Start date:


Qualitative Research. The main focus of qualitative research is on making sense of the meanings of psychological phenomena, rather than the quantitative focus on discovering cause-effect relationships using statistical analyses. In some research qualitative research studies can be combined with quantitative methods. However, many qualitative approaches tend to be critical of the concept of 'objectivity', seeing all research as constructed by the methods, theoretical background and overall viewpoint of the researcher. With these approaches, it is therefore seen as important for researchers to be reflexive about how their experiences impact on their interpretations (to the extent this is possible), and to be transparent in communicating this as part of the reporting of their research results.

Within the broad field of qualitative research, there are many different methods, some of which are now described: Collecting accounts. Accounts are collected in different ways, recorded differently and transcribed differently depending on the type and aims of the research. Usually qualitatively based, research involves collecting accounts of people's experiences or behaviour within a certain topic area or focus (e.g. dreaming, experiences of altered states, becoming a mother) and analysing the resulting material, looking for common themes.

Discourse Analysis argues that language and the way in which it is used play a major role in how we behave and make sense of our social world. Our talk is not seen as a purely private, individual production, but as part of our shared, public and collective realities. Our most fundamental psychological processes, such as our identity, are not seen as something 'intrinsic' but as constructed and negotiated through talk. For example, even the very concept of being a 'unique, autonomous individual' might be seen by Discourse Analysts as a particular construct of Euro-American society, emerging through talk (as compared to the very different conceptions of the self from Japan or India, say). All data are seen as constructions: This methodology falls within the social constructionist tradition (see 'perspectives'). In common with all social constructionist approaches, it rejects the idea that language is a purely 'passive' medium that we use to describe our world. Instead, it argues that language plays a very active role in constructing our world. This construction occurs by way of a number of factors, including:

• How we select what is to be discussed (i.e. what is, or is not, seen to be relevant).
• The particular way in which what is being discussed is framed – the idea that some ways of making sense of things are 'objectively true', whereas others are 'subjective', is rejected.

All are seen as particular constructions of the author, rather than as neutral unbiased 'facts'. One way of making sense of this idea is to imagine yourself making an observation of some interaction. Then imagine observing the same interaction, but through focussing on different aspects (selection), and making sense of them in terms of a different theoretical framework (framing), you could write down a quite different account. For example, the first observation could be made by a psychoanalyst who is primarily looking at how people's body language might reveal internal conflicts and defence mechanisms. The second observation could be made from a researcher interested in the content of the verbal interactions, and how society influences the way people discuss things. Clearly these two observations will produce very different data! Yet both could be argued to be perfectly reasonable ways of observing the situation. So can you say that one is 'right' (and 'objective'), and another is 'wrong', (or 'subjective')? People's accounts are seen as based on their particular ways of making sense of things, and the rhetorical strategies they might use (i.e. the way people will frame their accounts to make them as coherent and convincing as they can).

This also applies to psychological research, even discourse analysis itself, which leads to an interesting question: A phrase from the Roman playwright Juvenal's Satires is 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?', or 'Who guards the guardians?' In this context, this question can become, 'who analyses the discourse of the discourse analysts'? Discourse analysts have to be sensitive to the way in which their own research is itself a construction, based on particular theories, making use of rhetorical strategies, and so on. For the social constructionist, this is not seen as a weakness, but rather a strength, in that the researcher is encouraged to be reflexive (in trying to be aware, as much as possible, of their own ways of framing things), and transparent –- in communicating this as clearly as possible to the reader when reporting their research results. Social constructionists would, of course, claim that this idea of research as construction is true of all psychological methodologies, criticizing many quantitative/experimental approaches for not acknowledging the extent to which their research is constructed. Social constructionists reject the very concept of 'unbiased, objective' research.

The actual methodology of discourse analysis is based on the interpretation of texts, which often make use of transcripts of talk (broadly interpreted to mean pretty much any kind of utterance/conversation/writing). This material is nearly always taken from naturally-occurring talk of some kind (compare this naturalistic focus with laboratory-based research, for example). Material might come from observation of normal everyday encounters between people, interviews, or published material such as newspaper articles. These texts are then analysed to try to reveal the social context from which they emerge. Speakers' accounts of events are seen not simply as passive reports of the 'facts' of what happened, but highly active ways of putting across the way they wish to construct those 'facts'. A good way of making sense of this idea in practise is to look at politicians from rival political parties frantically 'spinning' to get across what may be diametrically opposed ways of making sense of some particular event (e.g. publication of some new statistics on crime or the economy). Rhetorical strategies could be based on trying to show their opponents to be fools and/or knaves, while their own party is the supreme repository of wisdom and skilful policy-making. From this point of view, the 'spin' IS the reality, in that it is people's eventual constructions of an event that tend to have the ultimate impact on a political party's fortunes.

