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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2009
Transformative Psychological Research in Pursuit of
Social Justice

Donna M. Mertens, PhD, Gallaudet University (DC)

In the late 1800’s, the American government forced many Native American children to leave their families and move to boarding schools. The government sought to "civilize” Native Americans by removing them from their communities, denying them their language, family, and cultural heritage.

A Mohawk woman remembers: "We were put in boarding schools and not [allowed] to follow our religion and everything. Abusing us if we used [our] language. Cutting our hair. Making us forget our religion and everything” (DeBlase, 2003, p. 300). Why should a psychologist be aware of the historical legacy of boarding schools when planning research on therapy for Native Americans?

Duran and Duran (2000) assert that most of the attempts to provide mental health services to Native American people have ended in failure because they do not provide relevant forms of treatment to this ethnic population. Socio-historical factors such as the boarding school program have had a devastating effect on the dynamics of Native American families. In order to be successful, interventions to address issues such as family violence for Native American peoples need to be cognizant of the tragic consequences of such policies of the past. Psychologists research many issues that are critical to a more just society, such as literacy, mental health, addiction, violence, and disease. Yet many people continue to live with discrimination and oppression as part of their daily existence due to physical, historical, economic, and other factors that are associated with both a failure to address human rights and less access to societal privileges. One reason for this problematic situation is that researchers assume that they can conduct their research without consideration of the historical context that surrounds the participants.

Duran and Duran’s (2000) reflections on research into the effectiveness of interventions for Native Americans raise concerns about research conducted with a deficit perspective that focuses on the problems in a community and ignores the strengths. Researchers who focus on social justice implications of research argue that much research in indigenous and minority communities suffers from this destructive theoretical and methodological perspective. Chiu (2003) echoed Duran and Duran’s concerns in her research on participation in health care and ethnic minority women. She contended that the reason many intervention studies yield inconclusive and contradictory results is because they focus on community deficits. She stated: "The narrow focus on language and culture as barriers to uptake of services has not only hindered a wider theoretical understanding of the problems, but also has had the effect of perpetuating ineffective health promotion practice (p. 167).” When the deficit perspective is used to frame a group as a "problem” with barriers, then the strengths in that community are not as likely to be recognized.

While psychological research on prejudice, discrimination, and oppression provides valuable insights into why discrimination and oppression occur (see for example Parker & Gielen, 2007), many voices within and outside the psychology community call for an expanded view of the assumptions that underlie research in order to more directly address issues of social justice (Lincoln & Denzin, 2005; Reason & Bradbury, 2006).

In the early work of Donald Campbell, he envisioned an experimenting society that would lead to incremental reform as knowledge was gained through random assignment to alternative treatments (Campbell & Stanley, 1966). This approach placed high value on the researchers being objective and value neutral in order to produce scientifically valid knowledge. Christians (2005) criticizes this notion that "a morally neutral, objective observer will get the facts right” (p. 148). He asserts that ethical behavior must be "cognizant of power relations associated with gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, race, and nationality” (p. 148). We have much to gain in our struggle for ethical research by allowing the perspectives of those who are steeped in multi-vocal and cross-cultural representation to raise questions and proffer different considerations in the research context.

The American Psychological Association (APA) made an important contribution to this conversation about social justice and ethics in research. APA’s support for the importance of addressing issues of social justice is evident in the Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice and Organizational Change for Psychologists (APA, 2002). The guidelines include the following principle that specifically focuses on the researcher’s ethical responsibilities when conducting research in ethnic minority communities:

As an agent of prosocial change, the culturally competent psychologist carries the responsibility of combating the damaging effects of racism, prejudice, bias, and oppression in all their forms, including all of the methods we use to understand the populations we serve…A consistent theme…relates to the interpretation and dissemination of research findings that are meaningful and relevant to each of the four populations* and that reflect an inherent understanding of the racial, cultural, and sociopolitical context within which they exist (CNPAAEMI, 2000, p. 1).

* The APA developed guidelines for four specific groups: Asian American/Pacific Islander populations, persons of African descent, Hispanics, and American Indian participants.

