Qualitative psychological research
In psychology, qualitative research has come to be defined as research whose findings are not arrived at by statistical or other quantitative procedures. Qualitative research is often said to be naturalistic. Its goal is to understand behaviour in the natural setting. Two other goals attributed to qualitative research are understanding a phenomenon from the perspective of the research participant and understanding the meanings people give to their experience. It attempts to do this by using so-called naturalistic methods—interviewing, observation, ethnography, participant observation, and focus groups. Each of these methods seeks to understand the perspective of the research participant within the context of their everyday life. This means that the researcher is concerned with asking broad questions that allow the respondent to answer in their own words. These methods allow the researcher to try to qualify their understanding during the research process through further probing questions. In addition, a method such as observation allows the researcher to observe people within natural settings—particularly those in public places.
Qualitative research is sometimes said to have as its goal the understanding of the sample studied, rather than generalizing from the sample to the population. For example, the research findings of a qualitative case study of primary school children in a particular school and their mobile phone usage will tell us more about the mobile phone usage of children in the general population, than of adults. However, the type of school (public or private), where it was located, and the socio-economic background of the students need to be taken into consideration when applying any findings to other settings (either schools or the general population of children).
In addition to the methods for collecting data mentioned above, qualitative research includes a wide range of ways to analyse the data. One of the most popular of these is known as grounded theory. Others include conversation analysis, discourse analysis, thematic analysis, and even historical analysis.
Qualitative psychological research emphasizes fieldwork, and this emphasis has been offered as a distinguishing mark. Qualitative psychological research is also described as holistic. That is, qualitative researchers believe in studying phenomena in their context rather than concentrating on narrow aspects of the phenomena. This means that they either observe or participate in the phenomena they are studying, e.g. attending a football game to understand the behaviours of fans, and/or they ask open-ended questions about the behaviour of fans at football games. These questions are holistic because they are designed to understand the context of behaviour—they will usually follow a pattern that replicates the experience, e.g. "What did you do when you arrived? Who did you come with? What did you do then?" However, similar methods are sometimes used by quantitative researchers.
Origins and methods
The philosophical bases of qualitative psychological research are found in phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and naturalistic behaviourism. Its research methods are derived from ethnography and anthropology.
In psychology, the research methods commonly classified as qualitative include:
- participant observation
- direct observation
- unstructured interviewing
- case studies
- content analysis
- protocol analysis
- focus groups
The data collected by researchers using these techniques consist of:
- the results of open-ended interviews
- notes of direct observation
- written documents (answers to questionnaires, diaries, program records, etc.)
After collecting data, qualitative psychological researchers' goal is to examine their data in depth and in detail. Qualitative methods are, in particular, widely used as exploratory methods; the results of qualitative analysis are used to design quantitative research which tests null hypotheses derived from the qualitative observations.
Those psychological researchers who prefer qualitative research argue that statistically-based research has limitations because it is less able to take into consideration the context of behaviour. Qualitative researchers have developed their own criteria for assessing reliability and validity. The work of Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba is an example of this.
Confirmability is a qualitative concept analogous to the concept of objectivity in quantitative research. It is the degree to which research results can be confirmed by other researchers.
Transferability has been proposed as a qualitative substitute for psychometric validity. Research findings are transferable to the extent to which they can be generalized to settings other than the one in which they were made.
It could be argued, however, that any concept which attempts to assess degree or extent is inherently quantitative.
In educational psychology, qualitative research is used to address questions concerned with developing an understanding of the meaning and collecting nonnumerical relevant data to gain insights into particular phenomenon. The central to good qualitative research is whether the research participants’ subjective meanings, actions and social contexts, as understood by them, are illuminated. Qualitative logic are for examining patterns across people. It is widely used in educational psychology. Educational psychologists only infrequently drew on qualitative literatures in the past 11 years to design their research studies. It does appear, however, that there has been an increase in the number of educational psychologists publishing studies using qualitative design frameworks in the past 5 years. On the other hand, it has its weakness as well. Qualitative formats for representing knowledge, such as text, afford insights into a learner's understanding but are difficult to assemble into summary formats that concisely show a learner's progress or allow comparisons among learners or across groups. The most fundamental and significant distinction between quantitative research method and qualitative research method is about the data, how the data collected and analyzed. Therefore, this article would be focus on the research methods and how the data collected and analyzed by researchers in qualitative research.
