Objective/Subjective

I've been thinking a lot about what objectivity means in research. I was listening to a segment on NPR the other day about polling and the election and how/if people are more willing to answer questions about who they will vote for depending on the way the question is phrased and the means by which they're asked (e.g. online poll vs. phone call). The journalists were essentially saying that many people often don't feel comfortable stating who they'll vote for if because they're worried that a candidate's public perception (e.g. racist, sexist) could reflect poorly on them if they're a supporter. The journalists kept referring to this type of voter as the "shy voter." So, often times, polls are a bit faulty. Then again, humans are humans and we sometimes just change our minds.

None of that is very surprising, but listening to that made me think about the research that I am and have been a part of and the methods I've used - were/are they objective? Online research, for example, is great because it's often asynchronous (meaning that technically you can moderate - respond to and follow up with participants - at 1pm or 1am as long as you're engaging), but you don't have the ability to really see someone's facial expressions or listen to their voice inflection in real time. It's probably why so many people get in text and Facebook arguments ;) On the other hand, because our world is becoming more and more digital, so maybe it's even more "natural" to have participants respond virtually if that's how a lot of people communicate all day. Plus, maybe people self-report more honestly if they're allowed to do it on their own time and from the comfort of their own home.

Ethnographic research is more thorough - in some ways - than online research, but still, project timelines usually don't allow for a full-on one year of observation (Anthropologists usually define an ethnography as taking 1 year, though calling it the ethnographic method is kind of a way to get around that). If someone knows you're watching them, because, well, you're right there, are they really going to behave as they would if they were behind closed doors and able to just.... eat cookies all day long and post photos of them on your online forum without feeling embarrassed that the researcher is sitting right there? Who knows.

And focus groups/group sessions... are a whole different beast. On the one hand, with the right combination of moderators, the right mood, and the right mix of 1) free-form / letting people talk with each other and 2) guided discussion and questions, the results can be fruitful and nuanced. You get the beauty of watching people work through issues together and disagree (hopefully politely), plus you have the ability to use your ethnographic skills and observe how people react to each other and topics. However, sometimes moderators get tired of dealing with multiple people and rush through questions and/or ask leading questions to quicken the session and move things along (leading questions can be a problem with any methodology, but for some reason, I've witnessed it the most in focus groups). Or, sometimes participants have a set idea in their mind about what a focus group is like - boring, fluorescent lighting- and just zone out.

At the risk of sounding trite and trying to easily wrap this up, here are 2 things I  believe to be true when it comes to research and its effectiveness regardless of methodology:  

1) Most of what matters in research is how present you are - with participants, with the topic, with nuance, with unexpected responses, etc. - and that you respond with empathy. Seriously. I've seen this done beautifully by some researchers, to the point of seeing a researcher cry after an interview/session (not in front of the participant) about how something someone said really, really affected them... and I've also seen researchers mock and belittle participants behind their backs. 

2) Qualitative research (probably some quantitative research too, but I'm not involved with that so I can't speak to it) will never be fully objective. But, what does it even mean to be objective? Of course there are certain ways to set up a discussion guide, and certain ways to not lead a participant towards an answer you're looking for, but the whole idea of interviewing someone, observing them, or conducting focus groups is contrived in its nature. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I think it's better to acknowledge it rather than suppress it. And once you do acknowledge it, there's a bit of paradox that arises - if the conditions of an interview or session are always a bit contrived, then couldn't you argue that's just a new form of realness?

Back in November...

Abby