Interpretation and Bias in Research

As researchers, a key part of our work is translation and interpretation. We translate data into findings, and add interpretation to make our work more understandable for its readers and users. Translation and interpretation are very vulnerable to bias, particularly bias caused by prevailing cultural norms.

I come from the indigenous white culture which is dominant in England, where I was bbiasorn and where I have always lived. I grew up in a highly racist culture. For example, I can remember, as a child, people using the phrase ‘nigger brown’ to describe a colour, or saying someone was ‘Jewy’ to mean he or she was careful with their money. These were matter-of-fact phrases used descriptively among white people in the entirely white town where I lived, rather than phrases used as direct abuse to people of other ethnicities. Yet it was nonetheless abusive terminology, and must inevitably have influenced my mindset. On the other hand, my parents bought me a black doll, wouldn’t buy me a golliwog (or buy Robertson’s jam), gave me books to read that were by and about black people, and banned Enid Blyton – and explained why they made these choices. That, too, no doubt influenced the way I think.

My culture is still racist, though I believe to a lesser extent than it was 40 years ago. This is a good thing but not an excuse for complacency. We have a very long way to go before racism is eradicated – if it ever is, given the human tendency to compare ourselves against others and decide who is in ‘our group’ and who is ‘the other’. As a researcher, I need to be aware of my biases, and to do all I can to guard against them. If you think you don’t have any yourself, or you’re unsure, I recommend you check out Project Implicit, a fascinating piece of international research into people’s unconscious thoughts and feelings which has been running since 1998. You can check out your own levels of bias around topics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The results are very likely to surprise you.

Talking of which, while I come from the side of the oppressor where race is concerned, I am on the other side as a disabled bisexual woman. You might think that would mean I don’t have to worry about bias in those areas. I wouldn’t agree. Oppression can be internalised – though it isn’t always, but if it is, it’s unconscious, so I wouldn’t know about my own internalised oppression. Which means I still need to consider the biases I may hold in these areas, and in the areas of age, body weight, nationality, and other human attributes we use to distinguish between ourselves and others.

In practice, this means I have to be very, very careful when I’m translating data into findings and interpreting those findings for my audiences. Essentially, the key is to never assume anything. In particular, don’t assume that because someone is X they will be/think/feel Y. Recognise the key principle of intersectionality: that nobody is ever ‘only’ male, black, fat, German, young, whatever. Everyone has a race AND a gender AND a sexual orientation and so on and so on. The intersection of these attributes within the individual is called intersectionality.

Never assume’ is easy to say, but very, very hard to do. I try, and fail; try again, and fail again. Trying is important, and so is noticing when you fail. I’ve noticed some of the micro-aggressions I have committed against others. No doubt I’ve missed some too. Here’s a recent one I didn’t miss. I met a younger woman, a friend of a friend, who wanted to talk to me about her PhD. We were in a cafe, having a great chat, and she made reference to her partner. In reply, I stupidly, thoughtlessly, used the pronoun ‘he’. I saw her stiffen and pause. I was horrified at myself, immediately apologised, did what I could by way of repair. But I couldn’t unsay my word, couldn’t unassume my assumption. At least I did us both the favour of not promptly coming out as bisexual to try to make myself seem somehow more acceptable. I would have tried that at one time.

Here’s another. Recently I was coming out of Sainsbury’s at New Cross Gate in London, on my way to stay with a friend, pushing a small trolley holding two bags of groceries and my rucksack containing my laptop and valuables. As I reached the entrance doors, a group of half a dozen young men burst through them, bouncing on the balls of their feet, poking and high-fiving each other, exchanging loud exclamations. They startled me and, in reaction, I grabbed my rucksack from the trolley and clutched it to my chest. As the group divided to pass me by, I realised they were exclaiming joyfully not aggressively, and one of them met my gaze. A young black man with hurt written on his face as vividly as a name in lights. My fear, the assumption that he saw I’d made, had hurt him. He was no threat. He would have helped me if I’d needed it. I expect he saw me as racist. And indeed perhaps I was – though I think I was afraid because they were male rather than because they were black.

I have been physically and sexually assaulted by men – only white men – in private and public spaces. I will not let this define me. I will not let it define men for me. Yet I think sometimes, in some ways, it does, without my permission, against my will.

I must bring all this knowledge into my research, and I must carry on noticing, reflecting, learning. As I work, I must stay aware of the possibility, even in the most careful interpretation, of mis-interpretation. It would be so easy to add a little emphasis, or take a little away; to misuse my power to include or omit.