In health psychology, qualitative methods have become an increasingly popular research approach to increase understanding of health and illness and how these phenomena are socially constructed in everyday life. The value of this approach was championed in 1998 by a special issue of the Journal of Health Psychology devoted to qualitative research edited by Michael Murray and Kerry Chamberlain. This was followed in 1999 by the text Qualitative Health Psychology: Theories and Methods edited by the same two researchers. Since then a broad range of qualitative methods have been adopted by heath psychologists including discourse analysis, thematic analysis, narrative analysis and interpretative phenomenological analysis. In 2015, the American Psychological Association journal Health Psychology published a special issue on qualitative research edited by Brendan Gough and Janet A. Deatrick.
Qualitative psychological research has crystallised as one of the most effective ways of gathering insight into the behaviours, attitudes and decision-making processes of consumers and customers. Most qualitative research companies in the world will claim that they employ psychologists and base their findings on psychological theories. The psychology backed methodologies applied in qualitative marketing research are continuously changing and being further developed. One of the examples of psychology theory developed specifically for use in marketing research is morphological psychology.
In qualitative research, the researcher is the primary data collection instrument. Qualitative research involves:
Participant observation is a method particularly employed by ethnographers in the anthropological tradition. It is used to learn about the naturally occurring routines, interactions and practices of a particular group of people in their social environments, in order to understand their culture.
When a researcher becomes a part of the participants in the situation under observation, it is called a participant observer.
Qualitative data can be used to strengthen quantitative research designs and intervention research designs (i.e., experimental, quasi-experimental). For example, in educational psychology, researchers could conduct a qualitative pilot study by observing or interviewing different groups of students, to determine which group should be selected for a quantitative study.
Focus group discussion in qualitative method has gained popularity across the social sciences over the past decade. Prior to the late 1970s, focus groups were mainly used in marketing and studies in the field of business. They have become more popular in many fields including education, communication, media studies, feminist research, sociology and social psychology. Focus groups are also known as ‘group interviews’. The members are encouraged to interact and have discussions. The data collected by focus group discussion are seldom produced through interview and observation; it enlightens us with its power of knowledge.
Focus group discussion also focuses on the process beyond the individual's memory and desires. The richness and complexity of group dynamics should be considered. Focus group can also give access to social interactional dynamics that produce particular memories, ideologies, and practices among the group members. Focus groups help us move towards constructing a 'methodology of getting lost' and toward enacting 'double practices'. This seems a necessary step towards conducting qualitative research. Keeping norms and rules of groups in mind the researcher and research participants realize that the interpretation of an individual is situated, provisional, contingent, unstable. Thus, it's unchangeable. It is necessary for the researcher to have self-reflectivity that involves making the research transparent rhetorical and poetic work of the researcher in representing the object of the study. It is theoretically important to construct a mutual ground between the researcher and the research participants. The second sense of self-reflexivity is important to encourage reflection on interpretive research as the dual practice of knowledge gathering and self transformation is done through self-reflection and mutual reflection. Allowing ourselves to dwell in the existing inevitable indeterminacies, we are leading ourselves in the best way of the qualitative research practice.
According to Lederman, a focus group is a ‘technique that involves the use of profound group interviews in which participants are selected because they are a purposive sampling of a specific population, with the group being ‘focused’ on a given topic’. According to Powell et al., a group of individuals selected and gathered by researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the subject of the research form a focus group.
Some of the features of focus group discussions include a member's involvement, a number of consecutive meetings, the common characteristics of members with respect to interests, the evolvement of qualitative data, and discussion within the group that is focused on a topic. This is determined by the purposes of the research. In other words, a focus group is an informal discussion among a group of selected individuals about a particular topic. A focus group, as a research method, involves more than one participant per data collection session.
Some of the main characteristics of Focus Groups are; Focus groups involve people in which there is a group of usually 4-10 members. The group size depends on the topic. It should be understood that the size should be small enough so that all the members get a chance to share their views and yet, large enough for people to get different perspectives. Participants are homogenous and unfamiliar with each other which means that people who have similar ages, ethnic backgrounds, etc. this is because it will help the session very effectively as there won't be too many clashes. The group should not be too homogenous because some amount of heterogeneity is required to get useful information when it comes to recalling past events or religious groups. Focus groups are a data collection procedure wherein the main purpose is to determine the perception, feelings, and manner of thinking. These are not aimed to develop consensus or to arrive at some agreeable plan. Focus groups make use of Qualitative data, which means that the data is collected using qualitative tools, which requires very skilled people. This data provides a great insight into the phenomenological world of the members, taking into consideration the attitude, perceptions, and thoughts. Focus groups have a focused discussion wherein the leader maintains focus on a particular topic. This helps the discussion to stay on track as every member has different ideas to pool in about the same topic.
