The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

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Learn the essential building blocks of qualitative research: key definitions, research design, data collection methods, and important ethical considerations.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. Introduction and overview
  2. What is qualitative research?
  3. What is qualitative data?
  4. Examples of qualitative data
  5. Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  6. Mixed methods
  7. Qualitative research preparation
  8. Theoretical perspective
  9. Theoretical framework
  10. Literature reviews
  11. Research question
  12. Conceptual framework
  13. Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
  14. Data collection
  15. Qualitative research methods
  16. Interviews
  17. Focus groups
  18. Observational research
  19. Case studies
  20. Surveys
  21. Ethnographical research
  22. Ethical considerations
  23. Confidentiality and privacy
  24. Bias
    1. Overview
    2. What is research bias?
    3. Understanding unconscious bias
    4. How to avoid bias in research?
    5. Bias and subjectivity in research
  25. Power dynamics
  26. Reflexivity

Bias in research

In a purely objective world, research bias would not exist because knowledge would be a fixed and unmovable resource; either one knows about a particular concept or phenomenon, or they don't. However, qualitative research and the social sciences both acknowledge that subjectivity and bias exist in every aspect of the social world, which naturally includes the research process too. This bias is manifest in the many different ways that knowledge is understood, constructed, and negotiated, both in and out of research.

Bias exists because people see the world in different ways.

Understanding research bias has profound implications for data collection methods and data analysis, requiring researchers to take particular care of how to account for the insights generated from their data.

What is research bias?

Research bias, often unavoidable, is a systematic error that can creep into any stage of the research process, skewing our understanding and interpretation of findings. From data collection to analysis, interpretation, and even publication, bias can distort the truth we seek to capture and communicate in our research.

It’s also important to distinguish between bias and subjectivity, especially when engaging in qualitative research. Most qualitative methodologies are based on epistemological and ontological assumptions that there is no such thing as a fixed or objective world that exists “out there” that can be empirically measured and understood through research. Rather, many qualitative researchers embrace the socially constructed nature of our reality and thus recognize that all data is produced within a particular context by participants with their own perspectives and interpretations. Moreover, the researcher’s own subjective experiences inevitably shape how they make sense of the data. These subjectivities are considered to be strengths, not limitations, of qualitative research approaches, because they open new avenues for knowledge generation. This is also why reflexivity is so important in qualitative research. When we refer to bias in this guide, on the other hand, we are referring to systematic errors that can negatively affect the research process but that can be mitigated through researchers’ careful efforts.

To fully grasp what research bias is, it's essential to understand the dual nature of bias. Bias is not inherently evil. It's simply a tendency, inclination, or prejudice for or against something. In our daily lives, we're subject to countless biases, many of which are unconscious. They help us navigate our world, make quick decisions, and understand complex situations. But when conducting research, these same biases can cause significant issues.

Bias exists as a natural tendency based on our need to navigate difficult choices. Photo by Martin Joos.

Research bias can affect the validity and credibility of research findings, leading to erroneous conclusions. It can emerge from the researcher's subconscious preferences or the methodological design of the study itself. For instance, if a researcher unconsciously favors a particular outcome of the study, this preference could affect how they interpret the results, leading to a type of bias known as confirmation bias.

Research bias can also arise due to the characteristics of study participants. If the researcher selectively recruits participants who are more likely to produce desired outcomes, this can result in selection bias.

Another form of bias can stem from data collection methods. If a survey question is phrased in a way that encourages a particular response, this can introduce response bias. Moreover, inappropriate survey questions can have a detrimental effect on future research if such studies are seen by the general population as biased toward particular outcomes depending on the preferences of the researcher.

Bias can also occur during data analysis. In qualitative research for instance, the researcher's preconceived notions and expectations can influence how they interpret and code qualitative data, a type of bias known as interpretation bias. It's also important to note that quantitative research is not free of bias either, as sampling bias and measurement bias can threaten the validity of any research findings.

Given these examples, it's clear that research bias is a complex issue that can take many forms and emerge at any stage in the research process. This section will delve deeper into specific types of research bias, provide examples, discuss why it's an issue, and provide strategies for identifying and mitigating bias in research.

What is an example of bias in research?

