The researcher as the instrument

I remember in the research methodology class for my masters when we discussed the qualitative research design. One thing stood out for me, the researcher is the instrument in qualitative research. My crazy imagination created this image of a person with different questions labelled on their body that they were presenting to the participant. In this post I want to discuss the different ways I have come to think about the researcher as an instrument from my fieldwork experiences. I will follow this up with posts on some readings about the position of the researcher that have helped me think more deeply about the role of the researcher in qualitative research.

We know from narrative theories, the perception of who the audience is and what they are capable of determines the story being told (Koschmann, 1999). This highlights the significance that the researcher has on the kind of knowledge that is produced. How do the participants perceive you, do they think you wield certain powers that could possibly change their fortunes? Are you seen as a competitor from whom they would prefer not to reveal their precious information or worse are you seen as the opposition? Or are you a part of the group who could represent their interests or one they are willing to help for the greater good of their community.

These are all scenarios I have faced as I have conducted interviews with different people. I remember one project where I interviewed a woman, I will call Mrs B, living in a small mining town. She was much much older than I am, illiterate and barely making enough to live on. Despite my introduction in which I stated plainly that I was researcher from the university, she saw me as a representative of government who would collect information that government would use to change their lives. As someone who had lived under apartheid and the segregation Mrs B was happy to see a black young woman coming from the university whom she could speak to in her mother tongue but who would be able to present her words in written form and in english. These are both things she could not do herself. So despite my carefully crafted introduction, Mrs B’s perception of who I was, was not what I intended her to have. At different intervals she expressed her gratitude that the government had sent me to the town and that she had the opportunity to speak to me. Mrs B viewed me as someone with power she did not have, through my ability to write and speak English. At the same time Mrs B viewed my position as a black young woman in the university with pride. I could say she saw herself represented in me. This made me feel very uncomfortable, here she was thinking her interview with me was going to change her life. She viewed the opportunity she had to speak to me with such grandeur and yet I was just a researcher collecting information.

How different would this interview with Mrs B have been had I been a young black male, white male or female? Leave a comment below on your experiences as the instrument in your research.

Koschmann, T. (1999). The Edge of Many Circles: Making Meaning of Meaning Making. Discourse Processes, 27(2), 103-117.


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