Counseling Today, Member Insights

Advancing multicultural and social justice competence in counseling research

By Cirecie West-Olatunji and Jeff D. Wolfgang August 7, 2017

Despite several decades of counseling research focusing on culturally diverse populations, limited knowledge still exists about such issues as parenting, achievement, resilience, the intersectionality of identity and the psychological impact of systemic oppression on clients who are members of culturally marginalized groups. Most of the efforts within the counseling profession have focused on developing multicultural and social justice clinical competence (awareness, knowledge, skills and action) that targets students, practitioners and supervisors.

However, very little attention has been paid to cultural competence in counseling research. Multicultural counseling scholars have asserted that the persistence of problems disproportionately affecting certain client populations may be partly due to how we conceptualize, design, conduct and interpret counseling research. Our use of a marginalizing lens in research may stand as an obstacle to unveiling the truths we need to identify to improve the lives of those most in need.

Cracks in our research foundation

At the heart of criticisms about clinical research are historical issues of item bias, validity and reliability. For example, in 1916, a psychological study at Stanford University on IQ testing concluded that Spanish-Indians, Mexicans and blacks were of lower than average intelligence despite the fact that all 1,000 of the participants in the study were white. Another study concluded that a significant positive correlation existed between degree of whiteness and IQ scores. Today we realize that studies such as these promoted white supremacy.

The problem with white supremacy: Although many people focus on the impact of oppression on the marginalized, there are also psychological implications for mainstream individuals who benefit from social and cultural privilege. According to the late Asa Hilliard (1986), dominant group members can fall prey to:

  • Perceptual distortion
  • Denial of reality
  • Delusions of grandeur
  • Blaming the dominated group fortheir problems
  • Phobic reactions

Additionally, Derald Wing Sue suggested in 2011 that there are cognitive, affective, behavioral and spiritual costs for perpetrators (or microaggressors) of oppression. Thus, the impact of our social positioning significantly affects our ability to design, implement, interpret and apply research about socially and culturally marginalized client populations.

Impact on practice and policy: Although practitioners may feel exempt from considerations about research design, analysis and interpretation, we are consumers of research. Therefore, we can:

a) Fail to critically examine existing research

b) Inappropriately apply evidence-based interventions

c) Poorly conceptualize the needs of our clients and overlook available resources

Furthermore, policymakers have been known to create a trajectory of deficit-oriented policies and programs that have enduring effects on our clients. For example, in the 1960s, the Moynihan and Coleman reports were released to advise the federal government on compensatory education programs. Scholars criticized these reports for stereotyping African American families as pathological because the reports blamed families, communities and African American ethno culture for deficits in educational achievement. This stance was taken without recognizing structural biases in the curriculum, instructional delivery, material resources and overall schooling experiences for this population.

In response to hegemony in research, scholars across several disciplines have offered alternative methodologies to advocate for more validity in research on diverse populations.

Multicultural counseling competence in research

To better articulate the specific competencies in counseling research, it would be beneficial for scholars from several divisions within the American Counseling Association, such as the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, and the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling, to collaboratively expand the existing Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies to focus on research. These guidelines could be vetted through the participating divisions and then approved by the ACA Governing Council. As such, these competencies could provide both beginning and seasoned researchers with a framework for more effective investigations of diverse individuals, families and communities.

Awareness: Another recommendation is for scholars to raise awareness of our biases as researchers, reflecting on the implicit historical Eurocentrism in research that continues to impact the design, application and interpretation of results. This can be accomplished through professional development trainings that are delivered online, in person and in print media. Similar to our acceptance of the need to reduce counselor bias in the counseling process, we must also minimize our biases in the research process.

Knowledge: We also need to educate researchers, clinicians and students about culture-centered and emancipatory research methodologies. This content can be taught across the curriculum but should be shared particularly in the diversity, research and assessment courses at the master’s level and in the core statistics courses for doctoral students. Graduate counseling students can become knowledgeable of alternative tools for engaging in research, particularly when investigating diverse cultural populations.

Skills: ACA and other professional counseling organizations can intentionally integrate trainings into their conference programs to create a cadre of multiculturally competent counseling researchers. In doing so, counseling leaders can move toward eliminating bias in counseling research to better meet the needs of diverse individuals in society. Despite intent, counseling researchers of all ethnic, cultural and national backgrounds need to immerse themselves in the ethnophilosophies to determine what phenomena can be held constant across cultures. In training practitioners to become multiculturally competent, we hold them accountable for increasing awareness of their biases to better conceptualize and intervene. Researchers need to embrace this same level of accountability.