Conversation Analysis (CA) has some similarities with discourse analysis, in its even stronger emphasis on using naturally-occurring talk, but tends to focus on highly detailed analysis of smaller samples of language. As its name suggests, CA has a particular focus on how people interact with their talk. The ways in which conversations are socially organised are revealed by a detailed analysis of tape recordings (audio or video) and transcriptions made from such recordings. Although the way we talk with others in conversation may seem very 'natural', CA reveals the ways in which it is based on particular interactional skills. Some of these skills seem to be quite general, others are found more within particular cultures. This method insists on staying very close to the prime data (the tape recordings). However, transcriptions are also used, to show how conversations develop as an interactional sequence. Analysing biography. This approach uses individual biographical details as sources of data. These can then be used to try to make sense of the different psychological aspects of the individual in question. The analysis would often take place from within a particular theoretical context (e.g. Freudian or Jungian psychoanalytic), or might also draw on a combination of theories to help provide insight into different psychological processes. \nInterviewing\nInterviews involve a researcher asking a participant (or informant) for information about a particular research question. This question could be tightly focused, such as 'experience of a particular train journey, or more loosely focussed, such as 'what it means for you to be alive as a human'. The participants would be chosen in terms of their likelihood of having something relevant to say about the research question.

Interviews can produce both quantitative and qualitative data, and can be structured or unstructured. With structured interviews, there is a detailed checklist of questions to be asked, with little deviation allowed from this. Data are often coded into numbers so that statistical analyses can be done. Unstructured interviews, in their 'pure' form, have no prepared list of questions, in fact nothing apart from an initial focus or topic (e.g. 'experience of motherhood'). From this, the interviewer will try to be very sensitive to what is important to the respondent, in deciding which questions to follow up on or expand. In practise, many interviews lie somewhere between the purely structured and the unstructured format. The interviewer may start off with some prepared topics in an 'interview guide' designed to cover particular themes, but will be quite open to exploring material the respondent comes up with from outside this. This would be called a semi-structured format. (In fact, even 'unstructured' interviews must inevitably involve some choices on the part of the interviewer on what question to ask or topic to follow up at any point). Regardless of format, the resulting data are then analysed to come up with central themes and issues. This analysis looks for the meanings through which people make sense of their lives and experiences. Sometimes, the initial analysis may be offered back to the respondent, for their comments as to how well they think it represents their views. Whether this is done may depend on the theoretical background of the interviewer – humanistic psychologists, for example, place great importance on representing interviewees in terms of the interviewee's own unique worldview.

Ethnographic methods originated with anthropology, looking at various aspects of different ethnic groups, or communities in countries other than the anthropologist's own. The focus was frequently culture (meaning everyday practices), history, myths and traditions. This approach makes use of a whole range of methods, based on 'naturalistic' observation techniques, such as recording natural conversations. Often the investigator will themselves become part of the grouping, for periods varying from relatively short time periods up to several years. However, the aim is to participate without altering the situation excessively (it is acknowledged that it is impossible to have no effect at all), in order to discover the viewpoints and activities of the people being observed. This approach has formed the basis for more recent research in social psychology. The basic method, as described above, is that the psychologist participates in the everyday lives of the people being observed, making notes about what is said and the activities that take place. In addition to this 'outside' viewpoint, ethnographers may well also ask individuals to talk about their experiences, providing an 'inside' viewpoint and inner experience data. Another source of data may come from documents or other information sources relevant to the setting being observed. This emphasis on multiple methods is characteristic of ethnography. In the early stages of data collection, ethnographers would try to be as 'unstructured' as possible in their observations, limiting the extent to which their own preconceptions/background influenced what is observed (this cannot be done entirely, but great effort could be made towards trying to be sensitively attuned to the viewpoints and overall worldview of those being observed). This approach will help the central issues involved to start to emerge, through the early stages of analysis.

Qualitative observation is one of the most basic methods of data collection in psychology. It involves careful attention to some particular aspect of the world. It can take place in the laboratory, during experiments or observations of people interacting or doing particular tasks, or may focus on people engaged in some aspect of their everyday lives, so generating naturalistic data. Examples could be students and teachers in the classroom, people shopping or using a cash machine, mother-child interaction etc. Sometimes video recordings may be made, in other circumstances this may not be possible (or ethical), and data will consist of the observer's own notes of what he or she observed. The essential distinction between an observation and an experiment is that an observation doesn't involve the deliberate manipulation of a particular variable. However, experimental psychologists have to observe the effects of their manipulations and some forms of observation can involve some potential 'interference' with what is being observed. This is particularly true for the method known as participant observation, in which the observer also participates in the activities engaged in by those under observation. The discussion on how all data is seen as constructed in the section on discourse analysis is just as relevant to observational data.