Bias can appear in numerous ways. One example is confirmation bias, where the researcher has a preconceived explanation for what is going on in their data, and any disconfirming evidence is (unconsciously) ignored. For instance, a researcher conducting a study on daily exercise habits might be inclined to conclude that meditation practices lead to greater engagement in exercise because that researcher has personally experienced these benefits. However, conducting rigorous research entails assessing all the data systematically and verifying one’s conclusions by checking for both supporting and refuting evidence.

Members of a fitness club represent a different study population than a broader sample of the population as a whole. Photo by Geert Pieters.

What is a common bias in research?

Confirmation bias is one of the most common forms of bias in research. It happens when researchers unconsciously focus on data that supports their ideas while ignoring or undervaluing data that contradicts their ideas. This bias can lead researchers to mistakenly confirm their theories, despite having insufficient or conflicting evidence.

What are the different types of bias?

There are several types of research bias, each presenting unique challenges. Some common types include:

Confirmation bias: As already mentioned, this happens when a researcher focuses on evidence supporting their theory while overlooking contradictory evidence.

Selection bias: This occurs when the researcher's method of choosing participants skews the sample in a particular direction.

Response bias: This happens when participants in a study respond inaccurately or falsely, often due to misleading or poorly worded questions.

Observer bias (or researcher bias): This occurs when the researcher unintentionally influences the results because of their expectations or preferences.

Publication bias: This type of bias arises when studies with positive results are more likely to get published, while studies with negative or null results are often ignored.

Analysis bias: This type of bias occurs when the data is manipulated or analyzed in a way that leads to a particular result, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Ensuring a diverse study population is useful in mitigating selection bias. Photo by Valiant Made.

What is an example of researcher bias?

Researcher bias, also known as observer bias, can occur when a researcher's expectations or personal beliefs influence the results of a study. For instance, if a researcher believes that a particular therapy is effective, they might unconsciously interpret ambiguous results in a way that supports the efficacy of the therapy, even if the evidence is not strong enough.

Even quantitative research methodologies are not immune from bias from researchers. Market research surveys or clinical trial research, for example, may encounter bias when the researcher chooses a particular population or methodology to achieve a specific research outcome. Questions in customer feedback surveys whose data is employed in quantitative analysis can be structured in such a way as to bias survey respondents toward certain desired answers.

Identifying and avoiding bias in research

As we will remind you throughout this chapter, bias is not a phenomenon that can be removed altogether, nor should we think of it as something that should be eliminated. In a subjective world involving humans as researchers and research participants, bias is unavoidable and almost necessary for understanding social behavior. The section on reflexivity later in this guide will highlight how different perspectives among researchers and human subjects are addressed in qualitative research.
That said, bias in excess can place the credibility of a study's findings into serious question. Scholars who read your research need to know what new knowledge you are generating, how it was generated, and why the knowledge you present should be considered persuasive. With that in mind, let's look at how bias can be identified and, where it interferes with research, minimized.

How do you identify bias in research?

Identifying bias involves a critical examination of your entire research study involving the formulation of the research question and hypothesis, the selection of study participants, the methods for data collection, and the analysis and interpretation of data. Researchers need to assess whether each stage has been influenced by bias that may have skewed the results. Tools such as bias checklists or guidelines, peer review, and reflexivity (reflecting on one's own biases) can be instrumental in identifying bias.

How do you identify research bias?

Identifying research bias often involves careful scrutiny of the research methodology and the researcher's interpretations. Was the sample of participants relevant to the research question? Were the interview or survey questions leading? Were there any conflicts of interest that could have influenced the results? It also requires an understanding of the different types of bias and how they might manifest in a research context. Does the bias occur in the data collection process or when the researcher is analyzing data?

Research transparency requires a careful accounting of how the study was designed, conducted, and analyzed. In qualitative research involving human subjects, the researcher is responsible for documenting the characteristics of the research population and research context. With respect to research methods, the procedures and instruments used to collect and analyze data are described in as much detail as possible.

While describing study methodologies and research participants in painstaking detail may sound cumbersome, a clear and detailed description of the research design is necessary for good research. Without this level of detail, it is difficult for your research audience to identify whether bias exists, where bias occurs, and to what extent it may threaten the credibility of your findings.

