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Explore four methods for collecting qualitative research

This is an excerpt from Research Methods in Physical Activity, Sixth Edition, by Jerry R. Thomas, Jack K. Nelson, and Stephen J. Silverman.


The most common sources of data collection in qualitative research are interviews, observations, and review of documents (Creswell, 2009b; Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2010; Marshall & Rossman, 1999). The methodology is planned and pilot-tested before the study. Creswell (2003) places the data-collecting procedures into four categories: observations, interviews, documents, and audiovisual materials. He provides a concise table of the four methods, the options within each type, the advantages of each type, and the limitations of each.

We noted previously that the researcher typically has some type of framework (subpurposes perhaps) that determines and guides the nature of the data collection. For example, one phase of the research might pertain to the manner in which expert and nonexpert sport performers perceive various aspects of a game. This phase could involve having the athlete describe his or her perceptions of what is taking place in a specific scenario. A second phase of the study might focus on the interactive thought processes and decisions of the two groups of athletes while they are playing. The data for this phase could be obtained from filming them in action and then interviewing them while they are watching their performances on videotape. Still another aspect of the study could be directed at the knowledge structure of the participants, which could be determined by a researcher-constructed instrument.

You should not expect qualitative data collection to be quick. It is time intensive. Collecting good data takes time (Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2010), and quick interviews or short observations are unlikely to help you gain more understanding. If you are doing qualitative research, you must plan to be in the environment for enough time to collect good data and understand the nuance of what is occurring.

Interviews

The interview is undoubtedly the most common source of data in qualitative studies. The person-to-person format is most prevalent, but occasionally group interviews and focus groups are conducted. Interviews range from the highly structured style, in which questions are determined before the interview, to the open-ended, conversational format. In qualitative research, the highly structured format is used primarily to gather sociodemographic information. For the most part, however, interviews are more open ended and less structured (Merriam, 2001). Frequently, the interviewer asks the same questions of all the participants, but the order of the questions, the exact wording, and the type of follow-up questions may vary considerably.

Being a good interviewer requires skill and experience. We emphasized earlier that the researcher must first establish rapport with the respondents. If the participants do not trust the researcher, they will not open up and describe their true feelings, thoughts, and intentions. Complete rapport is established over time as people get to know and trust one another. An important skill in interviewing is being able to ask questions in such a way that the respondent believes that he or she can talk freely.

Kirk and Miller (1986) described their field research in Peru, where they tried to learn how much urban, lower-middle-class people knew about coca, the organic source of cocaine. Coca is legal and widely available in Peru. In their initial attempts to get the people to tell them about coca, they received the same culturally approved answers from all the respondents. Only after they changed their style to asking less sensitive questions (e.g., “How did you find out you didn’t like coca?”) did the Peruvians open up and elaborate on their knowledge of (and sometimes their personal use of) coca. Kirk and Miller made a good point about asking the right questions and the value of using various approaches. Indeed, this is a basic argument for the validity of qualitative research.

Skillful interviewing takes practice. Ways to develop this skill include videotaping your own performance in conducting an interview, observing experienced interviewers, role playing, and critiquing peers. It is important that the interviewer appear nonjudgmental. This can be difficult in situations where the interviewee’s views are quite different from those of the interviewer. The interviewer must be alert to both verbal and nonverbal messages and be flexible in rephrasing and pursuing certain lines of questioning. The interviewer must use words that are clear and meaningful to the respondent and must be able to ask questions so that the participant understands what is being asked. Above all, the interviewer has to be a good listener.

The use of a digital recorder is undoubtedly the most common method of recording interview data because it has the obvious advantage of preserving the entire verbal part of the interview for later analysis. Although some respondents may be nervous to talk while being recorded, this uneasiness usually disappears in a short time. The main drawback with recording is the malfunctioning of equipment. This problem is vexing and frustrating when it happens during the interview, but it is devastating when it happens afterward when you are trying to replay and analyze the interview. Certainly, you should have fresh batteries and make sure that the recorder is working properly early in the interview. You should also stop and play back some of the interview to see whether the person is speaking into the microphone loudly and clearly enough and whether you are getting the data. Some participants (especially children) love to hear themselves speak, so playing back the recording for them can also serve as motivation. Remember, however, that machines can malfunction at any time.

