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AMA Qual Research Clinic: How to make research more inclusive?

Published 02 Dec 2020 9 minute read


The recent The recent Diversity, Inclusion and Equality report by the MRS, authored by Versiti Co-Founder, Dr Marie-Claude Gervais, revealed that market research has a long way to go to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities and experiences when working in the industry.

However, as we know, the quest to improve diversity in research is not limited to employment in the industry but extends also to the practice of research.

We all need to be aware of how these issues play out in our projects, not only because everyone involved deserves to have a positive experience, but also because doing so improves the quality of our findings.

It was in this spirit that we set up an ‘Ask Me Anything’ webinar with Marie-Claude, to help researchers struggling with issues of diversity in their research projects.

As a counter to the more negative findings of the MRS report, it was so very encouraging to see that there are many researchers who care deeply about diversity inclusion and equality in research. The session was well attended, and all attendees were actively engaged with the topic – so much so, there were too many questions to answer in the hour-long session.

Below, we’ve summarised a number of the most pertinent questions and answers below (to skip ahead, click on the question you are most interested in to read the answer):


  1. What are the most common pitfalls that researchers and recruiters fall into?
  2. I’m working on intersectional qualitative research and finding it very challenging to recruit members of under-represented communities. What do you advise?
  3. How do we incorporate educational diversity
  4. How do you get a broad perspective on disability in research, rather than just the views of individuals with specific impairments?
  5. How do you involve people who don’t have access to technology?
  6. How do you overcome biases, whether conscious or unconscious, in your research and analysis process?
  7. How do we deal with the power imbalance between the researcher, who is part of a big organisation and participants, especially those from marginalised or socially excluded groups?
  8. Who is pushing the agenda for inclusive research? Clients? Researchers?
Young creative diverse group meeting and looking at project plan lay out on floor discuss or brainstorm business strategy with post note. Workshop for startup team in modern office. Happy workplace. (1)

Q: What are the most common pitfalls that researchers and recruiters fall into?

MC: When people make mistakes, it is often down to lack of experience, and lack of diversity in their own teams. It is important to consider not only the questions you are asking, but also the response options you give.

For example, one mistake we see when asking participants’ gender is only giving ‘male’ or ‘female’ answer codes, which excludes people who identify as non-binary.

People can also be uncomfortable in how to ask questions around race and you often see response lists that mix up nationality, faith, and ethnicity. Disability is another area where people are unsure of the language to use and often mix up cognitive and physical impairments.

These nuances of language may seem subtle but there are often years of political struggle behind the terminology - and it is changing rapidly - so it is important to pay attention.

Another mistake can be to rely on recruiting from panels ; if they aren’t representative, then you are replicating that bias in your sample. Ethically you don’t want to exclude parts of the population, and your client will want to know that your sample has external validity.

It is not about being tokenistic, but about taking account of the complexity of contemporary life, recognising that needs differ and that innovation comes from a diversity of voices, life experiences and perspectives.

And it doesn’t stop at sampling. Having a diverse sample is like having a diverse headcount in a company – you can pat yourself on the back but unless everyone feels included and has equality of opportunity within the company – or the research project – you haven’t succeeded.

Q: I’m working on intersectional qualitative research and finding it very challenging to recruit members of under-represented communities. What do you advise?

MC: Researching intersectionality means that you must consider how being a member of more than one protected group will impact on an individual. The answer really depends on the groups you are interested in researching – you need to find an approach that works for that specific group.

For example, we did some research for Macmillan Cancer Support which involved recruiting a diversity of people living with cancer: those aged over 65, LGBT people and people from an ethnic minority background.

We had to combine different approaches to recruit such a challenging sample, including partnering with a panel provider to find initial participants, snowballing (asking participants to recommend others with the right profile from their own networks) and working with local community groups such as age support groups, ethnic minority organisations or cancer support groups.

Within this we had to be aware that there was diversity within each group.

For example, we were unlikely to find younger LGBT people with cancer in the same places as older LGBT people. We also expected that there would be important differences in the experiences and outcomes between Asian and Black people living with cancer.

