Schutt: Qualitative Research Methods
"You have to look into a patient's eyes as much as you can, and learn to get the signals from there." This suggestion was made by a nurse explaining to future nursing home assistants how they were to deal with a dying patient. One of those future assistants, Timothy Diamond (1992:17), was also a sociologist intent on studying work in nursing homes. For us, the statement he recorded has a dual purpose: It exemplifies qualitative methods, in which sociologists learn by observing as they participate in a natural setting; it also reminds us that some features of the social world (dare I say many?) are ill suited to investigation with experiments or surveys.
In this chapter you will learn how qualitative methods were used to illuminate the inside of a nursing home and the attitudes and actions of its staff (Diamond, 1992). You will observe schoolchildren on a playground as they define the behavior appropriate for boys and for girls (Thorne, 1993). Throughout the chapter, you will learn, from a variety of other examples, that some of our greatest insights into social processes can result from what appear to be very ordinary activities: observing, participating, listening, and talking.
But you will also learn that qualitative research is much more than just doing what comes naturally in social situations. Qualitative researchers must observe keenly, sensitively plan their participation, take notes systematically, question respondents strategically, and prepare to spend more time and invest more of their whole selves than often occurs with experiments or surveys. Moreover, if we are to have any confidence in the validity of a qualitative study's conclusions, each element of its design must be reviewed as carefully as we would review the elements of an experiment or survey.
The chapter begins with an overview of the major features of qualitative research, as reflected in Diamond's (1992) study of nursing homes. The next section discusses the various approaches to participant observation research, which is the most distinctive qualitative method, and reviews the stages of research using participant observation. I then review in some detail the issues involved in intensive interviewing before briefly explaining focus groups, an increasingly popular qualitative method. The last two sections cover issues that are of concern in any type of qualitative research project: analyzing the data collected and making ethical decisions. By the chapter's end, you should appreciate the hard work required to translate "doing what comes naturally" into systematic research, be able to recognize strong and weak points in qualitative studies, and be ready to do some of it yourself.
Fundamentals of Qualitative Methods
Qualitative techniques can often be used to enrich experiments and surveys. Qualitative methods also refer to several distinctive research designs: participant observation, intensive interviewing, and focus groups. Participant observation and intensive interviewing are often used in the same project; focus groups combine some elements of these two approaches into a unique data-collection strategy.
Although these three qualitative designs differ in many respects, they share several features that distinguish them from experimental and survey research designs (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Maxwell, 1996; Wolcott, 1995):
Collection primarily of qualitative rather than quantitative data. Any research design may collect both qualitative and quantitative data, but qualitative methods emphasize observations about natural behavior and artifacts that capture social life as it is experienced by the participants rather than in categories predetermined by the researcher.
Exploratory research questions, with a commitment to inductive reasoning. Qualitative researchers typically begin their projects seeking not to test preformulated hypotheses but to discover what people think and how they act, and why, in some social setting. Only after many observations do qualitative researchers try to develop general principles to account for their observations.
A focus on previously unstudied processes and unanticipated phenomena. Previously unstudied attitudes and actions can't adequately be understood with a structured set of questions or within a highly controlled experiment. So qualitative methods have their greatest appeal when we need to explore new issues, investigate hard-to-study groups, or determine the meaning people give to their lives and actions. Diamond (1992:4) asked, "What was life like inside, day in and day out? Who lived in nursing homes, and what did they do there?"
An orientation to social context, to the interconnections between social phenomena rather than to their discrete features. The context of concern may be a program or organization, a "case," or a broader social context. For example:
In this book I begin not with individuals, although they certainly appear in the account, but with group life--with social relations, the organization and meanings of social situations, the collective practices through which children and adults create and recreate gender in their daily interactions.... [C]hildren's collective activities should weigh more fully in our overall understanding of gender and social life. (Thorne, 1993:4)
A focus on human subjectivity, on the meanings that participants attach to events and that people give to their lives: "Through life stories, people 'account for their lives.'... [T]he themes people create are the means by which they interpret and evaluate their life experiences and attempt to integrate these experiences to form a self-concept" (Kaufman, 1986:2--25).
Use of idiographic rather than nomothetic causal explanation. With its focus on particular actors and situations and the processes that connect them, qualitative research tends to identify causes as particular events embedded within an unfolding, interconnected action sequence (Maxwell, 1996:20-21). The language of variables and hypotheses appears only rarely in the qualitative literature.
