14 Rigour (2)
Speaking only for myself ...
I invite you to imagine this research situation. Your research setting is a community or organisation. You are talking with a member of that community or organisation. Your intention is to learn something about how the community or organisation works.
How likely are you to develop an understanding of the community or organisation?
In situations like this, I find the concepts of "validity" and "threats to validity" useful. In doing so, I envisage that many of the threats to validity reside in the gaps between experience and understanding.
(Yes, I realise there are arguments against using the language of positivism to discuss issues of rigour in qualitative research. Here I am speaking for myself.)
The gaps are numerous. For example:What the informant experienced is a subset (and probably a small subset) of what actually happened.
What the informant recalls is less (and sometimes much less) than the informant experienced.
What the informant is willing to report is less than the informant can recall.
What you hear is less than or different to what the informant reports.
What you understand may be less than or different to what you heard.
The themes or interpretations you develop from informant reports are a subset of all you understood.
What you succeed in reporting to others is less than or different to the themes or interpretations you developed.
I don't offer this as a complete list. All I have done so far is to consider a single researcher and a single informant. And I have ignored the possibilities that the informants may also be researchers. Further, there may be deliberate distortions at some of the gaps.
It seems to me that, at each of these gaps I can act in ways which seek to reduce the omissions and misunderstandings. To consider just a few of the easiest of them ...I can begin the talk in a very open-ended way. The information I am given is then more likely to be determined by the priorities of my informant than by my questions and the preconceptions which suggested those questions.
I can explain what use will be made of the information, and what access the informant will have to it. I can develop a reasonably close relationship with the informant and be clear about my own motives. In this way, I may build a more trusting relationship within which there will be less censorship.
I can involve the informant in interpreting information as well as providing it. This may help protect me against some of the mistaken interpretations I might otherwise adopt.
I can encourage the informant to provide examples, so I am less likely to be misled by abstract and ambiguous terms.
Some threats to validity are less easily avoided. In searching for ways of reducing these threats, I have found the work of Chris Argyris and his colleagues especially helpful. I think he is one of the few writers to acknowledge the extent to which the unspoken rules of interaction distort and filter the information we are willing to exchange with one another.
I expect to return to these topics, and the work of Argyris, in later occasional pieces.
Copyright Bob Dick 1998-2000. May be copied if it is not included in any
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pieces in action research methodology, # 14. Available online at
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