The significance of focus group methodology is that it helps in exploring what people perceive and think, and understanding why the members have certain opinions about what they believe in. Jenny Kitzinger, a famous focus group researcher, is of the opinion that focus group method is an ‘ideal’ approach for examining the stories, experiences, points of view, beliefs, needs and concerns of individuals. Working in a group enables the researchers to receive different communication forms that the members use in their day-to-day interactions with others. These communications and interactions involve joking, arguing, teasing and recapturing past events. This is important since it may not be easy, or even possible to receive the knowledge and attitudes of various people while they respond to a more direct form of questions.
One of the main purposes of focus group discussion is to get light into the respondents’ phenomenological world of experience, thinking, perceiving and feeling. These experiences, feelings, attitudes might be independent of a group or its cultural and social settings but are more likely to reveal itself in the interaction with other people in a group or another social setting. Focus group discussions help in elaborating the different viewpoints and emotional processes of each member within a group context. The individual interview is simpler for the researcher to control in comparison to a focus group discussion. A focus group discussion, in comparison to other methods helps the research to gain larger pool information in a much lesser amount of time. This observation depends on waiting for things to happen, whereas the researcher has to follow an interview guide in a focus group. In this aspect, focus group discussions are not natural but organized and planned. These discussions are especially helpful when there are differences related to power between its members, decision-makers or professionals, when the culture and language of a specific group is of, and when the researcher or a member wants to understand and explore the level of consensus over a given theme or topic.
Role of the Leader
Pre-session Strategy refers to the leader's ability to understand the importance of small talk just prior to group discussion. The facilitator must cordially greet the group members and begin small talk while at the same time avoid the topics and issues that will be discussed during the sessions. This will allow the group leader to observe the kind of interactions and understand which participant has what qualities. Recording is beneficial for the leader via tape recording and note-taking. Note-taking is useful as they can be utilized even if the tape recorder stops working. Someone other than the group leader or the facilitator should take detailed and in-depth notes of the discussion. Beginning of the Discussion includes the usual pattern of discussion which is welcome, overview and topic, ground rules and first question. The overview must provide an explanation of the purpose and importance of the topic of discussion. Ground rules must be stated explicitly. Some of the examples are, minimizing or eliminating side conversations, one person talks at a time, no criticizing what others have to say and treating everyone's opinion with respect and dignity. The initial conversation should include an “ice breaker” in order to make the members more comfortable and open.
Pause and probe is the skill of the moderator to give each participant a chance to jump in. As a general rule, a moderator should pause for at least five seconds after a participant talks or before beginning to talk. Probes, such as "would you explain that further?" or "Would you give me an example?" help to give additional information. Being prepared for the unexpected is one of the abilities of the focus group leaders in order for the efficient functioning of the groups. Some examples of unexpected events are no one showing up (make sure you bring list and phone numbers), only a few showing up (hold group anyway), meeting place is inadequate for the members to reach, the group members get too involved and don't want to leave (have formal ending), bad or hazardous weather (call everyone and cancel). Organization Skills helps focus group leaders to plan the theme for group discussions and also develop a printed outline for the meetings. There may be more productive discussions when every member of the focus group has a copy of the printed agenda before starting the discussion. This allows the member to have some time to review the topics and focus on key relevant issues. The leader should use the counseling skills in order for the discussion to take place effectively.
Listening and note-taking enables the focus group leaders must have highly developed listening skills in order to guide the group discussions by keeping focus on what each person is saying, while at the same time take notes during the discussion. The leader must narrow down to a single focus instead of looking at all the aspects spoken during the discussion. The leader focuses on similar phrases and words to narrow down the discussion to a single topic.
Rephrasing refers to skills in which the leader repeats what others are saying for more clarification during a group discussion. The focus group leader typically asks group members for more in-depth opinions after rephrasing. It allows group members to have a broad perspective in order to view topics from different angles and interpretations. Emotional Control refers to the group leader's ability to control his or her emotions in order for the discussion to be effective. It requires developing a tough skin to be able to take on the lead in the discussion when people lose their tempers. Leaders must aim to diffuse anger and redirect the emotions with constructive analysis and suggestions. S/he must allow providing an avenue to release all the emotions within constructively. After dealing with emotions, the leader must redirect the focus of group discussion.
