The mighty morphing issues of power in participatory research
Health researchers are increasingly turning to integrated knowledge translation (iKT) and participatory methodologies to mitigate uneven power relations in research with vulnerable or marginalized groups.
In this blog Carla Hilario, PhD candidate in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia, shares her experiences working on a participatory video research project with immigrant and refugee young men.
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The mighty morphing issues of power in participatory research
When I was young, I was an avid fan of Power Rangers, a television series and multiple films about a group of “teenagers with attitude” who are recruited and trained by a mentor to morph into superheroes with special powers. When ‘morphed’, the Power Rangers possess enhanced strength, durability and psychic abilities, superpowers I have seen again and again whilst working with a team of young men as research collaborators on an iKT study aimed at better understanding and supporting mental health among immigrant and refugee young men in Canada.
Mental health, migration, and masculinities: Meaningful engagement through iKT
As part of my dissertation research at the University of British Columbia I conducted a mental health promotion study that included a series of in-depth interviews and a participatory video project.
In this iKT study I drew on Powell and colleague’s co-KT framework :
To convene a community advisory group (comprised of service providers and program leaders in the health, social service, and immigration and resettlement sectors) to provide guidance on the study
To recruit a team of six immigrant and refugee young men as research collaborators to engage in the research processes and to develop and implement an iKT initiative.
The research collaborators and I had nearly 40 in-person meetings over 16 months. During these meetings, the collaborators provided guidance around recruitment, informed the interview questions, and supported the analysis of the interview data. The resulting study consisted of in-depth narrative interviews with 33 participants.
Introducing iKT to participatory video: The New Frames Project
One of the goals of the study was to co-create an iKT initiative. This initative was called New Frames and was aimed at engaging the collaborators in making sense of the stories told by the participants. Drawing on participatory video methodologies  , the research collaborators and I undertook a six-month video production process, from development through to post-production, to create a short film based on excerpts of transcribed data from the narrative interviews I had conducted with participants.
The resulting film features stories shared by interview participants, selected by the collaborators and re-envisioned by actors (also young men from immigrant and refugee backgrounds) under the direction of the research collaborators. In each on screen ‘character’ we see three young men: the research collaborator, the interview participant, and the actor. Therefore the viewers do not necessarily enter the lives of the participants; rather they enter the research process through a re-creation of the interview.
The short film was intended to provide opportunities to share the research study and to spark greater dialogue about the experiences of immigrant and refugee young men in Canada. The initial screening, held at Heartwood Community Café, was followed by a panel discussion with the collaborators and members of the community advisory group. It drew an audience of approximately 80 people, which included newcomer young men as well as service providers, and leaders with the potential to influence services and policy.
The New Frames project collaborators in action.
Critically engaging with power in iKT
At the beginning of this study I was attracted to participatory video as a strategy that has been used by researchers to ‘give voice’ and “uncover the perspectives of marginalised members of the community such as children and young people” . Through a reflexive analysis of the processes and relationships within this iKT study, however, I learned that it was important “to be more cautious of claims about participatory video’s emancipatory possibilities” . Although I was attempting to alter uneven power relations on the research playing field, I came to realize the importance of engaging “with eyes wide open to the ways that positionality continues to affect power and agency” .
Power operated in my position as the project leader. For example, I withheld data that I considered might be difficult for the collaborators to hear, acting on the assumption that I was better positioned (because of my age, research training, and professional background as a registered nurse) to be able to hear these stories regardless of the young men’s lived experiences. A second tension that arose was when I prevented the collaborators from sharing their personal stories within the group with the intent of clarifying and distinguishing the roles of the collaborators in contrast to participants, the latter in the role of ‘providing the data’ and the former in the role of guiding the project and creating the iKT initiative. At the same time I recognized my impulse to ‘protect’ the collaborators from sharing stories with one another in a way that ‘wrote themselves in’ to the project. Rather than fostering a discussion around this tension, I initially interrupted these processes, firmly holding on to an imperative to demarcate clear and defined roles within the study.
My ability to exercise these decisions can be understood to indicate my authority or position of power on the project. However, it can also interpreted as an initial attachment to an understanding of ‘clear and defined’ roles as defined by prevailing views on rigour in health research and the power underpinning these conventions to shape my methodological decisions, that is, to adhere to these roles and rules, as a doctoral trainee. Although these tensions were eventually resolved, it took time for me to recognize the inextricable linkages between knowledge and the unique contributions of all players – researchers, collaborators, and participants – in an iKT study.
Dr. Cindy Holmes gave wise counsel in an earlier blog when she advised researchers to recognize and integrate an analysis of power differentials in iKT research and to develop best practices for resolving conflict while engaging in critical self-reflection throughout.
Considerations for successful participatory research
Trust is earned: Developing relationships takes time and cultivating good ones requires researchers to earn the trust of groups and communities who are willing to work with them. In my view, this is only possible when there is mutual respect for every person’s contribution to the work.
Consensus building requires transparency: In the words of the collaborators, ‘Carla, don’t worry, we’ll get through this the same way we always do – by hashing it out together.’ In New Frames, the primary mechanism for decision-making was very simple: discuss at length and have an open vote with arms stretched high.
Collaboration is a commitment: The participatory work in iKT should not be limited to select moments but rather throughout, even if it means not fully knowing where decisions will take you and the project.
Mighty morphing power relations
Power relations constantly morph in research relationships and are linked to a range of social locations such as race, gender, class, and age within specific contexts. Participatory methodologies, particularly in iKT research, are useful for acknowledging or even just seeing these relations play out. At the same time, as researchers it would be misguided for us to assume that these approaches ‘take care of’ power relations altogether or are wholly sufficient for mitigating the tensions that arise in research, especially with vulnerable groups, let alone the inequities that underpin these relations.
Through the New Frames project, I learned that one useful starting point is to try to build a team based on trust, transparency, and the type of collaboration one sometimes only sees in superhero movies.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.
PhD candidate in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia
Carla is a health researcher, nurse, and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. She is Filipina and immigrated to Canada with her family as a child. Her doctoral work is supervised by Dr. John Oliffe (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Joy Johnson (Simon Fraser University), and has been supported through a KT Canada doctoral fellowship, an Endeavour research fellowship, and a Movember Canada-Men’s Depression and Suicide Network (UBC) research grant.
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