Notebook, Uncategorized

“Who says what” in multiple choice questions. A comprehensive exploratory analysis protocol

By M. Landaluce-Calvo, Ignacio García-Lautre, Vidal Díaz de Rada, & Elena Abascal

The aim of much sociological research is to assess public opinion, and the data are often collected by the survey method. This enables the detection of different response, behaviour or opinion profiles and the characterization of groups of respondents with similar views on a certain topic or set of questions. As is widely known, however, different types of question not only yield different qualities of response, but also require different methods of analysis.

Any attempt to classify survey question types require consideration of five criteria: 1) degree of freedom in the response; 2) type of content, 3) level of sensitivity/threat; 4) level of measurement; and 5) number of response options per question. The last classification (with respect to the number of responses) first differentiates between single response and multiple response questions. Here is the main objective of our article in IJSRM: How to extract maximum information from multiple response questions.

There are two broad types of multiple-response questions. One is the categorical response question, where the respondent is instructed to “check-all-that-apply” (the categories are exhaustive, but not mutually exclusive.). The other is the binary response question, where the respondent is required to check yes or no to each response option. Respondents find “check-all-that-apply” questions more difficult to answer because the multiple options require more use of memory. Under the binary-response format the respondent must consider pairs of options, one by one, and check one option in each case. Each pair of options requires an answer, so only a minimal demand is placed on memory. This procedure yields more responses, in both telephone and online surveys and requires less effort on the part of the respondent, although it may lengthen the questionnaire.

Those admitting various response options can be further classified into grid or check-all-that-apply questions. In the case of the latter, the categories are exhaustive, but not mutually exclusive. This multiple-response question format is its widespread use both in the field of opinion polling and in sociological and marketing research. International research project such as the European Social Survey and the Word Values Survey, for example, contain large numbers of multiple responses questions.

All the above considerations relate to the stages of data collection and participant opinion retrieval, but what about the analysis? A review of the specialist literature reveals a lack of attention to the specific data-processing treatment, and the failure to use a multidimensional exploratory approach that would enable the maximum amount of information to be extracted from the response options. The analysis is limited mainly to calculating one-dimensional frequencies (the frequency with which a given response occurs over the total number of respondents or total number of responses) or two-dimensional frequencies resulting from crossing the chosen response option with other socio-demographic or socio-economic characteristics, etc; in other words, a partial approach in either case.

Our article in IJSRM present a multidimensional analysis protocol that provides the researcher with tools to identify more and better profiles about “who says what”. The underlying philosophy in this approach is to “let the data speak for themselves”, and to learn from them. The strategy begins by coding the response options as a set of metric binary variables (presence/absence). The ideal methodological duo for the exploration of the resulting data is Principal Component Analysis coupled with an Ascending Hierarchical Cluster Analysis, incorporating, in addition, supplementary variables (gender, age, marital status, educational attainment, etc.).

This protocol applies to the analysis of three different multiple-response questions included in a Spanish National Sociological Survey (CIS- Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas):

  1. “How do you usually spend your free time?”, the respondent has 17 options and can select as many as desired; no order of preference is required and the categories are not mutually exclusive.
  2. “During 2017, how have you spent or do you intend spending your leisure periods?”, with 10 options, there is no limit on the number of them that can be checked, but there are two which automatically exclude the rest: “I haven’t thought about it yet” and “I have no leisure periods”.
  3. When deciding how to spend your days off, what are your top three priorities?”, there is alimit of three options, out of 10 possible, no order of preference required.

This empirical analysis provides evidence not only of the interpretation potential of the coding/analysis protocol, but also of the limitations of some multiple-response question formats. Specifically, it is shown that multi-response with limited options is not a suitable format for detecting response patterns or overall tendencies leading to the identification of global respondent profiles. In addition, this study corroborates that in the “forced choice” and “check all that apply” the respondents are more likely to choose from the options presented at the beginning of a list (primacy effect). Early theories attributing the phenomenon to such questions requiring deeper cognitive processing.

