Research on self-help has taken a new turn. Several authors recently have suggested that the classical controlled-experiment methodology is not appropriate to the study of self-help, and that a new approach is needed. In “Researching Self-Help Mutual Aid Groups and Organizations: Many Roads, One Journey” (Applied and Preventive Psychology, 3, 1994), Keith Humphreys and Julian Rappaport report that many of the controlled studies done in the 1980s on “self-help” were actually studies of groups established by researchers with a random assignment of participants either into experimental subject groups or controls. They consider controlled studies to be studies of professionally controlled support groups not self-help, because this procedure leaves out the most definitive element of self-help: self-determination.

Humphreys and Rappaport suggest that researchers may do better to study self-help as it occurs, with more emphasis placed on the qualitative features of participation in self-help groups and their similarity to normative social groupings like clubs, citizen action groups, or churches. Some areas for research here include changes in friendship networks, identity, self-esteem, worldview, personal narratives and social support. These studies may provide a “thick” description of the group, including the local situation and context, and lead to a richer understanding of the cultural aspects of self-help groups.

In “Participatory Action Research as a Strategy for Studying Self-Help Groups Internationally,” a chapter in Self-Help and Mutual Aid Groups: International and Multicultural Perspectives (Haworth Press, 1995), Thomasina Borkman and Marsha Schubert write that researchers need not claim the “objectivity” of the controlled study using standardized measures because self-help groups “do not meet the assumptions underlying controlled clinical trials with random assignment.” The random-assignment method so often used to avoid self-selection can even be considered a distortion since “participation in self-help groups is self-selective; only a small proportion of the people with a problem go to self-help groups.”

Borkman and Schubert cite the work of M. Chesler, “Participatory Action Research with Self-Help Groups,” American Journal of Community Psychology, 19, 1991), where the researchers and the community or group under study participate jointly in the research, which is expected “to result in findings useful to the participants as well as in contributions to social science knowledge of the phenomena.” Members of the group may be interested in changing their methods for more effective ones, or promoting advocacy and political change (if they have this goal). There are several ways to manage the balance of power between the researcher and the participants. Participants may be involved in decision-making about the project design, data collection and the factors to be analyzed; they may share equal control of the project with the researcher; or the group may retain total control of the project, calling in the researcher as a professional expert or consultant to work under its direction.

These approaches take a long step toward balancing the inadequacies of the controlled experiment. However, the new research need not automatically exclude other principles also characteristic of self-help that may be present even when self-determination is weak or absent such as the fact that self-help is free, or that helping benefits the helper, even in a professionally facilitated group. These principles could make a group “quasi self-help” even when total self-determination is lacking. It is also possible that groups initially facilitated by professionals might become independent and more self-determined later. If such groups were revisited by researchers, this could lead to acceptance of a much broader range of controlled studies.

In a California study, Gerald Goodman and Marion Jacobs of UCLA report that more and more self-help groups are, in fact, involving professionals in some capacity. In California, 84% of self-help groups had some professional involvement; 14% with the professional as sole leader.

The most widely reported studies on self-help, and those likely to come to the attention of policymakers, may continue to be controlled studies, despite their limitations. Moreover, the new approach has the challenge of overcoming the well known limitations of ethnographic research such as the possible unreliability of first-hand accounts, and the distortion between perceived results and results measured independent of the group.