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For Marginalized Groups, Being Studied Can Be a Burden

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Though they note that being an academic gives them a degree of privilege and a protective understanding of the research process, they have still at times found themselves reluctant to participate in otherwise interesting studies. “From my perspective, it’s seeing really cool research and just getting filled with this anxiety of, ‘I should do it.’ But I feel so bloody tired of the whole research thing that I just don’t,” Ashley says. Others who feel exhausted may start participating in a study but then fail to complete it—especially if it uses outdated or disrespectful language or does not reflect the needs of their community.

Research fatigue, then, isn’t only an ethical problem—it also interferes with the projects themselves, because burnt-out subjects are less likely to assist with future studies. And if minority groups are tired of participating, they may become increasingly marginalized within academic work. “It’s preventing future research, but also preventing future research in a particular population in a way that reproduces inequalities over the long run,” Ashley says.

Marianna Couchie, former chief of the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, Canada, has witnessed the burden of over-research within her own community. When the Nipissing started a new fishing program on their reserve, the lead in their fisheries department told Couchie that he was beset by interview requests in which the researchers were asking the same questions over and over again. Both Couchie and the fisheries lead were frustrated that so much of his time was being consumed with repetitive requests that conferred no value to their community. “They’re more than happy to share their stories,” Couchie says of the members of the Nipissing First Nation. But constant questioning—with no consideration for how the responses might be used to benefit the community —imposes an undue burden on the members’ time and energy. And without a voice in the research, indigenous participants have historically been unable to steer it toward responding to their needs.

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to want to build knowledge about marginalized communities. Medical researchers hope to develop cures and treatments for rare diseases; sociologists and anthropologists may intend that their work be used to enhance public knowledge about groups that receive little attention, or to develop just policies. But this last goal, in particular, is not always realistic.

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