Methods of data collection in qualitative research

To draw a clear distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection is both difficult and inappropriate because of the overlap between them. The difference between them mainly lies in the manner in which a method is applied in an actual data collection situ­ation. Use of these methods in quantitative research demands standardisation of questions to be asked of the respondents, a rigid adherence to their structure and order, an adoption of a process that is tested and predetermined, and making sure of the validity and reliability of the process as well as the questions. However, the methods of data collection in qualitative research follow a convention which is almost opposite to quantitative research. The wording, order and format of these questions are neither predetermined nor standardised. Qualitative methods are character­ised by flexibility and freedom in terms of structure and order given to the researcher.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, most qualitative study designs are method based: that is, the method of data collection seems to determine the design. In some situations it becomes difficult to separate a study design from the method of data collection. For example, in-depth interviewing, narratives and oral history are both designs and methods of data collection. This may confuse some but here they are detailed as methods and not designs.

There are three main methods of data collection in qualitative research:

  1. unstructured interviews;
  2. participant observation;
  3. secondary sources.

Participant observation has been adequately covered earlier in this chapter and secondary sources will be covered in a later section, so at this point we will focus on unstructured inter­views, which are by far the most commonly used method of data collection in qualitative research.

Flexibility, freedom and spontaneity in contents and structure underpin an interaction in all types of unstructured interview. This interaction can be at a one-to-one (researcher and a respondent) or a group (researcher and a group of respondents) level. There are several types of unstructured interview that are prevalent in qualitative research, for example in-depth inter­viewing, focus group interviewing, narratives and oral histories. Below is a brief description of each of them. For a detailed understanding readers should consult the relevant references listed in the Bibliography.

1. In-depth interviews

The theoretical roots of in-depth interviewing are in what is known as the interpretive tradition. According to Taylor and Bogdan, in-depth interviewing is ‘repeated face-to-face encounters between the researcher and informants directed towards understanding informants’ perspectives on their lives, experiences, or situations as expressed in their own words’ (1998: 77). This definition underlines two essential characteristics of in-depth interviewing: (1) it involves face-to-face, repeated interaction between the researcher and his/her informant(s); and (2) it seeks to understand the latter’s perspectives. Because this method involves repeated contacts and hence an extended length of time spent with an informant, it is assumed that the rapport between researcher and informant will be enhanced, and that the corresponding understanding and confidence between the two will lead to in-depth and accurate information.

2. Focus group interviews

The only difference between a focus group interview and an in-depth interview is that the former is undertaken with a group and the latter with an individual. In a focus group inter­view, you explore the perceptions, experiences and understandings of a group of people who have some experience in common with regard to a situation or event. For example, you may explore with relevant groups such issues as domestic violence, physical disability or refugees.

In focus group interviews, broad discussion topics are developed beforehand, either by the researcher or by the group. These provide a broad frame for discussions which follow. The specific discussion points emerge as a part of the discussion. Members of a focus group express their opinions while discussing these issues.

You, as a researcher, need to ensure that whatever is expressed or discussed is recorded accurately. Use the method of recording that suits you the best. You may audiotape discus­sions, employ someone else to record them or record them yourself immediately after each session. If you are taking your own notes during discussions, you need to be careful not to lose something of importance because of your involvement in discussions. You can and should take your write-up on discussions back to your focus group for correction, verification and confirmation.

3. Narratives

The narrative technique of gathering information has even less structure than the focus group. Narratives have almost no predetermined contents except that the researcher seeks to hear a person’s retelling of an incident or happening in his/her life. Essentially, the person tells his/ her story about an incident or situation and you, as the researcher, listen passively. Occasionally, you encourage the individual by using active listening techniques; that is, you say words such as ‘uh huh’, ‘mmmm’, ‘yeah’, ‘right’ and nod as appropriate. Basically, you let the person talk freely and without interrupting.

