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Discuss the use of qualitative methods in psychology and critically evaluate the benefits of such methods for psychologists.

Student ID: 15010103

Module code: PY0500 Word count: 3296

Qualitative data is information that cannot be measured numerically, research typically gathers descriptive data that requires interpretation and is subjective. Qualitative data describes social phenomena as things that occur naturally and no manipulation is involved in the gathering of data. Qualitative researchers are concerned with the quality of an experience and finding out in-depth, mainly self-reported, information. (Patton, 2005) They believe that there isn't a simple way of measuring people in order to understand human behaviour; they apply importance to social constructs and base their research on finding more information into a certain topic area. Researchers understand that each individual is different, and that people's opinions and views are constantly changing; it assumes a dynamic reality, so qualitative research needs to be studied and discussed regularly. Qualitative data is usually gathered in the form of interviews, focus groups, participant observations, diaries, questionnaires and TV and films. When carrying out qualitative research; a research question is used instead of a hypothesis, in order to make fewer assumptions about the findings and be open to unexpected results. Qualitative analysis follows a ‘bottom up' approach; the response of the individual contributes to the whole. The research can be analysed using one of many different theories and methodologies; grounded theory, discourse analysis, phenomenology or thematic analysis. Social scientists prefer to use qualitative research to further our understanding of the social world by focusing on information about perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes of an individual based on experiences of phenomenon's (Henderson, 1991). They follow a social constructivist methodology, which means they focus on individual's values and beliefs, and also as researchers encounter their own values and beliefs within the write up of findings. On the other hand, quantitative researchers assume a fixed and measurable reality that can be analysed through numerical comparisons and statistical analysis; researchers control variables to identify differences of relationships and how the manipulation of one variable can affect another. Quantitative researchers adopt a positivist methodology, meaning they reduce objects of investigation to simplify relationships and categories. It can be argued that quantitative researchers are not always positivist and qualitative researchers are not always social constructivists. (Lacity & Janson, 1994)

One of the most common methods used in qualitative research are interviews; the researcher asks participants questions to explore a particular topic. An interview schedule is devised, to prepare the questions/ topics that will be discussed within the interview. Researchers may tend to use probing questions to encourage more detail and elaboration. The interviews are then recorded and then later transcribed (Drever, 1995). Within an interview, the researcher needs to adopt the appropriate footing, which refers to the role each speaker is taking when being interviewed (Goffman, 1979). For example, the researcher needs to determine whether they want a personal idiosyncratic view, or their view as a representative of a certain category; this will affect the way the questions are worded. There are three types of interview; structured (which follows a standardised format and is more suited to a quantitative approach), semi-structured and unstructured. Unstructured and semi-structured interviews are more commonly used in qualitative research. Unstructured interviews tend to be more like guided conversations, as sometimes an interview schedule is not used and if one is, it will only contain open-ended questions and won't follow a strict order. Open-ended questions provide in-depth knowledge into topic areas and allow the participant to give personal views and opinions. Unstructured interviews are used if depth into a particular topic is needed; the researcher could ask one general question and just stem from there getting more information after each reply. One limitation of unstructured interviews is that they can be invasive; interviewers can include questions that can potentially make participants feel uncomfortable; loaded questions are used to makes assumptions that can probe a reaction from the participant and leading questions are used to encourage a particular answer which can be considered as manipulating. Semi-structured interviews combine pre-determined open-ended questions and the researcher has a degree of freedom in what to discuss within the research. The researcher may add or miss out questions from the schedule they had devised if they feel like they haven't got enough information or have already got the data that they needed. Semi-structured interviews can provide reliable and comparable data and also includes in-depth personal information gathered from the participant's elaboration on certain topics. Bernard (1988) argues that semi-structured interviews are best used when you won\'t get more than one chance to interview a participant, as you have the opportunity to elaborate on any subject that you need to so you can have all the information needed for the research.  One limitation of using a semi-structured method is that the flexibility of the method may decrease reliability of the findings.

Focus groups are essentially a group interview, in which the researcher uses interactions between participants to gather more data and bring a different perspective to the research topic. Groups can be pre-existing or created for the focus group. Focus groups are typically used as a tool for marketing; to allow companies to test products before they are released, speak about potential ideas and grow their market based on what the public want. The findings have high validity, as the setting is natural and it can be assumed that because the topics are not sensitive and personal; the results are more believable. A problem with focus groups is that the researcher has less control over the direction of the interview, as they are merely a moderator rather than an interviewer. This can cause time to be lost as the group may speak about irrelevant topics that cannot be reported in the findings. The interview types used in qualitative data can be criticised as you cannot guarantee honestly from all participants. Also, interviews may not be the best method to use for researching sensitive or overly personal topics (e.g. sexuality, mental health, discrimination etc.) as people are likely to feel more comfortable completing a questionnaire in private; as there is less judgment due to the anonymity.