Moderating Skills makes a group leader understand and regulate the unofficial roles assumed by all the group members during the discussion and use the members to help solve group problems. For example, the role of the "tension reducer" is to help the members to resolve conflicts and differences in order to reduce anxiety, while the "task master" helps the members to focus on the purpose of the meeting. Group moderators must be mentally alert, listen well, and think quickly in order to have an effective group discussion. All the questions must be memorized and handy for the leader. Concluding the focus group is necessary for the focus group leader in order to get a formal ending of the session. The leader must thank the group members for participating in the session and summarize what was discussed during the session. S/he should ask if something was missed out in the summary of the session. This helps the group members to have an exact idea of what happened in the session and have something to take along.
How to conduct focus group discussions
For the purpose of conducting an FGD where the topic being discussed is of sensitive nature, it is recommended that the participants be of same sex, age range and socio-economic background. The trainers should preferably also be of the same sex, if the topic of discussion is sensitive. It is also desirable that the participants do not know each other prior to the discussion. The samples are chosen purposively.
Informed consent must be taken before beginning the discussion where the members should be briefed about the topic of discussion, informed about their rights, confidentiality and that their identities will not be revealed in any report or publication.
An important consideration to keep in mind is the homogeneity of the group members and settings and the nature of open-ended questions which will drive the members to talk more freely from the constraints they might feel during a personal interview. The discussion must be held in a relaxed and natural setting or environment, with the entire session recorded (audio or visual). There should also be a note-taker who jots down all the important aspects of the discussion but is not a part of the discussion. This note-taker must have in-depth knowledge about the issue at hand and should be trained in observing verbal and non verbal feedback, example facial expressions. It is his duty to translate the notes taken during session into data that is the used for analysis.
Areas of interest to be discussed during the session need to be chalked out by the moderators and organizers prior to the session and then, it is the duty of the moderator to make sure that all these areas are covered during the discussion. The moderator directs the conversation and encourages participation to ensure richness of discussion and data. It is the duty of the moderator to introduce new topics and have an unbiased approach throughout the discussion.
Literature provides a basic groundwork and suggestions for conducting focus groups. According to Puchta and Potter, it is very important to produce an informal environment in the group. The moderator should facilitate in creating a liberal environment encouraging members to share and put forth their views and keeping track of the flow of the session, preventing them from drifting from the topic of discussion. Often the participants do not know each other, and so, it is the job of the moderator to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and there is a good rapport. The purpose and format of the discussion of the discussion should be conveyed in the beginning of the session. All participants should be encouraged to participate, share their views and be told that divergent views are also welcome.
Flick says that a formal explanation of the procedure is given to the participants. Expectation setting is an essential component in this step. Expectations can be being involved in the discussion, argue about certain topics, collective problem solving. Introducing the members to one another and warming up are necessary to prepare them for the discussion. Here, the moderator establishes and conveys the common grounds of the members to facilitate or reinforce community feeling. The actual discussion takes place following “discussion stimuli”, which may be in the form of a provocative thesis, a short film, lecture on a text, or unfolding of a concrete problem for which a solution needs to be found. In groups where the members do not know one another in advance, phases of strangeness with, of orientation to, adaptation to, and familiarity with the group as well as conformity and the discussion drying up are gone through. The questions must be open ended and there should be a smooth transition in the type of questions asked through the course of the discussion. The session should ideally start with introductory questions to address the general topic, helping the participants to understand the broader context of the issue, followed by key questions designed to address the specific information, and ending with questions aimed to summarize the opinion of all the participants.
Advantages and disadvantages of focus group discussions
Focus groups data collection method has several advantages in conducting qualitative research. The following are various advantages of using a focus group to obtain data.
There is flexibility of the focus group research in being used as a qualitative method or a combination of the former with quantitative techniques. The moderator is permitted to inquire into and examine unforeseen issues due to this kind of format. Has high face validity and naturalistic- as it includes storytelling, joking, disagreements, boasting and more. It is relatively inexpensive/relatively low cost. Provides relatively fast results.Consumes lesser time unlike structured interviews in order to increase sample sizes and resource investment. It is helpful and important for needs assessment and project evaluation projects. Regarding the facts and numbers in research, meaning behind these facts can also be found and confirmed through surveys as it is qualitative in nature. It is relatively simple to carry out. It consumes less time as large sample size can be studied. Information is gained from group interaction due to group dynamics. It helps in obtaining and gathering contracted and incisive data of specific topic. Many new perspectives and opinions are obtained which results in insights. Sensitive topics can be discussed leading to personal disclosures. Often these interactions result in creating ‘synergistic effects’. Vocabulary and language used can be observed. It is much more efficient when the data being gathered is very much related to the researcher's interests. The moderator keeps the discussion in sync with the topic and makes sure one individual does not dominate the other; hence follows an ‘egalitarian’ method. Non-verbal behavior as well plays a role in the moderator's decision making and research results. High possibilities in resulting in rich and in-depth information or data. It is useful for exploratory research. Group interaction can be observed in a controlled setting. The reactions of participants towards each other can be analyzed. Previously neglected or unnoticed phenomena can be drawn towards the researcher's attention. Helps to inform the development of survey instruments. Opportunistic use of focus groups results in improvised research design and impoverished data.
