Interviewer Bias & Reflexivity in Qualitative Research
November 14, 2012
Research design of any sort has to grapple with the pesky issue of bias or the potential distortion of research outcomes due to unintended influences from the researcher as well as research participants. This is a particularly critical issue in qualitative research where interviewers (and moderators) take extraordinary efforts to establish strong relationships with their interviewees (and group participants) in order to delve deeply into the subject matter. The importance of considering the implications from undo prejudices in qualitative research was discussed in the April 2011 Research Design Review post, “Visual Cues & Bias in Qualitative Research,” which emphasized that “there is clearly much more effort that needs to be made on this issue.” Reflexivity and, specifically, the reflexive journal is one such effort that addresses the distortions or preconceptions researchers’ unwittingly introduce in their qualitative designs.
Reflexivity is an important concept because it is directed at the greatest underlying threat to the accuracy of our qualitative research outcomes – that is, the social interaction component of the interviewer-interviewee relationship, or, what Steinar Kvale called, “the asymmetrical power relations of the research interviewer and the interviewed subject” (see “Dialogue as Oppression and Interview Research,” 2002). The act of reflection enables the interviewer to thoughtfully consider this asymmetrical relationship and speculate on the ways the interviewer-interviewee interaction may have been exacerbated by presumptions arising from obvious sources, such as certain demographics (e.g., age, gender, and race), or more subtle cues such as socio-economic status, cultural background, or political orientation. Linda Finlay, in her 2002 article, identifies five ways to go about reflexivity – introspection, inter-subjective reflection, mutual collaboration, social critique, and discursive deconstruction – and discusses utilizing these techniques in order to understand the interviewer’s role in the interview context and how to use this knowledge to “enhance the trustworthiness, transparency, and accountability of their research.” An awareness of misperceptions through reflexivity enables the interviewer to design specific questions for the interviewee that help inform and clarify the interviewer’s understanding of the outcomes.
It is for this reason that a reflexive journal, where the interviewer logs the details of how he or she may have influenced the results of each interview, should be part of a qualitative research design. This journal or diary sensitizes the interviewer to his or her prejudices and subjectivities, while more fully informing the researcher on the impact of these influences on the credibility of the research outcomes. The reflexive journal not only serves as a key contributor to the final analyses but also enriches the overall study design by providing a documented first-hand account of interviewer bias and the preconceptions that may have negatively influenced the findings. In this manner, the reader of the final research report can assess any concerns about objectivity and interpretations of outcomes.
Reflexivity and the reflexive journal is just one way that our qualitative research designs can address the bias that most assuredly permeates the socially-dependent nature of qualitative research. Introspective reflexivity – along with peer debriefing and triangulation – add considerably to the credibility and usefulness of our qualitative research.