General approaches to collecting and analysing qualitative data
The processes of data analysis in qualitative research are complex. It is not simply a matter of choosing and applying an accepted process such as thematic analysis.
A combination of three key areas is involved:
- the first is to do with you, the researcher – your views and choices in the research journey and the impact of these on the data you collect and analyse
- the second relates to the design and methods used, the quality of the data you have gathered and how you have managed it, and
- the third involves your display of findings and your theoretical interpretation of your analysed data, presented for the reader to assess.
The three Ps – Person, Processes and Presentation – are key issues here.
This book starts from the premise that these three elements are essential to any undertaking of qualitative data analysis, and the examples and strategies presented attempt to indicate how they integrate.
introduces you to the background information required for understanding qualitative research. The first chapter deals with research characteristics, investigative areas of research and the role of the researcher, together with his/her influence on the data and finishing with a brief review of the major paradigms that have underpinned qualitative research. The chapter concludes with the important issue of how to evaluate qualitative research.
The second chapter introduces you to the main tools for data collection, transcription and preliminary data analysis – the analysis you undertake while you collect your data. The four most common analytic approaches are then discussed and the range of methodologies currently available for you to choose amongst is displayed. The third chapter deals with one of the newer trends in research: the mixing of qualitative and quantitative approaches, termed multiple or mixed methods.
Design methodologies, data management and analytical approaches
Incorporating data from multiple sources: mixing methods
When you undertake a qualitative research study, there are a number of prior aspects that will need addressing: your proposed topic area, is it suitable for the collection of qualitative data?; then yourself, what impact will your prejudices have on the research and how will you treat your potential readers?; and finally, which paradigm would best fit your research question: Realism/postpositivism, Critical theory, Interpretivism/Constructionism, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism or Mixed/multiple methods? Then, having dealt with these decisions, it is always useful to know how to evaluate a piece of qualitative research in order to ensure that your design ticks all the right boxes.
- The characteristics of qualitative research
- The best topic areas for qualitative research investigations
- Issues you need to think about prior to commencing research
- Research paradigms
- How to evaluate qualitative research
Qualitative research is a fascinating topic. It provides detailed information and can progress knowledge in a variety of areas: it can help assess the impact of policies on a population; it can give insight into people’s individual experiences; it can help evaluate service provision; and it can enable the exploration of little-known behaviours, attitudes and values.
Knowledge is a key term here. This can take a variety of forms, and in most cultures there are various claims to knowledge:
|1 ||The first is tenacity – this refers to a belief that has been held for a long time, for example doing good to others is viewed as the right thing to do because eventually this good will be reflected back to you; there may be no evidence to prove this is true but we still tenaciously claim that this is so. |
|2 ||Intuition or our gut feeling is another source of knowledge – for example, we may feel that in a particular situation X is the best thing to do or the right answer; there may again be very little evidence that this is so but if it feels right, we tend to follow that particular path. |
|3 ||Authority – in particular religious or legal authority provides directions for the way we ought to behave in order to lead a ‘good’ life … but good for whom? In addition, would another way be more beneficial to us as individuals or as part of a group? |
Research tries to step back from knowledge claims developed through tenacity, intuition and authority, by carefully constructing a question and a study design in order to provide the best views of a particular issue so that conclusions can be derived from available evidence. Sometimes findings will challenge the other three sources leading to conflict; for example, when scientists said the earth was not flat but round there was a huge uproar as traditional beliefs about falling off the edge of the world were challenged.
In doing research we try to advance knowledge by aiming to get closer to the ‘truth’ of the matter while realising that truth is a very elusive concept, which shifts depending on whose truth is being portrayed and whether that ‘truth’ is:
- Subjective (your own view)
- Relative (your view compared to others)
- Objective (taking a distant perspective)
- Absolute (as in philosophical arguments).
So rather than getting too caught up in the notion of ‘truth’ and the bases of various claims to knowledge in research, instead we seek to reduce uncertainty by using the best and most transparent approaches available.
