Community Power Structure Analysis and the Ethical Considerations of "Studying Up"

Natalie M. Kivell, Scot Evans, Susan E. Paterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This narrative outlines our challenges in studying power and power structures within an individual-level ethical framework. Taking a social ethics perspective, we share the story of our "sticky situation" (Campbell, ) that transpired during a multi-year community partnership. We were asked, by our community partners, to help collect interview data without informed consent. As a team of community-engaged university researchers, we were faced with a seemingly easy ethical situation (no consent, no research) that had unexpectedly complicated and long-lasting consequences. This experience revealed to us how community-engaged research and action, under a traditional ethics framework, can often work to protect those in positions of power and offer little to disrupt the status quo. Reflecting on the tension between individual and social ethics, we discuss the limitations of an individual-level framework, including the definitions for respect for persons, justice, and beneficence, on our ability as a field to understand, critique, and contribute to the dismantling of oppressive power structures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAmerican Journal of Community Psychology
StateAccepted/In press - 2017


  • Community-engaged research
  • Critical scholarship
  • Ethics
  • Informed consent
  • Power
  • Social ethics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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