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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Conducting focus groups in a global pandemic

by Cordula Hinkes

The COVID-19 pandemic poses new challenges for researchers in the social sciences. Several research methods require communication and interaction between the researcher and respondents. Some of my colleagues were planning to conduct focus groups with consumers in multiple countries earlier this year. Due to travel restrictions and social distancing requirements, they had to put their plans on hold. Waiting for the restrictions to be lifted, they re-organized their research plans to focus on other tasks they could complete in the meantime. But as the development of the pandemic remains uncertain, they now must think about alternatives to conduct face-to-face focus groups in order to proceed with their project.

Online focus groups provide a way out of this situation. Many researchers might be hesitant to use qualitative online methods that are not well-established yet. As part of my current research, I conducted both face-to-face and synchronous text-based online focus groups, implemented in the form of web chats. This approach helped me to explore relevant methodological advantages and disadvantages. Based on this experience, I identified key aspects to consider during the preparation and implementation of synchronous text-based online focus groups. These include the size and composition of the groups, the discussion process, the moderator’s lack of control, and technical issues.

With respect to group composition, an obvious benefit of online focus groups is that people from different locations can be brought together. In my study, the focus groups were composed of participants from all over Germany, which would have been doable in a face-to-face setting. The online setting instead allows for the participation of target groups that are otherwise difficult to reach, such as physically disabled persons or people living in rural areas. Further advantages result from this mostly anonymous environment including that participants felt more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, and potential power imbalances became less influential.

On the downside, it is difficult for the moderator to manage the discussion due to the synchronous nature of the discussion process. The lack of visual and vocal cues aggravates this problem and makes it hard to capture feelings or moods. I experienced that participants who type rather slowly found it difficult to keep up with the pace of the discussion. Some were still formulating answers to a question, while the discussion had already moved on. Another major issue is information threading, meaning that the group discussion splits into parallel conversations on different topics.

The moderator’s lack of control also extends to the discussion environment. After one session, I noticed that one respondent had copied and pasted a statement from a website as a response to one of my questions. This was something that previous research accounts of focus groups had not prepare me for and could lead to serious problems for the validity of this method. In my article published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, I elaborate on these aspects in more detail and provide recommendations on the selection of suitable chat software to reduce the risk of technical issues and disturbances. It is important to keep differences between online and face-to-face focus groups in mind; but with good preparation, some disadvantages of remote discussions can be overcome. Synchronous text-based online focus groups are a method worth exploring – not only in times like these.

Read full IJSRM article here.

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The co-productive imagination: A creative, speculative and eventful account of co-producing research

By James Duggan

What does it mean to co-produce research? The term is used so extensively and diversely that it might be considered merely a convenient buzzword used at the intersection of academics, funders, and communities. There is an extensive series of justifications for co-producing research with communities. Co-producing research, for example, empowers, emancipates, enacts equal and democratic relationships, and aligns with rights-based discourses. Despite these noble aspirations there is a long-standing critique that co-production reproduces the academic or elite power relations it claims to unsettle, whether as tyranny, governmentality strategy, or regulation. A consensus position is that co-production is the space, discourse, and practices that allow us to unlearn and re-imagine research beyond the inheritances of academia as a society of letters. What grounds and commitments might help us navigate the critique and work towards worthwhile aims in collaboratively researching across and beyond the boundaries of the campus?

The co-productive imagination is inspired by speculative and process approaches to explore ways of theorising and practising collaborative research that are adequate to understanding the complexity of the world. Following A.N. Whitehead, this approach seeks to continually question academic abstractions that may result in our minds and inquiries following familiar grooves. Instead, co-production becomes an imaginative act where we iteratively develop propositions – encounters with new ways of feeling and thinking – and then we cultivate our imaginative capacities to understand what potentials are made possible in this situation. Although including concerns of empowerment and equality the focus becomes the creative realisation of events, which are understood as new ways of thinking and feeling that changes our orientations to the world.

The focus of the article emerges from the Loneliness Connects Us youth co-research project which explored loneliness with young people through arts-based and creative methods. I describe my slow and eventful realisation that one of the youth co-researchers was playing a crucial role in co-producing the project aim of creating a space in which we could explore loneliness ethically, productively, and with care for one another across difference. The way this finding came about questioned any claims I might make for co-production as equality, empowerment, or democracy. Instead, it justified thinking about the imaginative processes and practices of doing the research and realising that something matters! Drawing on speculative and process approaches, the article identifies a series of practices and commitments – appetition, techniques of relation, patterned contrasts – that work towards eventful realisations. It is, of course, important that in the shift from co-production as equality to co-production as eventful realisation that young people are not marginalised in research in pursuit of what thoughts and feelings are interesting. Yet, it is equally important to not let abstractions of co-production fix the ways in which we develop research. The aim therefore is not to lose young people but rather to fold commitments for young people with an ethics of the event, finding and tracing multiple and eventful contributions, collaboratively creating new propositions and possibilities to re-imagine a world in process.

