The Virtue of Recordings in Qualitative Analysis

A February 2017 article posted in Research Design Review discusses qualitative data transcripts and, Qualitative Research Recordingspecifically, the potential pitfalls when depending only on transcripts in the qualitative analysis process. As stated in the article,

Although serving a utilitarian purpose, transcripts effectively convert the all-too-human research experience that defines qualitative inquiry to the relatively emotionless drab confines of black-on-white text. Gone is the profound mood swing that descended over the participant when the interviewer asked about his elderly mother. Yes, there is text in the transcript that conveys some aspect of this mood but only to the extent that the participant is able to articulate it. Gone is the tone of voice that fluctuated depending on what aspect of the participant’s hospital visit was being discussed. Yes, the transcriptionist noted a change in voice but it is the significance and predictability of these voice changes that the interviewer grew to know over time that is missing from the transcript. Gone is an understanding of the lopsided interaction in the focus group discussion among teenagers. Yes, the analyst can ascertain from the transcript that a few in the group talked more than others but what is missing is the near-indescribable sounds dominant participants made to stifle other participants and the choked atmosphere that pervaded the discussion along with the entire group environment.

Missing from this article is an explicit discussion of the central role audio and/or video recordings – that accompany verbal qualitative research modes, e.g., face-to-face and telephone group discussions and in-depth interviews (IDIs) – play in the analysis of qualitative data. Researchers who routinely utilize recordings during analysis are more likely to derive valid interpretations of the data while also staying connected to the fundamental goal – the raison d’être – of qualitative research, i.e., to embrace the complicated realm of the lived experience to gain an in-depth understanding of people in relationship to the research question(s).

In this regard, there are at least two key advantages to conducting a careful examination of the recordings, advantages that are missing when solely relying on transcripts. A review of the recordings

  • Aids in recalling peripheral but critical content. This is content that is typically deemed outside the scope of interest by the transcriptionist, such as the “mood swing” mentioned in the above excerpt. In that case, a review of the recording allows the researcher to hear (and see in a video recording) the energy in the participant’s voice when talking about his mother’s illness and reminds the researcher of how this energy ebbed and flowed, bouncing from rapid-fire gleeful enthusiasm to barely audible doubt and despair spoken in unusual voice variations and accompanied by fully engaged eye contact or distracted attention depending on the direction of his mood.
  • Clarifies meaning by way of a broader context. As the excerpt above suggests, it is only by re-living the focus group discussion with teenagers through the recording that the researcher begins to gain an understanding of the profundity of the “choked atmosphere” in the group and its impact on the outcomes. Unlike the transcript, the recording reminds the researcher of how and when the atmosphere in the group environment shifted from being open and friendly to quiet and inhibited; and how the particular seating arrangement, coupled with incompatible personality types, inflamed the atmosphere and seriously colored participants’ words, engagement, and way of thinking. The discussion content and derived meaning gathered within this context will clearly be at odds with the content and meaning derived from a separate focus group discussion consisting of teenagers with similar characteristics, discussing responses to the same discussion guide, but with personalities that foster a supportive group dynamic environment.

Qualitative researchers owe it to their participants to think carefully about the nuance and complexities of their lives as shared in a focus group discussion or IDI. Not unlike note taking (discussed here), developing a standard practice of reviewing recordings “helps to maintain the all-important participant-researcher relationship” by preserving the integrity of the qualitative event and retaining the essence of what it means to conduct qualitative research.



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