This principle suggests that researchers must be wary of deficit models that place the blame for social problems on the individual or culture, rather than on the societal response to the individual or cultural group.

Transformative Paradigm
Social science researchers currently conduct their work within one of four major paradigms: post-positivist, constructivist, pragmatic, and transformative (Mertens, 2005). The post-positivist paradigm holds that there is one reality that can be known within a certain level of probability, and places high value on the use of randomized experimental designs. The constructivist paradigm holds that reality is socially constructed and relies primarily on qualitative methods. The pragmatic paradigm views reality in terms of what makes sense within a particular study, and recommends that researchers choose their methods based on their specific research questions.

The transformative paradigm provides an overarching metaphysical framework that specifically addresses the anomalies that arise when researchers and community members express frustration that their efforts are falling short of the desired mark in terms of social justice (Mertens, 2007; in press). The transformative paradigm has relevance for researchers who work with the ubiquitous peoples who experience discrimination and oppression on whatever basis that occurs, including, but not limited to race/ethnicity, disability, immigrant status, political conflicts, sexual orientation, poverty, gender, age, or the multitude of characteristics that are associated with less access to social justice. It is also relevant to the study of power structures that perpetuate social inequities, as in studies that critically examine the dynamics of White privilege.

Research on interventions to prevent HIV/AIDS in Botswana (Chilisa, 2005) illustrates the major themes of the transformative paradigm.

Theme 1: The underlying assumptions rely on ethical stances of inclusion and challenging oppressive social structures. Chilisa (2005) provides numerous examples of challenging oppressive practices in the research team relationships. The research team was made up of a leader and several members from a European university who contracted to work in a collaborative relationship with in-country researchers. (Chilisa is an indig¬enous Motswana with a PhD from a U.S. university.) The project began with a needs assessment that consisted of a literature review and a standardized survey. The literature review included the statement: "A high acceptance of multiple sexual partners both before marriage and after marriage is a feature of Botswana society (Chilisa, 2005, p. 676).” Working from a transformative framework, Chilisa recognized that realities are constructed and shaped by social, political, cultural, economic, and ethnic values, and that power is an important determinant of which reality will be privileged. When she saw this statement in the literature review regarding the sexual promiscuity of people in Botswana, she notified the European team members that these statements were in conflict with her knowledge of the norms of the society. In response, the research leader said that they would not change the statement, but that they would add additional litera¬ture citations to support it. Chilisa asked: "…which literature, generated by which researchers and using which research frameworks?...What if the researched do not own a description of the self that they are supposed to have constructed” (Chilisa, 2005, p. 677)? This example illustrates the depiction of reality when viewed from a transformative stance with that of researchers who chose to ignore the cultural complexity inherent in indigenous voices and realities.

Theme 2: Researchers need to establish trusting relationships at entry points with communities through culturally appropriate strategies. They should make clear what benefits they will get (e.g., publications, royalties, grants), as well as what community members will get. In Chilisa’s situation, the European researchers included language in the contract that specified that the data belonged to them and that publications would carry their names first. Chilisa expressed concerns that the benefits were viewed in terms of publications for Western researchers and not for the in-country researchers or for Batswana whose needs were not met by the intervention.

Theme 3: Results are disseminated in such a way as to enhance the furtherance of social justice and human rights (Mertens, Holmes, & Harris, in press). Chilisa noted that dissemination of the results was limited to publication in research journals and was not used to further social justice and human rights. She subsequently obtained funding from the National Institutes of Health in the USA to engage in transformative research in HIV/AIDS prevention that took into consideration the culture and language of Batswana. In this way, she is working to address the people’s right to benefit from research on their health.

Transformative Philosophical Framework
The transformative paradigm consists of basic philosophical beliefs that explicitly address issues of social justice and build on a rich base of scholarly literature from mixed methods research (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2003); qualitative research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005), participatory action research (Reason & Bradbury, 2006), feminist researchers (Madison, 2005), culturally responsive research and evaluation (Hood, Hopson, & Frierson, 2005), indigenous researchers (Battiste, 2000; Chilisa, 2005; Cram, Ormond, & Carter, 2004); disability researchers (Gill, 1999; Mertens & McLaughlin, 2004), and researchers and evaluators in the international development community (Mikkelsen, 2005).

