At the time of year when students are seeking support for research proposals or dissertations, I often find myself reading about attempts to ‘eliminate’ or ‘avoid’ bias. In such cases, I try to explain to the students that, while such elimination of bias may (to an extent) be possible in (some) quantitative research, the active involvement of the researcher in qualitative research and data collection means that some form of ‘bias’ is (probably) inevitable and it is the recognition of the researcher’s position and influence on the study that is more important. I will return to this issue later in this blog …
But my writing of this blog was prompted more by events in Libreville, Gabon on Sunday night rather than any musings about qualitative research and student assignments. It was there that Zambia won the African Cup of Nations for the first time beating the Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties after the game itself had finished goalless. Zambia had beaten pre-tournament favourites Senegal and Ghana on their way to the final. However, their triumph in the final was even more remarkable given that the Ivory Coast team included six players who play in the English Premier League. In contrast, none of Zambia’s players represent clubs in the major European leagues, instead playing in contexts as diverse as the second-tier of Russian football, the Congo, Sudan, South Africa and Zambia’s own premier league. The result was all the more poignant for the connection with the disaster in 1993 in which all bar one of what was recognised as Zambia’s greatest ever team died in a plane crash having just left Libreville on the way to a fixture in Senegal. A few days before the final, the current players had visited and conducted a memorial on a beach close to where the plane went down in the sea nineteen years previously.
It is here that I must declare my own bias. I have been involved in research within Zambia since 2006, having visited the country three times. These visits and the friends I have made through them have been hugely important in my life. For me, the qualities shown by the Zambian team in the African Cup of Nations are those which I admire so much in the Zambian people I have met and worked with: huge courage in intensely adverse conditions, a strong sense of community and the desire to work together to achieve collective improve lives and a wonderful combination of friendliness, respectfulness and joyfulness. I can only imagine the scenes that must have greeted the success of the Zambian team in the communities in which I have spent much time but my own elation was such that my wife (perhaps worryingly) said that I was excited as she had seen me in a long time as the last penalty went in!
So to return to contrastingly mundane academic considerations … a colleague and I recently submitted and had accepted a paper based on interviews undertaken with a large number of Zambians involved in sport and development work in communities in the capital, Lusaka. In the paper, we argued that these Zambians had greater capacity to exert their own agency than much of the literature on hegemonic power relations in sport and international development gives credit for. Our paper generated a review and a subsequent response article that suggested that we did not give sufficient emphasis to the influence of the broader global context on the communities and the Zambians whose voices were at the centre of our research. If this was the case then I do not think it would be up to me to judge whether the research was ‘biased’ or not due to the empathy I had with the research participants. In fact, I do not think this is the correct question to ask with the issue rather being one related to the rigour of the qualitative research process. Irrespective, I would argue the need for and value of qualitative research that listens to people such as the Zambians who contributed to our study. They have voices and stories that are need to be heard and the story of the Zambian football team is a particularly strong case in point.
Senior Lecturer in Sports Development