Objective or Subjective?


Objectivity is the hallmark of quality research for many. However, those of us that rely more on qualitative methods often have to question this assumption and think more carefully about the value of objectivity and subjectivity, and the overall position of the researcher in the writing and analysis.

I’m in the process of writing up my PhD at the moment, it’s a hard slog but I’m enjoying getting words on the page and feeling like I’m making some real progress. The difficulties come when I’m writing about one of my research participants and trying to introduce her experiences into my description and analysis. How can I be objective when I’ve shared tears, joy and cups of tea (sometimes all at one!) with the subjects of my writing?

As I write I can feel those I’ve worked with looking over my shoulder and I worry about what she is thinking as she reads her words and my reflections upon them. She has given me consent in the ticking of boxes, her signature on a piece of paper and in a verbal agreement. Sometimes she has asked me not to report on something she had told me, so I think she understands what it means to be part of this project. What I didn’t give enough attention to is how I would represent her within my final write up. At that stage I didn’t know what she would tell me, where my analysis would take me, or how much I would come to care about her. Now it’s starting to feel like a big responsibility to find the most appropriate way to represent her and what she’s about, what if I come across as patronising, resorting to stereotypes or just plain wrong?

I’m secure and confident in my analysis and the claims I am making but I want to be sure I don’t fall into lazy or condescending cliches when I’m describing those who have spent so much time and energy talking to me about their lives. It’s challenging me to be thorough, thoughtful and clear in my writing. I’m considering and reconsidering each word: What do I mean by that? Is that what I want to say? How could that be misunderstood? To me this is an important process in honouring the stories I’ve been told and the women who have told them.

This process is teaching me that research ethics have to be considered long after the collection of signed consent forms and that the role of objective researcher is not one that I can be expected to play within the type of research I have undertaken. Equally I can’t make this all about me, that has not been the point of my research and I doubt I’d make an interesting subject for a PhD thesis! It’s a fine balance that I think many researchers have to consider; how do I create a persuasive and well researched piece of writing without ignoring my own subjectivity and close involvement with the research participants? It’s something I’m still working on….