qualitative methods

Ethnography: How Observer Inconsistency Impacts Quality Outcomes

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 212-213).

To safeguard the Credibility of the data generated from ethnographic research, it is Observer inconsistencyimportant that the observer conduct observations in a manner that does not vary greatly across observation events. Regardless of the nonparticipant or participant role (overt or covert), the observer must be trained to understand why consistency matters and how inconsistency may result in unacceptable levels of unwarranted variation in the data.

Maintaining consistency can present a particular challenge in ethnography, where the unpredictability of naturally occurring events can make it difficult to maintain constant focus on the key elements related to the research objectives. Although the participants and the specific activities themselves will change from observation event to observation event, it is critical to the quality of data gathering that, for each observation, the observer concentrates on identifying and recording the behaviors, conversations, contextual factors, and other elements pertaining to the priority areas of observation (determined in the research design phase) and constructs of interest.

For example, in an in-person study to observe the use of a recreational park area among community residents on various days and times of the week, the observer must give deliberate attention to each component of the park relevant to the research objectives. If the observer focuses their observation on the children’s playground on some days, the soccer field on other days, and occasionally on the hiking trails, the research results will fail to provide a realistic assessment of residents’ use of the community park.

Although the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of ethnography—and its ability to challenge the observer’s attention to key variables—is a leading cause of inconsistent data collection, the quality of an observer’s observation may also vary due to inadequate training or personal reasons such as sickness or fatigue. Regardless of the cause, the ethnographer should strive for consistency across all observations by making sure that observers understand and are trained on the following:

  • Research objectives, including background information on the topic and how the results of the research will be used.
  • Specific areas or elements of observation that are prioritized, including the rationale for their priority status.
  • Specific constructs or issues that are prioritized, including the rationale for their priority status.
  • Observation grid, including how it is designed to be used (as both a recording and a reflexive device), how to complete the grid, and how to add important but unanticipated observational components to the grid.
  • Types of observation sites the observer will be working in and how identifying the particular elements of observations of interest may be difficult in some instances—for example, observing a hiking trail at the community park may be narrow and congested—requiring the observer to work rigorously to stay alert and, in addition to taking in the scene as a whole, be ever mindful of the key elements in the observations related to the research objectives.
  • Ways to deal with stress and fatigue on the job.

 

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

The Unique Attributes of Qualitative Research: A Collection of 16 Articles

Unique attributes of qualitative research“Unique Attributes of Qualitative Research” is a compilation of 16 articles appearing in Research Design Review from 2013 to 2022 pertaining to the 10 unique attributes associated with qualitative research that have been discussed many times in RDR. It could be argued that other articles in RDR qualify for inclusion in this collection; however, the 16 articles chosen for this compilation speak more directly to each of the 10 unique attributes. This includes articles discussing the “absence of ‘truth’,” the “importance of context,” the “researcher as instrument,” “contextual analysis” and the other distinctive qualities of qualitative research. The collection also includes several articles on the attribute of “researcher skill set” as it pertains specifically to the focus group, in-depth interview, ethnography, and multiple methods. It is the intention of this compilation to provide a single resource that shines a light (casts sunshine) on the essential role qualitative research plays in research methods.

“Unique Attributes of Qualitative Research: 16 Articles on the 10 Unique Attributes of Qualitative Research” is available for download here.

Six similar compilations, devoted to particular methods or techniques, are also available:

“Ethnography & the Observation Method: 15 Articles on Design, Implementation, & Uses” is available for download here.

“Reflexivity: 10 Articles on the Role of Reflection in Qualitative Research” is available for download here.

“The Focus Group Method: 18 Articles on Design & Moderating” is available for download here.

“The In-depth Interview Method: 12 Articles on Design & Implementation” is available for download here.

“Qualitative Data Analysis: 16 Articles on Process & Method” is available for download here.

“Qualitative Research: Transparency & Reporting” is available for download here.

Unique Online & Mobile Capabilities in Qualitative Research

Unique attributes of qualitative research-Online and mobile

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 7-8).

Online and mobile technology offer unique enhancements to qualitative research designs. In many instances, these technologies have shifted the balance of power from the researcher to the online or mobile participant, who is given greater control of the research process by way of increased flexibility, convenience, and varied ways to respond in greater detail and depth to the researcher’s inquiries. For example, a participant in an email in-depth interview study can thoughtfully reflect on a researcher’s question before answering and can delay response until the participant is at a location where they can take the time to write a thoughtful reply. The opportunity to select the time and place for participation empowers online and mobile participants beyond that afforded participants of conventional, more restrictive modes that dictate a specific interview schedule or date and place for a group discussion or observation.

Asynchronous online and mobile technologies have also ushered in a richer, deeper qualitative research experience. Not only do participants have the chance to write more thoughtful responses to interview questions compared to more time-limiting modes (e.g., telephone and face-to-face), but online and mobile participants can also enrich their text responses by attaching files, images (photographs, graphics), links to websites, as well as add a voice response via VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) or the mobile phone device. This possibility for multimedia communication can be particularly effective, for example, when capturing in-the-moment experiences or observations via the participant’s smartphone, which may include a text message describing the event, photographs of the event, a short video of the event, and a voice message to the researcher elaborating on specific aspects of the event.

Online and mobile capabilities represent just one of the 10 unique attributes of qualitative research.