This morning on NPR I heard a story on the impact of being asked to categorize ones racial/ethnic background on questionnaires or other queries, such as medical forms. This eight-minute piece reminded me again that a questionnaire is not a one-way street, but a two-way street. What we chose to ask, and how we choose to ask it, says a lot about what we value and who we are. It’s not just in the answers that we find meaning, but also in the questions.
How we ask says something about who we are and how we perceive the world, and when your perception is vastly different than those whom you seek answers from, discomfort arises. All too often that discomfort is on the side of the respondent, and not the researcher. Unless we choose to get out from behind the forms, behind the numbers and the calculations, and actually interact with those we claim to know about, we only have a small piece of the puzzle.
This NPR piece reminded of me about that discomfort, and how very important it is to take every step possible to minimize that. Over a span of twenty years of my personally crafting questions I have certainly made a flew blunders. I credit some very wise educators I worked with early on in helping me see the importance of how we chose our words and what we ask, and like to think that I am a better researcher and human being because of that awareness.
Reflecting on this today, I again was reminded that pioneering work in asking questions is a legacy of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), which I have the privilege of currently directing. It was not until the 2000 that the US Census allowed people to represent themselves with more than one race or ethnicity. The CIRP Freshman Survey has done so since 1971.