Guba and Lincoln (1985) were pioneers in explaining the basic belief systems that underlie the major paradigms of research. Later, Lincoln and Denzin (2005) added to our understanding by identifying four basic belief systems that provide a framework for describing a paradigm. The belief systems include: axiology (ethics), ontology (nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of knowledge), and methodology (systematic inquiry). These belief systems are manifest in the transformative paradigm as follows:

  1. The axiological assumption relates to what is considered ethical or moral behavior. In the transformative paradigm, the axiological assumption prioritizes the furtherance of social justice as the basis for the ethical conduct of research. Interestingly, APA’s (2002) description of the role of the psychologist as an agent of prosocial change is reflective of this axiological assumption of the transformative paradigm.
  2. The ontological assumption is concerned with the nature of reality and what is perceived to be real. In the transformative paradigm, the ontological assumption rejects cultural relativism and interrogates the social and psychological forces that lead to acceptance of what is considered to be real. As we saw in the Chilisa (2005) example, the European researchers had a different view of the sexual behavior of Batswana than did Chilisa. If researchers accepted that either view was valid, then this is cultural relativism. However, ignoring the social and psychological factors that operate in Botswana in terms of sexual behaviors and placing priority on their own view of reality led to implementation of inappropriate and ineffective interventions and an increasing death spiral due to HIV/AIDS.
  3. The epistemological assumption centers on the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the knower and what-would-be-known (or in the case of research, between the researcher and the participants in the study). The transformative epistemological assumption includes the need to establish a trusting relationship and an explicit acknowledgement of power differentials in the relationships between researchers and diverse community members.
  4. Methodological assumptions make explicit the appropriateness of approaches to systematic inquiry in research. Transformative methodological assumptions lead to inclusion of community members in respectful ways throughout the research process. Mixed methods are commonly used to obtain multiple perspectives from multiple data sources. For example, Chilisa (2005) used focus groups to examine how HIV/AIDS was understood by people in Botswana and she used epidemiological and demographic data to determine which groups of people were most at risk of contracting the disease.

Examples of Research Conducted in the Transformative Spirit
Numerous examples illustrate the themes, framework, beliefs and ethical guidelines of the transformative paradigm. In my own research, I applied the transformative paradigm in such diverse contexts as examination of cultural factors that allowed sexual abuse to occur in a residential school for deaf students (Mertens, 1996), access to the court system for deaf and hard of hearing people (Balch & Mertens, 1999; Mertens, 2000), increase in diversity of teachers of deaf students with multiple disabilities (Holmes, Mertens, & Harris, 2008) and parenting deaf or hard of hearing children (Meadow-Orlans, Mertens, & Sass-Lehrer, 2003). In each of these contexts, the dimensions of diversity had to be carefully considered through consultation with diverse members of the community and provision of appropriate support mechanisms to legitimately include the community members.

For example, in the court access project, the transformative paradigm is shown by the fact that I began my understanding of challenges not by asking judges, but by asking the deaf and hard of hearing people about what they experienced in court. I collected data from a series of focus groups with deaf and hard of hearing people who represented the broad spectrum of diversity in that community. Cultural responsiveness is illustrated by the use of four interpreters in one focus group to support fully accessible communication: one signed into the hands of a deaf and blind participant; one pantomimed for a deaf individual whose linguistic skills were very low (he only understood pantomime and gesture); and two used American Sign Language to provide an English translation for the hearing moderator. The focus group was led by two moderators, one hearing and one deaf. In another focus group held in the southwestern US, an additional interpreter was added who understood Mexican Sign Language.

