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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.

Behind the Book: Counseling Research: A Practitioner-Scholar Approach

By Bethany Bray April 17, 2017

The first paragraph of the preface in Richard Balkin and David Kleist’s book Counseling Research: A Practitioner-Scholar Approach acknowledges that research is probably not something that most counselors get excited about.

However, it’s a much-needed endeavor and something that counselors are particularly suited for, they write.

“Counselors make great qualitative researchers because of the natural fit of hearing our clients’ narratives and to establishing meaning from them. These same skills can be used in developing meaningful research,” they write.

Counseling Research: A Practitioner-Scholar Approach was published by the American Counseling Association this year. Balkin, a professor and doctoral program coordinator at the University of Louisville and Kleist, a professor and chairman of the Department of Counseling at Idaho State University, know each other through their work in the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), a division of ACA.

 

Counseling Today sent the co-authors some questions, via email, to learn more.

 

Your book emphasizes the “practitioner-scholar model” for research. Can you elaborate on that?

Rick Balkin: As a journal editor [Balkin is editor of ACA’s Journal of Counseling & Development], one of the topics discussed often is the gap between practice and research. Does one reflect the other? It should, and we see this in the ACA Code of Ethics, “Counselors have a responsibility to the public to engage in counseling practices that are based on rigorous research methodologies” (p. 8).

Many future counselors might think they will never do research, but they will definitely use research in their practice, and so we hope this text serves as a nice bridge. Furthermore, we provided sections on research design [to] help emerging researchers, such as a beginning doctoral student, begin to conceptualize how they can design and conduct research.

David Kleist: For myself, I was strongly motivated to clarify the “practitioner-scholar” role and relevance for master’s students identity as developing professional counselors. For years the profession of counseling has only viewed master’s students as passive consumers of research, not active knowledge-producers. However, with the counseling profession’s distinct training structure (with the terminal clinical degree being the masters), and the doctoral degree focused on counselor education and supervision, we need licensed professional counselors who see their role as researchers — that is practitioner-scholars — to inform the practice of counseling as they comprise the majority of front line counseling practitioners. A past doctoral advisee of mine, Megan Michalak (2013), conducted a grounded theory study of how counselor educators promote scholarship with counselors-in-training. Her research communicates that this role as knowledge-producer can be integrated into counselor training beyond merely training master’s students to be passive consumers of research.

 

In your words, why are counselors a good fit for research work? What particular skills do they bring to the endeavor?

Rick: Our skills in listening, attending to a narrative and trying to get deeper into the issues affecting our clients make us a natural fit for qualitative research. To be good stewards of the profession and strong advocates for professional counseling, we need to know that what we are doing is effective and helpful – and be able to explain that to consumers and stakeholders. We need to be knowledgeable about research and how to access and evaluate data in this era of accountability where counselors may be called in to court or have to justify our services and funding.

David: Rick is dead on accurate, particularly as to the readiness for counselors to conduct qualitative research. The foundational counseling skills are also the foundational skills of skilled qualitative researchers. The counseling profession is situated to be at the forefront of mental health qualitative research.

 

What was your inspiration to collaborate and create this book?

Rick: Often research courses for counseling students are farmed out to another departments or taught across the college of education. In other words, counseling programs often lack ownership of their research classes. That is unfortunate, because we end up learning about, and ultimately trying to adopt, the strategies used in educational research. But educational research is often related to student performance in classrooms, schools, school districts and statewide performance. These are large systems with a lot of people and data. But whom do counselors see? Predominately we see an individual, small groups, couples and families. So I view counseling research as quite different from educational research, and I wanted to highlight that as well as provide an opportunity for counseling departments and counselor educators to take more ownership of their research classes. ACA did not have a research book, so I saw an opportunity to lend a counselor voice to this area.

I truly enjoy teaching research and helping students understand and relate to concepts that quite often are found intimidating. David Kleist and I knew each other for many years and have co-chaired the ACES INFORM program together. I knew his passion for qualitative research, and I wanted that passion and voice reflected in the book. I think that is something that this text delivers that is different from other books.

David: Hearing that ACA reached out to Rick to write a research book made total sense. When Rick approached me I was touched by his generosity, and his understanding that he could write the qualitative chapters but maybe not with the same passion as he would the quantitative chapters. For myself, I felt overwhelmed, and initially quite hesitant. I knew that I had clear ideas and passion toward qualitative research but wondered what collaboration with Rick would look like. I trusted our past — and ongoing — relationship through ACES and thought we could create an accessible text that clearly communicates the role of scholar for both doctoral and master’s students in the counseling profession.

