In mental health research, traditionally, the production of knowledge has been the domain of detached scientists, seeking objectivity by analyzing experiences from an external standpoint. While aiming for broad generalizability, this methodology often turns survivors, including childhood sexual abuse (CSA) survivors, into mere data points. But what happens when these survivors become the scientists, reshaping the narrative and methodology?
Thomas Schlingmann of Tauwetter, Germany, and a group of CSA survivors and researchers are challenging this conventional paradigm. Their recent article, “Self-Organised Research by Child Sexual Abuse Survivors: Developing a New Research Approach,” introduces a groundbreaking method that centers the lived experiences of CSA survivors.
Schlingmann’s article proposes an alternative philosophy and praxis for research on CSA, named the “self-organized” or “survivor-controlled approach.” This approach was implemented with the help of two survivor self-help groups in Berlin: the Wildwasser group for women and the Tauwetter group for men. The primary focus of this approach is to place the idea of “regaining agency” at the core of CSA recovery. Although this research approach is relatively new, its philosophy has a strong foundation, supported by Critical and Liberation Psychology researchers.
“Many affected people deal with lower self-esteem and are very sensitive to being ignored, overlooked, or treated as a mere observation object. Self-help groups of adult survivors play an important role in coping with these consequences and are an effective means of self-empowerment,” Schlingmann writes, adding:
“Self-organised research is democratic research.”
Part of the pain of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is the internalization of feeling like an object that is used and controlled to meet someone else’s needs. Unfortunately, most traditional research paradigms used by those studying the effects of CSA and how people can recover from the trauma of CSA often mimic this objectification. The person who suffered CSA becomes a thing to be studied, measured, surveyed, and rarely ever spoken to, yet often spoken about.
Recognizing the vast experiential knowledge within CSA self-help groups, Schlingmann and his team have pioneered an approach that places survivors at the heart of knowledge production. This “self-organized research” ensures survivors maintain agency throughout every phase of the research process.
Instead of merely being subjects, the survivors become instrumental in collecting, interpreting, and disseminating information. By formalizing this unique process, the team aims to develop and apply quality criteria aligning with the survivors’ experiences, ensuring the research remains relevant and impactful.
This paradigm shift presents a new methodology for CSA survivor self-help groups and offers hope for empowerment. By embracing this approach, survivors, whether adults, children, or youth, can actively generate knowledge that resonates with their personal experiences, leading to more nuanced, compassionate, and effective interventions in the realm of mental health.
Survivor-Controlled Research vs Participatory Research
“The problem of experimental-statistical approaches in the social sciences and psychology is that, in the full sense, the concept of experience only applies to those working scientifically, while the experience of those being studied is methodologically regulated to the point of being – in Adorno’s words – ‘annulled’… or, in Marx’s words: the ‘testimony of the senses . . . is reduced to the sensuousness of geometry.’”
The issue of survivor participation in research arose when the “Bonn Ethics Declaration” (BED), a call to research CSA in educational spaces, was implemented. Participation was minimal in the existing statistical paradigm, leading to a dearth of data to fill the call of the BED. The Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF, or the Federal Ministry for Education and Research) led the charge to create the research program and followed up the BED with a “Memorandum on Participatory Research.” This research includes “the direct participation of those people in the research process, whose working or living conditions are the subject of the research,” where “All research partners jointly determine the core elements of the project, from the selection of the research focus to the selection of methods, data collection and interpretation of the results.”
The problem was that the novel approach had very few researchers with experience in fully implementing participatory research programs. In response, the CSA survivors themselves, in conjunction with academics grounded in participatory research (which included Thomas Schlingmann, author of this research paper), created a program that included participant-led research, the participation of academics in the survivor-controlled research, and a possibility of joint research projects. This project was named SELFORG as part of a larger project entitled REGROW.
Can experience in self-help groups be generalized?
Now that the participants were in the lead of the research project, what next needed to be decided was the actual method of data collection. Schlingmann points out that quantitative approaches consider outlier experiences as exceptions to mean generalizations and, in the process, “negates the standpoint of the subject and reduces survivors to data suppliers – even when they accumulate and interpret the data.”
