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In-Group/Out-Group Research

Although I was an English major during my undergraduate studies, my initial interests in literary greats were focused more on their health disorders like drug addiction, depression, and narcissism rather than their literary talents. For my honors senior thesis, I examined the depression and opium addiction of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a renowned 19th Century poet. While I was not a substance abuser and did not consider myself a narcissist, I was fascinated by historical accounts related Coleridge’s personal life. In some regards, I was mesmerized by looking in from the outside. Along with other variables, my fascination with Coleridge’s mental health and substance use disorder, led me to minor in Health Sciences and pursue a Master of Public Health degree. I think some of my success in groups where I am typically perceived as an out-group member can be summarized by this statement from a study participant to Dixson (2005): “So, when I saw what you were trying to do, and that you’re a young sista, I thought it was finally an opportunity for me to help one” (p. 106).

Due to my education and background in research and evaluation, most of my work positions have required me to attend many public health related conferences and trainings. After working in various healthcare settings and attending countless health–related conferences about public health and prevention strategies, specifically regarding Blacks and other communities of colors, I am reminded of the role of in-group/out-group dynamics and its influence on research and policy recommendations. For years, local and federal government organizations have been churning out educational information about the dangers of risky behaviors like substance use and abuse. Yet, due to the social determinants of health and other factors, behavior change and the reasons why people engage in risky behaviors in the first place is complex. Back in 2010, I learned this lesson first hand when I was assigned to work with a research group from Beth Israel Medical Center that was investigating heroine addiction and attention disorders. I was the only Black researcher in this group, and my tasks was to recruit participants by explaining the purpose of the study, obtaining informed consents, and administer baseline diagnostic tests. Most of the potential participants were recruited from an in-patient drug rehab facility in the Lower East Side. Study participants were overwhelmingly young (18-24 years old), male, and Black or Latino. Me being an in-group member in the regard that I was Black and near their age range, I usually encountered very little difficulty with recruiting participants. It may have helped that I was also an attractive female. However, I noticed other members of my research team who were White and usually unable to strike up natural conversations with potential participants encountered difficulties. Usually, it was related to trust and being an out-group member. Like Dixson (2005) I saw myself in the participants I was researching. More specifically, I saw my sister’s experience with crack addiction and was deeply concerned with the research study beyond merely collecting empirical data. Likewise, I was also sensitive to why some potential participants did not want to participate in the study or felt distrustful of our work.

However, similar to Dixson (2005), I sat with potential participants at dinner time and talked with them about everything but the study, and built a relationship with them before I opened my mouth to say anything about the research study I was working on and why they should (or shouldn’t participate). When I think of my experience as a Black traveler to many international destinations, I am again reminded of the significance of in-group/out-group dynamics. In different ways, I have encountered experiences where people have been shocked and mesmerized that I was Black, young, and female and in location (fill in the blank for any destination where it’s perceived that Black people don’t travel to for vacation). I recall being in China and the countless stares my husband and I received from native Chinese people. They were merely curious and outside looking in. Similar to my curiosity with Coleridge. But, for me, it was a bit uncomfortable. My husband, however, loved the attention. When I think about my experience at Beth Israel Medical Center, I think of the value in race-concordance and cultural-concordance among the researcher and the research participant. I think that it does make a difference. It may make it easier to build more trustful relationships and collect helpful research data, irrespective of the research topic. As well, as I read Dixson (2005), I felt she was describing many of the principles related to CBPR. As I’ve said in previous writing assignments, I think this research approach is underutilized. It is unfortunate because it is a very useful research method. However, I also realize the difficulty of using CBPR when there are in-group/out-group dynamics at play.

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