Researching Black Communities: A Methodological Guide

Researching Black Communities: A Methodological Guide

by James S. Jackson

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Experts from a range of disciplines offer practical advice for conducting social science research in racial and ethnic minority populations. Readers will learn how to choose appropriate methods—longitudinal studies, national surveys, quantitative analysis, personal interviews, and other qualitative approaches—and how best to employ them for research on


Experts from a range of disciplines offer practical advice for conducting social science research in racial and ethnic minority populations. Readers will learn how to choose appropriate methods—longitudinal studies, national surveys, quantitative analysis, personal interviews, and other qualitative approaches—and how best to employ them for research on specific demographic groups. The volume opens with a brief introduction to the difficulty of defining a population and designing a research program and then moves to illustrative examples drawn from the contributors’ own studies of Blacks in the United States, the Caribbean, and South Africa. Case studies cover research on the media, mental health, churches, work, marital relationships, education, and family roles.

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Researching Black Communities

A Methodological Guide

By James S. Jackson, Cleopatra Howard Caldwell, Sherrill L. Sellers

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11750-5


Conceptual and Methodological Challenges in Studies of Black Populations

James S. Jackson, Cleopatra Howard Caldwell, and Sherrill L. Sellers

Recent census data indicate that blacks are the second largest racial group in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau 2007). The black population is also increasingly diverse, with a rising middle class and a surge in the number of black immigrants coming to this country since 1965. Over the past two decades, there have been noticeable efforts by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funding agencies to require the inclusion of racial and ethnic minority groups in agency-sponsored studies in an effort to increase scientific knowledge in an ever-diversifying society. We applaud these efforts and hope this volume will assist researchers, especially young scholars, who study racial and ethnic minority populations by offering insights from a group of social science researchers experienced in conducting research within black communities.

One important dimension of the research task, community resistance, has not been the object of enough systematic study (Caldwell et al. 1999; Copeland-Linder, chap. 7, this volume; Israel, Eng, Schulz, and Parker 2005). It is a problem that is well known to researchers who have worked in black and other racial and ethnic minority communities. This resistance to research appears to be appreciably greater in minority than in white communities (Caldwell et al. 1999). There are several reasons for this greater resistance. Among these are the poor reputations that previous researchers have in conducting studies in these communities and beliefs that such research can have negative and damaging effects on the community through changes in public policies (Caldwell et al. 1999). At a more personal level there may be a greater tendency to mistrust the basic intent of the research and researchers and to believe that it is directed at ascertaining personal information about the individual that will have deleterious consequences (e.g., social welfare office checking on household composition; see Norton, Vincson, and Wilhelm, chap. 5, this volume). Thus, proportionately fewer blacks participate in empirical investigations than whites, resulting in limited scientific knowledge about this population.

The purpose of this volume is to examine conceptual and methodological issues that are critical to the study of black people in different settings and across diverse black ethnic populations, both within the United States and abroad. A number of issues addressed have implications for research generally. We have purposely limited our focus to a single racial group in order to capture more within-group complexity due to immigrant status and ethnic group differences. For example, research findings reinforce the significance of understanding cultural influences in the research process. Specifically, early research on language revealed that blacks had a well-developed language form distinctly different from that of white Americans (e.g., Labov 1972). In the highly language-dependent methodology of survey research, culturally based language differences can have significant effects. This is particularly true for older cohorts of blacks reared in the South as well as among non-native-born Caribbean blacks (Williams, Haile, Gonzalez, Neighbors, Baser, and Jackson 2007) and Africans (Arthur 2000) who may assign different meanings to study concepts based on their life experiences. Similarly, a great deal of research points to cultural differences in style and expression (both behavioral and verbal) that can affect responding in research situations (Caldwell et al. 1999). These style differences are heavily influenced by the nature of the life experiences of racial and ethnic minority populations. We believe, however, that many of the methodological strategies presented and lessons learned that are offered here are applicable when conducting research with other racial and ethnic minority populations.

Numerous complex challenges continue to confront scholars interested in conducting effective research with racially and ethnically diverse populations, especially in areas such as health disparities (Mays, Cochran, and Barnes 2007). The chapters in this volume address substantive research areas each contributor has been investigating for a number of years. Collectively they examine the distinct phases of the research process, including conceptualizing, designing, and collecting and analyzing data, as well as interpreting results. Practical examples are provided to share how challenges were approached. We hope that the examples will serve as catalysts for others to find creative ways of overcoming some of the obstacles to conducting culturally competent research within black communities and contributing to more blacks participating in empirical studies that could have benefits for improving their quality of life.

