Notebook

Online qualitative surveys?!?

By Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke

A qualitative survey? What about face-to-face interaction? All the non-verbal cues? Probing and following up? Depth of data? These are the types of sceptical questions we hear a lot when we talk about our research using qualitative surveys. Our doctoral students have even been told at that they must supplement their qualitative survey data with another data source such as interviews, otherwise they will not have the depth of data they need. Sceptical questions like these are partly what motivated us to write about our experience of using online qualitative surveys for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology (LINK TO PAPER). We were also motivated by our enthusiasm for this method and wanted to share with other social researchers why we think it is a valuable addition to their methodological toolkit. We’ve used qualitative survey data over the last decade or so to explore everything from students’ responses to a gay pride T-shirt (Clarke, 2016, 2019) to male body hair removal discourse (Terry & Braun, 2016). We have also supervised numerous students using surveys – including Elicia Boulton, Louise Davey and Charlotte McEvoy, our three co-authors on this paper.

Examples of exclusively, or predominantly, qualitative surveys are relatively rare, but predominantly quantitative surveys with a few ‘open-ended’ questions are common. So how did we come to develop an enthusiasm for surveys as a qualitative method? Here we must credit our inspirational PhD supervisors – Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson – both great methodological innovators and ‘early adopters’, who encourage their PhD students to ‘experiment’ with research methods. Indeed, the small body of empirical research based on qualitative survey data mostly comes from Celia and Sue’s PhD students (e.g. Frith & Gleeson, 2004; Peel, 2010; Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004), and their students in turn (e.g. Hayfield, 2013; Jowett & Peel, 2009; Terry & Braun, 2017).

What is a qualitative survey then? Usually a series of questions focused around the topic of interest that participants answer in their own words. But qualitative surveys are not limited to questions and written responses, other possibilities include drawing tasks (see Braun, Tricklebank & Clarke, 2013) and responding to stimulus materials such as audio and video clips. Qualitative surveys are necessarily self-administered – if they were administered by researcher, they would essentially be a rather structured qualitative interview that would fail to reap the benefits of ‘messy’, participant centred qualitative interviewing. Qualitative surveys can be delivered in a variety of formats (hardcopy by post or in person, email attachment) but delivery via online survey software is pretty much the norm now, and that delivery mode is the focus of our discussion in our IJSRM paper.

When we think of (quantitative) surveys – as the sceptical questions we opened with illustrate – we typically think of breadth and more prosaically, larger samples. Whereas qualitative research is typically associated with depth and small, situated samples. How then can a method typically associated with breadth, and quantitative research, have anything to offer qualitative researchers? To appreciate the possibilities of qualitative surveys, we first need to recalibrate how we think of depth – shifting from associating it with individual data items, as is typically the case, to assessing depth and richness in terms of the dataset as a whole. This is not to say that individual survey responses can’t be rich, they can, and we include a powerful example in our paper from Elicia Bolton’s survey of experiences of sex and sexuality for women with obsessive compulsive disorder. Not all responses will be like this though – well, certainly not in our experience of using qualitative surveys so far. But an entire dataset of 60, 80 or a hundred responses will provide a rich resource for qualitative analysis. Survey data also have their own unique character, they are not simply like reduced interview data. They are very focused, dense with information – to the extent that a dataset that runs to the same number of pages as a small number of interview transcripts can feel like a lot of data! Our students typically cycle through an initial panic at the start of data collection or piloting – the responses aren’t very detailed! – to feeling delighted, or even overwhelmed, by the amount of information in the final dataset.

Okay, so survey data can be rich, but why would I use a qualitative survey though, rather than do some interviews over Zoom or Skype, with all the advantages of virtual interviewing? Let’s start with some of the practical and pragmatic benefits of qualitative surveys – for us as researchers. There are no bleary-eyed video calls at 6am or 11pm. Data collection can be relatively quick – and there’s no transcription! – leaving plenty of time for data analysis, which is particularly useful if working to a tight or fixed deadline. We note that we are not advocating for quick (and dirty) as inherently good, however; good quality qualitative research takes time, and using a qualitative survey can allow time for the slow wheel of interpretation to turn when we do not have all the time we would ideally want and need to complete our research. In research with no funding, there are few or no costs associated with data collection (especially if you have access via your institution to online survey software). When it comes to student research, we think qualitative surveys can open up research possibilities – because there is no direct interaction with participants, there are likely fewer ethical concerns around inexperienced researchers addressing sensitive topics. For example, one of our undergraduate students researched young adults’ experiences of orgasm using a qualitative survey – it’s highly unlikely they would have received ethical approval to research this using interviews (see Opperman, Braun, Clarke & Rogers, 2013).

For participants, there are even more practical benefits – not least that they can participate when it is most convenient for them. Louise Davey noted that her participants often completed her survey on experiences of living with alopecia early in the morning or late in the evening; unlikely times for an interview. Online survey software will also usually allow completion over multiple sessions, so participants can complete the survey in several short bursts, fitting participation around their schedule, commitments, and indeed energy. This is one of the ways in which online qualitative surveys can give participants a greater sense of control over their participation. Surveys also typically ask less of participants – they do not have to spend an hour or two talking to a researcher at a particular time, they do not have to travel to meet a researcher in person. They also have the advantage of a strong sense of felt-anonymity (in practice, online qualitative surveys are not completely anonymous) – this can be vital for some topics. In Charlotte McEvoy’s research, for instance, on therapists’ views on class and therapy, some participants commented that they were glad of the anonymity of the survey, they would not have shared what they did – and we can speculate, perhaps even not participated at all – if they were invited to take part in an interview. This connects to another advantage of qualitative surveys – that they have the potential to open up participation for groups for whom face to face participation is challenging in various ways. This includes some disabled people, people with caring responsibilities, people with visible differences – such as alopecia – who may feel anxious about being visible to and open to scrutiny by the researcher, and people for whom social interaction with strangers can be profoundly anxiety inducing (such as people with OCD).

This is just a taster of some of the benefits and possibilities of qualitative surveys. We hope we have enticed you to read further about qualitative survey literature and discover the joys, and challenges, of this method for yourself!

See full IJSRM article here.

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