The data gathered from the focus groups were used as a basis for the development of professional development activities for judges, other court staff, and deaf people and their advocates. The people who attended the professional development were asked to develop a plan to increase the accessibility of the court for deaf and hard of hearing people. The final component of the research strategy included a follow-up visit to the court systems to observe and interview court personnel and deaf and hard of hearing people to determine the extent to which their access plans were implemented. In this way, a transformative approach resulted in the voices of deaf and hard of hearing people being present throughout the determination of the nature of court-related challenges, the development of interventions, and the assessment of the effects of implementing those interventions. In this way, I was able to tie the research data to the facilitation of social change to enhance deaf and hard of hearing people’s access to the courts.

While communication support systems needed to do transformative research in the deaf community may seem to be an extreme example, researchers who understand the culture and diversity in their communities of practice will find similarly complex dimensions of diversity that need to be appropriately identified and supported in order to further social justice.

The Talent Development Model provides another illustration of how a transformative lens can be used to design and conduct research on improving academic achievement for children in urban schools. The Talent Development (TD) Model of School Reform (Boykin, 2000) is designed to explicitly address the strengths in students and their communities primarily in under-resourced urban schools serving low-income students, most of whom are African American. In accord with the transformative framework, the TD Model rejected typical negative language that labels such children as "at risk” and reframed the language to say children "placed at risk,” thus acknowledging that a wider community shares responsibility for the situation in which the children are trying to learn.

Guided by the TD Model, Howard University’s Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) exemplified transformative principles in their work by ethically including members of the community, They held multiple meetings along with the field implementers and key stakeholder groups with the intention of obtaining genuine buy-in from these groups. To the extent possible, stakeholder suggestions were incorporated into the activities and the evaluation. The intervention in a TD school was viewed as an evolving entity that was developed through a co-constructive process involving the evaluators, school staff, parents, and students (Thomas, 2004). Thomas describes this process as a challenge to the conventional role of an evaluator, such that the boundary between evaluator and program designer is blurred. The TD evaluator was involved in the decision making about the intervention because they had in-depth knowledge of the setting and participants, and they shared the responsibility of program development, implementation, and evaluation with the program designers and implementers.

In keeping with the transformative belief systems that emphasize human rights, understanding reality from the perspectives of those with lived experiences, and building trusting relationships between researchers and participants, the TD evaluators also placed a premium on cultural competence in the context of the urban school. To that end, they sought evaluators of color or from underrepresented groups. When this was not possible, evaluators were required to obtain a fundamental understanding of the cultural norms and experiences of the stakeholders by means of building relationships with key informants, interpreters, or critical friends to the evaluation. TD evaluators are encouraged to engage in ongoing self-reflection and to immerse themselves in the lifestream of the urban school through attendance at meetings, informal discussions, and attendance at school functions such as fundraisers or parent information nights. These are strategies that increase stakeholders’ access to the evaluators and program implementers, with the goal being improved school performance for those who are placed at risk by implementation of less culturally responsive interventions.

The transformative paradigm is a way of thinking about research and not a step-by-step procedure. The transformative framework leads researchers to critically examine their underlying belief systems for research and focus on the furtherance of human rights and social justice. This paradigm is compatible with the purpose of the APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office of supporting its members in researching and advocating for programs in the public interest that relate to such issues as aging, children, individuals with disabilities, ethnic minority populations, HIV/AIDS, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, socioeconomic status, and women’s issues. APA members are called upon to participate in conversations about public policy as a civic responsibility that is enriched by their particular expertise.

American Psychological Association. (2003). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. American Psychologist, 58, 377-402.

Balch, G., & Mertens, D. M. (1999). Focus group design and group dynamics: Lessons from deaf and hard of hearing participants. American Journal of Evaluation, 20, 265-277.

Battiste, M. (Ed.). (2000). Reclaiming indigenous voice and vision. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.

Boykin, A. W. (2000). The talent development model of schooling: Placing students at promise for academic success. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 5, 3-25.

Campbell, D. T., & Stanley, J. C. (1966). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for research. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Chilisa, B. (2005). Educational research within postcolonial Africa: A critique of HIV/AIDS research in Botswana. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 18, 659-684.

Chiu, L. F. (2003). Transformational potential of focus group practice in participatory action research. Action Research, 1, 165-183.

