I remember the first time I heard anyone speak ill of labor unions. I was with friends just outside of Pittsburgh. I don’t even remember the original topic of the conversation, just the “Well, everyone knows union workers are lazy” reply that left my mouth gaping. I thought everyone understood the value of workers’ concerns having a place at the negotiation table with management’s. I thought a place like Pittsburgh, with its industrial history, surely would be full of pro-union folk. I didn’t know what to say because nothing in my life had prepared me to engage in this argument. My father was a union president and union organizer. My dinner was paid for by his hard work at a paper mill. I understood early that the quality of that dinner depended on how well my father and his union negotiated their own salaries and benefits. My father worked hard at the mill, and then in the union office, and then anywhere he was sent to help organize a new union. Who would ever think him lazy? Intellectually, I knew that people held different perspectives based on what their experiences had taught them, but I was having difficulty analyzing this reply as such.
Thankfully, I happened to be taking a college research methodology course. I was assigned to find and analyze an article about research writing from a field other than my own. In the dusty, quiet back stacks of my university library, I found sociologist Karen Norum’s “Black (W)holes: A Researcher’s Place in Her Research.”
While the article in part tackles a common subject for sociologists—homelessness—it does so in a particular way to make a point about something else: We cannot outrun our own bias, but acknowledging this, exploring our bias, and understanding how it changes our relationship to information ultimately gets us closer to objectivity.
Norum researched and wrote about homelessness three different ways, in 3 different side-by-side columns. The middle column reads like a typical, mostly quantitative assessment—Here’s what homelessness in the USA looks like today. This percentage is under 18, and this percentage is adults, etc.
The column to the right is still common research writing for sociologists. Norum interviewed two teens in a homeless shelter. We don’t know how common their reported experiences are without that big picture data from the middle column, but with the long passages of qualitative data, their interview answers, we can understand their experiences in more depth.
The column to the left contains Norum’s first-person narrative of her own experiences in which she unexpectedly found herself homeless. How can she be an objective researcher of homelessness if she has been homeless? By examining her own bias.
Of course she asked those homeless teens certain questions because her own experiences led her to believe they were important. Of course she showcased certain parts of their answers and not others, because they seemed more significant based on her experiences. There is a strong argument to be made that she did the same with the big picture data in the middle column. If Norum explores what her experiences have taught her about homelessness, if she remains aware of what has shaped her emotions and thoughts on the topic, if she takes extra care to understand what her lived experience has led her to want to believe and not believe, she comes out more objective in the end, not less. This can be hard, uncomfortable work in our lives as everyday thinkers and researchers, but the rewards extend well beyond ourselves. If I examine what experiences have shaped my thoughts on labor unions, it’s easier to see how different experiences may have shaped different thoughts in different people.
And if my Pittsburgh friend and I had continued our conversation, we might have looked up some big picture data, like that in Norum’s middle column, to understand how common or uncommon both of our experiences had been. We could have both walked away with a stronger understanding of the issue and our places in it. We both could have won that argument.
Your Life-Work mission this time is to write your own assessment of an issue with which you have personal experience. Instead of writing 3 columns, you’ll write 3 sentences. First, a sentence describing your personal experience with the issue: For example: “I’m a vegetarian for environmental and spiritual reasons.”
Second, a fact about the topic you have found from a credible, published source: “According to the Mayo Clinic, vegetarians can meet their daily nutritional requirements without meat or dairy.”
Third, an opinion from a person you know. “My friend remains concerned about my protein intake.”
Look at your three sentences. How does your personal experience shape your feelings about the fact you researched and the opinion you asked for? Please consider sharing your three sentences and a fourth answering this question with us by emailing them to email@example.com with the subject line “Lifework #3 submission.” Please indicate whether you’re comfortable being identified by name or prefer anonymity if I excerpt your work.
If we garner ample participation, Life-Work assignments will continue. I look forward to reading and learning!
Heidi Stevenson is a lifelong Yooper, save for two years earning a PhD in Pennsylvania. She is a former NMU professor, writing center director, group fitness and yoga instructor, and a current wrangler of house cats, autoimmune diseases, and ideas.
Mayo Clinic. “Vegetarian Diet: How to get the best nutrition” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-2004644
Norum, Karen. “Black (w)holes: A researcher’s place in her research” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A100552002744
Excerpt from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Summer 2018 Issue, copyright 2018.