Therefore, before recruiting research participants, we needed to first determine what variables were significant, to try to understand the world of the people we were seeking, and then go to the places that they hang out in order to find research participants.

Q: How do we incorporate educational diversity?

MC: Research often relies on verbal expression but there are many people who aren’t comfortable with this, so you need to find other ways to engage and enable them to take part.

Generally, when doing research with people who have more ‘restricted linguistic repertoires’ or are less fluent in English, it is often preferable to conduct the research face-to-face and to use a simple conversational style.

For online qualitative research , we keep the task wording short, simple and direct. We avoid metaphors and analogies. We avoid conceptual, abstract or more creative tasks. We always emphasise that participants can submit video contributions if they prefer not to write down their answers.

We also use projective techniques such as the Blob Tree – neutral person-shaped images - which help people open up and express themselves in ways that haven’t been pre-framed by the researcher.

There are many tools - like rating and ranking ideas, sharing photos or videos of their lives, drawings, polls, quick surveys, etc. - we can use to support people in thinking in more detail about a topic while making it easier for them to share their views.

Q: How do you get a broad perspective on disability in research, rather than just the views of individuals with specific impairments?

MC: This is challenging, as the range of different impairments is nearly infinite. Some impairments are cognitive, others are sensory and others have to do with mobility, for instance.

People who are labelled with the same condition, for example dyslexia (which is part of neurodiversity), will be affected to very different extents.

With other conditions, such as mental illness, the same person will experience fluctuations in severity over time. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

So, you need a much more tailored approach that fits the research participants, the project and the desired outcome. However, there are some broad guidelines.

For example:

  • With cognitive impairment, it’s not a good idea to have a long interview with lots of complex language. You can go for something much simpler and more visual, or you could use a paired interview with someone who lives with the target participant, like a carer.
  • For people with neurodiversity such as autism, you need to be extremely clear in your questioning. Anything ambiguous or metaphorical won’t work. If you are conducting F2F interviews, you should try to control ambient noise or any external distractions and, if possible, choose a familiar environment.
  • Online research can be a very inclusive format for wheelchair users and people with other physical impairments who may find it difficult to access research venues.
Female Tutor Leading Discussion Group Amongst High School Pupils (1)

Q: How do you involve people who don’t have access to technology?

MC: You mainly encounter difficulties with people who are in rural areas underserved by infrastructure, or with elderly people. However, don’t necessarily discount doing online research, as you may find some people have better access and are more tech-literate than you might think.

Again, you have to match your approach to the profile of the audience.

For example, the project about cancer that I mentioned earlier involved a large number of older people, and those who participated wrote reams – they had so much to say and they were excellent participants.

Research commissioners sometimes shy away from conducting online research with ethnic minority people because they assume that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are going to be digitally excluded, that they are less likely to be online.

However, research evidence points to the contrary: ethnic minority people from all the main communities in the UK are, on average, more likely to use the internet more frequently and for more purposes, and to have positive attitudes to technology.

This might seem counterintuitive, but it is largely because, overall, ethnic minority people are about 12 years younger than their White British counterparts.

So, it is primarily because they are younger that they are more tech-savvy. But it is also because of cultural factors nand because they are more likely to have family abroad with whom they want to stay in touch.

To give you a personal example, my Pakistani mother-in-law, whose English is still a bit shaky, was on Skype 20 years ago because it was a free way of connecting with relatives in Pakistan and with her children and grandchildren who had migrated to different parts of the world.

The main exception is first generation Bangladeshi and Pakistani women, who are much less likely to be at ease in an online environment.

When you are working with people who are less digitally literate, there are several strategies you can use to help them have a good experience, and to maximise the quality of your research.

One of the most important things you can do is to onboard participants both emotionally and in terms of the tools they will be using.

You need to welcome them, make them feel comfortable and help them to understand how to participate. There is nothing like making voice contact, answering questions, guiding participants on the platform and letting them know that there is a real person who is there for them.

We have written a short piece about this in MRS Live, which people might want to access.

Q: How do you overcome biases, whether conscious or unconscious, in your research and analysis process?

