There are 10 unique attributes associated with qualitative research. These were discussed briefly in an article posted in this blog back in 2013. One of the most fundamental and far-reaching of these attributes is that the qualitative researcher is the “instrument” by which data are collected. The data-gathering process in qualitative research is facilitated by interviewer or moderator guides, observation grids, and the like; however, these are only accessories to the principal data collection tool, i.e., the researcher or others on the research team.
As the key instrument in gathering qualitative data, the researcher bears a great deal of responsibility for the outcomes. If for no other reason, this responsibility hinges on the fact that this one attribute plays a central role in the effects associated with three other unique attributes – context, meaning, and the participant-researcher relationship. On the one hand, the researcher-as-instrument reality in qualitative research has the positive effect of enabling the researcher to utilize context and the participant-researcher relationship to discover substantive meaning; yet, it is this closeness and intimacy that potentially threatens the integrity of the data gathered. And it is this compromised data that distorts the meaning, interpretations, and ultimate usefulness researchers derive from their research studies.
This is why it is important to think carefully about qualitative research design and take steps to mitigate researcher-as-instrument effects. Researchers do this, for example, when choosing the mode for any particular study, thinking through the strengths and limitations of each mode given the target population and research objective. Qualitative researchers also mitigate researcher-as-instrument effects by how they develop their interview and moderator guides, e.g., their use of the funnel approach. And, of course, researchers’ skills are clearly essential to circumventing possible bias during data gathering; skills that focus on building participant-researcher rapport, active listening, identifying contradictions, and avoiding inconsistency.
As the all-important tool or instrument in collecting qualitative data, the researcher embodies the definition of what it means to conduct qualitative research. It is this role that portends the rich, meaningful information we expect from qualitative research, but also signals unwanted effects that demand careful attention to research design.