Friday, November 11, 2005

Research Subjects

Researchers are eager to get to the heart of a question. They need data to do this, often data collected from other humans that are not interested in the same subject. How does a researcher get these subjects to cooperate? What is their motivation? How do you insure that their responses are not contrived?

When the subjects are animals it is necessary to control them or to extend yourself. You must capture and control the range of the animals so that they will fall under observation or experimentation. Or you can become Diane Fossey or Jane Goodall and go out to the jungles and follow them about.

With humans this is more difficult. For one, each human often has a different daily path than his or her family or peers. We tend to have clusters of location and association that are specific to family, work, school, sports, service organizations, and hobbies. Therefore, a researcher is most likely to limit the study to one of these clusters. It simplifies the location of data collection and the set of people to be collected on. However, it also omits the external factors that impact the behavior when in those clusters. For example, my performance in this class is often impacted by the work travel schedule or the arrival of a hurricane. However, the professor cannot see these effects and in many cases, I do not think to mention them until after they have impacted my performance. If research were being conducted, then the data would have already been collected and adjustments would have to be made retroactively.

When your population of study comes from a social class that has little interest in or connection to research, what is their motivation for talking to you, or telling you the truth? Do you explain the grand contribution you will make to the world? Do you explain how important it is for you to finish the long path to a doctoral degree? Do you tell them you are a government rep who will make life easier if they take your survey? Do you agree to watch the children or bring sandwiches while they take the survey?

I accept that many people cooperate just because it is in their nature to cooperate or because they find it flattering to be listened to. I think these are the most powerful motivators. But, beyond these people, it can get very difficult to get research subjects who will give you good accurate information.

It is important to realize that your work is just one step forward in human knowledge. If you make mistakes, it can be forgiven as long as you provide some valuable piece of truth. Later researchers will catch your mistakes and use your truths to move forward another step. It is important to be honest and ethical in your research, because it will lay one foundation stone for future researchers.


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