Feminist care ethics in survey research on prejudice against gender and sexual minorities
Studying prejudice against gender and sexual minorities via survey methods often involves asking participants to rate their agreement with some, uh, distasteful statements (to say the very, very least). Some scales dive deep into highly stigmatizing beliefs, expressions of disgust, avoidance, and even violent or harassing behaviours. For example, many scales ask participants to agree or disagree with the idea that sexual and gender minority identities are forms of mental illness (yikes!). So how can we study prejudice, which is important to do, but in ways that account for the psychological impact of exposing participants to hostile attitudes toward gender and sexual minorities? What is the line between a responsible, feminist, care-focused approach to prejudice research and “coddling”? (“Coddling” is in scare quotes because, spoiler: that’s where I think it deserves to be – more on that later.) I’ll address these questions by considering how they have shown up in my own research and look at what many feminist psychologists and other feminist scholars have had to say about researchers’ ethical responsibility to care for research participants’ well-being.
For a qualitative interview project early in my graduate career, I asked gender and sexual minorities about their identity labels, partnered sexualities, and gender/sexes using sexual configurations theory (SCT; van Anders, 2015; also see my 2017 Standpoints post for more on this project). I sat with participants who cried and disclosed painful or even traumatic experiences. And I began to think deeply about researchers’ ethical obligations to participants. Trans and queer people contend with virulent cisnormativity, heteronormativity, familial and/or peer rejection, and intersectional oppressions, among many other structural obstacles. So asking people to reflect on and share about their genders and sexualities was never going to just be sunshine and rainbows. (Although I should say, there was a lot of sunshine and rainbows in these interviews too!) But, participants signed up to be in a research study, not a counselling session, and I had to be mindful of what I could and should provide for them as their interviewer. Still, on instinct, I knew that when a person is sitting next to me crying, I need to provide care for them. This is especially true because the crying was prompted by discussions I initiated for my research. It was clear to me: We simply cannot ask marginalized people to probe the aspects of themselves that are marginalized for the sake of research without also providing care.
What caring for participants might look like was less clear to me when you are not in the same room as the participant or when you might never even interact with the participant directly. How can a researcher care for an anonymous online survey participant? And why should a survey researcher even care about care, beyond the basic requirements of meeting the ethical requirements of institutional review boards?
I am now developing a scale of essentialist and nonessentialist beliefs about gender/sex as a category. My preliminary item list included some items that were explicitly invalidating of gender minority identities (it is important to note that we also flagged the stigmatizing nature of some of the items for contributors in advance). Following an initial quantitative analysis that groups items together based on patterns in participants’ responses, I noticed that the largest group included many gender/sex diversity affirming items (e.g., “There are many different gender identities people can have”) in addition to conceptually similar diversity denying items (e.g., “There are only two genders”). Because the scale was measuring beliefs about gender/sex in general, I did not decide in advance whether to measure denial of diversity (i.e., prejudice) or affirmation with any given group of items.
So, looking at the selection of prejudiced and affirming items that were part of the largest group, I saw a moment of potential: What if I used pro-diversity items rather than anti-diversity? Instead of a “gender/sex diversity denial” group, I could have a “gender/sex diversity affirmation” group. That way, participants could rate their agreement with affirming beliefs and they would not have to read statements that claim gender minorities aren’t valid or don’t exist. Yes, diversity-invalidating beliefs are prevalent and important to measure. But if I can measure the same underlying construct by measuring agreement with diversity-affirming beliefs, isn’t that better?
