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Analysing Qualitative Data in Psychology

1 Doing Qualitative Research: Initial Questions

Contributors: Evanthia Lyons Editors: Evanthia Lyons & Adrian Coyle Book Title: Analysing Qualitative Data in Psychology Chapter Title: "1 Doing Qualitative Research: Initial Questions" Pub. Date: 2007 Access Date: October 20, 2013 Publishing Company: SAGE Publications, Ltd City: London Print ISBN: 9781412907835 Online ISBN: 9781446207536

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446207536.d6 Print pages: 3-9 This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.

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http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446207536.d6 [p. 3 ]

1 Doing Qualitative Research: Initial Questions


Evanthia Lyons This chapter will outline the aims of the book and provide an overview of the contents. It will describe the main decisions and uncertainties that researchers face when conducting qualitative research at the different stages of the research process and will raise some of the questions that you, as a reader, should bear in mind when you attend to each chapter to enable you to make the most effective use of the book.

Key terms Background to the book


As a teacher and a researcher, I have often been faced with excited and anxious students and colleagues who were either about to embark on or were in the midst of the process of conducting qualitative research. In talking about their anxieties and excitement, they have often commented on the uncertainties associated with making the decisions involved in the research process. Qualitative researchers soon realize that there are no universally agreed right answers to questions such as the style of interviewing they should use to collect their data or which approach to data analysis they should adopt or how they can identify a theme in their analysis or the exact criteria they should use to evaluate their research. [p. 4 ]

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This book aims to provide both relatively novice and more experienced researchers with the necessary methodological tools and conceptual maps to navigate their way through the process of qualitative research. It describes the uncertainties surrounding qualitative research and the many dilemmas faced by researchers. It illustrates these by drawing on the experiences of researchers with varying degrees of expertise in qualitative research. It also provides the readers with the necessary background knowledge and raises their awareness of the questions they will need to address in order to make informed decisions about how to deal with such uncertainties and dilemmas.

