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The Need for Precision in Social Categorizations

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Can precise social categorizations improve social work research? That’s the conclusion found by Georgia State’s School of Social work, according to Jennifer French Giarratano. Giarratano, in phys.org, reports that social workers “who use broad categorizations to define populations may impede their own ability to adequately assess complex oppressive social relationships, specifically among transgender women.”

Giarratano goes on to explain that differences in experience, outlook, and perception, especially where these are shaped by gender, “contribute to the ‘apparatus of social reproduction,’ the process by which research adds to oppressive conditions for those being researched.” The study asserts that article abstracts misrepresented or failed to represent transgender women. The authors “further explored the theoretical relationship between the categories used in research on transgender women and oppressive conditions. The theoretical lens they present, the apparatus of social reproduction, aims to disentangle this relationship and help social work researchers better assess their methods and practices.”

If all that sounds a little complicated, don’t worry; it is. The researchers were reportedly hoping to answer questions revolving around control of resources: who has them, who controls them, who doesn’t have them, etc. In the case of transgender women, Giarratano reports, the researchers were concerned with how they survived and had their basic needs met — including how the field of social work might help or hinder them.

Ultimately, the work encourages social workers to “reconsider the use of broad social categorizations of transgender women and conduct research unique to their experience,” exhorting social workers instead to invite transgender women to participate in the process of developing these categorizations. The emphasis was on having transgender clients participate in the research and lend their voices to it.

The study, and reactions to it, are interesting precisely because the highlight an often overlooked aspect of research. Specifically, how do the researchers themselves affect those researched? How do social workers affect their clients while seeking to better serve them? And how can social workers educate themselves to better serve their communities in general and their clients specifically?

These are all fascinating questions that are worthy of discussion and even debate. Where do you stand? Have you found broad social categorizations a hindrance in your work? Or does the research make more of the issue than is warranted? We welcome your thoughts and experiences on this issue.

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