Imagine a researcher investigating the dating lives of college women. One strategy for studying the topic would be to ask hundreds of women to fill out a questionnaire about the frequency and type of their dates. This method might provide some good surface-level information, but it won't provide any nuanced or in-depth ideas. For that, researchers turn to qualitative methods. These techniques don't allow for numerical calculations like surveys do, but they can yield much more detailed and personalized results.
In-depth interviews are detailed conversations between the researcher and participant about the research topic. For example, a researcher interested in studying the dating habits of college-age women might meet 20 women for 30 minutes to an hour to discuss the issue. Interviews may follow a highly structured format with a list of specific questions, a free-flowing format with no written questions or a semistructured format allowing free conversation about a handful of preselected topics. Researchers often record their interviews and later transcribe the recordings for additional analysis, but some prefer to rely on handwritten or typed notes.
Focus groups are group interviews in which the researcher leads a handful of people, usually 6 to 10 individuals, in a discussion about the research topic. The technique is useful for studying the norms of a particular subculture that might be missed in individual interviews. For example, in a study of the dating lives of college women, a research might invite eight women to participate in a focus group. The inclusion of several voices helps avoid extreme or unusual viewpoints and allows the researcher to identify common conceptions or ways of thinking about the topic.
Field observation is a qualitative research method that features much less direct interaction between participants and the researcher. Instead of questioning study participants, the researcher simply observes their behavior in real life. For example, the dating researcher might simply sit near a participant during a dinner date and take notes on her behavior. The big advantage of field observation is that, because the researcher watches behavior in real life, the results are less likely to reflect artifacts like the researcher's tone of voice or the uncomfortable seating in the interview room. The downside is that researchers may misinterpret behavior they observe because they are unable to ask follow-up questions.
Action research positions the researcher as an active participant in the study instead of just a bystander or disinterested observer. For a researcher interested in college dating, introspection after going on a date could be an example of action research. Similarly, helping to organize a protest against sexual violence could be used as an action research method. A strength of action research is that the researcher has a firsthand view of the research topic because he or she is a subject of study. This can also be a downside, however, since the researcher's personal perspective may inhibit his or her ability to see other viewpoints.
- University of Surrey: Introduction to Research: Interviews
- Northeastern University: Qualitative Research Methods Overview
- Research Methods in Physical Activity: Exploring Four Methods for Collecting Qualitative Research
- University of Surrey: Introduction to Research: Focus Groups
- University of Surrey: Introduction to Research: Observation
- Qualitative Social Research: Participatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion
- Photo Credit Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
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