NEWS17 March 2021

Does qualitative research have an empathy problem?

Impact 2021 News UK

UK – Qualitative research must address its own biases or risk undermining the objectivity that’s central to the professionalism of the industry, according to Jigsaw Research head of qual Peter Totman.

Speaking on the second day of the MRS Impact 2021 conference, Totman said: “We have an empathy problem in qualitative research and it’s starting to undermine one of our important assets – political objectivity.”

Totman questioned whether commercial researchers are managing biases effectively. Citing recently published research output that “often felt more like activism”, particularly around subjects like Black Lives Matter, he said: “There is an assumption among qualitative researchers that we all share progressive values.”

“The line between political and non-political projects is blurring,” he added, which makes objectivity more challenging. “More and more, we’re getting projects on brand advocacy, brand purpose and diversity. It seems like there are no more neutral subjects anymore,” he said.

He said “identity politics entering the mainstream is starting to have an impact on us as researchers” and questioned whether it’s possible for researchers to have “positive unconditional regard” for people on the other side of the political divide. 

This matters ethically when it comes to interaction with research participants, and also in terms of researchers’ job satisfaction and professionalism, argued Totman.

Referencing Dominic Cummings’ recent claims about the research industry and the subsequent response within the industry that the claims were damaging to its professionalism, Totman said: “Objectivity is a key part, perhaps the key part of our professional objectivity. If we’re not seen as professional, we don’t get a seat at the table where decisions are made.”

Totman shared some views on what researchers can do to ensure objectivity:

  • The industry should consider its own biases, particularly confirmation bias: “We need to put that at the centre of what we do.”
  • The definition of diversity should be broadened to include social class and diversity of viewpoints
  • Objectivity and a continual awareness of subjectivity should be core to research training
  • Moderators should commit to understanding people as "unique individuals". This doesn't mean they can't "call out" respondents, said Totman: “Tough love has a role, too.”
  • Qual researchers should recognise that they are “part of the data”, Totman argued. “There’s transference that goes on between you and the group. There’s no line between you and the data.” To address this, he recommended that researchers write down their pre-existing thoughts and feelings ahead of sessions and commit to self-awareness.

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