Built-in Quality in Qualitative Research: Flexibility of Design

QR: Flexibility of Design

Many of the unique attributes associated with qualitative research have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, e.g., “Achieving Accuracy in the Absence of ‘Truth'” and “Mitigating Researcher-as-instrument Effects.” One of these 10 unique attributes of qualitative research is the flexibility of the research design. Accepting that flexibility is a central and important component that strengthens the qualitative research process will greatly benefit the researcher embarking on a qualitative approach.

There are a variety of ways that qualitative researchers demonstrate flexibility in their designs, data generation, and analysis and thereby strengthen their research. Here are a few:

  • Modifying and adapting the questions that are asked or the direction to take during fieldwork. For example,
    • A moderator may modify the focus group discussion guide after hearing unexpected-yet-relevant discussion points in the first of many scheduled focus groups.
    • In a case study, the researcher may decide to substitute cases or change methods, e.g., switching to in-depth interviews (IDIs) when experiencing unanticipated delays in scheduling focus group discussions.
    • An ethnographer may decide to switch observer roles as they consider new observation and participation strategies.
  • Use of the semi-structured and unstructured interview approach in IDIs and narrative research. This allows for
    • Flexibility in how, what, and when relevant content in the guide is discussed in the interview.
    • Back-and-forth dialogue and encourages each participant’s “voice” to be heard.
  • Asynchronous online modes give participants the flexibility to respond at a time and place of their choosing, making the asynchronous online approach participants’ preferred mode and raising the rate of participant cooperation. For example,
    • Gibson (2010) found that 55 out of 70 research participants opted for an email IDI rather than an in-person IDI, and Beck (2005) extended an email IDI study for 18 months which allowed the researcher to incorporate some complexity and “richness” into the interview.
    • Tates et al. (2009) conducted asynchronous online focus group discussions with pediatric cancer patients, parents, and survivors and found that participants “highly valued the flexibility and convenience of logging in at their own time and place to join the discussion” (p. 1).
  • Location of in-person IDIs can be flexible, allowing the participant to choose a convenient and comfortable location, which has a positive effect on the level of participant cooperation and interviewer-participant rapport.
    • For example, flexibility of location is critical to achieving quality outcomes when conducting an IDI study with building contractors who are constantly moving between projects or busy on construction sites. Depending on contractors’ preferences, the researcher may agree to conducting the interview at a construction site or a nearby coffee shop.
  • Qualitative research analysis is a back-and-forth process whereby the researcher is always questioning assumptions and interpretations of the data as they develop.
    • Verification is an important step in the qualitative data analysis process.

Gibson, L. (2010). Using email interviews (No. 09). Retrieved from http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1303/1/09-toolkit-email-interviews.pdf

Tates, K., Zwaanswijk, M., Otten, R., van Dulmen, S., Hoogerbrugge, P. M., Kamps, W. A., & Bensing, J. M. (2009). Online focus groups as a tool to collect data in hard-to-include populations: Examples from paediatric oncology. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 9(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-9-15

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