Qualitative Data and Subjectivity

Every Wednesday I attend a Doctoral Training Programme module on research design. For this week we were asked to read a paper and give a short presentation on its methodological lessons. I read ‘Qualitative data and the subjectivity of ‘objective’ facts’ by Ian Parker (1999).


The paper begins by discussing the different perspectives of quantitative and qualitative research, specifically the way in which human activity is portrayed. Parker identifies that when we refer to individuals as subjects we are ‘often only using a code word to cover up the fact that we treat them as if they were objects rather than human beings’ (1999, p.83), and that this is often perpetuated by quantitative methods. This introduction opens up a wider debate around subjectivity and objectivity and the apparent dichotomy  between the two.

Parker’s key argument is that research does not exist outside of the human experience. It is affected by the people who undertake it and the people who participate in it. In an attempt to be objective about the data that we collect we often disregard the subjectivity of all research. Parker argues that we can only achieve true objectivity by embracing the subjectivity of research and by being reflexive about our role as researchers.

Personally, I take away two key methodological lessons from this paper:

5001interpretativegapThe ‘interpretive gap
Have you ever had a conversation with someone where they have described something as one colour and you think its a different one? Me and mum are forever arguing over whether things are blue or green. This is essentially what Parker is referring to as the ‘interpretive gap’; the fact that there is always a difference between objects/events in the world and the way that we describe them. It is not always intentional, but as human beings we will always bring a certain perspective with us to a dataset and this will influence the findings. This would then suggest that all research is subjective, though Parker argues that this is not a bad thing just that we need to be more open about the affect that we have as researchers.

When Parker uses the term reflexivity, he is referring to the process of both examining ones role as the researcher, and the research relationship (the effect that the research has upon the researcher). For example, a teacher-educator considering the affect they may have during interviews with student teachers, and how the responses they collect may alter their own view of teacher education programmes. It would seem that reflexivity is very important within qualitative data collection methods – it is easy to see (as in my example) how a researcher could affect the data collected during interviews, observations or focus groups. However, if all data is subjective (through its interpretation by human beings) then perhaps reflexivity is just as important when applying quantitative methods; acknowledging any prior relationships with the material/context and how that might affect interpretations.

My Research
The main focus of my research will be around professional development strategies for teachers, in the area of digital literacy. I view digital literacy as the confident, creative and critical use of technology for teaching and learning; being able to make a judgement about when technology can offer benefit to a learning situation. Within my perspective of digital literacy, confidence plays a crucial role and this is a very subjective topic. However, whilst a very subjective quality, research has shown that confidence is a strong indicator of how effectively and how often technology is used within the classroom (European commission and Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology 2013); so whilst it is a subjective measure it is an appropriate one for this area.

In my research I am hoping to work with teachers from Secondary schools across Leicester. In my previous role as Digital Literacy Research Associate for the DigiLit Leicester project, I worked with a number of staff across the city and this is something that I will need to acknowledge in the write-up of my research. It is likely that my previous relationship with some staff members may influence their engagement with my research. One of the purposes of keeping this blog is to help me to remain reflexive about my role in this research and to offer a space in which explore my work over the next three years.

Parker, I. (1999) Qualitative Data and the Subjectivity of ‘Objective’ Facts. In: Dorling, D. and Simpson, L. (Eds.) Statistics in Society: the arithmetic of politics. London: Arnold.

European Commission and Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (2013) Survey of Schools: ICT in Education: benchmarking access, use and attitudes to technology in Europe’s schools. Brussels: EC and DG Connect.

Leave a Reply