What do I mean by “inclusive researcher”? In any research that involves human subjects (or even research that doesn’t), the process of selecting a sample is very important. If the goal of your research is to understand the motivations of today’s teenagers for having (or not having) sex, it probably does not make much sense to select a sample that mostly consists of middle-aged individuals.
But who should you include? Obviously, if you want to know what teenagers are thinking, you probably want to ask some teenagers. Perhaps this will lead you to settle on an age bracket for participants that ranges from 12 to 19. Next, you might consider the geographic location of your participants. Are you interested in teenagers in Texas? Teenagers in the South? Teenagers in the USA? Teenagers in North America? Teenagers in the “Western World” (which in and of itself is a bit of a loaded term)? The answer will guide you with respect to where you will recruit your participants.
Let us say that you are interested in teenagers living anywhere in the USA. So now we know that you want to study individuals living in the USA who are between the ages of 12 and 19.
There are a number of sampling methods to use, and depending on the one you select, there will be pros and cons, as well as implications for just how much you can generalize the results of your study. If you’re interested in reading more about sampling methods, click here, or here if you would like more in-depth coverage not provided by Wikipedia. But what I want to focus on in this post is the goal of being an inclusive researcher. We have already determined that being inclusive does not mean including participants who are irrelevant to your sample (e.g. people who are no longer teenagers, people living outside of the USA, etc.) But what about other demographic variables? Will you limit your sample by race? Will you only be recruiting White teenagers between the ages of 12-19 living in the USA? You would be hard pressed to get approval from your ethics board for recruitment materials that stated “Whites Only,” wouldn’t you? What about religion? In some cases, perhaps your question might have something to do with a very specific faith group. Maybe you are specifically interested in how the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) influences the motivations of young LDS teenagers to have (or not have) sex. In this case, it might make good sense to limit your sample to members of the LDS faith, as teenagers from other faith groups likely have not been exposed to the specific LDS teachings that you are interested in investigating.
But for our example, let’s assume that you are not investigating the specific teachings of any given faith, so you are probably not going to limit your sample to one single religion. At this point, you are aiming to collect an ethnically diverse sample of 12 to 19 year old individuals of any faith living in the USA. These criteria make sense because the United States is a country that is both ethnically and religiously diverse, so to understand the experiences of “American Teenagers” it makes sense to include a multitude of ethnicities and faiths. But American teenagers are also sexually diverse. Not all teenagers are heterosexual, and in fact, today, more and more teenagers are abstaining, not from sex, but from aligning themselves with any particular sexual label (Savin-Williams, 2006). This begs the question of whether you should include participants of diverse sexual and gender identities.
Unfortunately, many researchers today, despite their cognizance of being inclusive with respect to ethnicity, geographic location, faith and a host of other demographic variables, continue to recruit samples that only include heterosexual participants, or even worse, they fail to ask about sexuality and then assume that their sample is entirely heterosexual. In my mind, in 2013, excluding diverse sexualities and gender identities from research samples is no longer acceptable. This does not mean that there will not be specific designs that require a researcher to be more selective, but I would caution that before doing so you should thoroughly interrogate yourself as to why you are narrowing your sample. To have the greatest understanding of the motivations of American teenagers to have (or not have) sex, it makes sense to develop a survey that is inclusive of same-sex attractions and sexual behaviour. Failing to include diverse experiences will only result in the end of your article reading: “the current research reflects only the experiences of heterosexual teenagers, and thus future studies should investigate the motivations among teenagers of different sexual identities.”
Why should this task be left to future research? Choosing to only address the experiences of heterosexual (or assumed heterosexual) individuals, or to address their experiences first, only services to reinforce and replicate the pervasive societal discrimination and devaluing of sexual diversity (especially among youth). Even separating these populations and studying them “one at a time” continues to send the message that there is something so distinctively different between individuals of different sexual identities that they must be segregated within research. Although diversity will always bring meaningful differences, I do not believe that our research goals can be best served by making the assumption that such drastic differences exist that they can only be managed through studying populations in isolation. Furthermore, the research rarely supports such an approach, with more and more research finding few, or no, differences as a function of sexual identity. When differences do pop up, they are very often a function of how society treats sexually diverse individuals, not a function of something inherently connected to any given sexual identity.So why not be more inclusive from the get-go? Examine your data for differences, and then decide where to go from there. This is generally what we do with many of the other demographic characteristics that we measure. We understand that demographics such as age, gender, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status might influence the outcome of our studies and we deal with these potential influences by analyzing them and, when need be, controlling for them statistically in our analyses. The same can be done with sexual identity. And what if there is a difference? Well then, your paper just got 10 times more interesting and you will avoid having to end it with the cop-out that others need to examine the issue further with a more diverse sample. Of course, you still won’t be exempt from ending your paper with “future research is needed,” because, well, it wouldn’t be an academic paper if it didn’t end with that phrase!
The Bottom Line: Of course you can’t include everyone in every study, and sometimes there are very real reasons for examining a specific behaviour within a specific group of individuals (Click Here to read a study that examined a specific sexual act among individuals of a specific sexual orientation, specific ethnicity and specific gender), but the bottom line is to give some serious thought to the decisions you are making about whom to include and whom to exclude. Are you excluding a group of participants simply because it is the norm to do so in your field? Is it because you are assuming that there are serious differences that would somehow jeopardize the goal of your research? Are your assumptions accurate? Are you trying to avoid ‘messy data’? Are you improving the literature by making the exclusion? Could you improve the literature by widening your inclusion criteria? I’ll address the finer details of making the decision to include or exclude LGBTQ individuals when defining one’s sample in another post, but for now, just ask yourself - for this study, for this research question, is sexual identity likely to behave similarly to other demographic variables (e.g., gender, ethnicity, religion, age, SES - some of which have huge associations with your outcome variables) that are easily controlled and sometimes contribute an interesting addition to the study, OR is it (as many researchers seem to fear it is) a variable of unending destruction that will render your data un-interpretable, impossible to manage and ultimately, entirely unpublishable? I doubt that it will very often be the latter.
Interested in reading about research that examines sexual motivations, risk-taking behaviours, and positive sexual development among today’s adolescents? Click here to read a journal article by a leading researcher in the field that reviews a decade of research on sexuality development among adolescents. As you read the review of the research in the field, what do you notice about the integration of sexual minorities in research on sexuality and sexual development?