OPINION20 May 2021

Empathy is not enough

Opinion People Trends

Qualitative researchers need to re-commit to objectivity and swerve political bias, argues Peter Totman.


I remember a job interview at a qualitative agency shortly after leaving university. I decided it would be brave (and rather glorious) to keep some ‘revolutionary activity’ on my CV.

A little surprised even to get through to interview stage, I awaited the inevitable grilling, but instead, and somewhat disappointingly, there was approval, words to effect of: “Good to see you are on the left Peter, most of us are here – and the boss himself is that way inclined. We are fine with your politics, as long as it doesn’t show on projects or in front of clients.”

Given that qualitative research is about understanding people, about ‘giving them a voice’, the appeal to more progressive and/or more ‘culturally’ open personality types makes sense. Maybe such people make better researchers, who knows?

These instincts were traditionally balanced out by the immense value the research profession placed on objectivity. We knew it was our responsibility to manage our ‘biases’. The belief that ‘good research’ was ‘objective research’ was ingrained in us.  

Objectivity is a particular challenge in a discipline built around relationships, conversations and insights – doing qualitative feels such a subjective experience. Establishing protocols in the process helps, but I’d argue the greatest defence from bias is commitment to self-awareness and reflexivity.

Unless you were a social researcher, political objectivity was seldom a regular challenge – but this is changing. I believe we are retreating from our commitment to objectivity just when it is most needed and of greatest value.

I have noticed how researchers increasingly wear their politics on their sleave. Take a critical look at your LinkedIn pages and you’ll see progressive political content is freely offered-up, without the expectation of debate, never mind controversy. 

Attend a research conferences and you’ll increasingly hear researchers not just air their politics, but assume (probably rightly) that the audience shares it.

This becomes a problem if it impacts on project work. I think it is beginning to. Last year was a tumultuous year for news. There were several research reports published around Trump and or Black Lives Matter; they were impassioned, stirring and committed. They were great in many ways, but they seemed more like campaigning journalism or activism than research.

Watching a recent video presentation of a conference paper recently, a researcher explicitly and publicly declared ‘objectivity’ was not a priority to their agency, implying empathy was all. This (admittedly) anecdotal evidence suggests to me objectivity is no longer the guiding light it once was.

What is happening here? I think we are simply reflecting the shifting culture around us.

Objectivity is falling out of favour, but researchers must resist this trend  

It is a truism that the world has become more polarised, that we live in a series of echo chambers, that demonisation has replaced debate. This poses distinct threats to qualitative research. Inhabiting echo chambers means we are sealed off from exposure to the views of working-class participants, meaning fieldwork feels more like a safari. Different views are experienced as extreme views. Our much-vaunted empathy is challenged.

As we invest more in our political identity, so we become more vulnerable to the blight of confirmation bias. Cultural valorisation of ‘lived experience’ may influence perceptions of our role, encouraging us to simply report or dramatise their words, not interpret them.

Objectivity is increasingly unfashionable in our ‘call-out’ culture – there is growing sense that we must all ‘challenge’ certain opinions. Just listening can be misinterpreted as approval or even complicity.

If you think pollical objectivity hardly impacts you because you are a fast-moving consumer goods researcher, think again. More and more projects are political. Our culture has grown more political with the number of neutral subjects ever-diminishing, and brands themselves are increasing adopting political stances via the brand purpose and advocacy.

It is now quite conceivable that a project about a new ad campaign for a cosmetic brand will mean exploring feminism, or a project about a new packaging design will involve a discussion about environmentalism.

So political objectivity is no longer about managing your preference for the Lib Dems or remain.  Political passion is now concentrated on social values and where you sit on the ‘culture war’ issues.

We need to be able to hear and accept the views of people with traditional social values and listen without judgement. We need to understand those people and their views, not try to change them or ‘hold our nose’ when we hear them (they can tell). We need to be able to acknowledge and manage confirmation bias when analysing the findings.

We need to re-commit to objectivity on an industry, agency and individual level. I think we need to rethink how be objective in our new, partisan culture. It will be a challenge, but one we have to rise to if we are going to retain the credibility and influence of qualitative research.

Peter Totman is head of qualitative research for Jigsaw Research  


3 years ago | 1 like

I found this article fascinating and challenging. Thank you.

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3 years ago | 1 like

Nuanced and thoughtful, thanks Peter

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3 years ago

Thanks Simon and Anon !

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3 years ago | 1 like

Really valuable points well and concisely made. Lack of objectivity is likely to get in the way of real understanding. Btw - particulalry like (they can tell) !

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