The power of the reflexive researcher

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Last year I found myself shivering in the chilled section of the Chigwell Co-op talking to shoppers about steak and about pork chops. Having been a vegetarian for 15 years, that was somewhere I never thought I’d find myself lingering. And I questioned my usefulness to the project because, really, what does a regular diner of soya and quinoa know about lamb joints? 

But as the fieldwork progressed something became clear. It was pretty obvious to participants that I was a vegetarian, no matter how hard I tried to hide it. And they were opening up to me, taking the time to explain why they’d gone for beef over lamb, in a lot more detail than with my meat-eating colleagues.

So I changed tack. I started telling participants that I was a vegetarian and got them to give me a red meat education.

That project doesn’t stand alone. On a number of occasions I’ve found that I have not only had to use my research skills but also had to factor in my personal background.  

Take the ethnographic interviews I conducted in Gujurat last month. In true international research style, I arrived with a moderator and a translator in tow and sat down to observe the proceedings as I sipped my chai. While I was trying to blend into the background, my Britishness nonetheless became a feature of the interviews as participants referenced random British brands, or sometimes directed responses at me in broken English.

However, I haven’t always had to travel for my background to have an impact.

I found myself in Wakefield sitting across the desk from a small print company owner talking about diversity policies. When I compared notes afterwards with my colleagues, I was quite surprised how much more candidly participants had spoken to them, particularly when discussing the low numbers of BAME employees. In this case it was not my nationality that seemed to have an impact but my race: I am a black woman.

Experiences like these encouraged me to question the notion of objectivity within qual research. When we enter the industry we are taught to remain neutral in what we say and how we behave. But it’s not that simple. Who we are, in relation to the people we are interviewing, can have an impact on how objective we can really be. Because each and every one of us brings our own unique baggage to the research and this is more complex than obvious traits such as race, nationality and gender. 

Where we grew up, our social class, our level of education, our sexual preferences and religious beliefs all could have unconscious effects on the process.

That’s why I believe that all researchers should take a reflexive approach to qual research. A discipline born out of anthropology, reflexivity pushes researchers not to ignore but to actively acknowledge our worldviews and who we are as people. 

A key element of reflexivity is self-reflection, which encourages researchers to view interviews as social encounters rather than as something artificial and free from social codes. And in order to self-reflect you have to ask yourself honest questions about your biases such as:

How do I fit into the social context?
How do the participants fit into the social context?

What is the power dynamic at play here between yourself and the participants?
What preconceptions might you have of each other?

What parts of your personal background have a bearing on the social encounter?

Of course, the process of self-reflection can be quite an uncomfortable task. But becoming more self-aware as a researcher can only be a positive thing. It means putting your privileges and biases on the table to be acknowledged so that they are less likely to unconsciously impact the research.
Reflexivity also incorporates collaboration – something we do quite naturally in qual. And it pushes this further, demanding deliberately diverse teams of mixed gender, social class and religious beliefs in order to identify complementary, as well as divergent, understandings of the topic via shared self-reflections.

For the red meat project, having a meat eater and a vegetarian worked in our favour because it involved an insider who was able to implicitly understand the category, as well as an outsider who could explicitly tease out the emotional drivers for both steak and lamb chops.

Self-reflections therefore need to be centre stage from the proposal right the way through to analysis. Because if you acknowledge who you are within the research context, you can become better at designing methods and choosing targets. And it makes you better at interpreting findings by valuing different perspectives. The result is one we should all embrace – multi-dimensional understanding of context and consumer relationships for that real depth of insight our clients deserve.

This is a version of a paper presented at the AQR Conference 2019–AQR’s Big Day Out

Keisha Herbert is Senior Research Manager at Thinktank International Research