Knowledge is power: Can qualitative methods make psychology more democratic?

As psychologists we wield a lot of power over people: We research them, teach them how to think about themselves and others, and we get to decide whether or not they are ill. Perhaps all this power is justified – after all Psychology is “the study of the mind and behaviour” and the “enterprise” of psychologists is “the understanding of behaviour” [1]. And we know that we know quite a lot about people.

While there are many “known knowns”, there are even more “known unknowns”

However, while there are many of these “known knowns”, there are even more “known unknowns”. Ideally this is what drives researchers. We know that there are many things that we don’t know, but through systematic research, we aim to find out what these are. Quantitative researchers in Psychology tackle these gaps in knowledge by using the things they already know as the starting point to come up with predictions about the things that they don’t know. They test their predictions by presenting participants with all kinds of questionnaires or experiments. However, this means that participants have little influence on the research process beyond being the source of data. It is the researcher who chooses what is a relevant research question, decides on how to study this question, and interprets the results. If knowledge is power then those who control its production hold all the power.

Influence of power-imbalance

This resulting power-imbalance between researchers and participants can be especially problematic when researchers are working with vulnerable or minority groups, since the outcomes of research has the potential to influence the lives of participants. For example, it was only in 1973 that psychologists decided that homosexuality was no longer an illness. It’s important to note that it was the vocal outrage from activists and homosexuals, who asserted that they were in fact not ill, that changed the face of history. Thus, this major shift in clinical practice and theoretical perspective was the outcome of protests from those who were researched [2], not the result of scientific advances based on research.

On the contrary, many of the APA’s members were surprised that homosexuals experienced the diagnosis of homosexuality itself as stigmatizing and distressing [3] but were overall well-adapted, happy adults. Instead, many practitioners believed that the “homosexual adult” was “a person whose heterosexual function is crippled like the legs of a polio victim”[4]. In other words, psychologists believed that homosexuality was an illness, because they believed that healthy sexual and romantic behavior could only take one form: heterosexual. As a consequence, homosexual patients were often subjected to conversion therapy and homosexual practitioners banned from membership in the APA.

This shameful chapter of Psychology’s history warns us against uncritically relying on prior knowledge as the only basis for scientific research. It is impossible to take into account things we don’t know, if we are not aware of our own lack of knowledge. It is important to remind ourselves that our theories and hypotheses about how people “ought” to feel, think, or behave, but also the questions we explore don’t exist in a social vacuum or independent of history. Instead, research is shaped by our subjectivities: by our theoretical and ideological perspectives, by the things we hold to be true, and by our own experiences.

Giving a voice to multiple perspectives

The presence of researchers’ subjectivities wouldn’t be as much of an issue if we were as diverse as those that we study. However, much like in the 1970s, researchers today are mostly white, often male, necessarily educated, commonly of higher socio-economic status, predominantly liberal, and in positions of privilege and power. As a result, minority groups affected by research rarely influence the research process. However, in order to become more democratic, research needs to consider multiple perspectives. One long-term strategy to tackle this issue is to diversify the group of researchers. But there is another more short-term way to fight the similarity in perspectives in psychological research. As the protesters seizing the microphones at APA panels in 1970 shouted: “Stop talking about us and start talking with us!” [3]

Psychology’s lack of democracy results from not actively involving those affected by research, and of privileging the perspectives of those already in power. Importantly, qualitative methods within Psychology directly address this issue. Broadly, qualitative research aims to understand social phenomena and processes, and the experiences and meanings that individuals attach to them. In contrast to quantitative researchers, data-driven qualitative research approaches use participants’ experiences as the starting point for their inquiry. Rather than utilize questionnaires or experiments that are shaped by researcher’s experiences, practices, and beliefs, qualitative researchers start bottom-up, moving from participants’ experiences to produce knowns.

This in-depth focus on participants’ experiences means that qualitative research methods can actively involve participants at multiple steps of the research process. Such an active involvement of all or at least some participants is made easier by the fact that qualitative research uses comparatively small sample sizes. In addition, qualitative researchers present excerpts from texts and interviews to support their claims, which means that articles and research presentations directly feature participants’ experiences and words. In fact, giving a voice to and empowering participants from minority groups is often the explicit goal of qualitative researchers.

Qualitative research and democracy

Qualitative researchers acknowledge and embrace the fact that their own experiences of the world will necessarily shape their research. By critically reflecting on their own involvement, as well as adhering to clear procedures and transparency, qualitative researchers try to disentangle their own prior expectations from the ideas put forward by participants. I don’t mean to say that qualitative research is the only solution to Psychology’s democracy issue, or that quantitative research is bad. Despite being defined in contrast to each other, the differences between the two approaches are often much less clear-cut as proponents of either would like us believe. What is different between the two is that qualitative researchers commit themselves to talking and listening to participants. What would be a better starting point to make research more democratic?


Relevant links and publications

[1]  About APA

[2]  81 words, pod-cast on how by the change of 81 words homosexuals were cured of their mental illness

[3]  Gittings, Barbara. “Show and tell.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 12.3 (2008): 289-295.

[4]  The A.P.A. Ruling on Homosexuality


NOTE: Photo by from Pexels

Ole Gmelin is a PhD-student in Developmental Psychology. He is interested in how identity is formed over time with a special interest in sexual identity. His PhD-project combines qualitative and quantiative research methods to study how sexual identities are constructed in conversations. In addition, Ole is interested in the coordination of behavior in interactions and in the methods and analyses used to study it.

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