Reflexive research design, in which the design develops as the research progresses:
Each component of the design may need to be reconsidered or modified in response to new developments or to changes in some other component.... The activities of collecting and analyzing data, developing and modifying theory--elaborating or refocusing the research questions, and identifying and eliminating validity threats are usually all going on more or less simultaneously, each influencing all of the others. (Maxwell, 1996:2-3)
Sensitivity to the subjective role of the researcher. Little pretense is made of achieving an objective perspective on social phenomena.
I felt closer to the girls not only through memories of my own past, but also because I knew more about their gender-typed interactions. I had once played games like jump rope and statue buyer, but I had never ridden a skateboard and had barely tried sports like basketball and soccer.... Were my moments of remembering, the times when I felt like a ten-year-old girl, a source of distortion or insight? (Thorne, 1993:26)
We can see all these elements emerge in the development of qualitative methods. They also appear in Diamond's 1992) nursing home study.
Origins of Qualitative Research
Anthropologists and sociologists laid the foundation for modern qualitative methods while doing field research in the early decades of the twentieth century. Dissatisfied with studies of native peoples that relied on secondhand accounts and inspection of artifacts, anthropologists Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski went to live in or near the communities they studied. Boas visited Native American villages in the American
Northwest; Malinowski lived among New Guinea natives. Neither truly participated in the ongoing social life of those they studied (Boas collected artifacts and original texts, and Malinowski reputedly lived as something of a noble among the natives he studied), but both helped to establish the value of intimate familiarity with the community of interest and thus laid the basis for modern anthropology (Emerson, 1983:2-5).
Many of sociology's field research pioneers were former social workers and reformers. Some brought their missionary concern with the spread of civic virtue among new immigrants to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Their successors continued to focus on sources of community cohesion and urban strain but came to view the city as a social science "laboratory" rather than as a focus for reform. They adopted the fieldwork methods of anthropology to studying the "natural areas" of the city and the social life of small towns (Vidich & Lyman, 1994). By the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, qualitative researchers were emphasizing the value of direct participation in community life and sharing in subjects' perceptions and interpretations of events (Emerson, 1983:6--13).
Case Study: Making Gray Gold
You can get a better feel for qualitative methods by reading the following excerpts from Timothy Diamond's book about nursing homes, Making Gray Gold (Diamond, 1992), and reasoning inductively from his observations. See if you can induce from these particulars some of the general features of field research. Ask yourself, What was the research question? How were the issues of generalizability, measurement, and causation approached? How did social factors influence the research?
Let's begin near the beginning of Diamond's account:
First I went to school for six months in 1982, two evenings a week and all day Saturdays, to obtain the certificate the state required [to work in a nursing home]. Then, after weeks of searching for jobs, I worked in three different nursing homes in Chicago for periods of three to four months each. (Diamond, 1992:5)
As this excerpt indicates, Diamond's research involved becoming a participant in the social setting that was the object of his study. Note how long Diamond spent gathering data: more than a year of full-time work.
Diamond also describes for us the development of his research questions. A medical sociologist, his curiosity about health care for older people was piqued when he happened to become acquainted with Ina Williams and Aileen Crawford in a coffee shop across the street from the nursing home where they worked as assistants. He began to wonder,
How does the work of caretaking become defined and get reproduced day in and day out as a business?... How, in other words, does the everyday world of Ina and Aileen and their co-workers, and that of the people they tend, get turned into a system in which gray can be written about in financial journals as producing gold, a classic metaphor for money? What is the process of making gray gold? (Diamond, 1992:5)
With these exploratory research questions in mind, Diamond explains why he chose participant observation as his research method:
I wanted to collect stories and to experience situations like those Ina and Aileen had begun to describe. I decided that... I would go inside to experience the work myself. (Diamond, 1992:5)
The choice of participant observation precluded random sampling of cases, but Diamond did not ignore the need to generalize his findings. He went to considerable lengths to include three nursing homes that would represent a range of care-giving arrangements:
These [nursing] homes were situated in widely different neighborhoods of the city. In one of them residents paid for their own care, often with initial help from Medicare. In the other two, most of the residents were supported by Medicaid.... In the course of writing, I visited many homes across the United States to validate my observations and to update them in instances where regulatory changes had been instituted. (Diamond, 1992:6)
The data in Diamond's study were notes on the activities of the people as he observed and interacted with them. He did not use structured questionnaires and other formal data-collection instruments. So his data are primarily qualitative rather than quantitative.
