Detail from "the second line," a painting by Bob Graham. For more about the artist, click here.

Online Program

Conducting Research on Vulnerable and Stigmatized Populations

*Sandra H. Berry, RAND Corporation, Survey Research Group 

Keywords: vulnerable, stigmatized, illegal, sexual minority, illegal, privacy

Groups that are socially stigmatized or are engaged in illegal behaviors are often considered to be vulnerable populations in terms of engaging them in research, but they are also of great interest for public health, justice and other kinds of public policy issues. For example, drug users and dealers, sex workers, and sexual minorities may be considered vulnerable populations in many circumstances. Other groups may be vulnerable due to special circumstances that apply - for example, people who have been the victims of sexual harassment in large organizations.

What characteristics and circumstances make a group vulnerable in terms of conducting research? How do you identify and engage groups that put themselves at risk by simply admitting that they qualify for the study? In this session, I would like to cover issues of how to identify and sample these groups, how to motivate them to participate, and how to ensure that they are legally protected and protected from psychological or privacy-related negative consequences of participation, and how to ensure that their views and experiences are captured appropriately.

I will draw on published literature as well as experiences of practitioners who have addressed this challenge over a period of years with different kinds of groups using traditional probability and newer sampling approaches (such as RDS), as well as convenience sampling, and different modes -- including face-to-face, mail/telephone, and Internet surveys. I will also discuss the question of who speaks for such groups and whether and how to engage them and their spokespersons to improve the validity of research results as well as the level of participation.

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