Another method of gathering qualitative data is through participant observations. Participant observations occur in a natural setting with the researcher involved in the group they are researching. This allows the researcher to gain further understanding of the participants on a personal level which can benefit the validity of the data. Participant observations can either be overt or covert. Overt observations are where the participants are aware of the researcher's true identity and the reason why they are studying that particular group. On the other hand, covert observations are where the participants are unaware of the researcher's purpose and their true identity; it is known as the researcher essentially being ‘under cover' (Bulmer, 1982).

Participant observations can be used to identify and guide relationships, they can provide the researcher with other data topics/ questions that he can address with the participants at a later date. (Schensul & Lecompte, 1999). Participant observations are commonly used when investigating cults or gangs; one example comes from Festinger (1957), who studied a religious cult who had beliefs that the world was going to end; he joined the cult and studied their reaction when their prophecy did not come true. Festinger carried out a covert participant observation and gained valid, in-depth data into the normal and secretive behaviour of the group. Covert observations can be criticised ethically, as there is a lack of consent and no right to withdraw. Overt observations can be praised as they gather the same in-depth information, and they are able to make notes in the situation so the researcher doesn't have to rely on memory. However, there is a chance that demand characteristics will affect the results of the findings and the honesty of participants is questioned.

Furthermore, diaries can be used to gather qualitative data. Participants are required to keep a record of experiences; providing in-depth data about feelings and activities. One strength of using a diary entry method is that they can encourage disclosure of information that would normally not be discussed. Sensitive and personal topics are better investigated using this method, such as, mental health, sexuality and political subjects. Stephenson, Laszlo, Ehmann, Lefever & Lefever (1997) gathered qualitative data from diary entries discussing recovery from addiction; this method is suited best to studying addiction as it can be embarrassing for participant to disclose such information and they can also keep a log of events and this allows the researcher to know how well a participant is recovering. However, it is common for diarists to over or under-exaggerate using this method, as there is no way of determining that the information they are providing is accurate. One main use of diary entries is to enable the researcher to be able to create triangulated approach and generate questions that could potentially be asked during subsequent interviews/ questionnaires. However, many diarists may drop out as this is a longitudinal technique so becomes time-consuming and keeping of record of certain topics may cause stress, and therefore lead to rumination – participants may question the worth of the research.

Grounded theory is a research method that enables the researcher to develop a theory which offers an explanation into the data collected (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). This methodology doesn't test a theory through data collection, it develops a theory whilst collecting and analysing the data. Grounded theory uses a constant comparison approach to discover patterns and more information about the topic area that is being investigated. If a researcher adopts a grounded theory approach, they will move back and forth between data collection and analysing the data. The researcher will first collect some data through either the use of participant observations or interviews, and this will most likely be a generative question which leads to the first iteration of theoretical sampling, then the data is analysed and placed into a theme. This then continues and more themes are produced until the researcher reaches saturation; where the themes are repeated in most of the data collected and no new themes emerge. (Glaser & Straus, 1967). The process of analysing the data involves open coding, the data is identified, named, categorised and describes the phenomena found in the research. Categories are developed in order to produce analytical interpretations of the phenomena, known as theoretical sensitivity. Grounded theory tends to be used if there is very little data on the topic area already, as it is centred around creating a theory, not necessarily developing an already existing theory (Engward, 2013). One strength of using grounded theory is that it produces a rich description of topic areas that do not have much previous research around them. However, a high level of skill is needed to carry out grounded theory as previous research cannot be used to reference or rely on for background evidence within the data.

Thematic Analysis is also a widely used qualitative research method. This method of analysis regards participant's opinions and feelings and is focused more on ‘why' a participant has answered/ acted in a certain way. This technique focuses on a systematic way of identifying and exploring key themes evident in the data collected. Braun and Clarke (2006) describes the process of thematic analysis using 6 steps. The first step is familiarising yourself with the data; this involves transcription, reading the data and noting ideas about the findings. The second step is to generate codes; the researcher will code features of the data and make note of each code. The third step is to search for themes; the codes that were generated will be gathered into potential themes. The fourth step is to review the themes; they tend to generate a thematic map of the analysis which ensures that the themes and codes represent the ideal interpretation of the data. The fifth step is to define and name the themes; clear definitions of each theme will be made to make the data interpretation easier when reported. The final step is to produce the scholarly report of the analysis. The main use of thematic analysis would be for novice researchers who are keen to use past research in order to develop a theory that already exists, unlike grounded theory, thematic analysis is less exploratory and is therefore easier to use as a method of analysis. Thematic analysis produces rich and detailed data into the topic area that is being researched, and also incorporates other ideas to support or agree with their interpretation. However, thematic analysis can be considered reductive, as the researcher needs to reduce the data into a general theme and therefore may lose the context.

