The Importance of Inclusive Research | National Institute of Justice

As director of NIJ, it is my priority to support rigorous and inclusive research that informs our efforts to promote safer communities and a more equitable justice system. That means that researchers should take the time to consult with, and learn from, those who are closest to the issue or problem they are studying.

During the 2023 National Research Conference, we hosted a plenary that outlined my vision for inclusive research and described how engaging with those closest to the issue makes for better science and a greater impact.

Plenary participants shared why efforts to include those with lived experience are critical, how they’ve participated in inclusive research, and the key principles that define inclusive research.

Plenary participants included:

  • Linda Seabrook, Senior Counsel, Racial Justice and Equity, Office of Justice Programs (facilitator)
  • Ronald Day, Vice President of Programs and Research at the Fortune Society
  • Megan Denver, Assistant Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University
  • Henrika McCoy, Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Fellow in Services to Children and Youth and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Chas Moore, Community Activist, Co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition

What Is Inclusive Research?

Inclusive research is intentional about involving people who are experts on the topic under study. It is research that takes the time to consult with, and learn from, those who are closest to the issue or problem.

Inclusive research is more than box checking. As researchers, we must be intentional and authentic in all the ways that we engage with the people with first-hand experience, whether as practitioners or people who have experienced crime or become involved in the justice system.

I’ve outlined the following principles to define inclusive research as research that:

  1. Is intentional about involving those who are experts on the topic.
  2. Shares the findings with the people who helped generate them.
  3. Uses person-first language in all components of the research process.
  4. Acknowledges and compensates all involved for their time and expertise.

Inclusive research represents a shift in traditional research practice, which tends to keep an arm’s-length from so-called “research subjects.”  But the world is changing, and we need to change along with it.

Today, authentic inclusive research is needed as we work to rebuild trust with communities that have a healthy skepticism toward science because they have been over-researched and underserved.

These key principles of inclusive research should be integrated into all aspects of the research process, regardless of methodology. Inclusive research should not solely be the purview of qualitative researchers; quantitative researchers also have an obligation to conduct their studies inclusively.

Involving Those with Lived Experience

Inclusive research demands mixed-method approaches to answering research questions — what I call “numbers plus narratives.” That’s when research really becomes impactful. Without engaging with people who are closest to the problem, we don’t understand the full context of an issue nor the full implications our research findings.

Henrika McCoy served as the principal investigator of the NIJ-funded study Understanding the Violent Victimization Experiences of Young Men of Color. The national study focused on identifying and understanding the violent victimization experiences of young Black men ages 18 to 24, including their access to, and use of, supports and resources.

In staffing the research team, McCoy made it a point that Black men led focus groups, conducted interviews, and did recruiting or data analysis because they could best understand the material from their viewpoint.

“The only way to be able to make sure that their experiences, their narrative, their story, their expertise is told is for them to lead that work,” she said.

McCoy stressed that researchers often need to take a step back and evaluate where their expertise is in any given project. She explained how researchers can’t expect to go into a neighborhood they know nothing about and think they will understand the nuances of what’s happening there.

“Often, as academics and researchers, we view ourselves as the experts and we may be the expert of a methodology, but we’re not typically the expert of the experience unless it’s our own lived experience,” she said.

For Chas Moore, researchers and community advocates, like himself, need each other.

Researchers need community advocates to help ensure researchers are trusted and can get the data and information they need. On the other hand, advocates need researchers to validate and help make the case for the policy requests that community organizations have.

“If we work together, I think we can build and create the society that we want a little faster,” he said.

The Importance of Sharing Research Findings

By sharing our research and data with all those involved in the study, we can support how others interpret the results and help develop actions to make informed improvements. This can increase the odds that our findings will create positive change and contribute to healthier and stronger communities for all involved.

When entering a new community, researchers need to be genuine and authentic in informing people about the project, the goals, and the limitations, according to Ronald Day. This is critically important, as some may have unreasonable expectations about what is going to come of the work, he said.

Day also advised researchers to not think of the research participants as “subjects,” but as people, and to include community organizations in any dissemination plan. As part of this, he questioned why there aren’t papers geared toward these organizations that explain the research findings and how it may impact them.

“As researchers, we need to really step back and say, ‘what is the perception we want people to have of this particular project and of us as researchers?’,” he said.

Plenary participants all noted an inherent distrust in research among communities of color due to previous negative experiences and well-known studies, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study.

“It’s going to take a very long time to get Black and brown people to trust in a field that once was so harmful to us,” Moore said.

Using Person-First Language

Inclusive research projects use person-first language in all components of the research process, from project planning to publication. We should always lead with “people who” instead of labeling individuals by their past experiences.

Megan Denver’s research on people-first language has shown that crime-first terms, such as offender, can fuel harmful perceptions of individuals with violent convictions.

“The language you use can influence the public’s perceptions of these individuals,” she said.

She explained how crime-first language may shift static personality traits so that an individual’s conviction becomes a part of their identity.

“If someone’s identity is perceived as static, that’s incredibly dangerous,” Denver said, adding how this can block opportunities for people to successfully reintegrate into society after incarceration.

Compensating Study Participants

Research participants should be viewed as equal partners in the work. Embracing this mindset makes for a more authentic research process, yields more credible findings, and supports the most feasible and impactful policy improvements that stem from our research.

Day said it’s a mistake not to acknowledge and compensate people for their time and expertise. He believes that if a grant doesn’t allow for incentives, researchers should think outside the box and possibly pursue additional funding sources to allow for suitable compensation. And not all compensation needs to be monetary; Day encouraged researchers to consider other incentives, such as tickets, food, or other services.

“Time is valuable,” Day said. “If you don’t think about that from the outset, then that’s not a good practice.”

Moore, who helped design a study that assesses the public’s perception of law enforcement in Austin, shared his experiences in that research project, which underscore Day’s point. He recounted how the research team would often sit in people’s homes for hours, despite the survey only taking 20 minutes to complete. Study participants were pleasantly surprised that someone valued their opinions and input enough to sit with them for so long and to pay them $20, he said.

Implementing Inclusive Research in Practice

At NIJ, we are committed to supporting research that makes a positive impact on our justice system. Scientific evidence supports a fair, equitable, and effective justice system and improves public safety for all Americans.

Inclusive research has the potential to improve the quality of collected data and the accuracy of its interpretation.

Strategic partnerships with community members that embody inclusive research — like those discussed in the plenary — are a critical component of impactful research projects.  

These principles are embedded in our solicitations for research, meaning that we are giving priority consideration to proposals that embody inclusive research. By embracing these principles and engaging in authentic partnerships, we can raise our credibility as researchers, enhance the value and validity of our research findings, and increase the odds that the findings will be understood and used to make a positive change in the world.

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