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Acknowledging Bias

I’m bias. I know I am. I realise that I am bias in ways I’m comfortable with. I like dogs more than cats. I like rugby more than football. I also realise that I’m bias in ways I don’t feel comfortable with. Increasingly, I find myself picking up on biases that I didn’t even know were biases. And I find myself without a vocabulary or the confidence to express them. Who do I tell about them? How? 

As a researcher how do I acknowledge my bias? How do I explain to the audience of my work that I undertook a research study or wrote a paper with certain expectations. How do I explain why I choose one piece of data over another to tell my tale? How do I acknowledge that my bias probably made my tale into something that another person might have told differently or not at all? And yet how do I stay honest to myself and help other people see ME (for all my biases) and trust my tales?

As we got towards the end of the book Tim, Lee, Doug and I undertook a series of academic conversations. We met on SKYPE and chatted. We recorded these chats and then built chapters around them. The first of these resolved around acknowledging bias and focused on three questions: (1) How do you acknowledge bias in your methodology?, (2a) what does acknowledging bias do for us as teachers/coaches? And (2b) What effect might acknowledging bias have on the reader? In what remains of this blog I will try and do justice to those conversations.

Question 1: One of the key messages to emerge from our conversation was that bias is not some abstract phenomenon. It’s right here. We feel it. Live it. It’s part of us. And it’s personal. In the type of research we do we can’t think of finding The unbiased Truth - Two capital T’s. This is notsomething that can be found though objective research methods. Truth doesn’t lie outside of our individual lived experiences. It’s impossible to know if someone else is telling the truth. If we weren’t there we can trust them but we don’t know. There are, after all, many sides of a story. Is my truth more valued than yours? It’s subjective nor objective.There is a sense of uncertainty within which truth becomes relative to the researcher, the context and the researched.

If there are many sides to one story then how do we know who to trust? If I undertake a study on my teaching and I choose to explore only my own excellence am I being trustworthy? Surely there are some black spots. If I choose to investigate the idea of ‘throwing like a girl’, am I trustworthy if I fail to acknowledge any biases I have/had with regards to the ability of girls to throw? Or if I do nothing about that bias? If I still harbour a bias about girls and throwing how does this bias represent itself in my practice? How is this bias represented in my research? How are both my research and my practice influenced by the subjectivity I bring with me?

Acknowledging bias is about laying your bias out for others to see and understanding. It’s not about hiding yourself. It’s about putting yourself out there as a key part of any study. You’re not cherry picking. The gold standard of scientific research seeks external validity and asks that the results of any given study be replicable somewhere else if undertaken by someone else. That’s pie in the sky for a practitioner researcher. You’re not replicable. Nor is your context. You’re a person working with people and findings have to do with that person/those people. 

Questions 2a and b: The transparency of conscious bias is important but even if we thought of bias constantly we may never really identify all the ways in which our biases impact our practice or research. All we can do is try to understand how our biases play a role in each decision we make. 

Acknowledging bias and the ways it impacts our teaching and our research helps us to demonstrate the strength of work. It is not an admission of weakness but an acknowledgement that our work is not all sunshine and lollipops. When other people tell their stories their experiences might not be ours but if their stories are authentic, if they resonate, then they can help others understand more about themselves and their experiences. 

When, as practitioner researchers, we work with teachers we quickly come to understand that they have a huge amount of knowledge. They are experts. But they are also bias. The four authors of the book are all fairly similar. We are white, male, tall (well three of us are), middle class and play sports. These attributes means we have experienced certain things. It also means that there is a risk that we get reduced to social stereotypes. We need to look at these stereotypes. We need to understand how we are situated within those social structures and how they impact on what we know and what everyone thinks they know about us. We also need to understand the effect of acknowledging bias on a reader of practitioner research. Being white, male, tall, middle class and playing sports can’t define us. We can’t be reduced to gender, race, socio-economic status etc. These are not one thing to all people. We all experience them in different ways. The truth, after all, is not something that can simply be found. 

When we think about bias in these ways we see the importance of being trustworthy and the foolhardiness of seeking truth. Practitioner research isn’t knowing something. Instead it is about resonating with something we feel is true. The more we acknowledge bias and make it part of what we do the better we can see how it impacts on our practice and our research. It is not abstract but in the same way it takes some understanding and the bravery to start to ‘see’ it. When we do, we come to see the power of our stories, their importance to others and their subjectivity and fallibility. We need to help people trust them but we cannot expect them to find truth in them. That truth lies with them, their contexts and experiences not ours. But we can certainly help. 

References

Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge. 

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