Career Center

Sara McClelland's dissertation topic — sexual satisfaction — might seem distant from diversity issues.

But the fifth-year City University of New York Graduate Center student is eyeing the area through a particular lens: She theorizes that people may perceive sexual satisfaction differently depending on their gender, sexual orientation and cultural contexts. Specifically, she wonders whether those with historically less power — women, gays and lesbians, for example — are less likely to expect others to meet their sexual needs.

"My aim is both to develop a model of sexual satisfaction that accounts for diverse sexual histories and to see if there are differences in how groups imagine what is [sexually] satisfying," McClelland says.

Twenty years ago, a student with McClelland's interests might just have surveyed different groups about their level of sexual satisfaction and reported on the differences. By delving deeper into people's social and historical contexts, McClellend is part of a trend toward "culturally competent research," where researchers examine people's differences in complex, sophisticated ways, says Elizabeth Cole, PhD, a University of Michigan psychology professor.

For one thing, the newer research often focuses on a single group rather than comparing two or more groups, Cole says. This framework "invites you to see the group in its own social and historical context and can also lead you to think about differences within the group," she explains.

Other culturally competent researchers are investigating variables related to potential social injustices, such as race and class privilege. McClelland's work on entitlement, a set of attitudes about what people feel they have a right to expect, is an example. Researchers also are beginning to test the validity of different measures for different groups — for example, measures of mental health, temperament and personality — since most tests were developed and validated on white samples, says Cole.

Such research is attracting new scholars because it allows them to draw on many different fields, including sociology, cultural anthropology and history, notes Michelle Fine, PhD, psychology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. Others are intrigued by the research paradigm's emphasis on respecting and understanding diverse experiences — even going as far as including participants in research design and implementation, says CUNY Graduate Center student María Elena Torre, who has conducted such work with young people in New York.

"This kind of research acknowledges that expertise comes in many shapes and forms," Torre says. "It recognizes that the people most impacted by the problem you are trying to address are those who have the deepest knowledge about those questions."

Intersecting identities

Students are conducting a variety of projects that use the principles of cultural competency.

At the University of Michigan's Gender and Immigration Lab, fifth-year psychology and women's studies student Jennifer Young Yim is examining within-group differences among Asian-American male college students to see who might be more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. The project arose after five Korean-American students at the university died between 1997 and 2001 as a result of drunken driving, alcohol poisoning or suicide. Yim wondered whether two aspects of their identity, masculinity and internalized pressure to act as a "model minority" might have contributed to the tragedies.

By examining the meeting point of gender- and race-influenced social identities, Yim hopes to capture what culturally competent researchers call "intersectionality," a perspective that couldn't be captured by studying just men or just Asian Americans. She got anecdotal support for this notion when, in talking with university counselors, "they commented that Asian-American men, more than Asian-American women, really struggle with academic pressure," she says. While there is a growing psychology literature on men and masculinity, few studies focus on Asian-American men, she adds.

Yim will first survey about 300 Asian-American male students, asking to what extent they endorse traditional masculinity ideology and the belief that Asian-Americans are the smartest, most hard-working group in the United States. She'll also ask how they cope with academic pressure and whether they engage in risk-taking behaviors such as binge drinking and the use of such "cognitive enhancers" as Ritalin to help them study.

From there, Yim will cull about 15 students who report the highest and lowest coping score, and interview them in greater depth about their family backgrounds, family messages about success and coping strategies. Besides looking at those who cope poorly, she also hopes to glean useful information about positive coping strategies among Asian-American men.

CUNY Graduate Center students Torre and Maddy Fox are examining youth rights, a topic they got from their participants, Brooklyn middle school students. The two met several times with the students, who decided they wanted to look into why they were often stopped by police at subway stations. The officers tended to stop them either to check for school IDs (which the students didn't have because the school didn't provide them) or to search for weapons.

To learn more, the researchers and students surveyed 359 students at the school, mainly ethnic minorities attending school in a mostly white neighborhood. They found that 51 percent of high school students and 28 percent of middle school students had experienced such run-ins. In qualitative interviews, they also found that the young people perceived the encounters as surveillance rather than security protection.

"As we talked with the young people, it seemed that the role of police was pretty ambiguous," Fox says. "They wondered who they could trust and whose community they belonged to."

As a result of the research, students lobbied the school administration for IDs, and now all high school students have them, although middle school students still go without.

The project may also have sparked the students' interest in psychology: The core group of students who collaborated on the project has presented its findings at three conferences and shared the results with other middle and high school students.

The work differs from traditional research in the personal bonds it tends to form, says Fox.

"Once you start working on a research question together, there's an obligation that goes along with it," she says. "I'm committed to this question and to working with these young people because we dared to ask this question together. Now we have to follow through."

Diversity training

In addition to improving the social climate for ethnic minorities, some culturally competent researchers want to improve multicultural training. One such researcher is Fordham University counseling psychology student Jaya T. Mathew. As an Indian-American, and one of the few minority students in her classes, she is often put in the position of "expert" on racial issues. Because students like her are in the spotlight, it can be difficult for them to fulfill a primary goal of multicultural competence training: fully exploring their biases and prejudices in a safe atmosphere, she says.

The situation sparked Mathew's dissertation research, which focuses on ethnic-minority students' experience with multicultural training. In particular, it delves into whether they're able to fully explore and process their emotional experiences regarding racial issues. The answer is important, she believes, because research shows that these elements mean the difference between effective and ineffective multicultural training.

Using in-depth interviews and quantitative surveys, Mathew will ask students about their experiences in multicultural training, their perceptions of its strengths and weaknesses, and their sense of its emotional climate and psychological safety. She hopes to study students in at least three graduate schools that are considered particularly strong in providing multicultural training.

The work lends a voice to a group that has not had much chance to be heard — a goal that culturally competent researchers share, though they go about it in ways as diverse as the people they study.

By Tori DeAngelis