Narratives are a very powerful method of data collection for situations which are sensitive in nature. For example, you may want to find out about the impact of child sexual abuse on people who have gone through such an experience. You, as a researcher, ask these people to narrate their experiences and how they have been affected. Narratives may have a therapeutic impact; that is, sometimes simply telling their story may help a person to feel more at ease with the event. Some therapists specialise in narrative therapy. But here, we are concerned with narratives as a method of data collection.

As with focus group interviews, you need to choose the recording system that suits you the best. Having completed narrative sessions you need to write your detailed notes and give them back to the respondent to check for accuracy.

4. Oral histories

Oral histories, like narratives, involve the use of both passive and active listening. Oral histories, however, are more commonly used for learning about a historical event or episode that took place in the past or for gaining information about a cultural, custom or story that has been passed from generation to generation. Narratives are more about a person’s personal experiences whereas historical, social or cultural events are the subjects of oral histories.

Suppose you want to find out about the life after the Second World War in some regional town of Western Australia or about the living conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the 1960s. You would talk to persons who were alive during that period and ask them about life at that time.

Data collection through unstructured interviewing is extremely useful in situations where either in-depth information is needed or little is known about the area. The flexibility allowed to the interviewer in what s/he asks of a respondent is an asset as it can elicit extremely rich
information. As it provides in-depth information, this technique is used by many researchers for constructing a structured research instrument. On the other hand, since an unstructured interview does not list specific questions to be asked of respondents, the comparability of questions asked and responses obtained may become a problem. As the researcher gains expe­rience during the interviews, the questions asked of respondents change; hence, the type of information obtained from those who are interviewed at the beginning may be markedly different from that obtained from those interviewed towards the end. Also, this freedom can introduce investigator bias into the study. Using an interview guide as a means of data col­lection requires much more skill on the part of the researcher than does using a structured interview.

5. Constructing a research instrument in qualitative research

Data in qualitative research are not collected through a set of predetermined questions but by raising issues around different areas of enquiry. Hence there are no predetermined research tools, as such, in qualitative research. However, many people develop a loose list of issues that they want to discuss with respondents or to have ready in case what they want to discuss does not surface during the discussions. This loosely developed list of issues is called an interview guide. In the author’s opinion, particularly for a newcomer, it is important to develop an interview guide to ensure desired coverage of the areas of enquiry and comparability of infor­mation across respondents. Note that in-depth interviewing is both a method of data collec­tion and a study design in qualitative research and the interview guide is a research tool that is used to collect data in this design.

Recently the author conducted a study using in-depth interviewing and focus group methodologies to construct a conceptual service delivery model for providing child protec­tion services through family consultation, involvement and engagement. The project was designed to develop a model that can be used by the field workers when dealing with a family on matters relating to child protection. The author conducted a number of in-depth interviews with some staff members working at different levels to gather ideas of the issues that service providers and managers thought to be important. On the basis of the informa­tion obtained from these in-depth interviews, a list of likely topics/issues was prepared. This list, the interview guide, became the basis of collecting the required information from individuals and focus groups in order to construct the conceptual model. Though this list was developed the focus groups were encouraged to raise any issue relating to the service delivery. The following topics/issues/questions formed the core of the interview guide for focus groups:

  1. What do you understand by the concept of family engagement and involvement when deciding about a child?
  2. What should be the extent and nature of the involvement?
  3. How can it be achieved?
  4. What do you think are the advantages of involving families in the decision making?
  5. What in your opinion are its disadvantages?
  6. What is your opinion about this concept?
  7. What can a field worker do to involve a family?
  8. How can the success or failure of this model be measured?
  9. How will this model affect current services to children?

Note that these served as starting points for discussions. The group members were encour­aged to discuss whatever they wanted to in relation to the perceived model. All one-to-one in-depth interviews and focus group discussions were recorded on audiotape and were analysed to identify major themes that emerged from these discussions.

Source: Kumar Ranjit (2012), Research methodology: a step-by-step guide for beginners, SAGE Publications Ltd; Third edition.

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