Qualitative research

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Qualitative research has its roots in social science and is more concerned with understanding why people behave as they do their knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, fears, etc. (e.g., why do patients prefer to be involved in decision-making about their treatment?)

Qualitative research allows the subjects being studied to give much ‘richer' answers to questions put to them by the researcher, and may give valuable insights which might have been missed by any other method. Not only does it provide valuable information to certain research questions in its own right but there is a strong case for using it to complement quantitative research methods.

Focus groups

For this method the researcher brings together a small number of subjects to discuss the topic of interest. The group size is kept deliberately small, so that its members do not feel intimidated but can express opinions freely. A topic guide to aid discussion is usually prepared beforehand and the researcher usually ‘chairs' the group, to ensure that a range of aspects of the topic are explored. The discussion is frequently tape-recorded, then transcribed and analysed.

Direct observation

Data can be collected by an external observer, referred to as a non-participant observer. Or the data can be collected by a participant observer, who can be a member of staff undertaking usual duties while observing the processes of care. In this type of study the researcher aims to become immersed in or become part of the population being studied, so that they can develop a detailed understanding of the values and beliefs held by members of the population.

Sometimes a list of observations the researcher is specifically looking for is prepared before-hand, other times the observer makes notes about anything they observe for analysis later.

Example: Johnson and Webb (1995) used observation to gather evidence about how value judgements made by staff and patients can impact on decision making. In this study, the researcher acted as a participant observer, working as a nurse on the ward while observing situations where nurses were faced with difficult moral choices. Observations were recorded as field notes and analysed for content.

In-depth interviews

Interviews use the same principle as a focus group, but subjects are interviewed individually, ideally in the patient's own home. Interviews in qualitative research are usually wide ranging, probing issues in detail. They seldom involve asking a set of predetermined questions, as would be the case in quantitative surveys. Instead they encourage subjects to express their views at length. One particularly useful technique is the critical incident study, in which subjects are asked to comment on real events rather than giving generalisations. This can reveal more about beliefs and attitudes and behaviour. The researcher may be able to obtain more detailed information for each subject, but loses the richness that can arise in a group in which people debate issues and exchange views.

Example: Frederikson, et al (1996) used unstructured interviewing to explore family functioning and interpersonal relationships through the perceptions of women of Vietnam partners in New Zealand. The reasons they give for choosing this method include lack of adequate theory and definitions in the field to produce valid instruments for large-scale survey techniques and the complexity of the social interactions involved in the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on families.

Further methods used in qualitative research studies

Diary methods - The researcher or subject keeps a personal account of daily events, feelings, discussions, interactions etc.

Role-play and simulation - Participants may be asked to play a role, or may be asked to observe role-play, after which they are asked to rate behaviour, report feelings, and predict further events.

Case-study - This is an in-depth study of just one person, group or event. This technique is simply a description of individuals.

Problems

The downside of qualitative research is that, invariably, only small numbers of subjects can be studied because data collection methods are so labour intensive. It is also often criticised for: being subject to researcher bias; the difficulties in analysing qualitative data rigorously; the lack of reproducibility and generalisability of the findings (i.e. findings may not be applicable to other subjects or settings). Proponents of qualitative research would however argue that there are strategies available to the qualitative researcher to protect against these potential biases and to enhance the rigour of the findings. Nicholas and Pope (1995) wrote an article in the BMJ specifically addressing techniques for improving the rigour of qualitative research findings. The methodological checklist below was developed by the same authors to help readers of qualitative projects assess the quality of published research but they also provide a useful checklist for researchers to consider when designing their own qualitative resea

Depth Interviewing

Depth interviews are the main form of qualitative research in most business markets. Here an interviewer spends time in a one-on-one interview finding out about the customer's particular circumstances and their individual opinions.

The majority of business depth interviews take place in person, which has the added benefit that the researcher visits the respondent's place of work and gains a sense of the culture of the business. However, for multi-national studies, telephone depth interviews, or even on-line depth interviews may be more appropriate.

Feedback is through a presentation that draws together findings across a number of depth interviews. In some circumstances, such as segmentation studies, identifying differences between respondents may be as important as the views that customers share.

The main alternative to depth interviews - focus group discussions - are typically too difficult or expensive to arrange with busy executives. However, on-line techniques increasing get over this problem.

Group Discussions

Focus groups are the mainstay of consumer research. Here several customers are brought together to take part in a discussion led by a researcher (or "moderator"). These groups are a good way of exploring a topic in some depth or to encourage creative ideas from participants.

Group discussions are rare in business markets, unless the customers are small businesses. In technology markets where the end user may be a consumer, or part of a team evaluating technology, group discussions can be an effective way of understanding what customers are looking for, particularly at more creative stages of research.

Depth Interviewing

Depth interviews are the main form of qualitative research in most business markets. Here an interviewer spends time in a one-on-one interview finding out about the customer's particular circumstances and their individual opinions.

The majority of business depth interviews take place in person, which has the added benefit that the researcher visits the respondent's place of work and gains a sense of the culture of the business. However, for multi-national studies, telephone depth interviews, or even on-line depth interviews may be more appropriate.

Feedback is through a presentation that draws together findings across a number of depth interviews. In some circumstances, such as segmentation studies, identifying differences between respondents may be as important as the views that customers share.

The main alternative to depth interviews - focus group discussions - are typically too difficult or expensive to arrange with busy executives. However, on-line techniques increasing get over this problem.

Group Discussions

Focus groups are the mainstay of consumer research. Here several customers are brought together to take part in a discussion led by a researcher (or "moderator"). These groups are a good way of exploring a topic in some depth or to encourage creative ideas from participants.

Group discussions are rare in business markets, unless the customers are small businesses. In technology markets where the end user may be a consumer, or part of a team evaluating technology, group discussions can be an effective way of understanding what customers are looking for, particularly at more creative stages of research.

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