Time for an identity audit?
No one is a blank slate, so don’t underestimate the power of your own influence during the qualitative research process.
As we just discussed, language has power, but so do you. Are you planning on remaining neutral during your research? If so, you may need to think again. Despite our best efforts, observations about people and their environment are rarely objective.
Cruz (2015) puts it neatly:
‘Observation is an active interaction with reality. We never interact without our own perspectives, our own beliefs and assumptions’.
What do you think? Are you capable of leaving behind your beliefs, values and assumptions when you engage with the world during your research? Before you answer, remember that apart from prejudices and assumptions we may already know about, we’re also operating with subconscious (hidden) biases. This hidden subjectivity makes it hard to know what’s truly governing our behaviour throughout the research process. Complex, isn’t it?
Why should I be in tune with my biases and subjectivity?
Remember, qualitative research is subjective in nature and you are an instrument of the process. You are uniquely placed to dramatically influence all aspects of your research project. From generating your data through interviews, observations and diary notes to interpreting what you saw and heard, as well as drawing your conclusions, the whole process is subjective.
To become more in touch with her hidden biases, Cruz (2015) implemented a reflective note taking strategy, which you may also find useful.
- She divided her page into various columns.
- In one column she recorded what she observed as impartially as possibly.
- In an adjacent column she reflected on each observation, by writing about her thoughts and feelings on it.
In reviewing the reflection column, patterns emerged and she quickly began to identify biases, ways of thinking and hidden assumptions that she had not seen in herself before.
If you have completed course 1 ‘Why Research Matters’, you will recall the step ‘The Power of Prejudice and Predisposition’, including Harvard University’s Project Implicit, an online quiz that tests for hidden biases. If you haven’t completed the quiz before, you may find it illuminating.
Identifying and understanding your personal values can also be revealing. Look at the interesting work of Schwartz and his values inventory. According to Schwartz (2012), ‘values are critical motivators of behaviors and attitudes’.
In terms of ongoing reflection during the research process, as Cruz (2015) points out, we should continue to ask:
- ‘Why do I observe what I observe and not something else?
- What lies behind these decisions?
- How could this dimension affect the research process?’
How else can I influence the process?
Even your personal characteristics, such as your appearance, the way you speak, your communication style and general demeanour could impact on the way your participants interact with you. These facets of you could easily change the type and quality of the information you collect.
Appearing young, naïve and shy may help your participants feel more comfortable about sharing their vulnerabilities, but these same attributes could make them refrain from inviting you to happy hour. Being big, boisterous and jovial may enable participants to feel comfortable to include you in their humorous pranks, but it may discourage them from sharing their deepest confidences. Fieldworkers’ identities are ‘read’ and evaluated by participants just as much as participants’ identities are read and evaluated by fieldworkers. Our bodies and identities can both help and hurt as we study various groups, and the best we can do is to try to put ourselves in our participants’ shoes and reflect critically on our identity’s strengths and constraints vis-à-vis any particular scene (Tracy, 2013, p. 77).
Remember, we are each a unique product of our upbringing, life experiences, values, beliefs and attitudes. Before embarking on your research project and during the process of it, invest time in reflecting on what makes you uniquely you. Then ask, ‘how could this influence my research journey?’
As a researcher, your task is to make sense of multiple realities. With this in mind, it may be a good idea to start with your own.
- Complete the Self Identity Audit
- Post a comment on how important you think it is to be aware of how we are perceived in the world. What is the value of engaging in ongoing self reflection to become aware of your biases?
Cruz, L. (2015). Self-reflexivity as an ethical instrument to give full play to our explicit and implicit subjectivity as qualitative researchers. The Qualitative Report, 20(10), 1723-1735.
Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).
Tracy, S.J. (2013). Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact. UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
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