Read the full article in IJSRM here.

Notebook

The feasibility and challenge of using administrative data: a case study of historical prisoner surveys

By Anthony Quinn, David Denney, Nick Hardwick, Rahul Jalil, & Rosie Meek

This research note arose from a collaboration between researchers at HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Royal Holloway University of London. Within the last two decades, HM Inspectorate of Prisons [HMIP] has collected a vast array of survey data from detainees in England and Wales. As part of HMIP inspections, the detainee voice is captured via a survey and it is triangulated with other evidence. The survey data inform the inspection report of each establishment as well as annual reports and thematic studies. 

These survey data are important because they provide detainees with a rare opportunity to voice their experiences of incarceration. There are questions about a range of aspects of prison life. For instance, participants are asked about the amount of time that they spend outside of their cells, the quality of the prison food and how often they are able to receive visits from their family and friends. Currently there are 159 question items in total.

It goes without saying that in twenty years a dedicated research team has amassed a huge volume of data from detainees within the 117 prisons in England and Wales. HMIP have retained these data for inspectorate purposes and digital records of the paper surveys have been stored in an electronic archive. So, to analyse these historical survey data is it just a case of logging in to the archive and inputting the data into a statistical computing program?

Well, no… far from it. There are a number of complexities that must be addressed to make just one or a few larger datasets with these data. With these prisoner survey data, a major sticking point is the number of iterations of the questionnaires that there have been since the year 2000.i.e. there have been several different versions of the questionnaire and so questions and their response options have varied. This establishes the need to create metadata such as inventories and timelines so that available data can be easily identified.

A wealth of literature explains the challenges of opening up data to secondary users. Primarily, curating and maintaining datasets is costly and time-consuming. This is not an undertaking that should be taken lightly or, where it can be avoided, alone. Secondly, survey data can contain personal information and so it needs to be ensured that data are sufficiently anonymised. Thirdly, data can easily be misused or misinterpreted so it is vital to document and explain the data and their limitations for secondary users.

Any research involving places of detention and detainees raises significant ethical considerations. In this case, detainees had not explicitly agreed data from the surveys they returned to the inspectorate could be made more widely accessible. So, we conducted some focus groups with current long-serving prisoners (we would have conducted more if the epidemic had not halted our efforts) to ask what they thought – they were emphatic that the data should be shared if it would help improve prison conditions. Indeed, some said they would not have taken part in the survey if they had thought the data were NOT going to be used in this way. Further qualitative research with data subjects in order to ascertain their perspectives is certainly an endeavour to be pursued.

Within our Research Note we have put a spotlight on the intricacies involved in identifying administrative data, aggregating them and fully understanding the context within which they were collected. To achieve the latter aim it is vital that, where possible, those who have collected data play a prominent role in the collation of administrative data. This is not a task that should simply be outsourced. Rather, to do justice to such a potentially valuable resource, the expertise of a diverse collaboration of professionals is vital.

Oh, and there’s COVID-19 as well… this has prevented researchers from gaining access to prisons to talk directly to detainees. It has also highlighted the importance of making better use of existing operational and administrative data sources.

Read the full IJSRM article here.

Calls, covid-19, Notebook

Qualitative health research beyond and alongside COVID-19

By Sue Chowdhry, Emily Ross and Julia Swallow

As qualitative researchers in academia, like many others our practice has been transformed in light of the global Coronavirus pandemic. The ‘lockdowns’ enforced across the world have introduced greater awareness of our proximity to others in everyday life, and of the need to maintain a prescribed distance between bodies. This has implications for our work as researchers in the field of health and illness, whose tools include face-to-face methods such as focus groups, interviews and ethnography.

In this blog post, we reflect on the meaning and implications of doing qualitative health research beyond and alongside COVID-19. Drawing on examples from our individual research projects, we first focus on who and what might be excluded or silenced through the changes to our research environments and practices prompted by the pandemic. We then reflect on several implications of the ruptures caused by the pandemic for qualitative research in health more widely.