That’s some of what I think I ought to do as a researcher. Next week I’ll talk about how I go about trying to do these things as I conduct and write research.

Who Might Your Next Co-Writer Be?

Have you ever done any collaborative writing? If so, you might recognise one or more of these co-writers. writing groupAnd if not, this will help to prepare you for the collaborators you may meet.

The One Who Works From Home: ‘I know I said I’d do it today, but Annie is off school sick so she needs my attention quite a bit. Our electrician’s here doing something important, apparently, but he keeps asking me to make decisions about plug sockets and things. I must make a dent in the laundry mountain, Annie got through two sets of bedding last night, then I’ll try to get to our draft if she and the electrician will leave me alone for a minute.’

The Global Networker: ‘The problem is, I’m doing a keynote in Helsinki next week, then after that I’m chairing in Jo’burg, then there’s the convocation in Boston. Straight from there to Rio, where I’m chairing again, then another keynote in Sydney. Not sure after that, can’t think that far ahead, but I suspect it’s more of the same. So it may be a while before I’m able to look at our paper, but I’ll do what I can.’

The Amazingly Unrealistic: ‘I know I took on more teaching this year but I didn’t realise that would mean lots of preparation and marking, I can’t believe how long it takes, and all the meetings! I simply don’t have time for anything else. So I won’t have time for our paper till the holidays, but I’m sure I’ll be able to get it done while I’m with the family at Center Parcs or else while we’re in Austria ski-ing.’

The Poorly Poppet: ‘It’s this back spasm, it’s agony, I can’t get up off the floor so it’s really hard to use the computer. I’m writing this on my phone, though I shouldn’t really be using that with my eyes the way they are, they hurt like hell, I’m sure I’ve got a migraine starting, or maybe it’s a brain tumour. I simply can’t work at the moment but I’ll be back to our paper as soon as I’m on the mend, I promise.’

The International Fieldworker: ‘I’ve come into the city and I’m in this hotel where I can buy wi-fi for an hour, honestly the price is exorbitant, must get through all my emails if I can. Then I’m off back to the village, won’t be on line again for a fortnight, sorry, I really am committed to this paper but there’s no electricity in the village let alone an internet connection so I’m going to be late with my draft.’

The Very Important Person: ‘I got a bit tied up in Brussels with Kofi, then Angela wanted a hand with her new strategy, and now I’ve had a summons from the White House which is such a drag but I’ll try to get something done on the plane.’

So what about you, Helen, you might well ask? Are you Dr Perfect, then?

But of course! And I doubt that endears me to my collaborators, either. Here’s how I think they would describe me:

The Insufferably Irritating: ‘Well of course I met my deadline.’ *folds arms, taps foot, looks smug*

Writer’s Paralysis

All sorts of things can cause paralysis in a writer – failure, success, a blank page – but at the root of each, I think, is fear. Writing is scary, partly because it has an alchemical relationship with thinking which is poorly understood. Through writing, you can learn things you didn’t know before, and that includes things about yourself.fear of writing Those things can be uncomfortable, upsetting, daunting. No wonder so many people are scared of writing to the point of paralysis.

This even happens to experienced writers. It happens to me. It’s been present over the last couple of weeks, since my previous blog post was picked up by the LSE Impact Blog and was widely circulated on Twitter. How can I follow that, I thought? What should I write next? I’ve been completely unable to decide: I started one post, then another, but nothing seemed right.

I remembered a young man I encountered a while ago who was determined that every year of his life should be better than the last: more fun, higher achieving, superior in every way to the previous year. So far, he’d managed it, and he was convinced he could continue in that vein for the whole of his life. Only if you die young, I thought to myself, but I didn’t say so; it would have been a shame to shatter his illusions. But I don’t believe it’s possible. If he lives long enough, a year will come when he gets his heart broken, or someone very important to him dies, or he is diagnosed with a crippling illness – or just has a mediocre year. That’s life. Ups and downs. fear of writing overcome

And that’s the writer’s life, too. Thinking about that young man, I understood that in a way I was trying to emulate him, and it wasn’t possible. Then I realised afresh what in fact I’ve known for many years: the only cure for writer’s paralysis is to write. Don’t give in to the fear. Put some words on the page. It doesn’t matter how good or bad they are – that never matters – the point is to have some words to work with. Forget the failure and the success: cover that blank page, and the fear goes away. Never completely, at least not in my experience, but the more you write, the more you can keep it at bay.