Though focus groups method of data collection has several advantages; the limitations of the same cannot be ignored. Has less experimental control. Data collected is usually difficult to analyze; as the discussion must be audio or videotaped, field notes to be recorded and the verbatim to be transcribed. Requires or the need for carefully trained interviewers. Groups may vary considerably. Groups may be difficult to assemble. Discussion must be conducted in an environment that is conducive to conversation. There is high potential for leading and bias. Moderator or rather the facilitation of the discussion may be critical as the group largely banks on the assisted discussion in order to produce results. The need for skilled and trained moderators or interviewers is necessary. There is a high chance or risk for the moderator to dominate or ‘hijack’ the discussion. There may be difficulties in terms of the sample study results representing the population as participants are self-selected; hence generalization becomes difficult or impossible. The moderator may influence the group interactions thus distorting results or findings. Participant's involvement and contribution in the discussion also plays a major role. Issues may arise if topics are controversial in nature leading to disagreements and arguments. Results obtained may be biased as one or two prevalent people may influence the interaction or discussion. Dealing with sensitive topics is a challenge. Contrived or artificial environment also may influence the interactions and responses, thus leading to biased results. Ethical issues may arise regarding confidentiality aspect. Measurement validity may be low.
Qualitative data analysis contains reviewing, summarizing, generalizing and interpreting data in an appropriate and accurate way. It is to describe and explain the phenomena or social worlds being studied. One of the most important steps in the qualitative research process is analysis of data. Analyzing qualitative data also requires researchers’ patience. There are two different analytical procedures: Meaning and discovery-Focused approaches. Meaning-focused approaches emphasize meaning comprehension. In other words, try to understand the subjective meaning of experiences for the participants, instead of placing those meanings into researchers’ own conceptions. Discovery-focused techniques aim to establish patterns and connections among elements of data. However, no matter which procedure is used, it is essential to apply an effective system for retrieving data because of the identity of qualitative data analysis, which is exploring data progressively.
There are also a variety of available analysis tools and strategies for qualitative data analysis.
- Constant Comparison Analysis, or called "coding system" : Coding enables the researcher to locate and bring together similarly labeled data for examination and to retrieve data related to more than one label when wanting to consider patterns, connections, or distinctions between them.
- Keywords-in-Context: It is a data analysis method that reveals how respondents use words in context by comparing words that appear before and after "key words. KWIC is a helpful analysis to utilize when there are specific words that are of interest to the researcher or when the data appear to be less rich in information.
- Word Count: Word counts are based on the belief that all people have distinctive vocabulary and word usage patterns.
- Classical Content Analysis: Classical content analysis is similar to constant comparison analysis and also is used frequently in qualitative research.
- Domain Analysis: Domain analysis represents a search for the larger units of cultural knowledge, which Spradley called domains. This method of analysis stems from the belief that symbols are an important way of communicating cultural meaning. This analysis should be used when researchers are interested in understanding relationships among concepts.
- Taxonomic Analysis: Taxonomic analysis is the second step after domain analysis. This analysis helps the researcher to understand how participants are using specific words.
- Componential Analysis: Componential analysis is another step that can be undertaken after domains are created. It is used when a researcher is trying to uncover relationships between words.
Using computers in qualitative data analysis
There are many computer programs are available to help in analyzing qualitative data. The capacity of computers to effectively sort, store and retrieve information makes their use in qualitative data analysis appealing. However, it is important to notice that computers can only aid in some parts of analysis; computer software do not code data or replace the conceptual processes. It cannot analyse qualitative data for the researcher.
Qualitative research methodologies are oriented towards developing understanding of the meaning and experience dimensions of human lives and their social worlds. Good qualitative research is characterized by congruence between the perspective that informs the research questions and the research methods used.
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