Ethically Researching Marginalized Groups: Applying Margins-as-Methods to Anti-Vaccination Groups

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On: October 3, 2021
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This is a commentary on “Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity” (Clark-Parsons and Lingel 2020), which examines the possibility of their suggested margins-as-methods approach to anti-vaccination groups online. This study’s aim is to see if this approach is broadly applicable to marginalized groups that are not necessarily in line with the authors’ values.

Niels Willemsen 03-10-2021

In this essay, I will comment on a study (Clark-Parsons and Lingel 2020), which suggested an approach that focuses on feminists, being a marginalized group, trying to include, yet critically assess the participants of the study in improving their research. The goal of the study is to “deconstruct power politics behind research on alterity” (2) and it is concluded with a set of questions researchers can ask themselves when researching marginalized groups. Clark-Parsons and Lingel (2020) attempt to achieve this by introducing their margins-as-methods approach, which they describe as follows: “Our approach asks researchers to thematize explicitly the theoretical and political work of positioning the relationships between media and alterity as peripheral to an imagined center” (2). They attempt to specify their definition of “marginality” (2), but in so they refer back to their own position in relation to feminism and lack a clear explanation of what marginality entails. I will assume that the terms that Clark-Parsons and Lingel discuss in their reflection on the terminology used in the describing alterity (3) are accurate in describing marginality.

As mentioned before, the study is largely concerned with the inclusion of the “participants’ expertise and well-being” (2) during the process of the research, with the aim of improving it. As the study concerns marginalized groups and Clark-Parsons and Lingel cooperate with a group they share their values with, cooperation between researcher and participant seems natural in achieving a similar goal for the research. However, research on marginalized groups cannot be limited to groups that share the researcher’s values. Because of this, my commentary will focus on the marginalized anti-vaccination group, a group that Clark-Parsons and Lingel confirm to follow their definition of marginality (2). Specifically, it will follow the same methodology to examine whether the margins-as-methods approach is applicable to marginalized groups that do not conform with the researcher’s own values. The anti-vaccination movement is currently of special importance due to the increasing debate surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. Adopting scientific evidence, I am assuming that vaccines are helpful in protecting people against contracting the virus and its symptoms, while the anti-vaccination movement relies on non-reliable and/or non-representative sources (Bond 2021), it is of great importance for public health and safety to understand the group and convince them using their own perspective. This commentary will address whether the margins-as-methods approach will be helpful in achieving this goal.

Step one of the margins-as-methods approach is “encouraging researchers to “explore how their theoretical positions and biographies shape what they choose to be studied and their approach to studying it” (Hesse-Biber & Piatelli 2012, 560)” (Clark-Parsons and Lingel 2020, 3). Especially in marginalized groups with which the researcher does not empathize, it is very helpful to understand and reflect on the way the groups are positioned within the research field. For the case of anti-vaccination groups, it is likely that the researchers that stem from the fields of the exact sciences and humanities do not agree with or are not concerned with the arguments and sources that these groups provide, making it tempting to oversimplify the arguments and overgeneralize participants in a group.

The terms that Clark-Parsons and Lingel found to be most dominant in research on marginalized groups are “counterpublic”, “counterculture” and “alternative media” (3). Anti-vaccination groups arguably fall under this category of counterpublic, in many cases being banned from Facebook, thus being the product of subordination (Carmichael and Haynes 2021). Also, they can be described as countercultures, for their shared ideological resistance to the mainstream. Generally, using Lievrouw’s (2011) definition, marginalized groups tend to function from alternative media sources. However, the term alternative media were developed in a context where dominant media played a centralized role in distribution and production of media content, whereas social media blur these more traditional lines of democracy and ownership, since the platforms of distribution have changed and still influence and surveil the production and distribution of (alternative) media for profit (Clark-Parsons and Lingel 2020, 4). In the case of anti-vaccination groups, they move to other platforms such as Telegram (Giles and Spring 2021) because of mainstream platform influence in their content spreading and the other platforms provide them with more freedom. This is something that is not explicitly mentioned in Clark-Parson and Lingel’s text, since feminist groups might not have to deal as much with challenging platform rules.

Step two of the margins-as-methods approach becomes more difficult, since it requires the researcher to centralize the voices of the participants of the study. In this regard, Markham and Buchanan (2012) do advocate for a case-based approach, which allows flexibility in ethical decisions. Based on this philosophy, Clark-Parson and Lingel rely on qualitative reflections on their approach, using their expertise in the field they are familiar with (2020, 2). This, again, becomes more difficult when the researcher does not agree with subject group’s values, to the point where researchers can get harassed (Marwick 2016). Additionally, inevitable power relations between researchers and the subjects they are researching become more evident and difficult when the researcher and the subject work from very different perspectives. Furthermore, data collected on marginalized groups can be ethically problematic for the lack of agency on the side of the participants (5). Here, Clark-Parsons and Lingel suggest a communicative approach in trying to involve the participants and using their preferred terminology, while critically assessing it. This assessment is of special importance when the used terminology is potentially based on misinformation (Carmichael and Haynes 2021).

Lastly, Clark-Parsons and Lingel end their article with a set of guiding questions (2020, 7-8), which accurately summarize their approach and the applicability on marginalized groups in general. The first sets of questions concern the involvement of participants, which are important in researching marginalized groups. This involvement needs to be critically assessed, which, in the case of anti-vaccinations groups, is crucial to assure validity of the research. Secondly, the data collection process on these groups requires consent (8). This raises a potential issue, for the subject groups on sensitive matters such as anti-vaccination are not always in agreement with academic research and can even be hostile (Marwick 2016).

Clark-Parsons and Lingel’s (2020) suggested margins-as-methods approach is, to a great extent, applicable and beneficial in critically and ethically exploring the margins that are not necessarily in line with a researcher’s personal values. However, potential differences in perspective require an even more critical look at participants’ involvement in assuring the quality of research.

Bibliography

Bond, Shannon. 2021. “Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes On Social Media, Research Shows.” 2021. https://text.npr.org/996570855.

Carmichael, Flora, and Charlie Haynes. 2021. “Facebook Removes Anti-Vax Influencer Campaign.” BBC News, 2021, sec. BBC Trending. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-58167339.

Clark-Parsons, Rosemary, and Jessa Lingel. 2020. “Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity.” Social Media+ Society 6 (1): 2056305120913994.

Day, Alison. 2021. “Jonathan M. Berman, Anti-Vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement.” Social History of Medicine 34 (2): 694–95. https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkab003.

Giles, Christopher, and Marianna Spring. 2021. “How Anti-Vaxxers Are Living and Loving in a Covid World.” BBC News, 2021, sec. BBC Trending. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-58146525.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy, and Deborah Piatelli. 2007. Holistic Reflexivity: The Feminist Practice of Reflexivity. na.

Lievrouw, Leah. 2011. Alternative and Activist New Media. Polity.

Markham, Annette, and Elizabeth Buchanan. 2012. “Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Version 2.0. Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee.” Available Online: Aoir. Org/Reports/Ethics2. Pdf.

Marwick, Alice E., Lindsay Blackwell, and Katherine Lo. 2016. “Best Practices for Conducting Risky Research and Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment (Data & Society Guide).” New York: Data and Society Institute.

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