The Necessity of Empathetic Research

Over the past year, I conducted not one but two research studies on best practices for vocal music education. This was terrifying enough to undergo as a brand new researcher and was even more nerve-wracking to take on during a global pandemic. I was concerned about recruiting enough participants online to make my studies valid, staying in communication with my participants when email or Zoom calls were my only option and navigating the world of research as an undergraduate from the confines of my bedroom. Although I made some significant discoveries about music education, my greatest learning by far surrounded the importance of humanity in research.

Constructivism

Most research studies are guided by a paradigm, a particular lens or way of looking at the world that shapes the researcher’s viewpoints and analysis. The vast majority of traditional research has been conducted through a positivist paradigm. Positivism is a lens that assumes there is one universal truth that can be discovered through logic and mathematics. It aligns well with numerical and quantitative research methods that use statistical analysis to generate conclusions about data.

Fortunately, as society develops, so too does the prevalence of additional paradigms that are more reflective of reality. Constructivism is an alternative viewpoint that recognizes realities as being fluid and multiple. In other words, different people may view the same circumstance differently, and both divergent perspectives can be considered equally valid. Constructivism emphasizes the importance of empathy and realizing that one person’s viewpoint is not the only valid one.

Diversity and Inclusion

A primary reason for the historical centrality of positivism is its governance by populations of privilege. Positivism was established exclusively by Western-educated white men who had complete control of publication, literature and academia at the time of its creation. In other words, positivism’s claim of a singular reality was never reflective of the full population’s experience; that singular reality was simply the experiences of privileged white men.

In today’s society, diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of many institutional mandates, yet the diversity of research perspectives is still often neglected within the academic sphere. Positivist quantitative analysis remains the dominant research method and the style of discovery that is often taken most seriously by academics. This represents an enormous experiential gap, as positivism discounts the lived experiences of women, BIPOC communities, neurodivergent individuals and many other marginalized groups. Without cultivating empathy and understanding in research by broadening our paradigm and recognizing our participants’ humanity, our findings are simply not generalizable to the general population. We live in a diverse society, and it’s high time that our academic literature reflects this reality.

Numbers Aren’t Everything

In my own research, I chose to use mixed methods for most of my studies ⏤ some data was qualitative through participant comments and interviews, and other data was quantitative through Likert scale numerical self-evaluations. One of my most striking findings was how often participants’ written comments did not match up with numerical values, even when they were reflecting the same circumstance. Before and after an intervention, my participants’ numbers often stayed constant, but they described feeling significantly more ease and comfort afterward in words. If numbers were all I had to rely upon, I would have entirely missed these important findings.

Similarly, one participant’s data stood out as an outlier from the others, but their written comments explained the personal circumstances that caused this difference. Without an ability to listen to their perspective and empathize with their situation, I may have ruled out this person’s data entirely, considering it an unusable outlier. Instead, their personal explanation provided a deep richness of understanding that I could have only gained through empathy.

Biases Matter

Throughout our education, we are taught the importance of ensuring that our research, work and writing are unbiased. I respectfully disagree with this notion. Biases are not only natural, but they are an essential part of our humanity. Our biases are reflected in the way we view the world around us. They shape the language we use, our interactions with others, our understanding and interpretation of events and our very thoughts. In other words, our biases are unavoidable as long as we are human beings. To be a human is to be a social creature who is empathetic, free-thinking and, yes, biased.

We are not robots. Every person, including academics and researchers, has thoughts and feelings that are influenced by our personal biases. Instead of pretending that we can shut these biases off like computers, what if we acknowledged and celebrated the biases that we hold? In my case, much of my research struggled to take off because of technical complications and low recruitment. My unwavering passion for my subject matter ⏤ an obvious bias ⏤ was the only reason that I persevered and kept trying in spite of so many difficulties. Biases are not always weaknesses; at times, our biases are our strengths.

Human Beings are HUMAN

Ultimately, every single researcher, research participant, academic and educator have one thing in common: they are all human beings. Humans are flawed, imperfect and vulnerable creatures who require care, social interaction and love. These very qualities that are so often rejected by traditional science are what make research so fascinating. By recognizing our humanity, we can develop deeper understandings of how the world works for everyone, not just the privileged few. Researchers hold a responsibility to generate knowledge and uncover the truth, which cannot be done without considering the vast differences in the lived experiences of our entire population. Human beings are strong because of our vulnerability, not in spite of it.

Through empathy, research holds the potential to make the world a better, stronger and more human place.