Exclusions and silences

Research interactions

As researchers in medical sociology and science and technology studies, we had been undertaking separate projects at the time of the pandemic. Sue’s research concerned pregnant women with experience of pre-term birth, and Emily and Julia’s considered patient and practitioner engagement with novel cancer treatments (genomic techniques and immunotherapies respectively). All three of our projects thus involved individuals classified as especially ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19 by the UK Government (see Ganguli-Mitra’s opinion piece for a wider discussion of the classification of ‘vulnerability’ as related to COVID-19). As a result, in addition to the restrictions imposed by Institutional and NHS bodies on research practice, we were particularly mindful of the potential consequences of face-to-face methods for our participants.

The prospect of continuing our research in the absence of physical proximity to our participants was daunting. Viewing interactions between researcher and participant as sites for the active co-creation of qualitative data, we were concerned that the inability to conduct research encounters in person, and loss of the intersubjective encounter, could be detrimental to our practice. As Alondra Nelson’s blog post on this issue points out, valuable research insights can be gained from being close enough to observe gestures such as “toes tapping and nervous hands”. Sue interpreted her physical presence as key to the success of focus groups she had conducted prior to COVID-19 restrictions. For example, her occupation of the physical space was performed so as to signal to participants that they controlled the discussion. Equally, participants orientated their bodies to each other in ways that indicated interest and support, through spontaneous shared laughter, eye contact and sometimes fleeting touches of hands at emotional junctures.

We have also been reflecting on the implications of a move away from face-to-face methods for relations of power within qualitative research practice. Our research projects have often focused on life-events that can be distressing and emotional for participants, and throughout we have all maintained a commitment to democratising the research process. We have endeavoured to forge reciprocal relationships with participants, and adopted forms of practice that more equitably distribute control whilst qualitative interviewing. Reflection on the issue of power in research is significant for those turning to online methods in light of the pandemic, particularly where online material pre-exists the research encounter. Here the intimacy of face-to-face methods, which feminist scholars have claimed better allow for the involvement of participants in the production of knowledge (Ramazanoğlu and Holland, 2002), is absent. Having used pre-existing online material in previous projects, Emily felt that the creativeness of qualitative research practice as a shared project between researcher and participant was not as achievable in online research, nor was the closeness that comes from being a key participant in the creation of qualitative data. As such, those adopting online methods in light of the pandemic may try to re-craft participant involvement and reciprocity in other ways. This may be through initiating contact with authors of online material, sharing information about the research with them, and if appropriate seeking consent from authors to use online posts in research.

Research landscapes and spaces

The concerns discussed above are further situated within the landscapes and spaces in which qualitative research takes place. In the example of focus groups, the ‘affective atmospheres’ (Anderson, 2009) shaping the research encounter provided the backdrop for Sue and her participants’ responses to the research and each other. Sue offered refreshments to her focus group participants, and vividly recalls the smells, tastes and sounds of this shared experience. The atmosphere was carefully fashioned for respondents to feel valued and at ease, and to allow for the exchange of intimate reflections on experience.

The arrangements of care provision, and situated contexts in which care is given and received, shape patient, clinician and researcher accounts of disease and treatment. In the time of COVID-19, the research spaces with which we as health researchers had been familiar are being re-shaped, with this particularly visible in cancer care. Before the pandemic, the settings for Julia’s ethnographic research were already stratified and fragmented, with consequences for the practice of healthcare and patients’ biosocial experiences of cancer. Novel immunotherapies could not be accessed by all, raising questions around the inclusions, exclusions and silences provoked by these therapies – who has access and who benefits? COVID-19 is potentially (re)producing or exacerbating existing inequities. As researchers, who we are able to observe and engage in our projects is a key concern, as we ask what and whose realities, experiences and practices might be privileged over others in the context of contemporary cancer care, and in relation to the healthcare worlds (re)shaped by COVID-19.