While there have been critiques of quantitative methods regarding dehumanizing research participants, Schlingmann and SELFORG also saw many qualitative approaches as equally objectifying, even as those methods attempted to reduce the issues regarding quantitative research.
“Qualitative research methods, whether hermeneutic or content analytic, also include interpretation of the collected (interview) data by researchers. Once again, survivors become research objects.”
Once again, the survivors of this abuse are reduced to objects to meet someone else’s needs while their needs are ignored.
Critical Psychology and Self-Helf Groups
Critical psychology posits that, in opposition to the behaviorist/cognitivist model of psychology, people behave for reasons that are rational and understandable to that person. People are not simply conditioned by their surroundings, nor are they suffering from cognitive distortions when they behave in ways deemed unacceptable or simply irrational by society. Thus, research from a critical perspective needs to include those reasons that seem the least reasonable and accept them as just as valid as the ‘mean’ behavior or rational thought. Outliers are not ‘things’ to be statistically manipulated but causal relationships that are just as important as the norm.
To account for this view, research must include the perspectives, input, and validation from participants. Self-help groups themselves work to help a person understand their own personal causal relationships between their current experiences and behaviors and the reasons those issues arose (in this case, CSA).
“By recognizing internal reasons for action, it becomes possible to see through personal limitations and reduced interpretations and thus expand one’s agency. In this process of ‘transcending the immediate’…, one discovers which actions seem to make sense in which situation and why.”
The SELFORG Model
IN 2017, the CSA survivor’s group Tauwetter applied to the BMBF for a line of funding to integrate participatory research models into the group functioning:
“They wanted to achieve two things: The first was to find out whether and how it would be possible to transform the more or less unsystematic generalization in self-help groups into a research approach for CSA survivors with the help of the ideas of Critical Psychology. The second was to study the multiple ways of processing sexualized violence beyond the clinical settings. These ways – described as self-organized recovery processes – play an important role for quite many CSA survivors.”
The group would first identify a small ‘initial group’ of CSA survivors within the support group with similar questions. The responsibility for gathering and interpreting the data around that question then falls on the group members. They can then recruit others into the group or leave those uninterested out of the group; thus, “self-organized research is democratic research.”
The survivor-researchers would try to ensure that the groups consisted of diverse backgrounds and genders, with Tauwetter reaching out to Wildwasser for different gender experiences. They would also try to ensure that the member had the space for self-reflection, which would include experience in the group already, as well as a certain stability gained from either outside the group or within the group.
The groups would try to meet in a central location and ensure that all members had the chance to reflect on and respond to the research questions. ‘Crosstalk,’ with members relating their own experience to the experience of the initial speaker, was included so that members could create relations between experiences, with the ultimate goal of trying to find a “structural generalization” of membership in self-help groups.
The first meeting includes introducing the members, as not everyone will be from the same group(s). This meeting also provides training on the research models, themes, and underlying philosophies. The process of “successive transformation from pretheoretical discussions to scientific conceptualization” means that members can hold the tension of being both the researcher and the object of research.
The next meetings build on the original responses while ensuring the survivor-researchers validate the interpretations. The groups then presented to other groups for review, ensuring that survivors who did not participate in the research also validated the experiences. Once the feedback is gathered, a final written report is generated, incorporating and detailing the themes and responses of the members to build a “structural generalization.”
Possible Improvements and Additions
Schlingmann points to the possibility that results may not meet the expectations of the participatory researchers and that the researchers need to be open and ready for that possibility, just as any researcher would be. Additionally, outside sources could be incorporated into the research for validation and comparison.
First, general boards of experienced survivor-researchers, critical psychologists, and other researchers in sexualized violence could be created to help build research projects and maintain databases for the use of groups to utilize in their research. Second, the results can be compared to existing databases and literature for contradiction and validation. Research that contradicts existing literature can help replace or update databases. Also, the research can be built into literature reviews, collating the experiences of multiple groups into single accessible documents.
Schlingmann, T. (2023). Self-Organised Research by Child Sexual Abuse Survivors: Developing a New Research Approach. In Participatory Research on Child Maltreatment with Children and Adult Survivors (pp. 247-261). Emerald Publishing Limited. (Link)