Qualitative Research: Using Empathy to Reveal “More Real” & Less Biased Data

The fourth edition of Michael Quinn Patton’s book Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods is a big book — over 800 pages — with updated and new content from earlier editions, including something he calls “ruminations”empathy which are highlighted sections in each chapter that present Patton’s commentary and reflections on issues that have “persistently engaged, sometimes annoyed” him throughout his long career in qualitative research. Patton has made some of these ruminations available online via his posts on the betterevaluation.org blog.

In his November 14, 2014 post, Patton shares his “Rumination #2: Confusing empathy with bias.” In it, he raises an important issue — having to do with the personal nature of qualitative research and how that impacts data collection — that, on some level, runs through the qualitative-quantitative debates waged by researchers who argue for one form of research over another. Such a debate might involve a survey researcher who, entrenched in statistical analysis, wonders, ‘What is the legitimate value of qualitative methods given its focus on the convoluted intricacies of feelings and behavior which are often conveyed by way of others’ nebulous stories?’ All of this convoluted interconnectedness is enough to stymie some quantitative researchers, and yet it is the stuff — it is the juice — that fuels the qualitative approach.

Is “getting close” to research participants by truly empathizing with their life situations — or sincerely trying to understand what they are saying in response to questions by “walking in their shoes” — interjecting bias that damages the final outcomes leading to false interpretations of the data? And if that is the case, what is the justification for qualitative research in the first place? After all, if its “juice” is the personal connections researchers make by way of empathizing with participants yet it is this empathy that makes the results suspect; well, it is no wonder that there are some who perpetuate the qualitative-quantitative debates.

All research with human beings is about the human experience. All research is designed to tap into what it means to have a certain experience – regardless if that experience is a fleeting thought, a sensation, a sharp attitude, an impulse, or deliberate behavior. Qualitative research celebrates the humanness of these experiences. By rooting out the personal connections that are the essence of these experiences, qualitative research methods animate the thought, the sensation, or the impulse behavior in order to expose the experience for what it truly is. In this way, the experience has been laid bare for all to see.

It is precisely because of their empathy – the ability to observe and listen from the participant’s standpoint – that qualitative researchers routinely uncover how people think, revealing the interconnectivity that brings meaning to the experiences that lie at the center of their research. This level of meaning – this laying bare of the connections – gives the researcher an unfiltered view of the human experience which, some could argue, seems “truer” and “more real” – that is, less biased – than survey data based on forced responses to closed-ended questions.

So, empathy is good. Empathy enables the researcher to come to terms with how other people think by thinking like them; which may, at the same time, provide clarity and actually reduce a form of bias in the data. Indeed, empathy may be the essential ingredient lacking in survey research to release the pent-up bias inherent in data that stems from the failure to look for (and make) the connections that define the human experience.

Image captured from http://berkozturk.deviantart.com/art/empathy-211500476


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