someone has listened to their story.

Why is it important to undertake the study of vulnerable populations?  

Their voices are missing from decisions that are made about them. Former detainees are an under-researched group. Individuals with ‘lived experiences’ have valuable insights, which can assist policymakers and practitioners in the design of policies and programs that affect not only them but also their families and friends.

You can listen to some of the experiences of currently incarcerated individuals and former detainees at Jailbreak Radio and The Secret Life of Prisons. 

Who does the research of at-risk and vulnerable populations benefit, and how?

It can benefit the population you are researching and organisations that provide to support to them. 

As a simple example, when some individuals are released from the Alexander Maconochie Centre (Canberra’s adult prison) they may not have someone to have collect them and they may have missed the last bus or have to wait around for two hours for the next bus. Some individuals have told me how they have to walk to the nearest bus stop (around 5kms). A small change could be ensuring that there is transport available for someone when they are released, as this small change could make a significant different to an individual’s experiences post-release.

Caroline Doyle is a Lecturer in the School of Business at UNSW Canberra. Caroline completed her PhD at the School of Business at UNSW Canberra. Her doctoral research focused on explaining the recent reduction of homicides the city of Medellin, Colombia has experienced. Caroline has extensive fieldwork experience in Latin America. Her research draws from her legal and policy experience analysing how policymakers develop and implement policies to respond to social problems, such as crime and violence.

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