March 25, 2019

Researcher Reflexivity: Why who we are Matters

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

If you are interested in researching something, there is often a personal reason. Maybe you have a parent who is incarcerated and are interested in understanding the relationships between family members of the incarcerated. Or perhaps your religious background gives you unique insight into a specific cultural practice that many people might not know about.

You might have your own point of view about these issues, even if they are not experiences you have had. Does having a perspective prohibit an individual from conducting research on a subject?

Of course, the answer is no. People conduct research on issues close to their experiences and interests all the time. Does this make their research “biased?”

Not necessarily. It is incumbent on researchers to be open about their points of view, predictions, or assumptions before conducting research, and most importantly, to be open to the possibility that their assumptions or predictions are wrong. Researcher bias happens when people attempt to prove something without maintaining an open mind and then interpret any findings to support their assumptions even if their observations are contradictory.

It is our job to be intellectually curious and open to learning, and also to reflect upon any assumptions that we bring to our research.

Many researchers are motivated to research a particular topic because they have a personal connection to the subject matter and want to learn more about it. For instance, sociologist Deborah Carr talked about her interest in studying the sociology of death after losing her father at an early age. That certainly doesn’t mean that she can’t maintain an open mind on the subject; in fact, we all have likely (or will likely) lose someone we love, and thus all have experiences with death as survivors.

Likewise, sociologist Ann Travers discusses how gender identity has been central in their own life (Travers notes in the book a preference for the pronoun “their”), and thus the research for the book The Trans Generation is informed by personal experience as well. Travers is very forthcoming about this personal experience, and in so doing shares insights with readers about the fluidity of gender.

It would be silly to suggest that only researchers who have not personally grappled with gender identity issues should study people who do. While someone who has experienced the phenomenon they are researching will have a point of view, the person without the experience may well too. Either way, being open about this perspective is vital.

This is not only applicable to qualitative research (interviews or ethnography, for instance), where the researcher is directly interacting with those they study for hours or months or more. A researcher’s age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status—or any combination of these things—might shape how those we are interviewing respond to us. In many cases, having a connection with the subject matter might help our informants feel like they can be more open and share their experiences is ways they might not otherwise.

While researcher reflexivity is less common for quantitative research, it is useful if the researcher has constructed a survey to know how they determined the sorts of questions asked.

During the survey construction process, a good researcher should reflect upon how much they know about an issue before composing questions and consider seeking advice from both colleagues and the sample population to talk about wording and issues that may be important to include. This is called pilot testing, and it is an important way to make sure a survey will measure what researchers are hoping that it will.

At the very least, it is a good idea for readers of survey research to read the questions, not just the statistical analysis of the responses, to see how the wording of the questions might have produced particular answers.

Most researchers begin their work honestly trying to learn more about the topic of study, but we have the responsibility to do a little self-exploration to unpack our preconceived notions and challenge assumptions we may have. The peer-review process often helps us with this when it is time to publish, but ideally we begin this process as soon as we begin a research project.

Having a point of view doesn’t mean our research is necessarily biased or without merit. We just have to open about this and make a good faith effort to interpret our data while allowing for the possibility that some of our assumptions may not be supported by our findings.


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