Responding and intervening

Although the current situation has prompted us to halt or reformulate our ongoing research, in our experience the need to reflect on and adapt our methodologies has also provided opportunities. Importantly, recognising and responding to the methodological restrictions prompted by the pandemic has encouraged us to think about the inclusions, exclusions and silences that already exist in healthcare worlds, which have been exacerbated or magnified by COVID-19. Attention to these issues through an alternative lens has prompted us to question how we can use method to respond and intervene. Method as practice is a means of understandingrather than organising for complexity and uncertainty, and a way to respond to the disruptions, inclusions/exclusions and silences which are rendered visible and exacerbated by COVID-19. Method produces particular realities and as such, drawing on feminist STS scholars, we have the opportunity to intervene, and to do what Alondra Nelson describes as ‘creating knowledge pathways to a better world’. If methods shape how and what we know and are always political (Annemarie Mol (1999) would describe this as ‘ontological politics’) – what kinds of social realities do we want to create or bring into being?

Online methods afford possibilities for responding to the contemporary challenges we face as researchers. Qualitative analysis of pre-existing blog posts, solicited online diaries and other methods helpfully detailed by Deborah Lupton and colleagues allows us to continue research projects disrupted by the pandemic. Further, online spaces present opportunities to intervene; to engage with those typically excluded from qualitative research due to geographical location or accessibility – with this even more pronounced in a time of ‘shielding’ those deemed most vulnerable. Online approaches can capture forms of networking and support-seeking around experiences of ill health which have been obscured by the pandemic, but which continue to be shaped by inequalities in access and survival.

As another approach, the benefit of doing ethnography, however limited this might be and whatever this might look like in the future, is that it is about opening space for complexity and uncertainty. It allows us to acknowledge and respond to the messiness of practice as an attempt to understand, rather than organise, the uneven and unpredictable ways in which knowledge is produced in research (Law, 2004). It is about taking the world as it is,whilst also keeping in mind the importance of doing what Donna Haraway would describe as critical, political, partial and situated work which is always on-going.

Reflecting

In an academic environment which emphasises activity and impact, COVID-19 has forced upon us ‘space to breathe’ (Will, 2020). The restrictions imposed by our governments and institutions have demanded an additional layer of reflexivity as we contemplate our research projects in light of the pandemic. In some cases, this has entailed the adaptation of research questions, as well as consideration of how alternative methods align with our wider research paradigms. With restrictions in our ability to engage in face-to-face research methods, we lose key aspects of the relational qualitative research encounter, and are pulled away from the research atmospheres, landscapes and spaces with which we are familiar. However, the loss of face-to-face methods has provided us with an unexpected opportunity to explore new approaches, encouraged tough reflection on our research questions and methodologies, and prompted deeper contemplation of the worth of our research itself.

The authors of this post are supported by the Wellcome Trust (grants 104831/Z/14/Z and 218145/Z/19/Z) and NIHR (grant 17/22/02).

Anderson, B. (2009) Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society. 2, pp.77-81. doi:10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.005

Haraway, D. (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 575-599.

Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

Mol, A. (1999), Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The Sociological Review, 47: 74-89. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.1999.tb03483.x

Ramazanoğlu, C and Holland, J (2002) Feminist methodology: challenges and choices. London: Sage.

Will, C.M. (2020), ‘And breathe…’? The sociology of health and illness in COVID ‐19 time. Sociology of Health & Illness, 42: 967-971. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.13110

covid-19, featured, Notebook

Critical reflections on the ‘new normal’: Synchronous teaching of CAQDAS-packages online during COVID-19

By Christina Silver, Sarah L. Bulloch, & Michelle Salmona

Our contribution discusses synchronous online teaching of digital tools for qualitative and mixed-methods analysis, known as Computer Assisted Qualitative Data AnalysiS (CAQDAS) packages, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers must take responsibility for, and be sensitive to, the current additional challenges and pressures upon learners and attend to them effectively. Learners are never homogenous but, in these contexts, their heterogeneity and personal situations bring our responsibilities as teachers into sharper focus.