Conducting qualitative research: Quandaries and uncertainties


Qualitative research methods do not easily provide firm and incontestable answers to questions about the research process and data interpretation. This in part results from their underlying philosophical assumptions concerning how we should produce psychological knowledge. Although qualitative research is a term that covers a number of different methods, as a bare minimum, most of these methods share the assumption that there is no objective reality or universal truth. Rather they are underpinned by the belief that knowledge, and the processes which lead to its production are context specific (Lyons, 2000; Willig, 2001). Furthermore, there is the assumption that researchers and participants, together with other related individuals and groups of individuals, ideologies and social structures, are integral and dynamic parts of the context of the phenomenon under investigation (Dallos and Draper, 2000; Harr and Secord, 1972). Therefore there is no formulaic way, no blueprint, of how qualitative research ought to be conceptualized and conducted as the choices and decisions made throughout the research process are likely to define and influence what is researched, what data are collected, how data are made sense of and the conclusions drawn. However, it is important to emphasize that qualitative research is not a homogeneous domain: different research approaches and methods are based on different philosophical assumptions concerning how we should produce psychological knowledge and what can be known, and have different scientific goals and guidelines for good practice (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005a; Henwood and Pidgeon, 1994; Willig, 2001).
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Furthermore, they are based on differing conceptualizations of the relationship between language, cognitions and reality. These sets of assumptions are the focus of the domain of the philosophy of science which is referred to as epistemology (Benton and Craib, 2001). Chapter 2 provides a fuller discussion of what epistemology is and the various epistemological stances underlying the different research methods. The assumption that the production of knowledge and how we make sense and talk about our social world is context specific together with the wide range[p. 5 ] of methods available to those who want to conduct qualitative research give rise to a number of questions at each stage of the research. For example, at the very beginning of the research journey, one deals with the issue of whether one should use qualitative or quantitative research methods to investigate a topic. If you do decide to conduct qualitative research, then you are faced with the decision of which particular approach you should use. At the research design stage, one has to make decisions about how to use existing theory and empirical knowledge. Do we take this knowledge into account when we, for example, formulate our research questions and/or design our interview schedule or choose what texts will form the data we plan to analyse? Do we engage with existing knowledge before, during or after the interpretation stage and how do we ensure that pre-existing ideas do not overly influence how we make sense of what the participants tell us or should we? Should we give theory the same status as that we give to the accounts that the participants or other texts provide us with? Furthermore, we need to reflect on how we conceptualize our role as a researcher. Do we see the role of the researcher as being a mere perceiver of the participants meaning-making endeavours? Do we see the researcher as a perceiver and interpreter of what participants express? Do we see our role as being one of deconstructing and reconstructing textual accounts of a phenomenon, thus offering a social critique of the status quo and opening up alternative ways of constructing our social world? Both relatively novice and more experienced researchers feel a sense of excitement, perhaps bewilderment, and quite often anxiety when they face the task of analysing pages and pages of qualitative data. They may of course have a textbook, which outlines a step-by-step guide and techniques of how to analyse qualitative data using their chosen analytic approach. But how does one apply these to one's own data?
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Qualitative researchers quickly come to realize that this is not a straightforward process. Irrespective of which approach to qualitative research is employed, identifying a theme or a category or a discourse in the data is not easy. However clearly the analytical steps are described in a textbook, applying them to a data set is not a mechanical process. It is a meaning-making process. It requires the researcher to immerse themselves in the data, make sense of the data and identify the themes, codes, discourses which would provide a recognizable and useful account of the data. However, what is recognizable and what is useful are to a great extent subjective judgements. In this sense, no one interpretation is the correct or true one. This does not mean any interpretation is a good interpretation. One could argue that a piece of qualitative research should be evaluated along two main dimensions: first, its rigour and quality and second, its usefulness (see Chapter 2 and Chapter 11 for more on this). So how does a researcher know what themes, codes or discourses are relevant and/ or useful? Should their relevance and usefulness be determined by how good they are at providing a descriptive or an explanatory account of the data? Or should their relevance and usefulness be judged on how they engage with existing theoretical and empirical knowledge[p. 6 ] or their relative applicability to real life situations? In any case, should they be relevant and useful to those participating in the research or to those who fund it or to other potential users of the research findings? Furthermore, qualitative researchers also face the task of disseminating their findings in a way that is recognized by the participants, colleagues and other interested audiences as making a useful contribution. Given the diversity of the potential audience, how we present our findings orally or in a written form again raises a lot of questions. For instance, how can we show the rigour and quality of our research so that our academic peers accept the credibility and usefulness of our findings? How do we make our findings accessible to the groups of people who participated in the research? How do we persuade policy makers to take notice of the findings of a research study which is based on perhaps just a few individuals, as often qualitative research involves small size samples? How can we ensure that our research has the desired political and social implications and avoid others exploiting the research for purposes we do not agree with? These are only a few of the many issues that qualitative researchers face and we as a research community do not have precise and universally agreed answers. These
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issues are often resolved on the basis of the questions researchers seek to address and their exact assumptions about what can be known, what are valid ways of producing knowledge and the relationship between language, cognition and reality.

The structure of the book


The contents of the book are organized in a way that reflects the three main objectives that Adrian Coyle and I had when we initially conceptualized this book. Our first objective was to provide readers with the necessary background knowledge and an awareness of the questions they will need to address in order to make informed decisions about whether to conduct qualitative rather than quantitative research and, if they decide to follow a qualitative path, which particular qualitative approach(es) would best suit their research goals. Our second objective was to equip readers with the basic tools to carry out their analysis by providing detailed, contextualized coverage of the practicalities of each of the following four qualitative methods/approaches: interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith, 1996, 2004), grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Strauss and Corbin, 1990, 1998), discourse analysis (Parker, 1992; Potter and Wetherell, 1987) and narrative analysis (Crossley, 2000a). In addition, the book includes accounts of an actual analysis of a specific data set in a step-by-step manner using the four approaches. Our third objective was to provide the reader with guidance as to how to write up qualitative research in general and how to report studies employing each of the four approaches in particular. Thus, in addition to this chapter, Section 1 includes a chapter by Adrian Coyle which gives an account of the historical development of qualitative[p. 7 ] research methods in Britain and discusses in some detail some of the central issues underlying qualitative research. The chapter aims to sensitize the reader to issues such as the value of qualitative research in psychology, the relationship between epistemology and method and how qualitative research might be evaluated. The chapter provides a general background to qualitative research and raises questions that the reader may want to bear in mind when reading the theoretical and analytic chapters included in Section 2 in order to note how each of the four approaches deals with them.
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Analysing Qualitative Data in Psychology: 1 Doing Qualitative Research: Initial Questions

