Striking a Balance in Research Design

One of the healthy outcomes from the rise of social media and mobile research is that it has balancebrought to the forefront the issue of the balance of power – or control – in research design.  Method specialists who are proponents of social media or mobile research often assert that a big advantage of these approaches is that the participant, not the researcher, controls what is shared or not shared.  Qualitative researchers, for example, have discovered the value of Pinterest where, without any researcher involvement, they surmise the hobbies and characteristics of individuals that represent some segment of the population.  And a mobile qualitative research study empowers the participant to select when, where, and how (in what format) information is provided to the researcher.  The researcher may start with a few basic questions but it is the research participant (knowingly or not) who controls the input.

This participant-leaning balance of power is in contrast to other qualitative research – face-to-face focus groups and in-depth interviews – as well as quantitative survey research where the researcher drives the course for the research with carefully-considered questions and projective exercises.

A RDR post back in November 2012 talked about the balance of power as it relates to interviewer bias and the importance of reflexivity in qualitative designs.  This post states that “the greatest threat” to our qualitative research is “the social interaction component of the interviewer-interviewee relationship” – specifically, the asymmetrical balance of power or control that is tipped in favor of the interviewer/moderator/researcher who typically holds most of the cards, dealing them out to research participants per a predetermined topical question guide.  And certainly this extends to the quantitative realm where, regardless of mode (telephone, online, mail, mobile), the survey researcher calls the shots, leaving the respondent with sometimes the unenviable task of responding to long questionnaires filled with questions that are difficult to answer (see the “I wonder about God” post).

The degree of control that the researcher or the participant/respondent is given in a research design is important.  It is important because it not only impacts the integrity of the data (input from the participant/respondent) but also the quality of the researcher’s analysis and interpretation of the outcomes and, therefore, the usefulness of the research as a whole.

For the social media and mobile researcher to give up control to the participant is folly, or at least not research.  What is “research” if it is not a disciplined endeavor that systematically examines some aspect of how people think to gain knowledge in a broader context?  So, compiling images that participants share in a mobile qualitative study is interesting, “in the moment” feedback, but can we call it “research” in the true sense?

And yet, one only needs to consider those long, tedious questionnaire designs to realize that the researcher-in-control model of survey research may not be the answer either.

It is a good thing that the modern age of research methods has brought new life to research design, shining a light on the balance of power.  Researchers of all kinds will hopefully give more consideration to power or control in their designs (who has it, who doesn’t) and think about how to create a balance that maintains the systematic discipline of research while giving a greater role to participants/respondents.  Designs, for example, that are not unlike those in usability testing where equilibrium is struck allowing the respondent to guide but the researcher to question.

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