OPINION13 May 2024

What can the qual researcher learn from ‘progressive politics'?

Inclusion Opinion

Peter Totman reflects on the role of a social justice lens within qualitative research.


The new progressive politics (aka social justice movement, wokeness) has had an extraordinary impact in a relatively short space of time, with no part of our culture left untouched, qualitative research included.  

Mirroring the impact on broader society, some changes researchers face may be subjects of discussion, others will be mandated, and a further series may occur through a kind of cultural osmosis.

Irrespective of our personal political views, as qualitative researchers, we should be open to new thinking. To evoke the spirt of the late Wendy Gordon, we are at our best when we are profession of bricoleurs. This does not mean uncritical acceptance, but an open-minded scrutiny of new thinking for potential value to qualitative practice.

A social justice lens can help us better understand people
Bricolage is one qualitative tradition and reflexivity is another. To what extent has this new thinking influenced us as qualitative researchers?  I would love to hear the experience of others, but on consideration, I do feel it has heightened my awareness in important ways. Before this new thinking, I underestimated the role of power in defining social relationships and experiences, and the impact this can have on life chances, but also daily experience.

We need to understand this thinking in any case because it is important to many of our research participants. We also need to ‘talk their language’ and become familiar with progressive lexicon (for example ‘toxicity’, ‘privilege’, ‘intersectionality’ etc). However, moderators need to be cautious in using these words as it risks revealing a political belief system.

In this same spirit of scrutiny, I would also argue progressive thinking is often treated as a worldview by adherents, rather than as an additional perspective. It is useful to us as bricoleurs as an additional lens, less so as an ideology that in its completeness can exclude other perspectives. We will always need psychology and other social and behavioural sciences to help us interpret what we hear.

There is, however, one aspect of progressive thinking that is unhelpful when brought into the research process.

‘Calling out’ has no place in qualitative research
The idea of ‘calling out’ is an important element of progressive politics. It is the belief that ‘problematic’ language and behaviour must be openly challenged by those who witness it.

It came to my attention as a potential issue when a researcher expressed worries that a certain subject matter might evoke ‘problematic’ comments from participants – and the question hung in the air: ‘What action should be taken if so?’

This is very straightforward in the depth interview. This methodology is designed to encourage personal disclosures, through the greater intimacy and trust of the one-to-one relationship. The idea of ‘calling out’ in this context offends the spirit of this intrinsically non-judgemental relationship.

Nothing in life, or research, is completely straightforward
Things get more complicated in the multi-relational context of the group discussion. The principle of non-judgement is more qualified in this methodology.

An experienced researcher is able to create space for disagreement within the group and therefore room for other participants to take issue with contentious comments. The researcher’s job here is to ensure that the disagreement is managed as amicably as possible.

There is also the risk that things go in the other direction, where the comment is embraced by the rest of the group, as a kind of catharsis against ‘woke’ constraints, and this dynamic can discourage dissenting voices. This form of ‘group think’ needs managing. The best approach is usually for the researcher to play devil’s advocate, gently challenging the group to ensure any varying opinions are free to emerge.

The principle of non-judgement is, however, significantly challenged if the comment is genuinely hurtful to another member of the group. I’d argue that ethical priority then shifts to protecting their feelings. Ideally, other group members will support the ‘victim’ but the researcher should in any case show disapproval and a red line be drawn. This is an important, but thankfully rare, researcher role. It is also why so much weight is placed on homogeneity of the group composition.

The lens of humanist psychology has never been more important
It makes perfect sense that less experienced researchers might feel that what is ‘right’ in the real world is ‘right’ in the world of research. They must be trained to understand that as research moderators they possess status and power – and with that power comes ethical duty. In the qualitative context, there is no approval implied by listening to and probing ‘problematic’ opinion.

This is about research effectiveness, not just ethics. Self-censorship in qualitative research is a live issue. Even if not actively ‘calling out’ participants, perhaps researchers are somehow conveying their unease about certain comments on certain subjects. Is it possible that despite the ‘no right or wrong answers’ assurances, researchers are failing to convince participants that that the research environment is a safe space for them to share their honest opinions?

One of the most important influences to have shaped qualitative research is the humanist psychology of Carl Rogers. His theory of unconditional positive regard articulated the importance of non-judgemental acceptance in creating the conditions for honest disclosure. It strikes me that is a vital lens for us to adopt as a counterweight to societal forces, including some aspects of progressive thinking, that may inhibit free expression in qualitative research.

Peter Totman is a qualitative researcher at Jigsaw

1 Comment

a month ago

Peter, this is a brilliant article. I shall enjoy sharing it with our students, and more widely.

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