qualitative research design

Contextual Analysis: A Fundamental Attribute of Qualitative Research

Contextual analysis-A unique attribute of qualitative research

One of the 10 unique or distinctive attributes of qualitative research is contextual, multilayered analysis. This is a fundamental aspect of qualitative research and, in fact, plays a central role in the unique attributes associated with data generation, i.e., the importance of context, the importance of meaning, the participant-researcher relationship, and researcher as instrument

“…the interconnections, inconsistencies, and sometimes seemingly illogical input reaped in qualitative research demand that researchers embrace the tangles of their data from many sources. There is no single source of analysis in qualitative research because any one research event consists of multiple variables that need consideration in the analysis phase. The analyzable data from an in-depth interview, for example, are more than just what was said in the interview; they also include a variety of other considerations, such as the context in which certain information was revealed and the interviewee–interviewer relationship.” (Roller & Lavrakas, pp. 7-8)

The ability — the opportunity — to contextually analyze qualitative data is also associated with basic components of research design, such as sample size and the risk of relying on saturation which “misguides the researcher towards prioritizing manifest content over the pursuit of contextual understanding derived from latent, less obvious data.” And the defining differentiator between a qualitative and quantitative approach, such as qualitative content analysis in which it is “the inductive strategy in search of latent content, the use of context, the back-and-forth flexibility throughout the analytical process, and the continual questioning of preliminary interpretations that set qualitative content analysis apart from the quantitative method.”

There are many ways that context is integrated into the qualitative data analysis process to ensure quality analytical outcomes and interpretations. Various articles in Research Design Review have discussed contextually grounded aspects of the process, such as the following (each header links to the corresponding RDR article).

Unit of Analysis

“Although there is no perfect prescription for every study, it is generally understood that researchers should strive for a unit of analysis that retains the context necessary to derive meaning from the data. For this reason, and if all other things are equal, the qualitative researcher should probably err on the side of using a broader, more contextually based unit of analysis rather than a narrowly focused level of analysis (e.g., sentences).”

Meaning of Words

“How we use our words provides the context that shapes what the receiver hears and the perceptions others associate with our words. Context pertains to apparent as well as unapparent influences that take the meaning of our words beyond their proximity to other words [or] their use in recognized terms or phrases…”

Categorical Buckets

“No one said that qualitative data analysis is simple or straightforward. A reason for this lies in the fact that an important ingredient to the process is maintaining participants’ context and potential multiple meanings of the data. By identifying and analyzing categorical buckets, the researcher respects this multi-faceted reality and ultimately reaps the reward of useful interpretations of the data.”

Use of Transcripts

“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.”

Use of Recordings

“Unlike the transcript, the recording reminds the researcher of how and when the atmosphere in the [focus] 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.”

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Focus Group Dynamics & Quality Outcomes

Focus group dynamics

As discussed elsewhere in this blog, the ability of the moderator to multitask has important implications to the quality of focus group discussion data. For example, to gather quality data, the moderator must maintain concentration on the research objectives while also following up on new and/or contrary ideas as they emerge from discussion participants. The quality of research outcomes also demands that, in a multi-group study, the moderator consistently cover all the key topic areas of the discussion guide across all groups while also contending with the unpredictability of group dynamics as defined by each group of participants.

Group dynamics can lead a discussion in any number of unexpected directions. Here are just a couple:

  • Group Think
    • For whatever reason, participants appear to be in agreement on one or more topics. The moderator can
      • Look for inconsistencies by assessing whether one or more participants are contradicting earlier comments and, if so, ask about it.
      • Paraphrase what is being said and ask participants to clarify their basis for agreement.
      • Play devil’s advocate
        • “I have heard the opposite from other users of this product. Help me understand how this group thinks differently.”
  • Stray From the Guide
    • Participants may bring up topic areas that are relevant but earlier than intended per the discussion guide. The moderator can
      • Ask participants’ permission to discuss the topic at a later time.
      • Choose to discuss the topic at that moment in time (if not too disruptive to the flow of discussion).
    • Participants may bring up topic areas that are not relevant to the research. The moderator might say
      • “Thank you for bringing this up. This may be something for us to consider for future discussions.”

An important component of these and other forms of group dynamics is participants’ behavior. For instance, one or more participants in a focus group may

  • Dominate the discussion preventing others from contributing. The moderator can
    • Make it clear in the introduction that it is important to hear from everyone.
    • Let the participant speak before interjecting, “Thank you for that comment. Let’s hear from someone else. Sally, what do you think about the current climate crisis?” or “Thank you. Any reactions to David’s comment?” 
  • Be argumentative or hostile, has “an axe to grind.” The moderator can
    • Be sure participants understand the purpose of the research & how the discussion will be conducted.
    • Let the participant vent. Listen politely and then, “Susan, I hear you. Thank you for your comments. But we need to move on with today’s discussion. Can you and I talk afterwards about your concerns?”
    • Take the opportunity to use the participant’s comments to start a new discussion – “Jack, you make a good point…”
  • Be shy, quiet and doesn’t make eye contact. The moderator can
    • Make a special effort during introductions to engage the participant via active listening techniques.
    • “Back off” from the shy participant until sufficient rapport has been established and then attempt to engage the participant – “John, what do you think about the idea of adding solar panels to your home?”
    • Be considerate and, if the participant does not want to contribute to the discussion, do not risk angering or upsetting the participant.
  • Enter into side conversations or be distracted. The moderator can
    • Call for a “time out” whereby the discussion is briefly stopped and the conversation/distraction is resolved.