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"Working together to identify and eliminate inequities"


Scientific knowledge, power and access to resources

The theoretical framework underpinning the BIAS FREE Framework draws on a long history of scholarly research* related to the social dimensions of scientific knowledge, power and access to resources. The knowledge that informs research, policies, programmes and service delivery tends to reflect power structures within society.

Social hierarchies and social inequalities

The term hierarchy (literally: holy order) indicates a social system in which people are stratified on a continuum of economic, political and social power. Where one is a located on a hierarchy is profoundly consequential. In every society, access to social goods, decision-making and economic and social well-being is shared unequally among all members, depending on where they fit in a given social hierarchy. Power structures within a society serve to reinforce and maintain the various social hierarchies.

Within the Framework, those at the top of a hierarchy are referred to as the dominant group, and those lower down on the hierarchy as the non-dominant group. Membership in either group is always relative to the hierarchy at work.

Historically, women, disabled persons, and others belonging to certain classes or ethnic, racialized, linguistic or religious groups have tended to be disadvantaged relative to men, to "non-disabled" persons, and other dominant groups in their society.

Membership in more than one non-dominant group compounds the oppression people experience and increases inequities. A disabled woman living in a low-income country in Africa or Asia, for example, would likely have access to fewer social, economic and community resources than would a white able-bodied woman living in a high-income country. Her experience, however, might not be so different from that of a disabled Aboriginal woman living on a remote "Indian" reserve in Canada.

Conceptual interconnection among all systems of oppression

Each hierarchy results in types of domination specific to that hierarchy. Within each hierarchy at different times and in different places, domination takes on different forms. Nonetheless, there is a basic conceptual interconnection among all systems of oppression: the logic of domination is the same. It is this understanding that enabled the development of the BIAS FREE Framework and its application to any and all social hierarchies.

Objectivity, value-freedom and emotional detachment

The BIAS FREE Framework is built around a specific concept of objectivity. It acknowledges that there is no such thing as being “value-free” or emotionally detached. It understands objectivity to be a property of a scientific community, rather than that of an individual and that it requires four criteria to be satisfied. These include:

  1. Recognized avenues for criticism
  2. Community response
  3. Shared standards
  4. Equality of intellectual authority

This understanding of objectivity is important not just from a theoretical perspective. It has very practical implications for how the BIAS FREE Framework is used. The BIAS FREE Framework has been designed to be used as part of a dynamic process rather than as a static tool or check list approach.

Generally, biases are well hidden. Careful systematic analysis is needed to uncover them, as they are often part of taken-for-granted basic assumptions. It is, therefore, not easy to identify biases and even harder to convince people to avoid them. The 19 questions set out in the Framework have been designed to do this. Using the questions to probe a given situation within an active interchange of experiences and ideas helps to uncover the biases. The 19 questions establish the set of shared standards by identifying and naming the bias problems.

The tripartite basis of social inequality and biases

Social inequality -- and the biases that derive from it -- rest on a tripartite set of problems. First and foremost is the existence of a social hierarchy. Efforts aimed at maintaining a hierarchy give rise to the first of a set of problems, under the heading of: Maintaining an existing hierarchy (H Problems). The very existence of a hierarchy leads to two other main problems: Failing to examine differences (F Problems) and Using double standards (D Problems). These three overarching problems form the core of the Bias Triangle of the Framework.

Failing to examine differences (F Problems) and Using double standards (D problems) are two sides of the same coin. The solution to the F problem consists in recognizing and accommodating differences, by treating people differently while the solution to the D problem consists in recognizing and eliminating unwarranted differential treatment. The touchstone that lets us decide which type of problem we are dealing with is whether different or same treatment reduces or reinforces an existing hierarchy.

* The underpinnings of the framework draw on the works of many scholars. The references can be found in The BIAS FREE Framework: A practical tool for identifying and eliminating social biases in health research

Last Updated: 02-August-2011
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