Qualitative methods: the role of the researcher

Photo by filmphoto.net

One of the most powerful graduate school experiences I had drove home the point that we all “see” the world through our own filters.  In small groups, my classmates and I were asked to visit a local coffee shop, sit together, observe the environment for 20 minutes and write a description of what we saw.  Then we were to share and compare our field notes.  Of course, our notes shared similarities; after all we were in a small, communal space.  We all noted the menu, the number of tables, and an overstuffed couch in the corner.  However, we had each noticed different things.  One of my classmates, who’d built furniture as a hobby, included a lengthy description of the chairs.  Another, the mother of two children, focused on describing the play area at the back of the shop where the owner’s four year old was playing.  Coming from a family of movie buffs, I described in detail the vintage film posters on the walls.  In short, what we noticed revealed as much about ourselves as it did about our surroundings.  In a way, it reminded me of that cartoon where a group of people were looking at a house.  The real estate agent saw her commission; the young couple saw their first home; the roofer saw loose shingles: well, you get the idea.

In qualitative research, the “researcher is the instrument” as Patton says.  Therefore explicitly identifying oneself assumes an importance that it might not have in quantitative research.  (It could be argued that it should be as important in quantitative research, but that’s fodder for another post.)  To clarify researcher identity vis-à-vis participants, it helps to include such markers as gender, color, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  Depending upon the purpose of the study and the population under study, it may useful to identify oneself linguistically and culturally, as well as acknowledge the levels of privilege and power conferred by such status.  Finally, naming the degree of insider/outsider status means detailing the amount of experience, or lack thereof, with the target population.

The precision with which the qualitative researcher identifies him or herself reveals several of the lenses and the degree of sensitivity with which the researcher may collect, view, analyze, and report the data.   In the case of conducting research with participants who differ from the researcher racially, culturally, or linguistically, this information signals the reader that care has been taken to acknowledge the distance between the lived experiences of the student and the studied.  This impacts decisions made at each stage of the research;  such as, selecting samples, structuring interview questions, conducting observations, “seeing” themes in the data, and making meaning.

For a nuanced discussion of how researcher identity impacts research decisions, read the work of Arizona State University scholars, Angela Arzubiaga and Alfredo Artiles, lead authors on “Beyond research ‘on’ cultural minorities: Challenges and implications of research as situated cultural practice” (citation below).  Look for a table (p. 317) on cross-cultural encounters and potential consequences: it’s food for thought on identity and lenses.

Arzubiaga, A., Artiles, A. J., King, K.A., & Harris-Muri, N. (2008).  Beyond research ‘on’ cultural minorities: Challenges and implications of research as situated cultural practice. Exceptional Children, 74, 309-327.


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