Managing bias in qualitative research

Posted in: Academics, Work on October 17th, 2014

Note: This is a short essay I wrote as part of a business analysis course, completed as part of my Master of Marketing degree.

In qualitative research the researcher has immense responsibility – it is through their lens that research data will be analyzed; therefore, the ability to manage their own personal bias is crucial to the outcome of the research. However, bias is not exclusive to the personal biases of researcher. The research subjects can display bias, either from their own personal bias, uncertainty caused by the research situation or due to influence from the researcher; question bias where questions are framed in a particularly one-sided way; sample bias, where the field chosen may not be an appropriate representation of your desired sample; or bias caused by the “owner” of the research, for example a company who is hoping for a specific outcome from the research (Collier & Mahoney, 1996).

Avoiding personal bias seems easy in theory, although maintaining total neutrality is not so easy in practice. Generally, researchers should defocus and open their mind to new experiences and situations prior to commencing a study. Then during the study the researcher must maintain heightened self-awareness to monitor their own subjectivity and catch potential biases before they affect the study (Perkins & Baxter, 2011). Also, due to the high-involvement a researcher often experiences with field research, they simply avoid researching topics that are of personal significance to them (Mehra, 2002).

Sample selection is also vital to the elimination of bias and researchers should allow a colleague to conduct a critical analysis of the sample prior to commencing the study (Rakendran, 2001). While planning qualitative research, the researcher must choose a sample that is representative of the group of interest. They should carefully consider the context of the research (are the participants and sites congruent to the central research topic?); the time(s) research is conducted (are multiple sample times required to get the full picture?); the people involved in the research (do they fit the behaviors, demographics, psychographics, etc. desired?) (Rakendran, 2001).

Furthermore, the researcher must ensure questions are framed so that they can be easily understood by the respondents, are not framed to provoke a one-sided response and that subjects are not led towards answers (Perkins & Baxter, 2011). For example, this question would be unsuitable as it is framed one-sidedly: “some people think that using trucks to transport goods is bad for the environment. What do you think?”. This question frame the question with the negative argument, and may influence suervey respondents. A more appropriate, neutral question would be “what is your opinion of using trucks to transport goods?”

Finally, another way of avoiding researcher bias when summarizing and analyzing data is to ensure observed notes are taken first before any analytical or inferential notes (Perkins & Baxter, 2011). This allows the researcher to take an unbiased snapshot of the situation to establish an objective view before further analysis.

References

Collier , D., & Mahoney, J. (1996). Research Note: Insights and Pitfalls: Selection Bias in Qualitative Research. World Politics , 49 (1), 56-91.

Mehra, B. (2002). Bias in Qualitative Research: Voices from an Online Classroom. The Qualitative Report, 7 (1).

Perkins, A., & Baxter, S. (2011). Fundamentals of Quantitative and Qualitative Research. In J. Cresswell, Educational Research (4th ed., pp. 204-235). USA: Pearson Education.

Rakendran, N. (2001). Dealing With Biases in Qualitative Research: A Balancing Act for Researchers. Qualitative Research Convention 2001: Navigating Challenges. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaysia.

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