How to recognize bias in a study?

Recognizing bias in a study requires a critical approach. The researcher should question every step of the research process: Was the sample of participants selected with care? Did the data collection methods encourage open and sincere responses? Did personal beliefs or expectations influence the interpretation of the results? External peer reviews can also be helpful in recognizing bias, as others might spot potential issues that the original researcher missed.

The subsequent sections of this chapter will delve into the impacts of research bias and strategies to avoid it. Through these discussions, researchers will be better equipped to handle bias in their work and contribute to building more credible knowledge.

Understanding unconscious bias

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are attitudes or stereotypes that influence our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases can inadvertently infiltrate the research process, skewing the results and conclusions. This section aims to delve deeper into understanding unconscious bias, its impact on research, and strategies to mitigate it.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias refers to prejudices or social stereotypes about certain groups that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from a tendency to organize social worlds into categories.

Unconscious bias occurs in thoughts and beliefs in ways we may not always be aware of. Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko.

How does unconscious bias infiltrate research?

Unconscious bias can infiltrate research in several ways. It can affect how researchers formulate their research questions or hypotheses, how they interact with participants, their data collection methods, and how they interpret their data. For instance, a researcher might unknowingly favor participants who share similar characteristics with them, which could lead to biased results.

Implications of unconscious bias

The implications of unconscious research bias are far-reaching. It can compromise the validity of research findings, influence the choice of research topics, and affect peer review processes. Unconscious bias can also lead to a lack of diversity in research, which can severely limit the value and impact of the findings.

Strategies to mitigate unconscious research bias

While it's challenging to completely eliminate unconscious bias, several strategies can help mitigate its impact. These include being aware of potential unconscious biases, practicing reflexivity, seeking diverse perspectives for your study, and engaging in regular bias-checking activities, such as bias training and peer debriefing.

By understanding and acknowledging unconscious bias, researchers can take steps to limit its impact on their work, leading to more robust findings.

Why is researcher bias an issue?

Research bias is a pervasive issue that researchers must diligently consider and address. It can significantly impact the credibility of findings. Here, we break down the ramifications of bias into two key areas.

How bias affects validity

Research validity refers to the accuracy of the study findings, or the coherence between the researcher’s findings and the participants’ actual experiences. When bias sneaks into a study, it can distort findings and move them further away from the realities that were shared by the research participants. For example, if a researcher's personal beliefs influence their interpretation of data, the resulting conclusions may not reflect what the data show or what participants experienced.

The transferability problem

Transferability is the extent to which your study's findings can be applied beyond the specific context or sample studied. Applying knowledge from one context to a different context is how we can progress and make informed decisions. In quantitative research, the generalizability of a study is a key component that shapes the potential impact of the findings. In qualitative research, all data and knowledge that is produced is understood to be embedded within a particular context, so the notion of generalizability takes on a slightly different meaning. Rather than assuming that the study participants are statistically representative of the entire population, qualitative researchers can reflect on which aspects of their research context bear the most weight on their findings and how these findings may be transferable to other contexts that share key similarities.

How does bias affect research?

Research bias, if not identified and mitigated, can significantly impact research outcomes. The ripple effects of research bias extend beyond individual studies, impacting the body of knowledge in a field and influencing policy and practice. Here, we delve into three specific ways bias can affect research.

Distortion of research results

Bias can lead to a distortion of your study's findings. For instance, confirmation bias can cause a researcher to focus on data that supports their interpretation while disregarding data that contradicts it. This can skew the results and create a misleading picture of the phenomenon under study.

Undermining scientific progress

When research is influenced by bias, it not only misrepresents participants’ realities but can also impede scientific progress. Biased studies can lead researchers down the wrong path, resulting in wasted resources and efforts. Moreover, it could contribute to a body of literature that is skewed or inaccurate, misleading future research and theories.

Influencing policy and practice based on flawed findings

Research often informs policy and practice. If the research is biased, it can lead to the creation of policies or practices that are ineffective or even harmful. For example, a study with selection bias might conclude that a certain intervention is effective, leading to its broad implementation. However, suppose the transferability of the study's findings was not carefully considered. In that case, it may be risky to assume that the intervention will work as well in different populations, which could lead to ineffective or inequitable outcomes.

