In March 2018, Mario Luis Small gave a public lecture at Columbia University on “Rhetoric and Evidence in a Polarized Society.” In this terrific must-read speech, Small asserts that today’s public discourse concerning society’s most deserving issues – poverty, inequality, and economic opportunity – has been seriously weakened by the absence of “qualitative literacy.” Qualitative literacy has to do with “the ability to understand, handle, and properly interpret qualitative evidence” such as ethnographic and in-depth interview (IDI) data. Small contrasts the general lack of qualitative literacy with the “remarkable improvement” in “quantitative literacy” particularly among those in the media where data-driven journalism is on the rise, published stories are written with a greater knowledge of quantitative data and use of terminology (e.g., the inclusion of means and medians), and more care is given to the quantitative evidence cited in media commentary (i.e., op-eds).
Small explains that the extent to which a researcher (or journalist or anyone involved in the use of research) possesses qualitative literacy can be determined by looking at the person’s ability to “assess whether the ethnographer has collected and evaluated fieldnote data properly, or the interviewer has conducted interviews effectively and analyzed the transcripts properly.” This determination serves as the backbone of “basic qualitative literacy” which enables the research user to identify the difference between a rigorous qualitative study and Read Full Text
The funnel four-stage approach to in-depth interview (IDI) and focus group guide development is an effective and efficient method for gaining key insights among qualitative research participants within an allotted time frame. A 2015 article in Research Design Review offers a schematic of this approach and outlines the intended purpose associated with each of the four basic stages (see “Interview Guide Development: A 4-Stage ‘Funnel’ Approach”).
But what exactly does “effective and efficient” mean as it relates to guide development, and why should we care? The answers lie in the fact that a thoughtful funnel approach to guide development enables the researcher to derive quality data from their qualitative research while achieving research objectives and maximizing the ultimate usefulness of the outcomes. By having a clear understanding of what it means to develop an interview or discussion guide that is both effective and efficient, the researcher has added greatly to the integrity of the qualitative research data and design.
There are at least six ways that the funnel four-stage approach to guide development is important to the effectiveness and efficiency of IDI and focus group research. The funnel approach:
Mitigates bias. Progressively moving to the primary topic of interest allows the interviewer/moderator to gather an understanding of perceptions and behavior unblemished by the researcher’s own agenda.
Helps identify variations. The general-to-narrow approach inherently provides the researcher with the necessary fundamental information that is needed to compare and contrast earlier comments with participants’ later remarks. In this way, the interviewer/moderator is able to identify variations in what is being said and conduct the necessary follow-up.
Fosters rapport through a friendly flow of conversation. By beginning the interview or discussion with questions that are general in nature, the interviewer/moderator is facilitating the researcher-participant relationship in a conversational and non-threatening way.
Reduces repetition. The flow of conversation that is grounded in a general-to-narrow method logically circumvents the potential problem of inappropriately repeating the same or similar topic areas or asking redundant questions.
Encourages engagement and cooperation. Just as the funnel approach facilitates rapport building through conversation, it also creates an atmosphere in which participants feel emboldened to engage with the researcher and, in focus groups, with the other participants. This heightened level of cooperation fuels otherwise hidden insights which in turn help to mitigate bias and bolster data quality.
Aids in analysis. By mitigating bias, helping to identify variations in the data, fostering rapport, reducing repetition, and encouraging engagement and cooperation, the funnel approach to guide development ultimately advances data analysis. The analyst is able to discern categories and themes, as well as outliers, in the data in a straightforward way based on well-thought-out transitions in the conversations.
There are lots of articles discussing question design, focusing on such things as how to mitigate various forms of bias, clearly communicate the intended meaning of the question, and facilitate response. Survey question wording is discussed in this “tip sheet” from Harvard University as well as in “Questionnaire Design” from Pew Research Center, and a recent article in Research Design Review discussed the not-so-simple “why” question in qualitative research (see “Re-considering the Question of ‘Why’ in Qualitative Research”).
Getting the question “right” is a concern of all researchers, but qualitative researchers have to be particularly mindful of the responses they get in return. It is not good enough to use an interview guide to ask a question, get an answer, and move on to the next question. And, it is often not good enough to ask a question, get an answer, interject one or two probing questions, and move on to the next question. Indeed, one of the toughest skills a qualitative interviewer has to learn is how to evaluate a participant’s answer to any given question. This goes way beyond evaluating whether the participant responded in line with the intention of the question or the potential sources of bias. Rather, this broader, much-needed evaluation of a response requires a reflexive, introspective consideration on the part of the interviewer.