Reporting in qualitative research, and particularly the element of transparency, has been the topic of various articles in Research Design Review (see “Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency,” “Reporting Ethnography: Storytelling & the Roles Participants Play,” and others). While all types of research require complete and accurate reporting, the final report appears to be discussed less frequently compared to other aspects of the research process. This is certainly true in qualitative research. Just a look around RDR will prove the point that a greater emphasis has been paid to other research design areas – such as data collection and analysis – than to the actual reporting of the findings.
This needs to change. One could argue that the final written report is the most important component of the research process, the component that not only serves to document the study from beginning to end but also transforms qualitative research into a tangible, living “being” for the research users to grab hold of and utilize in any number of ways. Without the report, our research might as well not exist. This makes one wonder why relatively scant attention is paid to best practices in reporting and, indeed, why the final report in some research sectors (e.g., marketing research) is often reduced to a less-than-comprehensive, fully-bulleted PowerPoint slide deck.
For anyone interested in a serious discussion of the many facets of the qualitative report, an excellent resource is Focus Group Discussions by Monique Hennink (2014, Oxford University Press as part of their Understanding Qualitative Research series edited by Patricia Leavy). Although the book is centered on the focus group method, the chapters devoted to reporting offer relevant and useful guidance regardless of the qualitative approach. For example, Hennink’s chapter on “Writing Focus Group Methods,” discusses the challenges researchers face when attempting to give “methodological depth” to their reporting while also writing in a clear and concise manner. Using qualitative terminology such as purposive Read Full Text
A number of articles in Research Design Review have discussed, in one form or another, the Total Quality Framework (TQF)* approach to qualitative research design. An RDR post last month pertained to applying the TQF to the in-depth interviewing method; while other articles have focused on ways to integrate quality measures – in harmony with the TQF – into ethnography, mobile research, and the research proposal. Separate from applications per se, an article in February 2015 discussed the compatibility of a quality approach with social constructionism.
One of the four components of the TQF is Transparency** which is specific to the reporting phase of the research process. In particular, Transparency has to do with the researcher’s full disclosure of the research design, fieldwork, and analytical procedures in the final document. This sounds simple enough yet it is common to read qualitative research reports, papers, and articles that too quickly jump to research findings and discussion, with relatively scant attention given to the peculiarities of the design, data gathering, or analysis. This is unfortunate and misguided because these details are necessary for the user of the research to understand the context by which interpretations were derived and to judge the applicability of the outcomes to other situations (i.e., transferability).
There are, of course, exceptions; and, indeed, many researchers are skillful in divulging these all-important details. One example is Deborah C. Bailey’s article, “Women and Wasta: The Use of Focus Groups for Understanding Social Capital and Middle Eastern Women.” In it, Bailey provides Read Full Text
In Chapter 10 of Sam Ladner’s book Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector, the author discusses a best practice approach to reporting ethnographic research for a corporate audience. She states that “private-sector ethnographic reports are successful if they are dramatic and consistent with the organization’s truth regime” (p.165). To this end, Ladner recommends text reports with “clickable hyperlinks” throughout and supplemental material, such as a PowerPoint presentation, that acts as the “marketing campaign” or “movie trailer” for the text document.
As another “delightful element” to the ethnography report, Ladner suggests the use of personas or archetypes, each representing a depiction of participants that share a particular characteristic. This is “a useful way to summarize the voluminous amount of qualitative data” (p. 167); however, Ladner cautions that personas “are often done badly” and points to Steve Portigal’s article on the subject matter, “Persona Non Grata.” In it, Portigal advocates for maintaining the “realness” of research participants rather than manufacturing a “falsehood” (by way of personas) that distances the users of the research from the people they want to know most about. Portigal encourages researchers to engage with the “messiness of actual human beings,” emphasizing that “people are too wonderfully complicated to be reduced to plastic toys [that is, personas].”
Reporting observational research for corporate users can be a challenge. On the one hand, the researcher is obligated to dig into the messiness of analysis and convey an honest accounting of what the researcher saw and heard. On the other hand, the final reporting is meaningless if no one pays attention to it, thereby preventing the research from having the desired effect of bringing new energy and a new way of thinking to the organization. Ladner and Portigal agree that powerful storytelling grounded in reality is the best approach, but how do we create a compelling drama while maintaining the integrity of our data? A combination of formats, as Ladner suggests, is one tactic. And the use of personas may be another. An open and ongoing discussion among researchers about personas – if and how the roles we assign the actors in our final story are (or can be) created while staying true to the study participants – seems like a worthwhile effort.
Image captured from: https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/2015/386081/