See full IJSRM article here.

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Creatively adapting research methods during COVID-19

By Mary Brenda Herbert

Where are you?’ He quizzically looked at me, eyes darting from one corner of my screen to another. He wasn’t looking at me, but behind me.

 ‘I’m at home,’ I say.

Oh, I thought you were in a bookshop when you should be at home. There are so many books behind you,’ he said, nodding. And so began my weekly video call with Sam*.

As ethnographers, we are used to meeting with our interlocutors in-person on their territory or on neutral ground, but rarely, if never, in our own homes! However, the COVID-19 restrictions changed all that. Through video conferencing tools like Whatsapp, I now seeing into children’s homes and they are seeing into mine. This was not exactly how I had imagined my fieldwork to be.

I had only begun my fieldwork a couple of months prior to this change. After several months of applying for ethical approval from the local authority, I finally started meeting families for my PhD research study. My study focuses on children and their mothers who have experienced domestic abuse and social care interventions. We were all ready to go when I realized that my plans were about to change dramatically. Lockdown had just been announced which, meant an end to the home visits I envisioned. What was I to do?

Panic was my first response, but then something else dawned on me. In essence, the purpose of my project had not changed; I could still research children’s lives, it just happens that their everyday lives now included dealing with a pandemic. There was also the ethical question of the families wanting to continue the research. I did not want to let them down but how could I continue safely? I realized my methods that needed to change, not my aim. In a frenzied scramble I put together an art pack made up of paper, glue tick pens, pencils, modelling clay, pipe cleaners, lolly sticks, and a small toy digital camera, along with a quickly made up booklet containing instructions  (please see fig. 1). My aim was to give children the resources to creatively capture the new normal of their everyday lives. Just before lockdown I delivered the art packs to my interlocutors’ doorsteps, and I was careful to abide by the social distancing rules when speaking with the families from outside their homes. Following the pack deliveries, the families and I agreed for me to call them once a week to see how they were getting on. Together we worked out a way of documenting their everyday lives.

Fig. 1 Art packs in the making.

While this is not the way I had initially envisaged my research going (whose research goes to plan anyway?), I have had experiences and reflections that would not have been possible if not for COVID-19. An important realization for me is how research is mediated through different materials. Two prime examples are the internet and the weather.  The internet is a rather insolent and unreliable research assistant; sometimes it turns up for work and other times not so much.  Sometimes it surprises me and stays for the duration of the task to be completed, but it mostly ducks in and out. My research partner is my internet, and I have become especially reliant on it during this time of COVID-19.  Its (un)reliability has highlighted the infrastructures that work to keep our world connected (Chiou and Tucker, 2020). As the Covid19 restrictions were lifted, but social distancing advisories remained, the weather has become a major influencing factor in determining my work methods. On one occasion, I arrived in the pouring rain at a home and had to alter my plans on short notice.  Our initial plans to go for a walk were out of the question, so I instead arranged a picnic blanket in the corridor of a block of flats to do some artwork with children. (please see fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Getting ready for an impromptu art session on a picnic blanket.

My dependency on the internet and the weather has made me acutely aware of how my encounters are mediated by materials, structures, and chance. However, these example of changes, adaption, and interdependency are not unusual for ethnography. Often these dependencies on other people and things outside of the communities we are researching are seldom written about or are sidelined, yet they play a vital role in how we conduct our research (Rosaldo, 2014, p. 111). The pandemic has quickly debunked any illusion that I previously held that I, the researcher, am totally in control of the design and unfolding of my research project (Pandian, 2019).

So, what of the art packs? Some children have taken photos, some have drawn and made things, others have lost all the pens and pencils, whilst others have ignored it all together. The children have used what they have felt comfortable with, and that in itself is ‘data’. I have experimented with other techniques: I have tried diary/journal– that was not received well (too much like schoolwork). My trial with a digital photo diary (Plowman and Stevenson, 2012) resulted in mothers taking photos of their children rather than children taking photos of themselves, which was not what I had intended. Together we are trying to find a way to explore the everydayness of life through playing with methods.

This means there is a lot of negotiation, innovation, frustration, and patience on both sides. From the families who have to put up with me going from room to room to try and find a spot in my home that has some Wi-Fi connection so we can continue our video call, to the children who have taught me how to play hide and seek over the phone, to socially distanced walks with children in their local areas, to meeting across doorways to exchange info and materials – we’ve navigated these terrains in order to tell the story, the story of what everyday life is like. We do this in “an effort to unsettle and remake” what is known (Pandian, 2019, p. 5).

