Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Research methods in human rights work: Some basics you need to know

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The global COVID-19 pandemic determines the headlines of current reporting and news. This is also the case for this website and our work at the DHRLab. In the following weeks, we will publish blogposts from the DHRLab community on how the current crisis affects digital human rights work in Uganda and what we can do to defend human rights. Sandra Nabulega’s article on research methods is of a more general nature and addresses a core issue, whether in times of COVID-19 or beyond: How to get information on human rights issues?


In this age of disinformation and misinformation, human rights defenders need reliable evidence more than ever. Whether to examine and formulate response or influence policies and strategies on human rights. Human rights research embraces a wide range of research methods depending on practical realities such as experience of the researcher, funding, time etc. In this article, I will describe the key methodological approaches to human rights research and give some examples from the field.


The ABC’s of research methods

Research methods are the strategies, processes or techniques utilized in the collection of data or evidence for analysis to uncover new information or create a better understanding of any topic. In the human rights sector, research methods are a means that help finding relevant information, organizing it and interpreting results. For sound and reliable human rights work, research methods are essentials. Human rights research might involve different methods, depending on the questions researchers want to answer, theories they want to test and resources available. Whether using qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods, we should consider how we design our research to yield reliable, consistent and accurate results.

Quantitative Methods

Quantitative research focuses on gathering numerical data and generalizing it to the population. Quantitative methods can reveal, for example, what percentage of the population has experienced gender based violence, their distribution by age, marital status, and residential area, etc.. Stat Aid, an NGO that offers statistics for human rights organizations, compared quantitative research to an aerial snapshot of the big picture. Transferred to the human rights perspective, quantitative research aims primarily to collect the prevalence and intensity of human rights violations. 

Quantitative methods include various forms such as

  • Online surveys 
  • Paper surveys 
  • Mobile surveys 
  • Face-to-face interviews 
  • Telephone interviews
  • Website interceptors, and online polls.

With these methods ‘factual’ data to answer the research question or generalize findings beyond a particular study can be collected, thus there is a need to ensure validity and reliability. 

  • Reliability refers to the consistency of a method. Is the same result achieved using the same methods under the same circumstances during another time? 
  • Validity refers to how accurate a method measures what it is intended to measure. If research has high validity, that means it produces results that correspond to real properties, characteristics, and variations in the population.

To ensure reliability and validity, significant effort is needed when creating a research design, selecting a representative sample, choosing appropriate data collection methods and consistency during the entire process research.


Qualitative Methods

On the other hand, qualitative methods answer questions about experience, meaning, and perspective, most often from the standpoint of the participant. Qualitative researchers use their own eyes, ears, and intelligence to collect in-depth perceptions and descriptions of targeted populations, places, and events. Jana Asher, Executive Director of Stat Aid, mentions that qualitative data is oriented towards the emotive aspects of human rights. Qualitative information is an incredibly rich source of detailed information about what’s happening to whom, by who, when, where and how.

Qualitative researchers use the following methods to collect data:

  • Direct observation
  • Open-ended surveys
  • Focus group discussions
  • In-depth interviews
  • Case studies
  • Document review
  • Film-making and photography

On a general note, using only one method comes with limitations. For example, observation is a time-intensive approach, interviews require a lot of time which usually constraints overall research sample size. Film and photography is constrained by ethical concerns, random surveys target certain people which means others are denied the opportunity to tell their stories. Focus group discussions are helpful in cases where interviewees may be unable to sustain one-on-one conversation or are uncomfortable with the researcher alone but cannot be used to discuss very sensitive topics where participants need protection because respondents are adept to changing subject away from overly private matters.


Research sample and ethical standards

To get the overall picture of human rights in a given community, it is important to use both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Whether using qualitative, quantitative or a mix of both approaches, human rights researchers should consider how to design their research to yield reliable, consistent and accurate results. There are, in particular, two crucial points that have to be kept in mind.

Firstly, we can’t talk about research methods and not mention anything about the size of a sample. The World Health Organization (WHO) mentions that it is not necessarily true that the bigger the sample, the better the study becomes. According to WHO, it is much better to increase the accuracy of data collection by either improving the training of interviewers or by better pretesting the data collection tool than to increase the sample size after a certain point. For qualitative studies, there are no rules for sample size calculation. It depends on what you know, the purpose of the study and practical factors. For quantitative studies, the desired sample size depends on the expected variation in the data; the more varied the data is, the larger the sample size we need to attain the same level of accuracy.

Secondly, away from ensuring reliability and validity, incorporation of ethical standards is also very important. In conducting human rights research, particularly in settings where safety may be of particular concern, a critical first step is to have standing procedures on investigator and participant protection. Researchers should receive specialized training on how to sensitively interview people in such a way as to minimize risk of re-traumatization, including training on interviewing victims of sexual violence, children, and persons in extreme pain, prisoners, and mentally disabled persons. There are principles for ethical research which include; minimizing the risk of harm, obtaining informed consent, protecting anonymity and confidentiality, and providing the right to withdraw.


Research methods: A must-have for effective human rights work

Over the years, research methods and data sources have seen an expansion giving more opportunities to document, investigate and research human rights issues. Choosing the correct method may present as great a challenge as the implementation of the research project itself. Researchers should acknowledge the strengths of a particular method as well as its limitations and seek the most effective approach to understand the human rights violations at hand.


You want more information: Check out The Right Toolkit from the University of California, Berkeley [hyperlink:]










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