XXIX.2 March - April 2022
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Traversing the insider’s path toward equitable research practices for migrants

Nana Kesewaa Dankwa

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The journey matters. To me, this means valuing the path, as a human being and as a researcher, as much as the goal or destination. In my research journey, I engage people with migrant backgrounds living in Germany, like myself. The goal is to design platforms that empower migrants. Traversing this path means surmounting challenges, confronting barriers, celebrating successes, and documenting lessons learned. Over the past decade, there has been an appreciable increase in advocacy for considering the diversity of the users for whom we design. In the field of HCI, this advocacy calls for the integration of critical frameworks such as critical race theory [1], intersectionality [2], and feminist theory [3], among others, into the methodological foundations of research and design. However, the sharing of tools and techniques used by researchers, as well as their reflections, critiques, and challenges, is as important as the integration of critical frameworks into practice. For example, shared critical reflection about the challenges faced when working and designing with vulnerable populations such as migrants allows for collective learning and improvement in the ways we perform design and research. New trajectories can be taken to enable researchers to move many steps toward the design and development of technology that empowers and emancipates those populations.

back to top  Insights


Tackling bias in tech systems requires us to confront centuries of oppressive cultures, stereotypes, and racial injustices. These are manifested in theories, methods, tools, and techniques, which are blindly applied and advanced in the field of HCI. From the researcher's perspective, this might mean being an active collaborator in advancing, for example, colonialist ideologies, where Eurocentric and North American theories, methods, tools, and techniques are applied within cultures that have other ways of doing research and building knowledge. If the goal is to design technology that acknowledges the diversity of vulnerable populations and supports their empowerment and emancipation, then conscientious researchers must make a mental shift. In achieving my mental shift while working with migrants with distinct cultures of knowing and doing, I pose these questions: 1) In which ways does the academic research culture and/or design process advance oppression? 2) How can the research and design process—the entire research process in addition to the methods, tools, and techniques used—be modified to embrace the culture of this specific migrant population? and 3) How does this research or technology empower this specific migrant population?

In this article, I share my reflections, experiences, and challenges as a researcher working with migrant Ghanaians living in Germany. I define myself as an insider because I am a migrant Ghanaian and in close proximity to the community with whom I work. The insights I present in this article are also shared from this perspective. The key goal for sharing the insider's path is to highlight the journey toward equitable research practices for migrants.

back to top  Some Background

Ghanaian [4] migrants, as with other migrant nationalities, may face specific challenges settling into European communities. These challenges are due to language barriers, different education systems, unfamiliar climates, and so on. Additionally, institutionalized discrimination may keep migrants in social classes that keep them marginalized. My research motivation is to design platforms that can support the empowerment of such migrants, myself included. My personal experiences have influenced my research journey, but I am mostly motivated by the shared experiences of members of the community regarding the existence of these strongholds. How can people within the community be supported and the community elevated to higher standards of living? Migrant populations are those who have migrated for education, for work, and for reuniting with family. For this research, I gather data through user studies: focus groups, interviews, and participatory workshops. All research participants lived in the Kassel area, a Hessian city. The study captured their experiences, opportunities, and challenges faced as migrants in Germany. It sought their ownership, input, and insight in the envisioning of such a platform and what it could represent for Ghanaians living in Germany.


back to top  Gaining Insider Trust

Due to association and identity elements such as my name, I may be explicitly deemed a member of the Ghanaian migrant community. This association and identity, however, did not automatically grant me access to working with the Ghanaian community [5] in the Kassel area. For the studies, I approached some communities (organized and non-organized) to present my motivation and seek their participation. I sought for the project to be community owned and driven. The organized communities were a church, of which I am a member, and a nonprofit union. They had leadership (elected or appointed) and were legally recognized bodies. The non-organized group was a student community with structures such as a communication platform (a WhatsApp group page) and a conferred leader.

About three years ago, when I moved to Kassel, finding research participants was a challenge. There was a need to establish my identity and association per the sociocultural norms of the community. I approached an organized group of migrants from Africa and sought their participation in a series of workshops. The proposal was to integrate participatory practices into their existing workshop structures, which occurred every fortnight. They turned down my request. I concur now with that decision, as I had failed to establish trust and interest as a potential member of the group. I could have first joined the group meetings to gain the trust required. Migrants, especially those from Africa, face immigration hurdles in Europe. Black Africans who nurture the dream of living in Europe therefore often take illegal, dehumanizing routes to achieve these dreams. The strategies to surmount these barriers are guarded by the community and classified as insider information. The community is highly protective of its members and careful of who they let inside.

My research motivation is to design platforms that can support the empowerment of migrants.

In establishing trust and acceptance within the Ghanaian community, I engaged myself in communal activities. I attended events organized by the community and invited members of my church to my home. Though being an active member of the community may not necessarily ensure a commitment from the community to engage, it established relationships in which I had to be vulnerable. I allowed myself to be known on a personal level. I shared my personal stories and opened my home to others. It was important in the process to avoid exploitative relationships. This act of giving of yourself and investing time to bond is highly recommended when doing research, as it promotes social justice and equity for the marginalized and less privileged [6,7].

The process of value identification is challenging even as an insider and more so for an outsider.