Challenges of teaching CAQDAS-packages

Teaching CAQDAS-packages is challenging as research methods and technology are taught together, and researchers often need support overcoming hurdles associated with integrating technology into research practice. Although it can support critical reflection on methods-driven research, novice researchers have trouble connecting method and software (Salmona & Kaczynski, 2016; Schmieder, 2020).

Traditionally CAQDAS is taught in-person but even before COVID-19, there was a gradual move to online courses, which can be cost-effective and reach wider groups. However, teaching CAQDAS online has its own challenges, including possible technical problems, catering to different learning styles, and interactional issues (Kalpokaite & Radivojevic, 2020). Learning CAQDAS-packages online also heightens challenges in overcoming barriers to successful technological adoption due to the lack of support normally present in-person (Salmona & Kaczynski, 2016). Teaching CAQDAS-packages online during COVID-19 poses additional challenges related to learner availability, real-life bleeding into the classroom, and resultant interactional issues. 

Learner availability in the COVID-context 

Pre-COVID-19, both in-person and online, certain assumptions were often made concerning the ‘availability’ of learners: 

  • They would be present for the duration, unless specific exceptions were brokered; e.g. warning they may have to take a call or leave early.
  • Only registered learners would be present – not family-members, carers, or dependents as well. 
  • Learners would be in a state of mental and physical health suited to learning.

Teachers could generally assume to be engaging not with whole individuals, but with focused

“learners”: the mentally present and mentally well, physically present and physically well, the not-distracted, the captive from start to finish, solo individuals.

Real-life bleeding into the classroom

During COVID-19 these assumptions no longer hold true. We cannot expect learners to focus for the whole allotted time because they cannot necessarily physically or emotionally remove themselves from their home-life contexts. New distractions and stresses include: interruptions from household members, capacity to concentrate for lengthy periods of screen-time, and mental-health issues associated with being more isolated. However, because in-person interactions have largely vanished, learners are keen to participate in online sessions, despite the distractions and stresses. Online sessions also provide learning opportunities for those previously unable to access in-person events. 

As we teach and learn from our homes, real-lives bleed into the classroom. Sharing our images via video-stream allows others into our lives, which is potentially risky. We’ve found more learners choose not to share their video-stream than do, especially in larger groups and when they don’t know each other. 

What we miss by not ‘seeing’

Those used to teaching in-person can find this tricky, as the non-verbal cues used to judge learners’ progress are absent. CAQDAS teachers can no longer ‘walk-the-room’ observing learners’ computer-screens to identify those needing additional support. Screen-sharing can be a solution; but is more time-consuming and ethically difficult when working with confidential data, and impossible if using two devices (one to access the meeting, the other to operate the CAQDAS-package). We miss a lot by not seeing in these ways.  

One risk is that those who can actively participate inadvertently soak-up attention at the cost of those who cannot. It’s our responsibility as teachers to be aware of this and design creative solutions to enable every learner to participate as much as they are willing and able, whilst still benefiting from the session.

Adjusting tactics for the ‘new normal’

We’re therefore continually adjusting how we teach CAQDAS-packages online during COVID-19. Current uncertainties land responsibilities on us as teachers, not on our course participants: we must find out what they need, reflect on our practice, and refine our pedagogies. 

Moving from in-person to online always requires a redesign (Silver & Bulloch, 2020), but during COVID-19 we are also:

  • Educating ourselves about accessibility to ensure we sensitively and effectively open our events to every type of learner
  • Engaging learners more before sessions to understand personal/research needs and provide pre-course familiarisation materials
  • Reducing class-sizes. It’s often assumed class-sizes can be larger online, but we find the opposite, especially during COVID-19. Although we’ve recently experienced pressure to increase group size, we’re resistant because of the increased need to balance the requirements of every learner, and provide individual support 
  • By co-teaching we provide additional support in synchronous online events during COVID-19. Learners can be split according to their needs and two groups supported simultaneously
  • Providing more post-course resources to support learners’ continued use of CAQDAS-packages and hosting platforms for them to communicate with one another afterwards (e.g. VLE platforms)
  • Diversifying teaching tactics to provide as many opportunities as possible for learners to engage and participate. Awareness of different ways people learn has always been central to our pedagogies (Silver & Woolf 2015), but our sensitivities and reflections have increased. We’ve found mixing up tactics (see image) in shorter sessions more effective.

