The Researcher as “Instrument”
By Dr. Sharon Warkentin Short
In the world of qualitative investigation, a great deal of conventional wisdom about what constitutes scientific research is turned on its head. As explained in a previous post, for example, the concept of a representative random sample simply does not apply. Instead, the sample is purposefully selected according to specified criteria for what these participants might be able to contribute. Another surprise for me as I learned more about qualitative research was that there is nothing “objective” about the role of the researcher.
In quantitative research, the person conducting the study tries to stay out of the way as much as possible. The goal is for the researcher to hold to an absolute minimum the effect that he or she might have on the data collection. A key standard for the strength of such research is that another individual, following precisely the same research design, would come up with exactly the same results.
By contrast, one of the distinguishing features of all qualitative inquiry is the recognition that the researcher is the primary data collection instrument. “Data are mediated through this human instrument, the researcher, rather than through some inanimate inventory, questionnaire, or computer” (Merriam, 1998, p. 7). In this capacity, “the researcher enters the lives of the participants” (Marshall & Rossman, 2006, p. 72), and this essential relationship introduces dynamics that are distinctive to interpretive research.
Dynamics of Interpretive Research
On the one hand, human data collection instruments can be acutely sensitive and responsive to specific research contexts:
He or she can adapt techniques to the circumstances; the total context can be considered; what is known about the situation can be expanded through sensitivity to nonverbal aspects; the researcher can process data immediately, can clarify and summarize as the study evolves, and can explore anomalous responses. (Merriam, 1998, p. 7)”
On the other hand, a host of interpersonal issues involving trust, respect, intimacy, and reciprocity enter in, which are not significant factors in quantitative research where the investigator can remain detached or completely anonymous from the respondents. My study design from beginning to end had to take into account my personal relationships not only with the children whom I was observing, but also with their parents and the volunteers and staff people who led the program. Unless these relationships were positive, respectful, supportive, cooperative, and appreciative, there could be no research. Therefore, to be granted such a role is a tremendous privilege and a great responsibility.
Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (2006). Designing qualitative research (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education (Rev. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.