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The enduring salience of qualitative research

Posted on 29 November 2013 .
Tags: methods, qualitative

Just over a year ago, I joined NatCen Social Research as a research trainee; I had just graduated from University, keen to kick start my career in social research. University psychology exposed me to the theory of qualitative research but working at NatCen underlined the real-world applicability of qualitative research and singularity as a tool for decoding and unpacking complex social issues.

To explore current use of qualitative research , and to inform  our refreshed textbook, Qualitative Research Practice I spent some time systematically summarising the methods used in research studies commissioned and published by six UK Government Departments in 2012.

I found out that of 86 studies, 18 used purely or mainly qualitative methods, while a further 35 studies used a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches. In the past, discussion has revolved around the relative merit of the two approaches. My review substantiates what the research community now suspects: the value of mixing methods to incorporate a range of evidence, data and perspectives and this is clearly recognised in UK Government funded research.  

When I broke down the types of qualitative methods used, the majority  involve speaking to participants and generating textual data, i.e. in-depth interviews  and focus groups. Observational techniques were still used, but more sparsely; I found just 8 examples of observation in the total 53 studies that had some qualitative element.

We’re generating and analysing qualitative data in increasingly diverse and creative ways– observations, photo-voice, and other creative methods have become increasingly discussed in recent years. What was interesting to me about the findings from my review is that it is clear that ‘conventional’ qualitative methods like face-to-face interviews are still at the core of robust government commissioned research.

Indeed as I have honed my qual skills in the Crime and Justice Team at NatCen, it has become clear that the choice and implementation of a method are equally important – as with most things, you’ve got to do it properly. Equally important is putting participants, where possible, at the heart of the research design.

In the Crime and Justice Team we look into highly sensitive issues, for example child sexual abuse or on how to curb serious reoffending. These sensitive projects really highlight the power of the interview, when conducted well, to collect information about personal experiences that simply couldn’t be accessed in any other way.

While it’s always exciting to implement new methods and approaches, there are some enduring practices that make for good, ethical qualitative research. And I think that the new edition of our textbook will do just that, outline the fundamentals of good qualitative research. I look forward to reading it!

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