In November 2012, Research Design Review posted an article titled, “Interviewer Bias & Reflexivity in Qualitative Research.” This article talks about why self-reflection is an important and necessary step for qualitative researchers to take in order to address “the distortions or preconceptions researchers’ unwittingly introduce in their qualitative designs.” Although the article focuses on the need for reflection as it relates to the potential for bias in the in-depth interview (IDI) method, the relatively¹ intimate, social component of qualitative research generally and other methods specifically – focus groups, ethnography, narrative – make them equally susceptible to researcher biases and suppositions.
The outcomes from a qualitative study are only as good as the data the researcher returns from the field. And one of the biggest threats to the quality of the research data is the ever-present yet rarely examined assumptions and prejudices inadvertently contributed by the researcher.
This is why personal reflection is an important part of qualitative research design. To motivate and capture this reflection, the earlier RDR article discusses the use of a reflexive journal or diary by which the researcher provides a subjective account of each research event with details of the influences that may have affected results. The journal “sensitizes the [researcher] 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.”
But what exactly are the particular questions the researcher should be addressing in this journal? That is, what exactly is the researcher reflecting on? A reflexive exercise that is totally open and non-directional can be good, but it is also useful to consider particular questions that help stimulate reflective thoughts. Here are a few key questions for the researcher’s reflexive journal:
Broad Takeaways from the Research Event (e.g., the IDI, the focus group, the observation)
- What do I think I “know” from this/these participants?
- How do I think I “know” it?
- Will this knowledge change the course of the research, in terms of objectives, methods, line of inquiry; and, if so, how?
Specific Reflections on the Experience
- What assumptions did I make about the participant(s)?
- What assumptions did I make about comments/responses to my questions?
- How did these assumptions affect or shape: the questions I asked, the interjections I made, my listening skills, and/or my behavior?
- Values, beliefs, life story, social/economic status
- How did my personal values, beliefs, life story, and/or social/economic status affect or shape: the questions I asked, the interjections I made, my listening skills, and/or my behavior?
- Emotional connection with the participant(s)
- To what degree did my emotions or feelings for the participant(s) affect or shape: the questions I asked, the interjections I made, my listening skills, and/or my behavior?
- How will my emotions or feelings for the participant(s) affect the analytical process and my ability to draw valid interpretations from the data?
- Physical environment & logistics
- How did the physical setting/location of the research event alter how I related to the participant(s), and how the participant(s) related to me?
- How did the physical setting/location impact data collection?
- What were the logistical issues (e.g., in gaining access) that contributed to the “success” or weakness of the outcomes?
¹Compared to quantitative research.