Christians, C. (2005). Ethics and politics in qualitative research. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research. (3rd. ed., pp. 139-164). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cram, F., Ormond, A., & Carter, L. (2004, October). Researching our relations: Reflections on ethics and marginalization. Paper presented at the Kamehameha Schools 2004 Research Conference on Hawaiian Well-being, Kea’au, HI.

Council of National Psychological Associations for the Advancement of Ethnic Minority Interests. (2000) Guidelines for research in ethnic minority communities. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). (Eds.) The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

DeBlase, G. L. (2003). Missing stories, missing lives: Urban girls (re)constructing race and gender in the literacy classroom. Urban Education, 38, 279-329.

Duran, B., & Duran, E. (2000). Applied postcolonial clinical and research strategies. In M. Battiste (Ed.) Reclaiming indigenous voice and vision (pp. 86-100). Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.

Gill, C. (1999). Invisibility ubiquity: The surprising relevance of disability issues in evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 29, 279-287.

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Holmes, H., Mertens, D. M., & Harris, R. (2008, February). Voices of new teachers: Implications for the preparation of teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. Presentation at the annual meeting of the Association for College Educators—Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Monterey, CA.

Hood, S., Hopson, R., & Frierson, H. (Eds.). (2005). The role of culture and cultural context. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Lincoln, Y., & Denzin, N. (2005). The eighth and ninth moments—Qualitative research in/and the fractured future. In Lincoln & Denzin (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 1115-1126). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Madison, D. S. (2005). Critical ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Meadow-Orlans, K., Mertens, D. M., & Sass-Lehrer, M. (2003). Parents and their deaf children: The early years. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.

Mertens, D. M. (1996). Breaking the silence about sexual abuse of deaf youth. American Annals of the Deaf, 141, 352-358.

Mertens, D. M. (2000). Deaf and hard of hearing people in court: Using an emancipatory perspective to determine their needs. In C. Truman, D. M. Mertens, & B. Humphries (Eds.), Research and inequality (pp.111-125). London: Taylor & Francis.

Mertens, D. M. (2005). Research and evaluation in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mertens, D. M. (2007). Transformative paradigm: Mixed methods and social justice. Journal of Mixed Methods, 1, 212-225

Mertens, D. M. (2009). Transformative research and evaluation. NY: Guilford Press.

Mertens, D. M. Holmes, H., & Harris, R. (2009). Transformative research and ethics. In D. M. Mertens & P. Ginsberg, (Eds.), Handbook of social research ethics (pp. 85-102). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mertens, D. M., & McLaughlin, J. (2004). Research and evaluation methods in special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Mikkelsen, B. (2005). Methods for development work and research. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Parker, M. R., & Gielen, U. P. (2007, Summer). Recent developments in the study of prejudice. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(4), 19-22.

Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of action research: Concise paperback edition. London: Sage.

Tashakkori, A., & Teddlie, C. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of mixed methods in social and behavioral research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Thomas, V. G. (2004). Building a contextually responsive evaluation framework: Lessons from working with urban school interventions. In V. G. Thomas & F. I. Stevens, (Eds.), Co-constructing a contextually responsive evaluation framework. The talent development model of reform: New directions for evaluation, No. 101 (pp. 3-24). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals.

Additional Resources
Two subgroups of the American Psychological Association (APA) made their voices heard through the development of ethical guidelines relevant to social justice and transformation.

The Council of National Psychological Associations for the Advancement of Ethnic Minority Interests (CNPAAEMI) published Guidelines for Research in Ethnic Minority Communities (APA, 2000).

The APA’s Joint Task Force of Division 17 (Counseling Psychology) and Division 45 (Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) published Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice and Organizational Change for Psychologists (APA, 2002).

Donna M. Mertens, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Research at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where she was honored with the Most Distinguished Faculty Award in 2007. She is a former president of the American Evaluation Association and continues to make contributions to the field in international and diversity issues. Her 12 books cover areas such as transformative research and evaluation, ethical issues that relate to social justice, and dimensions of diversity critical to enhancing human rights.

Copyright 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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