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Why I think it is important that research is ‘politically correct’

September 21, 2017

Absolutely no question, I’ve casually insulted every minority going at some point.  I’ve been racist, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic.  I’ve insulted disabled people and people with mental illness and neuro divergent people and homeless people and travelling communities and people from economically deprived backgrounds.  Not to their faces, obviously.  I’m not a confrontational person.  In fact most of the time I was a child and I had absolutely no idea what I was saying.  Sometimes I’ve unwittingly insulted myself in the process.  You know the sort of words I mean, so I won’t give them any more publicity.  But I’d heard those words somewhere and it felt normal to use them.  Times change, meanings associated with words change, society changes.  I have my own child now, and I still hear some of the same words in the playground.  Kids are still hearing these words somewhere and thinking it feels normal to use them.

These days I’m a card carrying politically correct liberal snowflake.  When I hear these kinds of words in casual conversation now, I wince and sometimes I even call it out.

I’m well aware of the arguments against policing political correctness.  That insisting on the ‘correct’ terminology can stifle important conversations and get in the way of achieving ‘bigger picture’ more important advancements for marginalised groups.  I know that terminology preferences change and that it can be hard to keep up with them.  I know that people usually mean well.  That’s why I don’t always call it out when I hear it.

But my view is that it is nice not to be a dick. And that’s all political correctness is, you know, not being a dick.  It means “not using words that might hurt someone’s feelings and make them feel even more disadvantaged than they are already”.

It is nice to do your best to be inclusive.  It is nice to listen to people who have had different experiences to yourself and try to accommodate their preferences when it comes to talking about them and their circumstances.  It is nice to try and make things easier for people rather than harder.  I think being ‘politically correct’ is the nice thing to do, and I try to be nice.

But I’m prepared to go one further than that.  I also think that as a researcher it is absolutely vital that I use what is currently considered to be the most (politically) ‘correct’ terminology.

Words are important in research.

Whatever kind of research you are doing, when you are taking up the time of respondents and mining their brains, you owe them respect.  They should exit the research process feeling at worst neutral and ideally valued and valuable.  Nothing you say should grate on them or make them feel bad.  Being nice is the decent and most professional thing to do.  If, instead, the words that you use hurt a respondent’s feelings well that is just rude and unpleasant – even if done in ignorance.

So, using politically correct language can make the research process more comfortable for the respondent, but it is also important to note that in turn this has positive methodological consequences.  You’re doing the right thing for your research by doing the right thing for your respondents.

Qualitative research is about relationships.  When interviewing it is important to build a strong rapport and demonstrate that you empathise with what people are telling you.  In focus groups, it is crucial that you make the environment feel welcoming and inclusive for all – and this involves watching what you say and what the group says.

Quantitative research is nothing without precise language, and when you are designing a questionnaire you need to say exactly what you meant to say otherwise the results become nonsense.  Every word must be carefully chosen so that the respondent interprets it as you intended them to.

Either way, it would be foolish to piss off your respondents by using (what they consider to be) insulting or hurtful language. If you accidentally upset them the danger is they will stop engaging with you and your research: either dropping out or telling you less and providing weaker data.

You can’t know the background of all of your respondents.  If you’re meeting them in person you might get a visual clue to their ethnicity or disability or whatever, but you might not.  If the research is remote you generally have no idea.  We live in a diverse society, and consequently addressing political correctness is as relevant when your research is about football or toothpaste as it is when you are directly researching inequalities or groups with specific characteristics.  One in four people in our society have experienced a mental health problem, for example.  So you would be wise to expect that people with mental health problems are completing every survey and attending every focus group that you run.  No need to alienate them by accidentally referring to nutters and psychos (more advice on that, here).

As a researcher you are an ambassador for getting it right.  When you are corresponding with hundreds of people through your research projects you have the opportunity to lead by example.  If respondents notice you using a nice inclusive term, they might start using that nice inclusive term too.

Furthermore, when you are working for clients who are experts in their field you are expected to ‘talk the talk’.  If you consistently use the ‘wrong’ words you’ll look like an idiot and your client will doubt your competence and possibly sack you.

Terminology does change, and for the reasons above I make an effort to try and keep abreast of current preferences.  I’ll often look at charity websites or publications with a view to finding out, say, how we are referring to homeless people these days or if we’ve added any more letters into the LGBTQI+ mix.  You can’t expect to know everything yourself, spontaneously, all the time.  I’m sure I still get it wrong sometimes.  But I do think it is my job to educate myself, and that I owe it to my respondents and the research industry to make research a welcoming and inclusive environment.

There’s no harm in doing your best to get it right.

Because there might be harm in getting it wrong.

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