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Research methods

Research methods

The field of research into the mental health and psychosocial well-being of forced migrants has drawn on various social science and medical disciplines: psychology, anthropology, sociology, psychiatry, and public health, amongst others. Within these disciplines great variation exists between the approaches adopted towards research and the types of research aims to be achieved. For instance, psychologists have used methods such as narrative analyses to investigate the experiences of one or two people and how they have coped with the impact of these experiences - while other psychologists have adopted a 'survey approach' to gathering information about large numbers of people. Medical anthropologists have investigated local conceptualizations of distress, loss, and death, while some social anthropologists have focused on social networks and support systems that facilitate coping among refugees. It is clearly not possible to categorize research approaches based on the type of discipline researchers are trained in or work in, as decisions about methods depend on the questions the research sets out to answer.

Over the last two decades a vast amount of research has been conducted based on the concept of PTSD, with approximately 400 new publications on this topic appearing every year for the past few years. This research has predominantly relied on questionnaires, checklists and structured interviews to gain information about the type of events people have experienced, their frequency and intensity, and about the reactions to these events. As discussed in the section on the trauma debate, this approach has increasingly come under criticism for being culturally inappropriate and producing results that have limited value because it provides no information about the meaning people themselves attach to the events and responses (Summerfield 1999) .

Ahearn (2000) differentiates between approaches that are quantitative and those that are qualitative. Common quantitative research methods are, for example, psychometric measurements such as depression scales or symptom checklists, surveys, or structured interviews. The emphasis in quantitative research is on answering questions such as 'what?' and 'how many?', as well as on testing suppositions (hypotheses) and correlation between factors that researchers suspect are relevant to the issues under investigation. For instance, a quantitative researcher may be interested in the levels of anxiety refugees are experiencing, and the causes of these anxieties. She may develop a structured interview in which questions of that nature are presented to refugees, as well as questions related to other factors such as age, sex, economic background, or religious affiliation. During analysis, the researcher may investigate if levels of anxiety are related to age, religious affiliation, or other factors by conducting statistical analysis on correlation between these factors.

Common qualitative research methods are ethnographic approaches that include participant observation, semi- or unstructured interviews, and focus-group discussions. The emphasis in qualitative research is on answering questions such as 'why?' and 'how do people themselves understand certain issues?'. Qualitative researchers are interested in relationships, understandings, beliefs, values, and world-views. An example of qualitative research is an investigation of local understandings of death and the way in which death is understood from a political or religious perspective. The researcher may engage in conversations with local people about these topics, may observe funerals and burial rites and may conduct focus-group discussions with community members or leaders in order to understand the significance attached to these rites.

Both quantitative and qualitative approaches have been criticized on a number of accounts, for instance for being culturally inappropriate or for not producing results that can be generalized (Ager 2000) . Ahearn (2000) makes recommendations for how both quantitative and qualitative researchers can improve their research methods, for instance by ensuring that local, culturally appropriate definitions are used, and that a shift from focusing on the individual as a unit of analysis to incorporating a perspective on families, groups, and communities is important.

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Ethical issues

Punamäki (2000b) writes about her research work in Palestine over more than twenty years. She describes some of the ethical dilemmas she faced in her research when the people she talked to felt angry at being asked what they felt to be obvious questions, or questioned what benefit they would derive from the research. She suggests that action research is one of the ways to overcome some of these dilemmas. An example of such action research conducted with displaced populations is described by Demusz (2000) and conducted with Tamil internally displaced people in northern Sri Lanka. The methodology of this project involves various stages in which researchers from the displaced communities, together with other researchers, investigated past and present problem-solving skills of the communities in order to develop ways of facilitating these. Findings were implemented and assessed by community members so that further changes could be made.

Other ethical considerations are described by Sluka (1995) , who points out that the researcher's primary responsibility is not to endanger the life of the participants and not to cause harm. Both these principles are highly relevant when working in war zones where peoples' lives may be put at risk merely by being seen talking to outsiders or for revealing information considered to be damaging to a particular group. The principles of not causing harm is, of course, standard for any kind of research ethic, but is particularly important when working with people who have experienced distressing events. Not re-traumatizing children and adults by asking them questions about events of war and then leaving them distressed is crucial, and requires that researchers develop the appropriate skills and insight to know when, who, and what to ask, and how to provide the necessary emotional containment.

Key readings on research methods:
Ahearn, F. (ed.), Psychosocial Wellness of Refugees. Issues in Qualitative and Quantitative Research. London: Berghahn Books, 2000.
Demusz, K., Listening to the Displaced. Action Research in the Conflict Zones of Sri Lanka. Oxford: Oxfam, 2000.
Jensen, P., 'Practical Approaches to Research with Children in Violent Settings'. In R. Apfel and B. Simon (eds), Minefields in their Hearts: The Mental Health of Children in War and Communal Violence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Sluka, J., 'Reflections on Managing Danger in Fieldwork'. In C. Nordstrom and A. Robben (eds), Fieldwork Under Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Richman, N., Communicating with Children. Helping Children in Distress. London: Save the Children UK, 1993
Last updated Aug 17, 2011