I'm part of a large research team working with Latino youth who participate in community-based after-school programs. Among other things we want to understand how culture might impact the experiences of young people in youth programs, especially Latino youth.
I find myself reflecting on two things. First, what is the impact or relationship between culture and the program experience of the participants? And second, where do culture and research meet? In other words, how does culture influence not only the experience of the youth but also how does it affect our research process? How is culture part of our work?
I haven't lost sleep over it, but I'm pretty close. And this is where I need your help. How do we anchor ourselves as culturally relevant researchers while trying to understand the cultural experiences of young people?
The definition of culture varies with a person's perspective. Consequently, no single definition is universally accepted by social scientists. Nevertheless, if we engage in culturally relevant work, it is important to set some common understanding of how culture might intersect with our work as researchers, practitioners, and policy makers.
I draw from the work of Rohner , who defined four elements of how culture is embedded in our work and often, the entire research process.
- All individuals develop in a cultural context.
- Culturally based values are passed from one generation to the next.
- Many aspects of culture are abstract, in that they are not overtly or intentionally socialized: "they are simply absorbed by children throughout the course of development" (Hughes, Seidman, and Williams, 1993)
- Culture is evidenced in patterns among members of a group as well as between the group and the larger context.
As researchers we ask ourselves questions like: How is culture experienced in these community-based settings? How do these youth learn and explore their culture through positive learning experiences? How does culture influence the development of adolescents in after-school programs? How do we make sure to capture the impact that cultural processes might have in these young people's experiences?
My question to you is: In order to find the answers to these questions, should we anchor our work culturally? Should we struggle through cultural meanings and nuances both within our work teams and with our participants? My answer is "of course!"
In 1993, Hughes, Seidman, and Williams said: "The culturally anchored researcher must weigh the trade-offs between sensitivity to cultural nuances of the target population and the methodological requirements of objectivity, standardization and generalizability". These authors also ask researchers to adopt the following guidelines when working with underrepresented, often underserved audiences and participants:
- Bring multiple stakeholders to the table when formulating the question or topic of interest, the target populations, instruments, and relevant concepts.
- Choose, combine, and develop methods applicable not only to your research question but also to the cultural nuances of the population you wish to work with.
- Use caution when defining a cultural group. How do you decide who is part of a group and who is not?
Our team has worked actively with youth and program staff to devise questions for participants and piloted a few of them. For example: "How is culture present in the program experience?" "What stories do your parents tell you about their youth?"
What additional guidelines would you offer to work teams who strive to understand and illustrate the experiences of minority youth in after school programs? What questions would you ask youth participants about the role of culture in youth programs? What has worked for you?
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