Video recording seems to be the best method because you preserve not only what the person said but also his or her nonverbal behavior. The drawback to using video is that it can be awkward and intrusive. Therefore, it is used infrequently. Taking notes during the interview is another common method. Occasionally note taking is used in addition to recording, primarily when the interviewer wishes to note certain points of emphasis or make additional notations. Taking notes without recording prevents the interviewer from being able to record all that is said. It keeps the interviewer busy, interfering with her or his thoughts and observations while the respondent is talking. In highly structured interviews and when using some types of formal instrument, the interviewer can more easily take notes by checking off items and writing short responses.

The least preferred technique is trying to remember and write down afterward what was said in the interview. The drawbacks are many, and this method is seldom used.

 



Focus Groups

Another type of qualitative research technique employs interviews on a specific topic with a small group of people, called a focus group. This technique can be efficient because the researcher can gather information about several people in one session. The group is usually homogeneous, such as a group of students, an athletic team, or a group of teachers.

In his 1996 book Focus Groups as Qualitative Research, Morgan discussed the applications of focus groups in social science qualitative research. Patton (2002) argued that focus group interviews might provide quality controls because participants tend to provide checks and balances on one another that can serve to curb false or extreme views. Focus group interviews are usually enjoyable for the participants, and they may be less fearful of being evaluated by the interviewer because of the group setting. The group members get to hear what others in the group have to say, which may stimulate the individuals to rethink their own views.

In the focus group interview, the researcher is not trying to persuade the group to reach consensus. It is an interview. Taking notes can be difficult, but an audio or video recorder may solve that problem. Certain group dynamics such as power struggles and reluctance to state views publicly are limitations of the focus group interview. The number of questions that can be asked in one session is limited. Obviously, the focus group should be used in combination with other data-gathering techniques.

Observation

Observation in qualitative research generally involves spending a prolonged amount of time in the setting. Field notes are taken throughout the observations and are focused on what is seen. Many researchers also record notes to assist in determining what the observed events might mean and to provide help for answering the research questions during subsequent data analysis (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Pitney & Parker, 2009). Although some researchers use cameras to record what is occurring at the research site, that method is uncommon and most researchers use field notes to record what has occurred in the setting.

One major drawback to observation methods is obtrusiveness. A stranger with a pad and pencil or a camera is trying to record people’s natural behavior. A keyword here is stranger. The task of a qualitative researcher is to make sure that the participants become accustomed to having the researcher (and, if appropriate, a recording device) around. For example, the researcher may want to visit the site for at least a couple of days before the initial data collection.

In an artificial setting, researchers can use one-way mirrors and observation rooms. In a natural setting, the limitations that stem from the presence of an observer can never be ignored. Locke (1989) observed that most naturalistic field studies are reports of what goes on when a visitor is present. The important question is, How important and limiting is this? Locke suggested ways of suppressing reactivity, such as the visitor’s being in the setting long enough so that he or she is no longer considered a novelty and being as unobtrusive as possible in everything from dress to choice of location in a room.

Other Data-Gathering Methods

Among the many sources of data in qualitative research are self-reports of knowledge and attitude. The researcher can also develop scenarios, in the form of descriptions of situations or actual pictures, that are acted out for participants to observe. The participant then gives her or his interpretation of what is going on in the scenario. The participant’s responses provide her or his perceptions, interpretations, and awareness of the total situation and of the interplay of the actors in the scenario.

Other recording devices include notebooks, narrative field logs, and diaries, in which researchers record their reactions, concerns, and speculations. Printed materials such as course syllabi, team rosters, evaluation reports, participant notes, and photographs of the setting and situations are examples of document data used in qualitative research.

 



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