In an increasingly internationalised academic environment, it is common that you may encounter subjects of another cultural background. Research ethics call for a culturally sensitive approach to this kind of research, because shared context can foster mutual understanding and trust and thus help to obtain the optimal outcome. However, on what amounts to cultural sensitivity in research, scholars differ in their understanding.
Banister (2014) together with other co-authors defined cultural sensitive research as “research methods that have been adapted to incorporate knowledge of a cultural group, in particular, their social norms, specialized vocabulary or non-verbal cues such as hand gestures and eye contact”.
For example, with non-native speaker, it is advised to provide a translator to develop materials bilingually. (Wardale et al., 2015) In an adapted toolkit developed by Burnette and others in 2014 for undertaking qualitative interviews with culturally diverse participants, various strategies were proposed including working with a cultural insider, using a cultural proof-reader, reinforcing cultural strengths and others.
For participants from, for example, East Asia, who are traditionally perceived to possess a collectivistic culture, focus groups may provide a solution. This is because it provides a comfortable and dynamic setting centred on conversations, akin to natural social interaction among the subjects. Thus subjects may feel more at ease to open up their minds. (Kitzinger, 2008) It is also important to maintain patience and allow a certain degree of flexibility when dealing with culturally diverse subjects.
But as pointed out by Pilkinton and Msetfi in their article, while researchers may try to conceptualize a culture in carrying out the cultural sensitive approach, this at the same time may bring about problems of over-generalization. They used the example of collectivist-individualist distinction between Western and South Asian population as an example. After their clinical research experience, they found that cultures cannot be viewed simplistically as a either-or question, but between these cultural orientations, there may be a continuum affected by individual experiences and values.
The cultural sensitive approach raised by Tillman (2002) is more demanding. She proposes a theoretical framework consisting of culturally congruent research methods, culturally specific knowledge, cultural resistance to theoretical dominance, culturally sensitive data interpretations and culturally informed theory and practice. She used African Americans as a cultural standpoint to show how she thinks research should internalise the principles of ethnicity and position culture. Compared with the discussions above, one can see that her ambition is to put cultural sensitivity into every step of research and to go beyond sensitivity on the surface.
By cultural resistance to theoretical dominance, she means that researchers should attempt “to reveal, understand and respond to unequal power relations that may minimize, marginalize, subjugate, or exclude the multiple reality and knowledge bases of African Americans”. The other side of neutrality and objectivity may be that the perspective of subjects is marginalised for they are positioned outside of the experiences of the researchers.
Culturally sensitive data interpretations may involve treating experiential knowledge as legitimate in analysing data. Though this may contradict traditional understanding of data handling, Tillman justified her approach by alleging that analysis and presentation should be tailor-made to the research topic and the group under study.
And culturally informed theory and practice means that researchers could build on the perspectives of the subjects to develop connections between established theories and reality, or to generate new theories based on those perspectives.
Pilkington, A., & Msetfi, R. M. (2012, February). Is culturally sensitive research achievable. In Clin. Psychol. Forum (Vol. 230, pp. 40-43).
Tillman, L. C. (2002). Culturally sensitive research approaches: An African-American perspective. Educational Researcher, 31(9), 3-12.
Wardale, D., Cameron, R., & Li, J. (2015). Considerations for Multidisciplinary, Culturally Sensitive, Mixed Methods Research. The Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods, 13(1), 37-48.