As for his method, it was inductive. First he gathered data. Then, as data collection continued, Diamond figured out how to interpret the data, how to make sense of the social situations he was studying. His analytic categories ultimately came not from social theory but from the categories by which people themselves described one another and made sense of their social world. These categories seem to have broad applicability, suggesting the generalizability of the researcher's findings. For instance, one of the teachers Diamond encountered while earning his certificate passed along a unique way of making sense of the caregiver's role in a nursing home:
The tensions generated by the introductory lecture and ... ideas of career professionalism were reflected in our conversations as we waited for the second class to get under way. Yet within the next half hour they seemed to dissolve. Mrs. Bonderoid, our teacher, saw to that. A registered nurse and nurse practitioner, an African American woman of about fifty, she must have understood a lot about classroom jitters and about who was sitting in front of her as well. "What this is going to take," she instructed, "is a lot of mother's wit." "Mother's wit," she said, not "mother wit," which connotes native intelligence irrespective of gender. She was talking about maternal feelings and skills. (Diamond, 1992:17)
Diamond did develop general conclusions about social life from his research. In the nursing home, he argues, there were two kinds of narratives on caregiving: one formal, written, and shared by the professionals and administrators; another submerged, unwritten, and shared by the people who lived and worked on the floors. (Diamond, 1992:215)
To summarize, Diamond's research began with an exploratory question (to find out what was going on) and proceeded inductively throughout, developing general concepts to make sense of specific observations. Although Diamond, a white man, was something of an outsider in a setting dominated by women of color, he was able to share many participants' experiences and perspectives. His in-depth descriptions and idiographic connections of sequences of events enabled him to construct plausible explanations about what seemed to be a typical group. He thus successfully used field research to explore human experiences in depth, carefully analyzing the social contexts in which they occur.
Diamond carried out his study through participant observation, termed "fieldwork" in anthropology. It is a method in which natural social processes are studied as they happen (in "the field" rather than in the laboratory) and left relatively undisturbed. It is the seminal field research method, a means for seeing the social world as the research subjects see it, in its totality, and for understanding subjects' interpretations of that world (Wolcott, 1995:66). By observing people and interacting with them in the course of their normal activities, participant observers seek to avoid the artificiality of experimental designs and the unnatural structured questioning of survey research (Koegel, 1987:8).
The term participant observer actually represents a continuum of roles, ranging from being a complete observer, who does not disclose his or her research role. Many field researchers develop a role between these extremes, publicly acknowledging being a researcher but nonetheless participating in group activities. In some settings, it also is possible to observe covertly, without acknowledging being a researcher or participating.
Choosing a Role
The first concern of all participant observers is to decide what balance to strike between observing and participating and whether to reveal their role as a researcher. These decisions must take into account the specifics of the social situation being studied, the researcher's own background and personality, the larger sociopolitical context, and ethical concerns. Which balance of participating and observing is most appropriate also changes during most projects, often many times. And the researcher's ability to maintain either a covert or an overt role will many times be challenged.
Barrie Thorne (1993) had little choice but to adopt the role of a complete observer when, as an adult, she began to observe children's social interaction in school playgrounds. In complete observation, researchers try to see things as they happen, without disrupting the participants:
I like to think of myself as having hung out in classrooms, lunchrooms, playgrounds, relating to kids in a friendly and sometimes helpful fashion, treating them, in my analysis and writing, with respect. But, like all field workers, I was also a spectator, even a voyeur, passing though their lives and sharing few real stakes with those they studied. Several kids asked me if I was a spy, and, in a way, I was, especially when I went in search of activities and meanings they created when not in the company of adults.... [I]n the very act of documenting their autonomy, I undermined it, for my gaze remained, at its core and its ultimate knowing purpose, that of a more powerful adult. (Thorne, 1993:27)
So the researcher's very presence as an observer alters the social situation being observed. It is not "natural" in most social situations for an observer to be present, one who will record at some point her or his observations for research and publication purposes. The observer thus sees what individuals do when they are being observed, which is not necessarily what they would have done had an observer not been present. This is the problem of reactive effects, as Thorne notes:
On the playground, the kids sometimes treated me as an adult with formal authority Calling "Yard duty, yard duty," or "Teacher!" they ran up with requests for intervention--"Make Ralph give me back my ball"; "Burt threw the rope onto the roof." I responded by saying, "I'm not a yard duty," and usually by refusing to intervene, telling those who asked for help that they would have to find someone who was a yard duty, or handle the situation by themselves. (Thorne, 1993:17)
The extent to which reactive effects are a problem varies with the situation. In social settings involving many people, in which observing while standing or sitting does not attract attention, the complete observer is unlikely to have much effect on social processes. For example, I observed the delegate meetings of a public-employee union for about four years, sitting like most delegates and taking notes like many others (Schutt, 1986). I came to know many of the participants, but in a large room with about 40 other people, my presence seemed to have had no impact on the meetings.