Another method of analysing qualitative data is discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is the study of language used by participants; examining how people use language as behaviour and uses speech as the subject of interest rather than access to something beyond that. It is a method that is concerned largely with social interaction, language and communication, and how history and culture constructs knowledge within participants. The steps in conducting a discourse analytic study broadly include devising a research question, collecting data, transcribing, reading, coding, analysis, validation, writing and application. The analysis focuses on repertoires, speech acts and grammatical features and also considers the constructive, functional and motivational features within language. Discourse is constructive as it builds social relations and objects, people create objects by speech about them, eg. memories and attitudes. It is also functional, as the use of language and interaction serve interpersonal functions, such as allocation of blame or attribution of responsibility. Also, discourse is motivated; people say things for reasons, not everything said is a retrieval of facts from a memory store, as people tend to edit and manipulate what they say depending on the circumstances they're in. The aim is to investigate a certain social phenomenon using particular words and phrases to gain a greater understanding and to construct a certain social object. Discourse analysis can be used to analyse interviews, observations, newspapers, and most types of document that involve a great amount of text. This methodology has a varied analytic guidance, especially in comparison to thematic analysis which is more fixed and follows a rigid structure. Topics such as mental health and psychotherapy are commonly analysed using this methodology; many studies published have used interviews with patients and professionals that require analysis into the verbal, visual and behavioural language of the people involved. It also can be used to study the complexities of day-to-day family practice. In sum, although discourse analytic findings do not lead to direct implementation, they can inform novel interventions, especially those that oppose dominant understandings and practices (Harper, 2006). Discourse analysis is essential within psychology as it makes an important contribution to mental health research. One criticism of discourse analysis is that it can be easily misunderstood; due to the fact that the language patterns that are focused on within the text are different to the way everyday language is commonly viewed (Charmaz, 2011).

Phenomenology is qualitative research method focussed on the ways the world is experienced, researchers attempt to understand other perspectives in order to gain greater knowledge of a phenomenon. Phenomenological researchers have the understanding that not all individuals will perceive a phenomenon in the same way. They base their research on individual cases and gaining information on what certain individuals feel about a particular topic, they do this by using idiographic methods to discover what makes people unique, instead of using nomothetic methods that draw population level conclusions. There are many phenomenological methods; the most common are descriptive phenomenology and interpretative phenomenological analysis. Descriptive phenomenology, developed by Giorgi & Giorgi (2008) aims to describe how a phenomenon is experienced from a lived perspective instead of a scientific one; so the participants involved have to have experienced the phenomena in order to take part in the study. A descriptive phenomenological researcher aims to understand your experience in your terms and no other factors are included in the data. Within the analysis, meaning units are identified, which is a way of capturing different elements of the phenomenon, then the significance of these units is identified. Finally, the structure of the experience needs to be articulated in order to produce a write up.

Interpretive phenomenological analysis, developed by Smith (1996) focuses on individual experiences of a phenomenon and is based on allowing the participant to offer their own interpretation of the phenomenon. The researcher also acknowledges their own interpretation when analysing the data. Analysis involves producing unfocused notes that reflect initial thoughts after reading the data. This then leads to generating conceptual themes and identifying clusters of such themes; the way themes are clustered must highlight relationships evident in the data set. These themes are then used to create a summary table, which is essential for producing a write up.

Phenomenology, as a whole, is a research method suited to assessing social stigmas within certain cultures, such as homophobia, racism and sexism. It's common for researchers to explore the lived experience of something they have never themselves been part of.  An advantage of using a phenomenological approach is that the findings can contribute to the development of new theories due to the ability of incorporating new issues and ideas as they emerge within the data. Also, the data gathered is natural therefore does not suffer issues of artificiality which would decrease the validity of the findings. However, some people may argue that phenomenological studies do lack credibility, as the subjectivity and use of interpretation may have an effect on the accuracy of the data. The method can be criticised as it's difficult to control pace and progress within the research.

Many psychologists are now acknowledging the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods within their research, as social life is complex therefore needs to be properly assessed by the application of complex methods. Within mixed method research, many different approaches can be used; for example, a study may include a quantitative questionnaire, combined with open questions so there is room for elaboration – this is commonly used within counselling psychology (Hanson, 2005). Pragmatic researchers argue that the research question should determine the methods used within the study, Trochim (2008) argues that all qualitative data can be manipulated and viewed numerically, and all quantitative data can include qualitative judgments.  

In conclusion, qualitative research gains in-depth and rich data about an event or a phenomenon. This can provide a unique insider view of the research question.  It enables the researcher to simulate people's individual experiences and encourages participants to expand on topics which may potentially lead to new theories and ideas that have not yet been considered. However, due to the subjective nature of qualitative data, it is often inappropriate to generalise findings to the wider population and this is the key issue in all aspects of social science. One problem within social science research is the assumptions that researchers make; they tend to assume what a person can and can't know; perspectives and definitions can differ between researcher and participant, and use previous research to assume particular findings which can lead to researcher bias. Qualitative research is criticised for lacking methodological rigour, as there are no mechanisms for control within the research. Many researchers would argue that the findings are merely personal opinions subject to researcher bias, so cannot gain credibility (Sandelowski, 1993). However, there are techniques and approaches that aim to help improve the reliability and validity of qualitative data such as, computer programmes to analyse data, transcription analysis techniques and the role of counting; which can improve the accuracy of gathering and analysing data. Although these measures can be used to establish rigour within qualitative research, it is now in question whether terms such as reliability and validity are appropriate to evaluate this type of research, and maybe are only applicable to quantitative (Rolfe, 2006).

References

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