Are They Respondents or Participants?

What do we call those wonderful people who share their life story, their dreams and their failures with us? For most of my career, I have referred to them generically as “respondents.”  In fact, “respondents” has been a pretty universal term for these kind folks.

But over the past couple of years, I have begun to question that terminology. It seems to be a holdover from quantitative research where a researcher poses a question and the subject dutifully “responds” accordingly. This imagery seems somehow appropriate for quantitative survey research but strangely inappropriate for qualitative research.

In qualitative research, we engage in dialogue rather than a structured question-response format. In this limited sense, I suppose, “respondent” has always been a bit of a misnomer.

In today’s world of online qualitative research and the exploding array of methods available to us, the subjects are becoming more and more active. Nowadays, we typically ask them to have a dialogue with us over some period of time using a bulletin board focus group, webcam focus group or in doing mobile qualitative research. More than ever, we are even less likely to ask these research subjects to simply respond; we are much more likely to ask them to participate fully in research, which reveals much more about them than simple responses to a survey.

Finally, acknowledging our research subjects as “participants” is much more gratifying and respectful of them than referring to them as merely “respondents.” Pavlov’s dog was a respondent in the purest sense. These people who sometimes bare their souls should be considered something better. As for me, I’ll call them “participants.”  What about you? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. Agree with what you say about the level of participation = participants and it’s a ‘nicer’ way to refer to them. However ‘respondents’ is arguably no more than a technical term which everyone understands, so not sure how much there needs to be a debate about this. It’s a bit like British Rail all now referring to us as ‘customers’ when we are in fact ‘passengers’ – makes them feel better but actually makes no difference to us.
    We often do write things like ‘respondents participating in the research’ so perhaps we’re already half way there.

  2. Clare, I think you make a great point, and I definitely tend to agree with your use of “respondents participating….” Now if only we can come up with some more verbs for “participate.”

  3. I refer to them as members (vs moderators and administrators). This denotes their role and not their action (responding or participating).

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