Conducting Qualitative Research in Rural Alaska Communities: Engaging Elders to Ensure Cultural Relevance and Sensitivity

Abstract

The history of research with Alaska Natives was unethical and resulted in distrust of researchers, and most communities have not engaged in research until recently. For example, the Barrow Alcohol Study was conducted in 1979 to understand the relationship between alcohol and accidental death in one community in rural Alaska. The research was conducted without community input and the measures used were not culturally adapted for the population being studied. The interpretation of the findings did not take into account cultural, historical, social, and/or political contexts that may have contributed to drinking patterns. The published findings described the community as alcoholic, which stereotyped and stigmatized the entire community. As a result of this study in Alaska, the development of community-based participatory research principles have provided researchers with guidance and a foundation to engage in respectful research with a community as a research partner. Being trained to conduct gerontological health research in rural communities across Alaska, one way of ensuring community engagement and support is the engagement of Elders throughout the research process. One strategy I used is to develop Elder Advisory Committees for my research projects; they act in the best interest of the community, provide mentoring and guidance, and ensure the research is reflective of the community at all stages. This case study discusses the author’s experiences with engaging Elders in community-based research studies and how their presence has enriched his research as well as honored the wisdom and experiences of the Elders.

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