Avoiding racial bias

July 9, 1999

A set of ethical guidelines for researchers dealing with race and mental health issues has been published by the Transcultural Psychiatric Society and the mental health charity Mind.

Existing approaches do not take into account the effect research can have on those being researched, according to Nimisha Patel, author of Getting the Evidence. "Not only are black people excluded by research, they are

disadvantaged by it," said Dr Patel, from the University of East London's psychology

department. "Any kind of research has to

start from non-exploitive and non-abusive


This involves drawing attention to and challenging the political agendas of the major companies funding research programmes. "Researchers and academics find themselves shaping their questions to fit. But who decides on these agendas? It is not the black communities themselves. Their questions are not answered," Dr Patel said.

The increase in racialised research in recent years means that definitions of ethnicity also need to be refined. "Take young Asian women committing suicide," Dr Patel said. "The focus is only on Asian women, intergenerational conflicts or arranged marriages, which does nothing but reinforce inequalities."

The guidelines recommend that research should not only be informed and led by those it is studying, but that it should seek to empower the communities it addresses. "Negative stereotypes are allowed to foster while other factors are neglected," Dr Patel said. "It is presumed that problems such as racism and poverty exist within a community. The people who are suffering are seen as the reason for their own suffering. Racism cannot be exclusive."

Blanket assumptions that do not allow for diversity within groups not only cause harm, but negatively influence the findings, resulting in ineffective policy and poor practice. "Research becomes another tool to encourage current power relationships," Dr Patel said. "What people have to understand is that research is as much about political activities as it is a scientific activity. Socially responsible research will take this into account."

Dr Patel admitted that the process of change will be long and difficult, but she hopes that the guidelines will go some way to safeguarding against future bias, distortion and insensitivity in research into race, ethnicity and culture.

"It is all about giving black and ethnic communities a voice. Much of the research in this area is conducted by a lot of white men, so it doesn't take a genius to work out what might happen," she said.

The guidelines are not prescriptive but are intended to encourage open, reflective and critical research. Dr Patel said: "We want to get people together to ask how we can work towards making research better. The guidelines are certainly workable, but we know there is a tough road ahead. It will be interesting if people will put their money where their mouth is."

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