Skip to main content

Archived Comments for: 'Relief of oppression': An organizing principle for researchers' obligations to participants in observational studies in the developing world

Back to article

  1. Going beyond "relief of oppression"

    Jessica Holzer, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health

    23 December 2010

    In the Majengo study, the background conditions of the study participants, women in the sex trade, could reasonably be assumed to be those of poverty and lack of social and political power, likely attributable to systemic injustice. A researcher approaching such a cohort, applying the ‘relief of oppression’ principle might see the situation and think: “how can I give these women power?” This clearly exemplifies the humanitarian assistance advocated by Lavery et al, because it fits within the domains of political freedoms and social opportunities identified by Sen.[1]

    Facilitating the empowerment of the women in the study is exactly what the researchers in Majengo did. As noted by Lavery, the researchers in Majengo implemented community engagement in the research by having peer leaders, drawn from the sex trade, work with the researchers to determine participation requirements for the research. This led to further development of a previously non-existent community among the women, contributing to the provision of health education, demands for condom use, and reducing discrimination against the sex workers by the healthcare industry and local police.

    All of these accomplishments qualify as ‘relief of oppression’ based on the examples laid out by Lavery et al. So, what more would be expected? It appears that either the ‘relief of oppression’ principle will not be a sufficient guide, or the authors have not adequately explained how researchers could ensure they have fulfilled the principle.

    For example, consider the idea that researchers should go so far as to help women move to a different, less harmful occupation, as was suggested by the journalist who challenged the study.[2] Not only might this result in more harm if it trades one set of risks for another, as noted by Lavery et al, but women might reasonably choose not to be re-located to a different trade. Why should we think that researchers as such are in a position to know what will constitute a true expansion of participants’ fundamental freedoms? It would be better to look to organizations whose mission it is to do humanitarian work to resolve the background injustices that are problematic. The more appropriate role for researchers is to provide helpful input based on their collection and analysis of research data, or their network of relationships in the study setting.

    I welcome the concept that the background injustices in communities should be of concern to researchers. However, I do not believe that the ‘relief of oppression’ principle offers any additional guidance to researchers. It may even do harm by holding researchers to an impossible standard, thus deterring work with vulnerable populations. Let us instead work with communities, leveraging the expertise of non-researchers as consultants and allowing the field of research to complement the work of humanitarian agencies by collecting necessary and scientifically valid evidence.

    Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge Maria Merritt, Ph.D. for her thoughtful suggestions and editorial help.

    1. Sen, A., Development as Freedom. 1999, New York: Anchor Books.
    2. Nolen, S., Sex slaves for science?, in The Globe & Mail. 2006, Phillip Crawley: Toronto.

    Competing interests