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Section 2 includes four chapters (Chapters 3, 5, 7 and 9) outlining the theoretical underpinnings and methodological issues involved in employing each of the four approaches to qualitative research that are focused on in this volume. These chapters contextualize the discussion of these issues by giving ample examples of the main issues faced by researchers who employ each of the analytical approaches and examples of how these issues were dealt with in particular projects. Each theoretical chapter is followed by a chapter describing the reflections of a member of a group that analysed a specific data set using the approach described in the theoretical chapter. The main aim of these chapters are twofold. First, they reflect on the experiences of relatively novice researchers who used each method and second, they provide a comparative context within which the reader can explore the similarities and differences amongst the four approaches. The data set used in this exercise can be found in Appendix 1. The final chapter in Section 2 (Chapter 11) offers some reflections on the similarities and differences between the four focal analytic approaches. It extends the discussion on some of the issues raised in both the introductory chapters as well as the subsequent theoretical and analytic chapters. In that chapter, I summarize and compare the position each approach takes on these issues. Also, I consider the political implications of the choices we make in the research process, especially in relation to how we conceptualize the relationship between ourselves, as the researchers, and the participants. Finally, Appendix 2 includes examples of published work by researchers who used each of the research methods, with commentaries on the writing-up process. These reports provide the reader with useful examples of and tips on how to write up qualitative research, thus completing the research process. Doing qualitative research is certainly an exciting and challenging process. Its appeal is partly due to the rich data it produces and the opportunities it opens up for exploring the complex, ambivalent and often contradictory ways we make sense of and construct our social worlds. Reading this volume will, we hope, make it easier to explore issues which are important not only in a social and political sense but to you personally. However, it does not promise to answer all your questions as there are many that
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remain unanswered by the research communities and there are others that are specific to particular research methods and that could not be covered in the space available in this book. [p. 8 ]

Summary
This chapter has emphasized the diversity of the research methods covered under the umbrella of qualitative research and has described some of the common assumptions these methods share. It argued that assumptions regarding meaning-making processes and processes involved in how we produce knowledge as context specific make researchers feel uncertain about how to conduct research and present their analytic accounts. The chapter has raised some of the questions that qualitative researchers often grapple with and has outlined the structure of the book.

Further reading
A volume which covers many approaches to qualitative research and deals with debates and tensions within the qualitative research paradigm is Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln's (2005b), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. Carla Willig's (2001) Introducing Qualitative Research in Psychology: Adventures in Theory and Method and Jonathan Smith's (2003), Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods provide very clear and rigorous accounts of some widely used qualitative research methods and of the methodological debates within the field of qualitative research.

Note
1 The data set in question (see Appendix 1) was analysed by three groups of postgraduate students using interpretative phenomenological analysis, discourse analysis and narrative analysis under the guidance of expert facilitators at an
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Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Advanced Training in Social Psychological Research Methods workshop which was organized by the editors in July 2002. The same data set was also analysed by a group of postgraduates using grounded theory in 2002, again working under the guidance of an expert facilitator. Three of the group facilitators have authored the chapters on their specific research methods in this book (Jonathan A. Smith, Sheila Payne and Michele Crossley). The fourth facilitator was Carla Willig, who guided the discourse analytic group. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446207536.d6

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Analysing Qualitative Data in Psychology: 1 Doing Qualitative Research: Initial Questions