Beyond Trickle-Down Benefits to Research Participants

By Bay-Cheng, Laina Y. | Social Work Research, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond Trickle-Down Benefits to Research Participants


Bay-Cheng, Laina Y., Social Work Research


Few social scientists would dispute the importance of safeguarding research participants' rights and well-being; nevertheless, the bulk of attention paid to research methods is focused on the innovation in and improvement of sampling, measurement, and analysis techniques. Although these efforts are undoubtedly critical to generating optimal knowledge, policy, and practice, researchers must balance the pursuit of these ideals with their ethical responsibilities to the participants in their studies. This point may be especially important for social work researchers, given our frequent involvement with the most vulnerable of individuals regarding the most sensitive of topics (Jenson, 2006; Mertens & Ginsberg, 2008).The ethical imperative of beneficence requires two things of social science research: the minimization of risks to participants and the maximization of benefits to them. The former is guided by a broad literature regarding research ethics and is carefully regulated and enforced by institutional review boards.

In contrast to this rightful emphasis on ensuring participants' safety and rights, the maximization of research benefits is often regarded as a welcome but nonessential bonus. Researchers often count on an altruistic, "trickle-down" theory of participants' benefits: that participants derive sufficient gratification from believing that their effort and responses will play an indirect role in gradually advancing knowledge, policy, and practice, thereby eventually benefiting the communities in which they are stakeholders. In an editorial, Jenson (2006) noted that social work researchers may be especially inclined to view their work as ultimately beneficial by virtue of its focus on social justice and empowerment. But Jenson also urged social work researchers to be more thoughtful and conscious of furthering the "public good" in designing their studies, forging collaborations with community stakeholders, and disseminating their results. Mertens and Ginsberg (2008), in presenting a "transformative paradigm" of research, asserted that social work researchers must constantly evaluate their work in relation to this question: "How can my research at this time and place contribute to social justice?" (p. 486). These calls for greater mindfulness regarding the potential of research to advance social justice are certainly important, and they stand to strengthen social work research. I would add that along with these longer term, bigger picture recommendations, the provision of direct and meaningful benefits to participants deserves a central place in the planning and execution of social work research.

The benefits of research participation have been studied in relation to an array of topics, many of which relate to social work fields of practice. Participants in studies of diverse and sensitive issues--such as refugee resettlement (Dyregrov, Dyregrov, & Raundalen, 2000), bereavement (Dyregrov, 2004), physical trauma (for example, car accidents; see Ruzek & Zatzick, 2000), and health issues, such as infertility (Peddle, Porter, van Teijlingen, & Bhattacharya, 2006) and diabetes (Peel, Parry, Douglas, & Lawton, 2006)--have characterized their research involvement as positive or even very positive. In their summary of the costs and benefits of trauma-related research, Newman and Kaloupek (2004) reviewed findings that even though participants may have had intense reactions to their research experience, this did not necessarily translate into regret or negative feelings about their involvement. In contrary, a majority of participants in trauma studies reported benefits of various sorts, including insight, a sense of emotional relief, and feelings of being supported. In their review, Becker-Blease and Freyd (2006) cited similar findings that participants found studies about sexual abuse challenging but rewarding. Becker-Blease and Freyd argued not only that asking about difficult issues such as childhood sexual abuse can be beneficial and constructive, but also that not asking about these can be detrimental insofar as the omission denies participants an opportunity for disclosure and self-expression. …

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