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Reconsidering Objectivity in the Quest for Social Justice

SPA professor explores the inherent biases in research methods and recommends practices that better capture the experiences of marginalized groups.

While the traditional practice of social science scholarship depends on past findings to inform the present, what does it mean if earlier research is marred by racism and patriarchal assumptions?

SPA Associate Professor Jane Palmer fights this long tradition of oppressive research practices, encouraging scholars and her students to recognize and eliminate biases and center community participation at each step. In 2021, she, along with AU alumni and current graduate students, contributed to two chapters in Social Justice Research Methods for Doctoral Research, a multi-disciplinary doctoral textbook, which trains researchers to recognize and manage the internal biases that influence their study of marginalized groups.

“A lot of researchers are trained in the positivist tradition, which assumes you can objectively observe something in order to measure it or for it to be a subject of study,” she explained. “Post-positivist researchers see objectivity as a problematic myth. So, this line of my work asks how racism or other forms of oppression can affect objectivity and validity at each stage of the research process.”

In Chapter 11, “Anti-Racist and Intersectional Approaches in Social Science and Community-Based Research,” coauthored with Justin Morgan (Harvard University), Sofia Hinojosa (Urban Institute), Julie Olomi (University of Central Florida), Leonard Ayala (University of Texas-Dallas), and Andre Rosay (University of Alaska-Anchorage), Palmer elaborates on the potential dangers of using race as a variable in statistical analyses. Two of her co-authors, Morgan (AU, `16) and Hinojosa (AU, `19), are undergraduate alumni of Palmer’s Community-Based Research Scholars (CBRS) class.

“Some people will use race as a control variable in a quantitative study, when, really, they’re more likely to want to measure the impact of racism,” Palmer explained. Systemic racism and resulting socioeconomic inequities, she continued, are much more likely to affect empirical outcomes than race itself.

Even before data analysis, aspects of the data collection process may introduce biases that affect a study’s validity. Palmer has witnessed this in studies of victimization, another area of expertise. For example, if there are no bilingual researchers on the team, she explained, then its work will necessarily exclude the experiences of non-English speakers. National phone surveys on victimization may be limited to home and cell phones, neglecting homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and other communal arrangements.

The chapter lists strategies for minimizing these exclusive research practices at each stage of a research project, including community participation, culturally-sensitive translation, and inclusive design. “For doctoral students,” she said, “it is about training them to be intentional about who is in their sample, and why. Who are you including? Who are you excluding? Of course, you can’t include everyone, but it’s about being thoughtful about what your sampling frame means for the study’s generalizability and potential policy or practice implications.”

The safest way to be inclusive in study design, Palmer maintains, is to collaborate with community members in research design. In her research, she works with community partners at every stage of the research process: to identify issues and opportunities, recruit participants, interpret results, and translate findings into actionable policy or practice recommendations.

“I repeatedly tell my students that the people affected by the issue should have a say about what should be done about it,” she said. As a PhD student, she collaborated closely with a Native woman-owned research firm, American Indian Development Associates, on a national study on violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women living on tribally sovereign lands. In this work, she gained training in community-based participatory research, culturally centered methods, and learned a lot about the impacts of past harms by white researchers.

“Especially in marginalized communities,” said Palmer, “it is common for someone to fly in, get some data, and just fly out. Then you’ll never hear from them again. The researcher gets tenure, and the community receives no benefits from the research.”

In Chapter 6, “Youth-Led Action Research: Lessons Learned from a University-Community Partnership in Washington DC,” she drives home this point with a case study of a youth-led, social justice-oriented, community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) project in Washington, DC. Palmer and Jessica Rucker, a teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, and their coauthors, Vanessa Negron, Amanda Harrison, Kefai Debebe, and Camille Lawrence, collaborated with students in AU’s Community-Based Research Scholars (CBRS) program and at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School to identify research questions on the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action National Demands, conduct a study, and present findings to school leadership. Debebe and Lawrence are AU students who worked closely with Palmer and the CBRS program on this project.

“In the past, CBRS would do focus groups, surveys, and interviews with [high school] participants to help youth organizations or schools make changes informed by student input, . . . but I was increasingly dissatisfied, professionally and personally, and started to feel like I was treating the young people as subjects,” said Palmer. Instead, the virtual nature of the pandemic allowed for a space where she could train them as peers. This came naturally to Palmer, who previously managed youth-led initiatives as a social worker in Chicago.

“Via Zoom, my CBRS students taught the high school students what they learned from me, in a peer education model,” she said. “The college and high school students collaboratively developed survey questions and conducted interviews. Then the high school students presented the research and their recommendations to their principals, . . . [who, at their suggestion,] hired a new social worker, and committed to providing more wellness support for their students.”

Palmer, who served as director of AU’s Community-Based Research Scholars program from 2014 - 2021, considers this CBPAR project a high point of her life and career, and looks forward to further reshaping the conventional approach to social science research.

“Typically, as an academic, I'm supposed to download a data set or collect data, analyze it, and then write these articles for peer-reviewed journals,” she said. “Which I do. I think there can be impact there.

“But it's not my priority or my passion.”