In this volume, some chapters focus on a specific group of black people (e.g., black men or black women); others use a race-comparative or an ethnic-differences approach (e.g., black-white; African American-Caribbean black). Study settings range from New York City to South Africa, and institutional issues related to conducting research involving the mental health system and media are critically assessed. Although most studies rely on regional data and cross-sectional study designs, issues related to conducting national studies and effectively implementing studies with longitudinal designs are also discussed. The strengths of both qualitative and quantitative approaches to research are considered, and diverse analysis strategies, including specific ethnographic, multivariate, and mixed-methods approaches, are described as they relate to research with black populations.

The breadth of research settings and approaches offered are important strengths of the volume; however, we were unable to include some social institutions that are salient in the lives of blacks in contemporary society. Specifically, we have not included research conducted within the adult criminal justice system. As the incarnation rates of blacks, particularly black men, have soared (Harrison and Beck 2006; Sampson and Wilson 1995), we acknowledge this limitation and refer readers to Megargee (1995) for a valuable account of how to conduct research in correctional settings. We also have not dedicated a chapter to the advantages or disadvantages of specific data analysis approaches or data analysis techniques (e.g., hierarchical regression, structural equation modeling, hierarchical linear models) when working with diverse populations. Rather, individual authors address these issues based on their own experiences with illustrations of the outcome of their approach (for examples, see Veroff and Orbuch, chap. 6, and Snowden, chap. 14, this volume). Nevertheless, we believe that the research experiences and exemplary knowledge of methodological literature throughout will make this volume a useful tool.

Scholarly Discourse on Conducting Research in Black Communities: Why This Volume, Now?

Perhaps the single most pressing question is why this volume now, particularly in light of recent events with the election of the first black American president of the United States. We address this question and provide examples of past research involving minorities that produced misleading or inaccurate results because the researchers did not employ proper methods or lacked proper sensitivity. We suggest that these new historically important national events are precisely the reason for a book now on methodological challenges in conducting research in black communities. The rapidly changing demographic landscape of America reflecting new areas of immigration and differential birth rates among ethnic minority groups prompt a renewed sense of urgency in conducting research with communities of color. This is especially true when a major political barrier has been hurdled in the election of the first black American president, which may lead many to a sense of complacency in the areas of concern to social and behavioral science research. Regardless of the important political changes that are occurring, there remains limited research conducted within black communities that reflects both conceptual and methodological clarity and rigor (Caldwell et al. 1999; Manly 2006; Smith 1993).

To illustrate these ideas, we focus on research on black Americans' mental health. However, similar arguments can be made for a diverse set of areas of scientific inquiry, including marital relationships (see Veroff and Orbuch, chap. 6, this volume), education (see O'Connor, Lewis, and Mueller, chap. 2, this volume), and media consumption (see Haggins and Squires, chap. 16, this volume).

The mental health status of black Americans continues to be a controversial issue. It has been used to justify slavery, enforce racial segregation, and reinforce the idea that blacks were inferior to whites (Washington 2006). The question of the mental health status of black Americans has been complicated by a number of methodological and conceptual problems. These include racial biases, small sample sizes, and widely varying definitions of mental health and illness.

Sellers and colleagues (2002) suggested that the history of mental health research on blacks in America can be divided into four historical periods marked by changing methodological approaches. The first period encompasses slavery and early pseudoscientific studies of the mental health status of black Americans. This research had racist overtones that shaped diagnoses, prevention efforts, and treatment strategies. For instance, researchers coined the phrase escape disorder and labeled the flight for freedom a mental health problem among enslaved Africans. The second period considers early hospital admissions studies. These efforts were aimed at estimating the prevalence of mental health problems by examining hospital admissions records. The studies indicated that black Americans had higher rates of psychopathology than whites based on hospital data (Neighbors 1989). One flaw of these early studies was that blacks tended to disproportionately use public agencies while whites more often entered private treatment facilities, yet admissions rates were computed from public, not private, facilities. The third period describes the advent of epidemiologic community surveys. Rather than reviewing admissions rates, researchers used household surveys based upon probability sampling methods. Based upon this interview data they would assess "caseness" using clinical judgments. The aim was to develop more accurate estimates of psychopathology within entire populations. Unfortunately, researchers often lacked awareness of cultural differences among blacks and whites and did not account for differences in socioeconomic status that may influence presentation, language styles, and openness to personal interviews. The final period presents the symptoms checklist approach, which allows nonclinical interviewers to gather data on mental disorder. The checklist approach received substantial support in the early 1970s from the National Institute of Mental Health when it funded the Epidemiological Catchment Area Study (ECA). This multisite study used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual criteria, the Diagnostic Interview Schedule (DIS) and nonclinical lay interviewers to gather data on psychiatric disorders in noninstitutionalized populations.

