At the National Council for Research Methods ‘Research Methods Festival’ last month, Steve Wright (from the University of Lancaster) mentioned in his talk the frustrations he has with students that do the bog-standard ’12 semi-structured interviews’ methodology for their qualitative research projects. This prompted a lot of discussion and empathy over lunch, with many tutors lamenting how students weren’t choosing some of the more creative methods for qualitative research.
Even a lot of the popular textbooks on qualitative research only mention the basic methods, or some variants on textual data collection (eg Braun and Clarke 2013). Even if it’s not interviews of some kind, transcribed focus groups and other textual methods definitely dominate the literature. Helen Kara has a textbook specifically on Creative Methods, which is well worth a read if you are looking for inspiration. But the value of qualitative research can be magnified by choosing the right imaginative methodology, and thinking outside the box a little to redefine what we can collect and analyse as ‘data’.
This is a huge world, but I wanted to give a taster (with lots of examples) of 10 qualitative methods that can go a lot beyond the default ’12 semi-structured interviews’ and engage with participants in new and exciting ways.
OK, we’ve talked about diaries before. But there is much more to diaries than just hand written journals. You can also have audio diaries (Williamson et al 2015) and video diaries (Bates 2013). There are even diary apps for phones (Garcia et al. 2015), which can notify partipants at reguar intervals to find out what they are doing or feeling. Laura Radcliffe and Leighann Spencer gave a great talk on the challenges and advantages of diary apps at RMF 2018. Each have their own benefits and give you a different level of insight into participants lives, but for certain research, especially where you want to minimise recall issues, regular recording in one of these ways can be really useful.
Although sometimes connected with diaries, getting participants to record their life through Photo Elicitation can get them to reflect on important issues, and provides a good basis for discussion. Usually you give your participants a camera (although with the ubiquity of smartphones this is rarely necessary these days) and ask them to take pictures of things that have meaning to them about your research question. This is the concept of Photo Voice, where you give your paricipants a way to express their lives and experiences pictorially. There’s a nice overview here by Harper (2002).
Many of the ‘creative methods’ focus on different ways to integrate art into research. You can basically use any medium, but the idea is often to get participants to reflect on their life experiences and create something (a drawing, clay sculpture, collage) that expresses something connected to the research. Examples include ‘Target drawings’ Tracy, et al. (2006), clay sculptures, (Or 2015), self-portraits (Esteban-Guitart et al 2016), drama and theatre (Norris 2010) or even quilting (Bacic et al. ND). There are many more listed in this presentation by Mannay (2016). This is a huge field, and always fun to see different ways people have been innovative here. However, a key part of the method is getting participants to either label and explain, or discuss with the researchers and other participants the meaning and different interpretations of their creations.
If your research is connected to a place, or how people experience an area, there are many interesting approaches you can do with participants while walking with them through a place and getting them to explain their world. These have various names and variations such as the ‘walking interview’ Jones et al. (2008), transecting or walking fieldwork (Goschel 2015). You can record these visually, aurally or with notes and pictures, or get participants to reflect on them afterwards.
Mapping / network diagrams
Another good tool for getting people to explore and explain their geographical area with researchers, but mapping tools can also be used to demonstrate other things, such as connections between organisations people use, social networks, or how they see connections between concepts as in mind mapping (Burgess-Allen and Owen-Smith 2010) . There is pictorial narrative mapping Lapum et al. 2015 (which is more like some of the artistic reflection techniques above), body mapping which can be used to show pain (Mukherjee 2002), or getting local people to create and label a map of their area.
To some, this may seem even more boring than just doing qualitative interviews, but secondary analysis of other sources of data can be really interesting and insightful, and avoids a lot of practical and ethical issues. You can do document, media or social media analysis or even re-analyse someone’s existing dataset to see if it can reveal something about a different research question. There’s some more advice on our post here.
Games and activities
When you do focus groups, don’t just facilitate dry discussion: use games and fun activities to get your participants engaged and sharing. You can use sorting and ranking exercises with cards you make with each card representing a part of the research. You can get people to discuss photos, newspaper articles, made up stories about a controversial issues or flip-charts where you get people to come up with ideas or answer difficult questions. Get people to move: show how strongly they agree with a statement by standing at different positions along a line. In each of these situations, the data can be either the outcome (where people stand / what people share) or the discussion that ensures. There’s a whole book of tips and tricks for making focus groups more interesting (and successful): Participatory Workshop (Chambers 2002).
This isn’t always a method in itself, but in some situations it can be really valuable to include participants in the data collection or analysis. In some paradigms they can be seen as the real experts of their own lived experiences, or an ‘insider’ can be a useful co-researcher. Often they are able to make sure that the most relevant questions are being asked, can act as gatekeepers to other participants that might be difficult to reach, or will have their own interpretations of the data that can challenge researchers. It also can shift the power dynamic away from binary researcher and researched. Much more on our blog post on participatory research.
Observation / Ethnography
If you have the time to deeply engage with an organisation or a group of people, researchers can become embedded in their research subject with ethnography or participant observation. Usually a researcher will spend weeks, months or even years watching and learning a research context first hand, and it can give very detailed data and understanding. However, there are shorter variations of observation or ‘rapid ethnographies’ (Vindrola-Padros and Vindrola-Padros 2017) which can be a great complement to other qualitative research methods: verifying and expanding on other sources of data.
Now, this again might seem a bit boring, but I think surveys are often overlooked as a qualitative research method. There are a good way to reach out to lots of people, online, in person or by post, and you can be a lot more creative with questions. Get people to explain what they see in a picture. Use one word to express how you feel about something. Use emoji’s or get people to rate or rank statements. Ask questions about identity in different ways: which Disney princess do you most associate with, and why? Leave space for lots of open ended answers, but choose creative and engaging questions to get people to think and reflect.
Hopefully this post has inspired you to consider or even try out some different qualitative methods that differ from the normal boring ones. The key with all these is to consider what exactly will constitute the data you collect, and then how you will analyse it. For data that comes back to text or transcripts, Quirkos can be a fun and engaging way to help you analyse differently as well. Give the free trial a go, and see how it makes qualitative analysis a visual method!