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Reflecting on Cultural Competency in Research

Nina Simon’s recent Museum 2.0 blog post about how to measure the impact of the arts on “social bridging” (i.e., bringing people closer across diverse cultures and communities) struck a powerful chord with me. Nina highlights the challenge of measuring social bridging, the desire to transition from “feel good anecdote” to concrete evidence of social impact, and the possibility of using different approaches from the social psychology sector. I am particularly interested in a similar, related issue: the challenge of engaging diverse audiences in the measurement tool itself, regardless of the approach. In other words, why do some people opt to cooperate with surveys while others don’t?

For nearly a decade, we have been developing and revising methods for measuring the intrinsic impacts of art experiences, including social bridging and bonding. There are inherent biases in nearly all approaches to data collection (e.g., loyalty bias that predicts subscribers and members will respond at a much higher rate; age bias associated with online methods), but there are always opportunities to learn and grow in our methods and improve reliability of results. How do we more effectively engage diverse communities in research and evaluation efforts?

As a researcher looking to gather valuable audience feedback from diverse communities, I am coming face-to-face with the need to develop my own skill set around cultural competency. I am working on building cultural context prior to data collection in order to inspire greater audience participation in the research. Currently we are experimenting with a number of different tactics to build cultural context in our work, including appointing a community representative as a research partner and conducting interviews and focus groups as part of the research plan design. With these efforts, we hope to mitigate certain data collection challenges, such as varying levels of literacy and comprehension and participants’ aversion to recording personal information on paper. In general, we must listen harder and learn to communicate differently, in a vocabulary and tone that is less about gathering information, but more about learning and growing.

Drawing from the principles of action research, I find it helpful to consider a three-step process for increasing cultural competence:

  • internal review and revision of researchers’ existing cultural assumptions;
  • recruitment of and buy-in from community leaders; and
  • evaluation and continued commitment to questioning assumptions in order to change course as needed.

Additionally, Harvard University’s Program for Cultural Competence in Research published anannotated bibliography of cultural competency research in the healthcare sector (updated in 2010) that provides useful resources for further investigation into this topic. I am looking forward to testing my own assumptions over the next few years.

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