On the other hand, when the social setting involves few people and observing is unlike the usual activities in the setting, or when the observer differs in obvious respects from the participants, the complete observer is more likely to have an impact:
My greater size; my access to special relations with the principal, teachers, and aides; and my sheer status as an adult in an institution that draws sharp generational divisions and marks them with differences in power and authority, posed complicated obstacles to learning from kids. (Thorne, 1993:16)
Even the clearest distinction of the researcher's role cannot prevent the emergence of pressures to become more of a participant:
I could usually rely on playground aides to be on the lookout and to handle scenes of physical injury. It was harder for me to stay detached when kids hurt one another's feelings and I sometimes tried to soothe these situations. For example Sherry asked, "Why did your mother leave you?" Jessica replied, "She wanted to marry a guy, but they had a fight and she didn't." Almost simultaneously, Nancy spoke up. "She left because she didn't love you." Jessica blushed and I resonated with her stung feelings. Feeling quite maternal, I tried to comfort Jessica by putting my arm around her and saying, "I'm sure it was hard for your mother to leave." (Thorne, 1993:20)
Participation and Observation
Most field researchers adopt a role that involves some active participation in the setting. Usually they inform at least some group members of their research interests, but then they participate in enough group activities to develop rapport with members and to gain a direct sense of what group members experience. This is not an easy balancing act, but the key to participant observation as a fieldwork strategy is to take seriously the challenge it poses to participate more, and to play the role of the aloof observer less. Do not think of yourself as someone who needs to wear a white lab coat and carry a clipboard to learn about how humans go about their everyday lives. (Wolcott, 1995:100)
Richard Fenno (1978) provides a good example of the rapport-building function of participation in his study of relationships between members of the U.S. House of Representatives and their constituents:
Once, for example, I arrived in a district in time to make a Friday night event, only to find the congressman had been unable to leave Washington.... I sat down beside someone [at campaign headquarters] and started stamping and sealing a huge stack of envelopes. An hour or two later, someone asked me to help with a telephone poll, which I did.(Fenno, 1978:267)
As a result of his contribution, Fenno was shown the confidential poll resuIts and invited to a campaign strategy meeting the next day.Participating and observing has two clear ethical advantages as well. Because group members know the researcher's real role in the group, they can choose to keep some information or attitudes hidden. By the same token, the researcher can decline to participate in unethical or dangerous activities without fear of exposing his or her identity.
Most field researchers who opt for disclosure get the feeling that, after they have become known and at least somewhat trusted figures in the group, their presence does not have any palpable effect on members' actions. The major influences on individual actions and attitudes are past experiences, personality, group structure, and so on, so the argument goes, and these continue to exert their influence even when an outside observer is present. The participant observer can presumably be ethical about identity disclosure and still observe the natural social world. Of course, the argument is less persuasive when the behavior to be observed is illegal or stigmatized, so that participants have reason to fear the consequences of disclosure to any outsider.In practice it can be difficult to maintain a fully open research role even in a setting without these special characteristics.
During and after the fieldwork the first question many people asked was "Did you tell them?"... I had initially hoped to disclose at every phase of the project my dual objective of working as a nursing assistant and writing about these experiences. In some instances it was possible to disclose this dual purpose, in others it was not. I told many nursing assistants and people who lived in the homes that I was both working and investigating. I told some of my nursing supervisors and some administrators.... The short answer is that as the study proceeded it was forced increasingly to become a piece of undercover research. (Diamond, 1992:7--8)...