Action: Ruth Fassinger and Susan L. Morrow (2013) proposed several ways in which counseling researchers can reflect social action competence in their scholarship. First, when designing research, investigators can create a collaborative team that includes scholars, practitioners and laypeople who have both insider and outsider knowledge. This allows for authentic and critical dialogue to challenge any inculcated myths about marginalized groups and to enhance the truthfulness of the study.

Second, researchers can consider that the very topic chosen for investigation is culturally biased. Thus, culturally responsible researchers ground their research in the values and realities of the cultures under investigation. Furthermore, the topic of concern should have practical considerations and outcomes for the community under investigation.

One of the ways I (the first author) have demonstrated social justice competence in my research is in the realm of dissemination. In addition to publishing community-based research in professional journals, I have used a readers theater format to bring the findings to life in performance-based presentations before community members. This promotes dialogue among community stakeholders about the research findings and their implications and what actions they would like to take to resolve the concern. Cultural competence in counseling research requires that we all consider alternatives to business as usual to seek different outcomes for members of marginalized client populations.

Better choices in counseling research

Collaborating with clients: Client empowerment is one of the hallmarks of our discipline. We rely on a belief in the client as the driving force of therapy. This stems from a philosophical thrust away from the behavioral patterns and intrapsychic forces that dominated mental health literature until the 1950s. Although we have done an outstanding job over the past six decades of infusing this core assumption into counselor training for therapeutic application, we need to turn our attention toward counseling research competencies that embody respect for marginalized client populations.

One methodological approach that promotes empowerment and respect focuses on collaborating with participants to enhance credibility and rigor to the research design and interpretation. Such an approach allows participants to give voice to the nuances of their situation to inform research design and to provide clarification during the data interpretation process.

Using problem-based inquiry: Expediency is a core assumption in counseling. Yet persistent problems plague some members of society even as researchers continue to profit from exploration without intervention. Advocating for our clients through research is an imperative. Culturally specific research should not impose majority values onto marginalized client populations. Instead, emphasis should be placed on community ownership and collaboration in defining clinical problems and devising associated interventions. After all, the community is the best source of knowledge about itself.

Furthermore, community members can be the most active agents in addressing the most pressing issues in their neighborhoods and families. Involving community members in solution development empowers the community instead of relegating its members to the role of passive recipients of assistance.

Using a strength-based perspective: Prior to designing a study, confirm your understanding of the issues to determine if the construct holds across cultural frameworks. Check with community representatives to see if your conceptualization of the problem is accurate. Once you have completed data collection and analysis, double back to community members to secure their feedback on the findings of the study for catalytic validity.

Reveal who you are in the study. Are you an insider witness or an outsider witness? Is your vantage point valuable because you are new and bring a fresh perspective, or is it valuable because you have intimate knowledge of the community dynamics and stakeholders? In making recommendations, can you build upon the existing strengths of the participants? Answering these questions will assist in developing research that:

  • Is more grounded in the discipline
  • Increases the truth-telling in the study
  • Aids in the authenticity of the findings
  • Moves toward solutions to problems in the real world

In sum, we have come a long way in advancing multicultural counseling competencies over the past few decades. The inclusion of social justice competencies was significant because they served to integrate social action into our counselor identity. Now it is time to focus on cultural competence and social justice in counseling research to better serve our clients.

The first wave of multicultural counseling informed us that there were critical differences among our clients and between clients and counselors. This required self-awareness of bias, knowledge of diverse groups and specialized clinical skills. In the next wave, we were able to further distill differences within cultural groups and expand our understanding of diverse client populations to focus on sexual orientation, gender and issues beyond U.S. borders.

This current wave of multicultural counseling encourages us to take action. Advancing multicultural counseling competence in research is a giant step toward minimizing bias and promoting wellness for the underserved. So, we ask, whether you are a counselor educator, professional counselor or counselor trainee, what can you do to advance your multicultural competence in research?

 

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Cirecie West-Olatunji is an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana and a past president of the American Counseling Association. Her research projects focus on the relationship between traumatic stress and systemic oppression. Contact her at colatunj@xula.edu.

Jeff D. Wolfgang is a researcher and practitioner in Jacksonville, Florida. His research interests include international adoption, culture-centered counseling interventions, pediatric counseling and traumatic stress among young children. Contact him at conference.wolfgang@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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