Eliminating researcher’s influence on subject

I’m sensitive to emotions conveyed on people’s faces. I can see the range of emotions flitting across people’s faces, like the play of light and shadow brought on by the early morning and late afternoon sun on a building facade. Always, I am affected. Mostly, fascinated. And often, I haven’t misread. The corollary of this is that I am disturbed – scared – when I see no emotions on faces – I feel I’ve come across a blank wall and I have to blindly make my way through.

Which is why when I’m face to face with a subject in a situation in which I am the researcher, I feel for the subject, meaning, I’m anxious over how I’m influencing my subject via emotions or messages I may unconsciously convey on my face. The anxiety can of course be picked up along with the others by the subject. Or maybe not, depending on how keen the subject is to these things. (In such a setting, I see in my subject myself being mirrored back to me regardless of whether or not she is conscious of the effect, so that, at the end of the session I have a momentary blurring with regards to whether I’m the researcher or the researched, but this is another topic altogether.) At best, I try to be as detached as possible to the topics I put forward and the feedback or reactions I receive. By detached I mean to have set aside emotions, positive and negative. I try to accomplish this by visualization before the session – imagining myself taking out of myself a bundle (these should be my emotions) and leaving them at a corner behind me.

Over the holidays in between celebrations I caught up on movies I missed (before this, I only managed to watch two movies in 2012), one was A Dangerous Method (I’ve had the DVD for eons). The story centers on Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud. Spielrein who later became a leading psychoanalyst in her time was Jung’s first patient on which he used Freud’s psychoanalysis or more popularly “the talking cure”. In one such “the talking cure” sessions, Jung sat behind Spielrein and conducted the session from there. According to the review on Psychology Today, “This orientation was suggested by Freud, so the psychologist wouldn’t have to worry about the patient monitoring his/her reactions as potential judgments.” And I thought, omigod, of course!

But who nowadays conducts psychotherapy or research from behind his or her subject? And wouldn’t the subject’s facial and frontal non-verbal expressions important to the analyst’ or researcher’s overall understanding of the subject? What if in the context of trauma the subject’s oral recount is in monotone – wouldn’t the analyst want to check on the subject’s face or expression for discrepancy or consistency? Is voice all that mattered?

In past development researches and evaluations done for my employers, I’ve gone against the ethic of not influencing your subject – development workers in the context of meetings call it ‘facipulation‘, had attacks of conscience because of it but took refuge in the fact that it was made without malice. The setting in localities called for certain rules not necessarily in line with clinic-based research. Villagers and even public officials – the research and evaluation subjects – would’ve walked out on me leaving me without a coherent set of information hence without an output or a report if I spoke in unattached monotone to them or deliberately detached myself from the spirit of the discussion. They would’ve stamped me a snob and snobs on locals’ lists are not found in their sphere of confidence. This, plus the fact that the organizations’ – my employers’ – mantra and dictum to its employees is “go to the people. live with them. learn from them. love them.” Love them! The exact opposite of detachment because if you love you’re somehow attached. And if the researcher’s attached to the subject, it means the relationship between researcher and subject even prior to the actual research is already contaminated. In these cases, what I did was to review my research notes and draft report and flesh out – that’s how excruciating it is – my involvement or extent of influence in the proceeding; where it’s impossible for me to do so without changing a major part of the report, I report it as it has transpired giving the reader a feel of the interaction; and reserved my thoughts as a researcher in the Conclusions. As a result, at one time, a colleague having read a report joked that I was being anthropological (although my undergraduate is economics not anthropology) instead of rational which is what rational organizations are understandably after. I took that as an indication that I’ve driven home the point – I wanted the subjects (not me the researcher) to speak to the reader.

Working as a development researcher in an organization can bring some surprising challenges to the profession but my experience is that as long as you stick to the bottomline you can with some creativity and presence of mind work through the established organizational process. And maybe with a smattering of luck sow seeds of positive change into it, which is after all what research – knowledge – is for.


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