 

Do you feel the counseling profession, as a whole, produces enough research? Is there an unmet need (if so, what particular areas of research)?

Rick: I think we need to do more client-centered research. We see a lot of research come out on the role of counselors, counselor training and training/practicing within various competencies. But I think we need more research on what we [are] doing with our clients and how our interventions affect clients. I think this type of research can elevate our profession even further.

David: I agree with Rick and would refer back to my comments above to extend the conversation. The counseling profession’s training structure is distinct from the profession of psychology. Psychology has the doctoral degree as the terminal clinical degree, which clearly includes training to conduct research. Thus, psychology conceptualized the “scientist-practitioner model” more than 70 years ago to frame the purpose of the doctoral degree in psychology. The counseling profession would benefit from framing the training of professional counselors as “practitioner-scholars” [and] client-centered research would be the focus. For the doctoral degree, which focuses on producing counselor educators and supervisors, we need to conduct research on the education and supervision of counselors, too, stretching our time thin for also conducting client-centered research. Our profession is still young and developing, and framing our master’s level counselors as “practitioner-scholars” will go a long way to meeting Rick’s goal — our goal — of conducting more client-centered research.

 

What would you want counselor practitioners who aren’t in university settings to know about this topic?

Rick: Research is similar to our counseling skills; if you are not using your skills you tend to get rusty. So, for counselors who have not thought about research in a while, this text provides a very readable overview. We tried to use a voice in this text that is more engaging, fun and practical. Like any research text there are technical terms, but I believe we explain them well and we only use counseling examples. All of the research cited in the book is from counseling research. In essence, this is a book written by counselors for counselors.

David: Research is becoming more and more a collaborative endeavor. I would want counselors to have access to counselor educators in academic settings to consult on developing group research projects targeting the frontline provision of counseling services.

 

What makes research an area of interest for you, personally?

Rick: The formative experiences of my counseling career including working with adolescents admitted to inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. I worked during the period [when] managed care really started to take over — in Arkansas that was 1993 to 2000. So, I saw a lot of change in terms of length of [hospital] stay and how we had to justify our treatment interventions for working with adolescents. I constantly had to answer questions related to why the adolescent required hospitalization and what were we doing to address the issues. I had to verbalize an understanding of what [we] were doing and why it was effective — and yet the system was changing so rapidly I do not think there was sufficient data to justify what the insurance industry was executing. So, when I entered my doctoral program, I saw an opportunity to use research to advocate for clients and to push back against changes that were not helpful to our clients. I see research as a way to not only enhance the care we provide our clients but to advocate for them.

David: I became a counselor to better understand how I could “help people,” the cliché response for most beginning counselors in training. The core of this interest is a curiosity of people [and] of people in relationships. I see curiosity as core to the research process. For me, this book emphasizes to master’s students, in particular, that they have the essential quality of curiosity to not only to provide counseling services, but also to engage in research.

 

 

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Counseling Research: A Practitioner-Scholar Approach is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s recent online exclusive: “What gets in the way? Examining the breakdown between research and practice in counseling

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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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.

 

What gets in the way? Examining the breakdown between research and practice in counseling

By Samantha McMorrow March 22, 2017

It is frequently noted that counselor practitioners in the field do not contribute nearly enough to research and publications, despite calls for them to do so. It is believed that research should inform counseling practice and practice should inform counseling research, yet there appears to be a breakdown between the two.

The counseling literature has presented several common hypotheses regarding why counselors in practice typically choose not to participate in research and publication efforts. These reasons include a lack of time, a lack of reinforcement, a lack of interest and a lack of experience in research.

Lack of time certainly seems like a valid hypothesis. It is undoubtedly a factor with considerable influence, especially for those counselors who are working in agencies where they must secure a large number of billable hours each week. Still, it is not necessarily the prohibitive factor.

Arguments can definitely be made that there is also a lack of reinforcement or a lack of interest for counselor practitioners to conduct research or to publish. For instance, employers at agencies and schools do not have their systems set up to reinforce this work in the way that universities do. However, this in itself is not inhibitive either.