Where do we go from here?

Teachers continually critique and reflect on practice, but COVID-19 requires a re-evaluation of learners’ differences and reflection about their more challenging situations. We are all learning and must continue to do so.

COVID-19 brings ethical issues even more to the forefront, including the appropriateness of requiring or encouraging learners to share their image via video. We must think about disabilities, access to technology, and socio-economic issues in a context where learning is only available online. Positives have also emerged, as sessions can be followed from a range of devices and locations.

COVID-19 forces us to explicitly consider the well-being of learners. Despite coming at this difficult time, we welcome this focus. All our situations have changed, so we need to think about the issues differently. What are the additional ethical issues we must now address? How do we keep this conversation going?

About the authors

Together we have 50+ years experience teaching CAQDAS-packages and 30+ years experience teaching online. Dr Michelle Salmona is President of the Institute for Mixed Methods Research and an international consultant in: program evaluation; research design; and mixed-methods and qualitative data analysis using data applications. Michelle is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, Australia specializing in qualitative and mixed methods research. Dr Sarah L Bulloch is a social researcher passionate about methods, with expertise in qualitative and quantitative analysis, as well as mixing the two. She has worked in academic, government, voluntary and private sectors. Sarah teaches introductory and advanced workshops in several CAQDAS packages as a Teaching Fellow for the CAQDAS Networking Project at the University of Surrey, as well as teaching quantitative analysis using SPSS. Dr Christina Silver is Director of Qualitative Data Analysis Services, providing training and consultancy for qualitative and mixed-methods analysis. She also manages the CAQDAS Networking Project (CNP), leading its capacity-building activities. She has trained thousands of researchers in the powerful use of CAQDAS-packages, including NVivo, and developed the Five-Level QDA® method with Nick Woolf.  

References

  • Kalpokaite, N. & Radivojevic, I. (2020). Teaching qualitative data analysis software online: a comparison of face-to-face and e-learning ATLAS.ti courses, International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 43(3), pp. 296-310, DOI:10.1080/1743727X.2019.1687666.
  • Salmona, M. & Kaczynski, D. (2016). Don’t Blame the Software: Using Qualitative Data Analysis Software Successfully in Doctoral Research. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 17(3), Art 11, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1603117.
  • Schmieder, C. (2020). Qualitative data analysis software as a tool for teaching analytic practice: Towards a theoretical framework for integrating QDAS into methods pedagogy. Qualitative Research, 20(5), pp. 684-702. 
  • Silver, C. & Woolf, N (2015) “From guided instruction to facilitation of learning: The development of Five-level QDA as a CAQDAS pedagogy that explicates the practices of expert users” International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vol. 18, Issue 5. Pp527-543
  • Silver, C. & Bulloch, S.L (2020) Teaching NVivo using the Five-Level QDA(R) Method: Adaptations for Synchronous Online Learning. Paper presented at the QSR International Virtual Conference, Qualitative Research in a Changing World. September 24th 2020
Calls, covid-19, featured, Notebook

Exploring unplanned data sites for observational research during the pandemic lockdown

By Areej Jamal (UCL Social Research Institute)

I was getting my PhD upgrade and preparing for my fieldwork soon after, when the Covid-19 outbreak struck. Due to the border closures, I was stuck in the country where I was undertaking my PhD and my fieldwork was due to start overseas which is also my home. I could not travel back home for months.

Not sure of when the borders would open again and anxious about starting my fieldwork, I had to adapt to the new circumstances and utilise my research time more efficiently. Since my research employs a mixed methods design using online surveys and qualitative interviews, I did not have to pivot much of the original design. However, I also had an observatory aspect in my proposed design. Being an insider to the community I am researching, I was looking forward to attending some social meetings to observe and gather the less apparent insights during my fieldwork time. But since the social distancing protocols of Covid-19 seemed long term, I had to reconsider the observation element. In this blog, I will reflect on how I took the changing circumstances in my stride and tried to gather insights from unplanned data collection sites.

