In more positivist or realist qualitative research paradigms, research findings are almost always solely within the researcher's discretion: they collect qualitative data from research participants through qualitative methods such as interviews, focus groups, and observations, then interpret the data as they see it without the input of others.
However, in more contemporary qualitative research, member checking (sometimes also called respondent validation) is an essential part of the research process as it helps mitigate researcher bias and contextualizes data with the perspectives of research participants. As a qualitative research technique, member checking relies on participants in the generation of knowledge to facilitate a more robust data analysis. In this article, we'll look at why qualitative researchers engage in the process of respondent validation of their data and how it benefits the research process.
In simple terms, the member checking process is the act of sharing research results with participants to gather feedback regarding the extent to which the findings align with their perspectives. In any research context where researcher bias is a concern, particularly if the researcher is an outsider unfamiliar with particular aspects of the research content, member checking holds his or her reports of the data collected up to the scrutiny of research participants. As people tend to look at the same data in different ways, member checking can inform qualitative analysis by providing a richer and more contextualized understanding of the aspects of the social world under study.
Yvonne Lincoln and Egon Guba wrote extensively on the process of member checking. In the concept of member checking from the perspective of Lincoln and Guba, as researchers review the data, members of the research study are part of an iterative process for analyzing the data and establishing credibility within the study. Member checking can help:
Think of member checking as either another layer of data collection or a quality control process to ensure that the original data is valid and accurate. Particularly in fields such as anthropology and sociology, or in qualitative research that deals with critical theory or engages with marginalized or understudied populations, member checking is an outright necessity as it ensures that multiple voices are incorporated in the generation of knowledge. As a result, researchers writing for sociocultural and critical journals will benefit from writing about their member checking practices during data collection.
It's possible, and often probable, for many researchers to interpret data from interviews or focus groups in a different way than the participant intended. This can be problematic if the goal of your research is to capture the perspectives and knowledge of insiders within your research context.
A researcher's own biases can pose challenges for the interpretive validity of the study without a clear and comprehensive incorporation of participants' perspectives in data analysis and findings. Even in studies where bias does not threaten the credibility of the analysis, the research findings are made richer by a comprehensive contextualization of the data.
Member checking is often employed in ethnographic research where the goal is to understand a particular research context from the perspectives of those within it and who are familiar with it. Suppose there is a researcher who is conducting observations in a foreign country, where the spoken language is different from their first language. They may be proficient in that language, but what happens if the observed participants use any unfamiliar slang or cultural references?
They could search the Internet for the cultural information they're looking for, but with access to the very people they are observing, member checking becomes a convenient option to gain the insights necessary for understanding. In this case, the researcher can review the transcripts of any audio captured during observations with their participants to get a more complete sense of what was said, what was meant, and what role it played in the observed research context.
Member checking is a key component in any research involving human participants. Particularly if you collect data for research inquiries in which you are an outsider to the context, you can benefit from member checking and gaining access to an insider perspective to the knowledge you are looking to address.
In general terms, the member checking process seeks to bolster the accuracy and validity of the study. However, these two concepts can refer to many things. Likewise, researchers employ member checking to incorporate feedback from participants for many reasons.
First, the accuracy of the data collected from participants is important for capturing their perspectives. Narrative accuracy checks can be as simple as ensuring the researcher has accurately documented the times, dates, and people involved in the stories that people tell during interviews or discussions in focus groups. As time-consuming as this may seem, the effort taken in making sure that the elements of a participant's utterances are documented with sufficient accuracy ultimately informs the rest of the research process from analysis of the data to discussion of the findings.
Member checking for descriptive validity is the process of confirming the accuracy of the researcher's observations with their participants. In this case, it is not the representation of participants' perspectives being assessed but the representation of what the researcher sees while in the field collecting data. This is especially useful when they are in a context with which they are unfamiliar. Imagine that a researcher observes a cultural ritual conducted in a language that they do not understand or for reasons that they do not know. They can document their observations in field notes and then conduct member checking with participants who are more familiar about the ritual to gain deeper understanding of the culture.
Member checks also extend beyond whether the data itself is accurate or not. When a researcher interviews participants and elicits narratives about their daily lives, what meaning can they draw from such stories? While a researcher can make a guess or inference about such meanings, they can benefit from employing member checking for interpretive validity to give participants the opportunity to contextualize their previous utterances and affirm or challenge the conclusions made about the collected data. This collaborative approach ensures that researchers capture as comprehensive a picture of the participants' worldviews as possible.
How to conduct member checking
Keep in mind that member checking need not be a formal or rigid process. The overall goal is to gain a familiarity of the context so you can analyze it with greater depth and rigor. How you achieve that, given the relationships you have with your participants and the breadth and depth of the data you have collected, is for you to determine.
Member checking can be a useful process if you keep in mind the following considerations.