Inexperience in the area of conducting research also seems like a reasonable factor that could impede practitioners’ contributions to research and publications. However, as a practitioner myself, I contend that a looming factor exists that has not been brought to the forefront. Namely, it is just not very easy to be out in the field and have access to channels to conduct publishable research. There are systems in place that are meant to protect our subjects (and rightfully so), but these systems do not lend themselves well to counselors in the field conducting research.

Furthermore, the path for practitioners to follow to get started in research is not always clear. A counselor in the field has access to clients but not necessarily access to university faculty, and without that, the counselor is stopped before he or she even gets started. The counselor could certainly conduct action research in efforts to inform his or her own practice. However, peer-reviewed, scholarly publications will not accept traditional research for publication without Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, which comes from universities. Furthermore, universities will not grant IRB approval to research proposals without having a principal investigator (PI), and this PI must be a full-time faculty member of the university.

This is the first and most difficult hurdle to get over in practitioners conducting research. The counselor must find a full-time faculty member at a university that is willing to be the PI on the counselor’s research, which is no small commitment. Then the counselor must hope that the faculty member remains at that particular university throughout the course of the counselor conducting and writing up the research. Otherwise the counselor goes back to the beginning again to locate a new PI and submit an amendment to the IRB board to get approval for this change. The whole process can be confusing and intimidating for counselors in the field to navigate.

Subsequently, the process of getting IRB approval once the counselor practitioner has formed a partnership with a PI is detailed and somewhat lengthy, but not overly complex. Both researchers in this partnership will need to complete certain trainings to ensure that they understand issues surrounding protecting their subjects. They will also complete documents displaying the informed consent process that will be used in their research and submit the detailed and complete plan for the research, which may require cultivating further relationships with other departments if advanced statistical analysis is part of the research plan. This relationship can be the lifeline that keeps practitioners involved in the research effort once the analysis of the data becomes advanced and possibly intimidating for the average counselor in practice.

Furthermore, the university should have comprehensive instructions for how the counselor will submit the research proposal for IRB approval. This will be done once the counselor has a PI and a complete plan for how the research will be conducted. In addition, if counselors plan to conduct their research at their agencies or in their school districts, they will need to secure additional approvals from those specific sites.

This is the less understood and more complicated side of research for many practitioners, but it can be sorted through. Cultivating relationships with faculty members in counseling and other needed departments at universities can ease this process.

In a 2005 article, “Collaborative Action Research and School Counselors,” Lonnie Rowell looked at these collaborative relationships, noting that research-oriented facilities were being developed to bridge this gap between university faculty and practicing counselors. In addition, they serve as a model to link counselors-in-training with counselor practitioners for action-based research.

But despite attempts to build stronger connections between researchers and clinicians, another important factor often impedes counselors from engaging in research. A 2010 study by Darcy Haag Granello published in the Journal of Counseling & Development looked at cognitive complexity among practicing counselors over the course of their careers. The study found that counselors do grow and develop over their careers, especially with 10 or more years of experience. However, seasoned counselors may “forget” that they did not always know a particular technique or approach or did not possess their current conceptual understanding of issues or relationships when starting out in practice. This lack of reflection on their own growth could lead them to erroneously believe that they have nothing to research or write about that other counselors do not already know.

Taking some of our own advice as counselors in this situation could prove to be the solution. If counselors are mindful about their practices and really reflect on what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it, plenty of ideas will follow. Alyson Pompeo and Dana Heller Levitt proposed in their 2014 article, “A Path of Counselor Self-Awareness,” that practicing counselors have an ethical responsibility to self-reflect on their practices. Being a curious observer of your own work as a counselor can lead not only to professional growth but also inspiration regarding needed research and possible publications.

The literature has identified several factors to explain the existing disconnect between counselor practitioners and research efforts. If we are to truly use research to guide practice and use practice to inform research, then a bridge needs to be built that will bring counselor practitioners into the world of research. If we acknowledge the need for developing connections between university faculty and counselor practitioners, plus the need for increased self-reflection in the field, perhaps the gap that must be bridged will end up being not quite so large.

 

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Samantha McMorrow is a practicing school counselor with K-12 endorsement and a licensed professional counselor. She is also a national certified counselor and is certified as a chemical dependency counselor in Alaska. McMorrow currently serves as an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in its Counseling Department. Contact her at sgmcmorrow@alaska.edu.

 

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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.