observer bias

Ethnography: Mitigating Observer Bias

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 207-212).

In qualitative research, the researcher – including the in-depth interviewer, focus group moderator, coder in content Observationanalysis, and observer – is the instrument, meaning that the qualitative researcher wields substantial control in the design content, the gathering of data, the outcomes, and interpretation of the research.  Ethnography is no different in that the observer – albeit not controlling participants’ natural environment – plays a central role in creating the data for the study by way of recording observations.  In this respect, the credibility of an ethnographic study essentially rests on the observer’s ability to identify and record the relevant observations.

The necessary observer skills have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review – for example, “The Importance of Analytical Sensibilities to Observation in Ethnography.” Without these skills, an observer has the potential for biasing the data which in turn will negatively impact the analysis, interpretation, transferability, and ultimate usefulness of an ethnographic study.  The potential for bias exists regardless of observer role. An offsite, non-participant observer may knowingly or not impose subjective values on an observed event – e.g., ignoring certain comments the observer finds personally offensive in a study of an online forum discussing alcohol use – while an onsite observer, operating either overtly or covertly, may bias results by way of Read Full Text