Flawed study findings can have consequential influences on policy and practice in critical fields. Photo by Harry cao.

How to avoid bias in research?

While it's almost impossible to eliminate bias in research entirely, it's crucial to mitigate its impact as much as possible. By employing thoughtful strategies at every stage of research, we can strive towards rigor and transparency, enhancing the quality of our findings. This section will delve into specific strategies for avoiding bias.

How do you know if your research is biased?

Determining whether your research is biased involves a careful review of your research design, data collection, analysis, and interpretation. It might require you to reflect critically on your own biases and expectations and how these might have influenced your research. External peer reviews can also be instrumental in spotting potential bias.

Strategies to mitigate bias

Minimizing bias involves careful planning and execution at all stages of a research study. These strategies could include formulating clear, unbiased research questions, ensuring that your sample meaningfully represents the research problem you are studying, crafting unbiased data collection instruments, and employing systematic data analysis techniques. Transparency and reflexivity throughout the process can also help minimize bias.

Mitigating bias in data collection

To mitigate bias in data collection, ensure your questions are clear, neutral, and not leading. Triangulation, or using multiple methods or data sources, can also help to reduce bias and increase the credibility of your findings.

Mitigating bias in data analysis

During data analysis, maintaining a high level of rigor is crucial. This might involve using systematic coding schemes in qualitative research or appropriate statistical tests in quantitative research. Regularly questioning your interpretations and considering alternative explanations can help reduce bias. Peer debriefing, where you discuss your analysis and interpretations with colleagues, can also be a valuable strategy.

By using these strategies, researchers can significantly reduce the impact of bias on their research, enhancing the quality and credibility of their findings and contributing to a more robust and meaningful body of knowledge.

Impact of cultural bias in research

Cultural bias is the tendency to interpret and judge phenomena by standards inherent to one's own culture. Given the increasingly multicultural and global nature of research, understanding and addressing cultural bias is paramount. This section will explore the concept of cultural bias, its impacts on research, and strategies to mitigate it.

What is cultural bias in research?

Cultural bias refers to the potential for a researcher's cultural background, experiences, and values to influence the research process and findings. This can occur consciously or unconsciously and can lead to misinterpretation of data, unfair representation of cultures, and biased conclusions.

How does cultural bias infiltrate research?

Cultural bias can infiltrate research at various stages. It can affect the framing of research questions, the design of the study, the methods of data collection, and the interpretation of results. For instance, a researcher might unintentionally design a study that does not consider the cultural context of the participants, leading to a biased understanding of the phenomenon being studied.

Implications of cultural bias

The implications of cultural bias are profound. Cultural bias can skew your findings, limit the transferability of results, and contribute to cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes. This can ultimately lead to inaccurate or ethnocentric conclusions, further perpetuating cultural bias and inequities.

As a result, many social science fields like sociology and anthropology have been critiqued for cultural biases in research. Some of the earliest research inquiries in anthropology, for example, have had the potential to reduce entire cultures to simplistic stereotypes when compared to mainstream norms. A contemporary researcher respecting ethical and cultural boundaries, on the other hand, should seek to properly place their understanding of social and cultural practices in sufficient context without inappropriately characterizing them.

Strategies to mitigate cultural bias

Mitigating cultural bias requires a concerted effort throughout the research study. These efforts could include educating oneself about other cultures, being aware of one's own cultural biases, incorporating culturally diverse perspectives into the research process, and being sensitive and respectful of cultural differences. It might also involve including team members with diverse cultural backgrounds or seeking external cultural consultants to challenge assumptions and provide alternative perspectives.

By acknowledging and addressing cultural bias, researchers can contribute to more culturally competent, equitable, and valid research. This not only enriches the scientific body of knowledge but also promotes cultural understanding and respect.

Bias and subjectivity in research

Keep in mind that bias is a force to be mitigated, not a phenomenon that can be eliminated altogether, and the subjectivities of each person are what make our world so complex and interesting. As things are continuously changing and adapting, research knowledge is also continuously being updated as we further develop our understanding of the world around us.

Research bias can only be mitigated as knowledge always depends on how it is perceived. Photo by Mathieu Stern.