Feminist theory provides some useful ways to think through why measuring affirming beliefs might be better, at least in some contexts. First, how we measure the constructs we study shapes what we know about them (e.g., Barad, 2007; Bowleg, 2008). If we never measure affirming beliefs specifically, our research won’t have much to say about them. Second, feminist scholarship and pedagogy alike have a rich tradition of recognizing that emotionality is a core part of many academic pursuits and prioritizing care for all involved is an ethical, feminist responsibility. For example, research on issues of violence and injustice can be emotionally burdensome for both researchers and participants, and researchers have an ethical responsibility to care both for themselves and their participants (Campbell & Wasco, 2000; Edwards & Mauthner, 2002). However, care for participants has not always been understood as psychologists’ responsibility due to the field’s roots in positivist, androcentric, and femmephobic biases. Especially galling examples of lack of care for participants are found in notorious cases like the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment.
In my interview study with sexual and gender minorities, applying an ethic of care was crucial because participants were sharing their own experiences of marginalization. But given that my survey study focused on gender majorities’ beliefs about gender/sex diversity, why should I even bother to think about the psychological experience of people taking my survey? They’re majorities! They’ll be fine! Right? Well… maybe? But maybe they won’t. Maybe a “majority” participant is actually questioning their gender, or maybe they had a loved one come out to them as nonbinary recently, or they have a trans child. Or maybe we decide in a future study that we are interested in gender minorities’ own beliefs about gender/sex diversity, but we designed a scale assuming gender minorities wouldn’t have to deal with it. There are a lot of scenarios in which a participant might end a survey about prejudice feeling hurt, scared, or reminded of the kinds of hate that exist and might have been directed toward them, their loved ones, and/or their community members.
Some people might interpret my argument as advocating “coddling” participants. “Coddling” accusations have been levied against other practices of care in academic contexts, most notably the use of content warnings on course syllabi for trauma-related material –sometimes also framed as “trigger warnings” (e.g., Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015; see Manne, 2015 for a rebuttal to the “coddling” framing). But, coddling is the wrong word, because coddling is caring that stifles. I am advocating for considered care, which is context-dependent and the result of careful reflection.
Considered care means, well, considering the impact of research design decisions. And the results of that consideration might be: Yes, I want to include items assessing agreement with highly stigmatizing or violent statements. There can be great value in demonstrating what prejudice looks like and giving participants the opportunity to indicate their agreement with prejudiced statements. For a participant who values social justice, knowing people in their community are under attack and knowing the severity of those attacks might promote supportive behaviours and activism.
But sometimes we don’t need to raise awareness – sometimes people are plenty aware of stigma, violence, and insidious myths about marginalized groups and they’re not looking to spend their day thinking about those things. There is a real psychological burden on participants that we risk when we include such measures. And sometimes that might be a risk we need to take! There are a wealth of psychological studies that took that risk and yielded valuable insights about how prejudice functions that more than justified the whole endeavor. But conversely, in some research contexts, an affirmation-focused scale might give us all the information we need without the same burden. And it’s up to us as researchers to think through those issues and make the best decisions we can.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bowleg, L. (2008). When Black + lesbian + woman ≠ Black lesbian woman: The methodological challenges of qualitative and quantitative intersectionality research. Sex Roles, 59(5-6), 312-325.
Campbell, R., & Wasco, S. M. (2000). Feminist approaches to social science: Epistemological and methodological tenets. American Journal of Community Psychology, 28(6), 773-791.
Edwards, R., & Mauthner, M. (2002). Ethics and feminist research: Theory and practice. In Mauthner, M., Birch, M., Jessop, J., & Miller, T. (Eds.) Ethics in Qualitative Research, (pp. 14-31). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2015, September). The coddling of the American Mind. The Atlantic, 42–52.
Manne, K. (2015, September 19). Why I use trigger warnings. The New York Times, p. SR5.
van Anders, S. M. (2015). Beyond sexual orientation: Integrating gender/sex and diverse sexualities via sexual configurations theory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(5), 1177-1213.
Zach Schudson is a PhD candidate in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on gender/sex and sexual diversity and interrelationships between gender and sexuality. His dissertation explores heterogeneity in people’s essentialist and nonessentialist beliefs about gender/sex, including how gender/sex is structured (e.g., as binary, fluid, spectrum-like or otherwise) and its social significance.