Cindy Peltier, associate professor and chair of Indigenous education at Nipissing University, calls it “helicopter research”. “People would come and get information and post whatever they wanted without ever consulting the community,” she says. “People thought that indigenous peoples were this captive audience.” (These questions are still very relevant today: Currently, tribal nations in the United States refuse to participate in a DNA collection program run by the National Institutes of Health due to concerns about the control of their genetic data.)
Research that does not make sense to its subjects is likely to induce fatigue, especially if the volume of research is high and the number of potential participants is small. As a result, minority communities are particularly vulnerable. It is therefore not only the trans and indigenous participants in the study, but also rural residents, people with rare diseases and refugees, among others, who tire of repeatedly serving as guinea pigs for university studies of high level. “Research fatigue is a problem in any type of place where the reach of the public interest exceeds the ability of local actors to respond,” says Julia Haggerty, associate professor of geography at Montana State University, who studies the effects of energy development on rural towns.
There are, of course, many good reasons for wanting to develop knowledge about marginalized communities. Medical researchers hope to develop cures and treatments for rare diseases; sociologists and anthropologists may intend their work to be used to improve public knowledge of groups that receive little attention or to develop fair policies. But the latter goal, in particular, is not always realistic. “With marginalized groups there is a lot of public interest in the practice of policy, and academic researchers then come in and think they’re going to solve these problems. And then nothing happens and nothing changes for these people, ”says Tom Clark, professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield who wrote a very young paper on research fatigue. “In fact, get [research] in policy and practice is incredibly difficult. A wealth of research sits right on the shelves without ever influencing the outside world – what Clark calls “the research saturation in society.”
Clark and others agree that in order to avoid research fatigue, academics must consider the wants and needs of the people they study. One approach is participatory action research, in which community members are trained to participate in the research process, not as subjects, but as researchers themselves. To truly benefit the community, Peltier thinks, these collaborators cannot simply collect and analyze data or help present the end results. “Any participatory research, or research that claims to be participatory, should include discussions with the community early on in the conceptualization of what the research will look like,” she says.
When Peltier students work with Indigenous communities, she encourages them to assemble not only an academic committee, but also a group of advisors from that community who can help guide their research from the start. With community buy-in, this approach works well, she says. “Indigenous peoples deserve more than a chair at the decision-making table,” says Peltier, who herself has ties to the Nipissing First Nation and the unceded territory of Wiikwemkoong. “I think they have to decide what the research looks like and what it’s supposed to accomplish.”
But this level of commitment may not always be achievable. “Not all engagement with communities has to be the same,” Haggerty says. “And researchers don’t need to promise to deliver something they won’t deliver. But what we want is for researchers to at least take the plunge. “