Reframing the methods design

My research investigates lived experiences of long-term migrants and how they make sense of their identity and belonging in a country where they have no pathways to citizenship. Due to the Covid-19 crisis I had to reframe a few ways of collecting data ensuring to keep the essence and relevance of my research questions. Though I could carry out the online surveys as originally planned, I had to switch the in-depth interviews to online interviews. The ethical and methodological amendments arising out of online interviews were submitted to the ethics committee for review.

Being stranded abroad in lockdown, I started exploring and observing the online content as sites for data collection. The unobtrusive observation of online content became a very significant part of my revised research design. The two main online sources where I found salient insights were the online videos (vlogs) on YouTube where some migrants had been documenting almost every aspect of their lives and the other was online support groups where mostly distressed migrants were interacting. The latter was a chance discovery as I, myself was a part of these groups seeking guidance and information to return home.

Unobtrusive observation implies that a researcher observes and collects data from online sources such as websites; social media sites or discussion forums without necessarily interacting with the participants. I was passively observing the interactions taking place on these online platforms.

Making sense of the data and meanings emerging from the observation sites

Robinson (2016) and Seale et.al (2010) posit that unsolicited narratives provide richness of new knowledge that is often lacking in solicited accounts. Since the researched community is unaware of the ongoing observation, they tend to offer genuine and certain interpretations of life under specific circumstances. And so, the narrator controls the content without the researcher’s interference.

The migrant stories I had been observing from the selective YouTube accounts and the online support groups that I had joined on WhatsApp particularly offered me very significant source of information and insights. The self-reflections and opinions the observed groups expressed about their temporal migrant status and the impact it has had on some of their life decisions and which was further exacerbated by the pandemic gave me context and ideas relevant for my research questions. The narrator driven stories uncovered aspects of life, which probably would not have occurred in any of my other methods. Seale et.al (2010) suggests that since the online interactions occur in real time, they offer some sort of immediacy which is often lacking in methods where participants mostly reflect and reconstruct past occurrences.

The new knowledge emerging out of these online sources helped me draft some of the initial themes and areas to further investigate through the other methods.

Methodological and Ethical considerations

There are various ethical debates surrounding the unobtrusive research in existing literature and ways of examining personal narratives produced by individuals through online medium.  Some researchers (Eysenbach and Wyatt,2002, Seale et.al, 2010) argue that since most of the online content is publicly available aimed at general audience, the need for informed consent is ambiguous. However, in case of online support groups as Barker (2008) and O’Brien and Clark (2011) discuss the limitations of private content due to smaller number of groups members. The support groups I had been a member of, had admins and certain privacy protocols that all group members had to abide by.

The positionality of the researcher is a very important aspect throughout the research process. Salmons (2012) E-interviews Research Framework offers useful tips reflecting on some crucial questions of self-reflexivity when undertaking unobtrusive observations of the online content.

Matters of confidentiality and seeking consent for data generated from online resources needs much deliberation and largely depends on the objectives of the researcher and the ways they aim to present and report the findings. Although I am still exploring ways of representing information from these valuable sites of information, I find the idea of fabrication approach by Annette Markham (2012) quite useful, which implies ‘involving creative, bricolage-style transfiguration of original data into composite accounts or representational interactions’ (2012, p334) without divulging any specific details of the researched community.

Conclusions

Sometimes the most obvious data sites would not be as apparent unless faced with unexpected circumstances restraining our methodological choices. Agility is an intrinsic characteristic of most social research. At present, data collection is in constant flux responding to the unprecedented crisis. And now more than ever, the relentless pandemic situation offers a critical window for researchers to make every effort to explore creative and novel approaches of data collection and innovative ways to tap the potential of the existing methods.