Research Methods

Researcher Bias and Rapport with Study Subjects

Researcher Bias

Sociologists must consider the potential for researcher bias and may need to work to establish rapport with respondents before collecting data.

Sociologists, and scientists in general, must consider several ways that their research can be impacted. Researcher bias refers to the ways that a researcher's expectations, beliefs, and values can influence the outcome of a study. This influence can be intentional or unintentional. For example, a researcher could intentionally ask or avoid questions that lead to certain answers. On the other hand, researchers might unintentionally influence the outcome of a study by interpreting data based on their own beliefs or personal experiences. When interacting with people in order to collect data, sociologists must also consider how to establish rapport, or set up a positive connection, with respondents. Establishing rapport can help ensure that respondents trust the researcher and feel confident and comfortable enough to give sincere and complete answers and information.

An example of the importance of establishing rapport is found in Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books (2006). Venkatesh wanted information about how money changes hands in low-income areas where many people are unemployed. In his first attempt to collect information, he went knocking on doors in the south side of Chicago, an area that is home to many impoverished and low-income individuals. Most people refused to talk to him. Venkatesh needed to gain the trust of the people he wanted to study. To do so, he contacted a gang leader and established a connection with him. This facilitated a new approach to his research. Venkatesh then spent time with the gang all day, every day, for years. This type of research is known as participant observation. Eventually, the gang saw Venkatesh's presence as normal and allowed him to gather very in-depth data. As Venkatesh’s experience demonstrates, people tend to be wary of researchers whose aim is to gather data. They may not understand the intent of the research, or they may think it might be used against them. When a researcher can establish a personal connection, respondents may give more information, including answers that are more honest or more complex.