Written by: Kelly Chia, Peak Associate 

SFU psychology professor Tanya Broesch is studying the ethical and scientific challenges of studying human populations. Her desire for this research came after noticing that social scientists were increasingly asked to collect data beyond Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) populations. Broesch’s work guides researchers to a community-centred approach across disciplines in the broader scientific community. Her paper, “Navigating cross-cultural research: methodological and ethical considerations,” was published earlier this year. 

Broesch and her researchers note that many of the non-WEIRD communities who participate in research are “Indigenous, from low and middle-income countries in the Global South, live in post-colonial contexts, and/or are marginalized within their political systems, creating power differentials between researchers and the researched.” They argue that grounding cross-cultural research in understanding historical and social contexts make for more ethical, and better research overall. 

The Peak spoke with Broesch over email for more information on her work.

Like many other researchers who have established long-term research relationships with communities, I often get requests to send students for a short period of time and ‘extract’ data by using one single method to understand a complex behaviour. There are several ethical and scientific problems with this approach, also referred to as ‘helicopter researcher,’” Broesch explains. Helicopter researcher refers to researchers who come to unfamiliar cultures to study them quickly without much regard for the communities that participate. 

This approach can further contribute to the gap between researchers and what’s researched, as researchers can make inaccurate inferences on the communities they study by being too hasty, according to Broesch. “Too often communities are exoticised and this creates an ‘us’/‘them’ perspective that emphasizes the differences.” 

Broesch and her team propose that cross-cultural research should implement three things: a careful study of the site that the research takes place, constant consultation with participating communities, and culturally appropriate practices. This approach allows for researchers to include the communities they study in their projects appropriately.

Broesch emphasizes that researchers must understand that people don’t operate in isolation, and understanding that betters research work. “[Communities] are instead, heavily influenced by the sociopolitical and historical climate of the community in which they live. If you recognize this as you study psychology, it can help formulate research questions that also take experience and context into consideration. I can’t think of any subfield in psychology that would not benefit from this approach,” she says.

“I hope that SFU students who work with human participants or are planning to do research with humans [ . . . ] take our considerations seriously. While some of the problems we outline are unique to cross-cultural research, some are not. For example, we discuss the importance of doing community-engaged and community-led research. This is a challenging endeavour for many social scientists, but there are models out there that can help us make baby steps toward this end goal,” Broesch concluded.

Broesch’s paper is published by The Royal Society, and can be read here.