You bring up a number of highly relevant issues for this week’s discussion on ethics in research. I’d like to comment on a few of these.
Firstly, I understand and appreciate the principle involved in asking verification questions prior to developing threads in a discussion. If there is no interest/ knowledge/ experience etc on a topic, there is no utility in expecting, or forcing, a full discussion on that topic. I teach the same principle in my conversation classes when I advise not to ask opening questions such as “Which baseball team do you follow?” before actually ascertaining if the interlocutor actually follows baseball. A better technique in this instance is to use the closed question, “Do you follow baseball?”
If, however, a number of key assumptions are already in place regarding the interviewee, the use of closed questions on those assumptions may prove problematic. We (students in this cohort) have to select a suitable interview candidate who can answer questions about institutional policy, value and practice. It seems irrelevant to me to need to reinforce this ability through closed questioning. The opposite, the use of closed questioning risks the possibility of potential information-lucrative threads being shut down prematurely. Giving the interviewee the opportunity to avoid questions instead of seeing how they react to them misses the chance to gather potentially useful information. Besides, an innocuous “What do you think of …” is not any more problematic than a forced “Do you think …” style question.
Stylistics aside (although they are important in the skill of developing interviews that generate information), I perceive a problem with your approach, if you may permit me to be so bold as to say so. The notion of value-free research is still promoted (see Balch, 2006) in some quarters. Of course, this promotion is necessarily political, not theoretical or philosophical (see everyone else). You are right, then, that every researcher enters an interview with some kind of prior understanding, expectation, agenda in mind (Hammersley, 2000). However, the extent to which that prior agenda should influence the subsequent interview is contentious. Hammersly (2000) argues the (Max) Weberian position that once the theoretical knowledge is decided, the collection of data should be as value-free as possible. However, critical theorists may decide to pursue their political agenda directly throughout their research (Gewirtz & Cribb, 2006).
Personally, I favour Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) grounded theory methodology of letting any resultant data present themes and ideas from within the data rather than artificially force a priori notions of ‘truth’ and ‘evidence’. Interview techniques that promote the provision of evidence from respondents allow this Glaserian and Straussian techniques to emanate from the data. On the other hand, if a researcher’s point of view is the primary impetus for a research project, all sorts of ethical problems may occur. Cherry picking comes to mind as researchers may only select evidence that supports their position to the detriment of other potentialities. If this happens, the research itself may be in question as viable and ethical research. Moreover, researchers need to be positioned such that they can be surprised by the results of their research (Firebaugh, 2008). If the results (or partial results) are known before entering any research project, the product cannot be said to be research, only confirmation. Such research is either trivial (e.g. testing if my pen will fall to the ground when gravity is not under serious question) or merely journalism (i.e. the reporting of opinions on already established perspectives). Neither can be treated seriously as research. The use of ‘verification’ questions prior to open questions seriously risks falling into this category. Entering into an interview with preconceived notions or the inability to alter those notions is similarly risky.
To answer your fear about ending up with masses of data without a focus, I’d say that that’s when research becomes both interesting and difficult. And to recognise your fears a bit, I’d admit that the readings this week indicate that it’s impossible for any researcher to overcome their bias entirely. But we must try even though we must admit that we will fail.
Balch, S. H. (2006). The dubious value of value-neutrality. Chronicle of Higher Education, 52(41), B15–B16.
Firebaugh, G. (2008). Seven rules for social research. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gewirtz, S., & Cribb, A. (2006). What to do about values in social research: the case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 27(2), 141–155.
Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies of qualitative research. New Jersey: AldineTransaction.
Hammersley, M. (2000). Taking sides in social research: Essays on partisanship and bias. London and New York: Routledge