Marginalized Communities and the Problem of Research Extraction

Publication Date



‘Wait – is that it? Are you coming back tomorrow?’-Interviewee in the township of Delft, South Africa

These questions were raised at the end of an interview in 2019, when the first author was conducting research in South Africa on informal economy entrepreneurs. Here was an informant who had just finished recollecting some difficult moments in his life, revealing an implicit expectation that the interview would yield further interactions and reciprocity stemming from the exchange. Yet the naïve researcher struggled to explain to the interviewee that he was leaving South Africa the next day because he had concluded his data collection.

We are both part of a growing number of management and organization researchers who are studying marginalized groups such as refugees, modern slaves, low-caste communities, indigenous peoples or necessity entrepreneurs. The aim of this work is to not only generate novel insights into the factors that drive, sustain and disrupt socio-economic inequalities and inequities, but also challenge the taken-for-granted epistemological and ontological assumptions in management and organization research. However, we observe that, more often than not, the financial, professional and reputational benefits of such work accrue to the researchers involved rather than the communities under study: this is, effectively, a phenomenon of extraction, where knowledge and insights from locals – who have lived experiences of marginalization, exclusion, precarity and deprived human rights – are mined and exported for consumption in places that are far removed, culturally, economically, and geographically from the source. It is as pernicious a practice as it is subtle: conventional resource extraction involves the visible removal of a tangible resource, while this form of ‘research extraction’ can be executed with participants having little say or control over their own narratives – or even knowing that their experiences are being shared.

In this essay, we feel compelled to underscore how problematic research extraction is and identify ways that we, as management scholars, can (and must) mitigate it. These are issues that both of us have both been grappling with in our own work; one of us focuses on impoverished informal economy entrepreneurs in South Africa and the other examines smallholder farmers in Southern Brazil. We have been seeking to move away from a templated and taken-for-granted approach to research, where we collect data on marginalized populations in short, intensive bursts of fieldwork, followed by a return to the ivory tower to write papers, secure grants, present in climate-controlled conference centres and publish in pay-walled journals (perhaps claiming an award along the way for novel or relevant research). This research approach – based on principles of decontextualization, researcher objectivity and contributions to theory instead of practice (Gibbons et al., 2010) – is pervasive yet, we argue, immoral when it comes to studying people in precarious (and sometimes literally life and death) circumstances.

Inspired by the approach of our Brazilian community partner organization that works with local yerba mate tea producers, we propose an alternative paradigm that we label as ‘research infusion’, where we seek to engage in reciprocal action: we seek to absorb (with consent) insights from those steeped in the context while also infusing the context with what we have to offer (knowledge, worldviews, resources, etc.). The emphasis is on research ‘with’ and ‘for’ rather than ‘in/on’ or ‘about’ marginalized communities (Fahlberg, 2023). By outlining what research infusion looks like, we seek to develop a call to action for management scholars who study marginalization, to reflect upon what they can (and must) do differently throughout the research process to avoid extractive practices. Beyond the individual-level call for management scholars to shift their mindsets and practices away from research extraction, we also underscore how research infusion necessitates system-level changes to our profession and to the institution of the business school. Our essay therefore also targets journal editors and deans, calling for changes on how we study marginalization.


Journal of Management Studies


College of Management