Although many studies had been conducted on local and regional convenience samples of blacks (Jackson et al. 1982; Stanfield 1993), until the 1980 National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA), most of these studies were severely limited by methodological and conceptual problems. Gerald Gurin places the NSBA in a larger psychiatric epidemiology context.

To truly appreciate what a monumental and historic feat the NSBA was, one has to think back to the tenor of the 1970s (in the US). This was a time still heavily influenced by the radicalism of the 1960s. In 1977, when planning for the original NSBA began, we were not that distant from the urban civil disorders and subsequent federally funded research attempts to understand and control these protests. Nor were we far removed from publication of the Moynihan Report (which described the "pathology" of black American families). These and other forces combined to create a pessimistic atmosphere for social science research on African Americans during the 1970s. (Neighbors and Jackson 1996)

The original NSBA was a face-to-face interview conducted by a predominantly black research team. The focus was on establishing a sampling procedure to ensure equal probability of selection and resulted in a sample of 2,107 adult black Americans (Jackson 1991; see Caldwell, this volume). The original NSBA did not attempt to assess clinical disorders, rather the study aimed to consider how black Americans coped with everyday life, using a stress and coping framework. The methodological strengths of the NSBA are numerous, including use of focus groups to develop questions, race matching of interviewers, and innovative sampling and interviewing methodologies. The next step in this landmark study was the 2003 National Survey of American Life, which continues the tradition of innovative, high-quality research with black communities (see Jackson et al., chap. 9, and Hastings et al., chap. 10, this volume).

Drawing from the history of research on mental health and black Americans, several lessons can be learned that prompt and shape this volume. Research is not conducted in a vacuum. Researchers are embedded in a sociocultural milieu that shapes the questions we ask, the methods we choose, and the conclusions we draw. This does not suggest, however, that objective social science research is impossible; rather, we argue that awareness is a central feature of high-quality research with diverse populations. Researchers must be aware of assumptions the researcher and society make about racial groups. The meaning of race is a social and political construction that changes over time and across space. It is a fluid categorization that permeates our social, political, and cultural milieu. Historically, social science research has struggled to deal with race in an objective fashion (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 2008). Epistemological issues include the assumptions that society and the researchers make about race and the meaning of racial categories in research (Stanfield 1993).

Race, particularly the divide between blacks and whites, has been a central concern of social policy, economic strategies, and research agendas. The idea that phenotypical racial differences were associated with variations in personal traits and biological differences was part of mainstream scientific thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Washington 2006). Perhaps the most notorious twentieth-century study involving blacks that indicated the prevailing view of scientific inquiry of this period is the Tuskegee Syphilis study (Katz et al. 2008). In 1927, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study that tested a hypothesis that syphilis was a different disease in blacks than in whites and determined that it was important to observe and document the impact of the disease on blacks. The study lasted four decades, and when effective treatment for the disease became available during the study, the participants in this longitudinal study did not receive it (Jones 1993).

America's racial legacy continues to influence the language used to describe group differences and the methodological approaches used to study these differences. For instance, racial classifications, though largely determined by social and political pressures, are in many areas of scientific inquiry being made problematic (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 2008). Researchers are asked to define these terms and explain why race-comparative analysis is appropriate. We applaud such efforts and believe the present volume will aid researchers as they continue to deepen their understanding of the role of race in scientific inquiry.

Implicit in this volume is a view about the role of research and the researcher. Vulnerable populations may be the subject of considerable research (consider what many have referred to as "the poverty research industry"). We suggest that prior to conducting the study, considerations such as whether participants have some ownership of the data, if the research can be conducted in a participatory fashion, and what purpose racial comparisons serve are key questions to address before engaging in research with diverse populations.


Excerpted from Researching Black Communities by James S. Jackson, Cleopatra Howard Caldwell, Sherrill L. Sellers. Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Meet the Author

James S. Jackson is the Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, and the Director and Research Professor at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Cleopatra Howard Caldwell is Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education and Co-Associate Director of the Program for Research on Black Americans at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Sherrill L. Sellers is Professor in the Department of Family Studies and Social Work at Miami University in Ohio.

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