The irony of researching with children about their everyday whilst my own children are glued to their screens is not lost on me. In so many ways, the mothers that form part of my research are struggling with the same things I am – how to keep children occupied, getting shopping, keeping well, staying safe, and doing our best to get through the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has also highlighted ongoing issues of inequality and power relations in society.  Whilst I have similar concerns and challenges as the mothers in my research. For example, my children’s use of the iPad as a childcare resource is not being critiqued by social services; I can do an internet shop and use the car to avoid public transport; I have money and a supportive partner to help me. I am cushioned by my relations, network, and access to resources. The pandemic has brought the growing inequalities within society and the institutionalized racism to the surface. We are all experiencing the pandemic, but the effects of it are not the same.

So, when Sam asks me about the books on my shelf and how many rooms are in my home, I am acutely aware of the difference in our status in society, and this is a good thing to examine. Whilst the pandemic is an enormous once (we hope) in a lifetime experience, the fundamental essence of research is still the same – the creation of knowledge, and for me, the importance of exploring the everyday lives of children.

*Not this individuals real name.

References

Chiou, L. and Tucker, C. (2020) Social Distancing, Internet Access and Inequality. w26982. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, p. w26982. doi: 10.3386/w26982.

Pandian, A. (2019) A possible anthropology: methods for uneasy times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Plowman, L. and Stevenson, O. (2012) ‘Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives’, Childhood, 19(4), pp. 539–553. doi: 10.1177/0907568212440014.

Rosaldo, R. (2014) The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of Grief. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Childcare is an important consideration in qualitative social research, pandemic or no pandemic

By Katherine Mackinnon

We are going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time.  While school and nursery pupils in Scotland look set to return in August, in future we may see a return to distance learning or temporary school and nursery closures. Flexibility around childcare when doing research is more important than ever.

I am a part-time PhD student in my first year of an oral history project documenting refugee experiences of everyday life in Scotland. When working with refugees and asylum seekers, important concerns include security, access to technology, English communication skills, and caring responsibilities—all of which have only been heightened by the pandemic. However, even in the pre-COVID world, access to childcare was an important consideration in developing a methodology for recording oral histories of refugee lives in Scotland.

Availability of childcare is a potential barrier to participation for anyone with child caring responsibilities, but particularly significant when working with newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees who may not yet have developed a strong local support network. Most people are unable to call on family members for informal childcare, and language barriers along with a lack of knowledge of carer entitlements can make negotiating the bureaucracies of formal childcare difficult. On top of this, people in the asylum seeker process are regularly forced to move at short notice to a different neighbourhood, which can result in delays to accessing nursery accomodations and longer periods spent on the waiting lists. Without taking these factors into account and providing ways to participate that work around the presence of children, a significant group of people will be excluded from the research – parents of younger children requiring childcare, the majority of whom are women.

As a PhD student I was unable to write a budget line for participant childcare costs into my proposal because it didn’t come with a budget. It is very difficult to find standalone funding for participant expenses, so it’s even more crucial to consider ways to work around childcare if you are not able to cover these costs  

In non-pandemic times, offering flexibility around interview times and locations which are specifically designed to work around school opening hours is a good way of taking advantage of the institutional childcare available. Given that provision of external childcare is not possible at the moment – and that school holidays will always be a thing – it is important to design adaptable research methods that are functional without formal childcare.

My research was never intended to involve children as participants, so these workarounds have all been designed to include the presence of younger children without actively involving them. This is feasible because of my focus on everyday life, meaning people are able to choose aspects of that topic they feel comfortable talking about with a child present. Obviously, this approach is not suitable for all topics, nor is it the optimum interview scenario. However, I would rather record the voices of parents who are somewhat distracted than not include them at all.

One way I have tackled the childcare issue is by choosing methods which can be done with children involved, like walking interviews around the local neighbourhood which could include younger children in a buggy. Navigating a public space with a buggy is a very different experience to walking through it alone, and the use of walking interviews can foreground aspects of everyday life which might not arise in a standard interview.

Another approach is to include methods which can be done at a time which suits the participant, like keeping a diary. Bea Gardner’s  audio diaries are a great example of this because they track longitudinal developments by recording over time. The audio diary has the benefit of being accessible to participants whose levels of literacy in English would make keeping a written diary challenging.

The prospect of ongoing restrictions on social gatherings ,  varying levels of comfort associated with different venues (indoor or outdoor, well-ventilated or not), and the availability of known, comforting meeting places like libraries and community centres have all made me consider ways to adapt, change, and develop my research when I can do face-to-face work again.

With young children, so much of everyday life happens in the swing park: Could I audio record a conversation there? And would this location lend itself to a more nuanced conversation about the experience of being a parent and a refugee in Scotland? The audio quality of many of these methods would be sub-par compared to a recording made in a quiet indoor space. Though, we have adjusted to news reports over Zoom, to weird angles on interviewees, and to children bursting in on discussions. These recordings will be artefacts of this time. They will be records of the radical changes to everyday life we have all experienced, some of which will be with us for the long term.