MC: One of the most important things you can do is to have diversity within your research team. If there is someone within your team who has the same protected characteristics as the people you are interviewing, that can be very helpful in ensuring that the tone of voice is right and the language used isn’t going to be offensive, that the research covers the right issues.

It will also build trust amongst participants who may feel that that person is more likely to understand them.

However, and this may be controversial, just because you belong to a certain group, I don’t believe that it makes you an expert on that group. It gives you one privileged access point but it doesn’t make you an expert.

As a woman I don’t believe I have an insight into all women.  Nobody can be an expert on everything, so you must do your homework beforehand. You also need to ask participants what they would like.  Having some humility and genuine curiosity and empathy as a research is also key.

For example, you may say: “How would you like to describe your identity? I don’t know much about this; I want to hear from you. If I get it wrong, please challenge me.”

It is also helpful to stop referring to ‘hard-to-reach’ groups of people, which implies that there is something about them that makes them really challenging to involve in research, and instead talk about ‘seldom-heard’, or ‘under-represented’ people, which puts the onus on us as researchers to be more inclusive.

Q: How do we deal with the power imbalance between the researcher, who is part of a big organisation and participants, especially those from marginalised or socially excluded groups?

MC: One way, as already discussed, is to ensure that there is a diverse team of researchers, and that we can include people in the team who are a similar age, or from a similar socio-economic background, so as to build rapport.

Beyond that, we need to make the process welcoming and open, and to use an inclusive tone of voice.

My belief is that all research involves shifting the power balance from the researcher to the participant. After all, in the research encounter, the participants are the experts. We are there to learn from them.

As researchers, we bring the ability to synthesise, see patterns, elevate individual stories and frame the outcomes so they are actionable, but we are never the experts on the participant’s lived experience.

Another simple way in which we aim to make clear to research participants that the research is fundamentally about them, is to ask them, at the beginning of the research, what they want to get from the research.

They tend to say that they want to be heard, make an impact and learn from other participants. It is our job to make that happen.

At the upcoming MRS Impact Conference in March 2021, I will be reporting on a much more radical project that further has undertaken to shift the power balance in research.

The aim of the project was to understand ethnic inequalities in the impact of COVID-19 on the studies, work experiences and employment prospects of young people aged 16-24.

We did not feel that it was appropriate to have a bunch of white middle-class, middle-aged researchers with relatively secure and well-paid jobs discussing this.

We wanted a much more representative research team, comprising diverse young people so that the approach would be more participatory, bottom-up and led by young people.

We sifted through more than 200 CVs, recruited a brilliant small team, trained these diverse young researchers and they will be reporting on the insights and experiences at the conference, alongside the client, Youth Futures Foundation and me.

There are plenty of lessons in there for the research industry as a whole.

Two Young Business Partners Working (1)

Q: Who is pushing the agenda for inclusive research? Clients? Researchers?

MC: It depends on the sector. The public sector has been pushing for diversity for some time – government or social research is often about reaching more vulnerable people because it is essential not to leave people out of a functioning democracy.

So, research departments in government departments or in local authorities are often forcing agencies to skill up.

In other sectors, you tend to find that the initiative to be more inclusive is led by one enthusiast who is typically from a protected group. This is not great because it makes dealing with inclusion almost discretionary and ad hoc as opposed to being at the hard of routine ways of working.

In the 25 years I have been working in diversity, it is only now that I am starting to have good conversations with people about structural discrimination. Researchers and clients alike are now waking up to this. Often though, there is still a long way to go to address existing issues.

For example, a client asked us recently to conduct research aimed at diversifying their customer base, but they asked us to conduct analysis based on their existing segmentation which was not fit for this purpose and missed out on the very people they wanted to engage.

It took them a while to get their heads around the fact that this was one aspect of what we mean by ‘systemic or structural discrimination’: that’s ways of working, procedures, policies, organisational cultures that disadvantage certain groups even if all the individuals involved in the organisations are not at all racist, sexist or homophobic themselves, for instance.

We hope these questions and answers give you a flavour of the issues around diversity, inclusion and equality in research.

If you would like to know more about inclusive research, or if you have a project in mind and would like to see a customised demo of our platform then please complete the form below and one of our team will be in touch directly.

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