Being an insider, however, does not guarantee I will conduct research that advances empowerment for and protects Ghanaian migrants. I carry biases, some toward myself, my culture, and my people. Many of these biases were nurtured by my Western education. Others were internalized, by being born and living in a former British colony. Over the years, I have consciously unlearned some of these biases by gaining new knowledge and practicing self-reflection. I have learned to accept that all persons are human beings, equally deserving of the opportunity to be all they are and can be. This has been my reference when working with migrant populations and it has challenged me to seek research practices that empower and protect Ghanaian migrants.


back to top  Letting Community Values Lead the Way

Identifying and understanding the values of the community is critical, especially when working with migrant communities. It facilitates conducting research within the community's tacit rules. For example, when I started this research, privacy as a value within the migrant Ghanaian community became more visible to me. Members of the community were expected to protect shared information. Failure to adhere to this value of protecting an individual's privacy has led to people leaving the community or being labeled as someone without respect for privacy. I listened to stories of the betrayal of privacy, where the aftermath was self-imposed isolation from the group and measures to avoid disclosure of private matters within the community.

I discovered the community's values through observing events that transpired, conversations with community members, and identifying what made the group thrive and what dismantled its tenets. I confirmed these values during interviews and focus group sessions. Once I became conscious, for example, of the value of privacy, I placed an emphasis on explaining in detail the data I collected during my research, how the data is stored, and its current and future usage. I made it a personal goal to ensure that data shared with me remained private to maintain my credibility and trust within the community. Based on my experience, the process of value identification is challenging even as an insider and more so for an outsider, especially when you need to complete user studies within a short period.

back to top  Choosing the Ways of Doing Research

I chose interviews, focus groups, and participatory workshops for the degrees of freedom they allowed in their application. I wanted opportunities to engage Ghanaian migrants in open conversations, intentionally choosing these methods as they supported oral knowledge building. For the interviews, participants were able to share personal stories in depth with me, and I with them. For the focus group sessions, people within the community moderated the discussions while I took notes. As the moderators had experience moderating community discussions, it was only natural they lead discussions that were to benefit the community. The studies were conducted in Twi, German, and English. Before beginning each interview or focus group session, I asked which language was preferred. When participants were mainly students, English was the language of choice for moderating the focus group session and participatory workshop because it was the most common and predominantly spoken language within the group. The interviews and focus groups conducted with others (e.g., church members) were in Twi, since the majority were Akan (one of the dominant tribes in Ghana).

Most researchers argue that money is not necessarily the primary motivating factor to participate in a study. Rather, it's necessary to establish the relevance of the research to peoples' lives. For example, while looking for participants for a smart home study, I approached migrants who lived in a dormitory. Their response was that their immediate needs were not smart home devices, as even Internet access was a challenge. Even if I did pay them to attend the workshops, what would have been the substantial benefit to their lives? What would they have gained by spending valuable time participating in a smart home design workshop? As an insider, I learned that members of the Ghanaian migrant population viewed participating in a research study as an act of support for another community member. Though they were encouraged by the possibility of new technology, some were unwilling to accept money from me until I told them that the compensation was funded by the university. The process was, however, bureaucratic. Participants had to give their names, addresses, and bank information. Providing such information was tricky for those who did not want to share it. One workaround was for a participant to give the name, address, and bank information of someone who would receive the compensation on their behalf. The ability to incorporate such workarounds and use methods that incorporated ways of doing and knowing familiar to the participants, as well as make room for the protection of their identities, was vital.

back to top  Wrapping Up

In this article, I have shared my insider insights as I traverse the path toward the design of technology that empowers migrants such as myself. Though an insider, I do not presume to know everything about the community and need to stay conscious of my biases. It is not my intent to advocate for one way of performing research with vulnerable populations. I believe that researchers must find their own path that draws them toward more equitable research practices that do not inflict additional harm on vulnerable populations. I conclude with three takeaways. First, as insiders, let us look forward to new insights and new research opportunities when our work is centered within marginalized communities and challenge the status quo of how we conduct research. Second, let us seek methods, tools, and techniques that align with the community's culture and ways of doing. Finally, let us share our journeys as insiders who work within migrant communities and contribute toward equitable practices that promote social justice for all. As an Akan proverb says, "Blow the dust off my eyes" is the reason why two antelopes journey together. Let us share our experiences and grow together as we blow the dust off our eyes.

back to top  References

1. Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, I.F., Smith, A.D.R., To, A., and Toyama, K. Critical race theory for HCI. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–16.

2. Rankin, Y.A. and Thomas, J.O. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (2019), 64–68.

3. Rode, J.A. A theoretical agenda for feminist HCI. Interacting with Computers 23, 5 (2011), 393–400.

4. People who self-identify as Ghanian (born, have relations in or from Ghana, etc.). They may not be legal citizens of Ghana.

5. Community refers to the bigger connection of communities (subgroups).

6. Doyle, L. "The big issue": Empowering homeless women through academic research? Area 31, 3 (1999), 239–246.

7. Ross, K. Making empowering choices: How methodology matters for empowering research participants. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research 18, 3. 2017.

back to top  Author

Nana Kesewaa Dankwa is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science in the electrical engineering/ computer science department at the University of Kassel, Germany. She holds an M.S. in computer science and media from Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, and an M.S. in information technology from Sikkim Manipal University in India. Her research interests are in human-computer interaction, socially responsible computing, and critical design approaches. Her current research centers on the experiences of Ghanaian migrants living in Germany.

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