There are two important aspects to any kind of research: the first is that your data should be collected from the real world … from situations or people involved in whatever the defined research problem is. This real world evidence is termed empirical data. Understanding the nature of this data is an ontological process and is related particularly to the wider structural and cultural issues that influence claims to truth. Then these understandings need to be further interpreted in a more abstract way using existing theories of knowledge – epistemology – to explain your findings about the world and to enable your interpretations to be more globally applied. For example, I might research the experience of being blind by interviewing people who are blind (empirical data). Understanding their experiences would require knowledge of the culture and the health system and other supports available for these people (ontological) while interpreting their experiences might lead me to use the concepts of stigma or normal versus abnormal (epistemology) to make sense of their experiences.
What are the characteristics of qualitative research?
Qualitative research favours certain styles of design, collection and analytic interpretation. The underpinning ideology or belief system asserts that:
- subjectivity has value (meaning that both the views of the participant and those of you the researcher are to be respected, acknowledged and incorporated as data, and the interpretation of this data will be constructed by both of you (the researcher is not a distant neutral being)
- validity (trustworthiness) is seen as getting to the truth of the matter, reliability (dependability) is viewed as a sound research design and generalisability is local and conceptual only
- power lies predominantly with the researched (who are viewed as being the experts on the research topic)
- an holistic view is essential (so the structures impacting on the setting such as policies, culture, situation and context need to be included)
- every study is time- and context-bound (so that replication and generalisation are unlikely outcomes).
Which areas are best for researching?
Qualitative research can best help us explore or assess:
- structural processes
- historical changes.
In more detail, culture could involve anything from investigating the behaviours and rituals of a particular tribe or group of people in a particular setting (street kids, pupils or staff in a classroom, patients or clinicians in a hospital ward or an individual in a particular cultural context). Phenomena involves detailed investigations over time of a particular experience (for example, marriage breakdown, illness etc.). Structural processes might involve investigating policy change and its impact on a specified setting or group (such as increasing taxes or closure of mental institutions). And historical changes might involve documented changes in discourses (ways of communicating over time; for example, changes in treatment of an illness as recorded in medical journal articles).
The question focus is usually the what, how, when, where or why aspects of the chosen topic.
One important issue the qualitative researcher needs to consider prior to commencing research is the choice of research paradigm to work within.
As researcher, you can choose which of the available broad paradigms (worldviews of beliefs, values, and methods for collecting and interpreting data) that you would prefer to work within. There are five options:
|1 ||Realism/postpositivism (expert researcher documenting reality from a centred position). |
|2 ||Critical theory (with a focus on class, power and the location and amelioration of oppression). |
|3 ||Interpretivism/Constructionism (mutual recognition and use of symbols and signs in reality construction). |
|4 ||Postmodernism and poststructuralism (the questioning of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ and the sources of ‘knowledge’). |
|5 ||Mixed/multiple methods (using the best set of tools for the job). |
Let us explore each of these in a little more detail.
1. Positivism to realism (postpositivism)
The eighteenth century in Europe was an era, termed the Enlightenment, when positivism (the School of Philosophy that asserts that reality lies only in things that can be seen with the naked eye), optimism, reason and progress became the dominant discourses (ways of thinking, speaking and writing) and all knowledge was believed to be accessible through processes of reason. The ‘rational man’ was believed to have the capacity to uncover a singular knowable reality through pure understanding and rigorous intellectual reasoning. These processes of broader reason, needed to gain knowledge, included a focus on observation in order to gain ‘facts’ via scientific deduction. Scientific knowledge gained from observation and based in logical thought processes was seen as having the potential to displace ignorance and superstition, which were the tools of power of the church. Scientific knowledge was seen as having the capacity to facilitate freedom from religious influences and to lead the way to a New World built on the notions of progress and a universal foundation of knowledge.
However, researchers’ ability to provide predictable and replicable outcomes and to control variables came under debate as Einstein’s theory of relativity and later Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty challenged these views and postpositivism eventuated … The assumption that a world that could be precisely measured and documented exists independently just waiting for us to gain sufficiently sophisticated tools to discover it, was questioned, and the belief that absolute, knowable truth existed became sidelined and provisional truths became a more likely outcome. The ultimate essence of external reality was also challenged by Sigmund Freud’s exploration (1913) of the unconscious mind as a source of reality construction. He suggested that ‘reality’ was not only constructed from internal as well as external sources but that this reality changed continually in interaction with the environment, especially in interaction with others, and that what had previously been considered as externally and obje...