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.

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