Experienced participant observers try to lessen some of the problems of identity disclosure by evaluating both their effect on others in the setting and the effect of others on the observers, writing about these effects throughout the time they are in the field and while they analyze their data. They also are sure while in the field to preserve some physical space and regular time when they can concentrate on their research and schedule occasional meetings with other researchers to review the fieldwork. Participant observers modify their role as circumstances seem to require, perhaps not always disclosing their research role at casual social gatherings or group outings but being sure to inform new members of it.
To lessen the potential for reactive effects and to gain entry to otherwise inaccessible settings, some field researchers have adopted the role of covert participant, keeping their research secret and trying their best to act like other participants in a social setting or group. Covert participation is also known as complete participation. Laud Humphreys (1970) served as a "watch queen" so that he could learn about men engaging in homosexual acts in a public restroom. Randall Alfred (1976) joined a group of Satanists to investigate group members and their interaction. Erving Goffman (1961) worked as a state hospital assistant while studying the treatment of psychiatric patients.
Although the role of covert participant lessens some of the reactive effects encountered by the complete observer, covert participants confront other problems:
Covert participants cannot take notes openly or use any obvious recording devices. They must write up notes based solely on memory and must do so at times when it is natural for them to be away from group members.
Covert participants cannot ask questions that will arouse suspicion. Thus they often have trouble clarifying the meaning of other participants' attitudes or actions.
The role of covert participant is difficult to play successfully, because covert participants will not know how regular participants would act in every situation in which the researchers find themselves. Regular participants have entered the situation from social backgrounds and goals different from the researchers'. Researchers' spontaneous reactions to every event are unlikely to be consistent with those of the regular participants. Suspicion that researchers are not "one of us" may then have reactive effects, obviating the value of complete participation (Erikson, 1967). In his study of the Satanists, for example, Alfred pretended to be a regular group participant until he completed his research, at which time he informed the group leader of his covert role. Rather than act surprised, the leader told Alfred that he had long considered Alfred to be "strange," not like the others--and we will never know for sure how Alfred's observations were affected. Even Diamond, though an acknowledged researcher in the nursing home, found that simply disclosing the fact that he did not work another job to make ends meet set him apart from other nursing assistants:
"There's one thing I learned when I came to the States," [said a Haitian nursing assistant]. "Here you can't make it on just one job." She tilted her head, looked at me curiously, then asked, "You know, Tim, there's just one thing I don't understand about you. How do you make it on just one job?" (Diamond, I 992:47--48)
Covert participants need to keep up the act at all times while in the setting under study. Researchers may experience enormous psychological strain, particularly in situations where they are expected to choose sides in intragroup conflict or to participate in criminal or other acts. Of course, some covert observers may become so wrapped up in the role they are playing that they adopt not just the mannerisms but also the perspectives and goals of the regular participants--they "go native." At this point, they abandon research goals and cease to evaluate critically what they are observing.
Ethical issues have been at the forefront of debate over the strategy of covert participation. Kai Erikson (1967) argues that covert participation is by its very nature unethical and should not be allowed except in public settings. Covert researchers cannot anticipate the unintended consequences of their actions for research subjects, Erikson points out. If others suspect the researcher's identity or if the researcher contributes to, or impedes, group action, these consequences can be adverse. In addition, other social scientists are harmed when covert research is disclosed--either during the research or upon its publication--because distrust of social scientists increases and access to research opportunities may decrease.
But a total ban on covert participation would "kill many a project stone dead" (Punch, 1994:90). Studies of unusual religious or sexual practices and of institutional malpractice would rarely be possible. "The crux of the matter is that some deception, passive or active, enables you to get at data not obtainable by other means" (Punch, 1994:91). Therefore, some field researchers argue that covert participation is legitimate in some settings. If the researcher maintains the confidentiality of others, keeps commitments to others, and does not directly lie to others, some degree of deception may be justified in exchange for the knowledge gained (Punch, 1994:90).
Entering the Field
Entering the field, the setting under investigation, is a critical stage in a participant observation project because it can shape many subsequent experiences. Some background work is necessary before entering the field--at least enough to develop a clear understanding of what the research questions are likely to be and to review one's personal stance toward the people and problems likely to be encountered. With participant observation, researchers must also learn in advance how participants dress and what their typical activities are, so as to avoid being caught completely unprepared.
For his study, Diamond tried to enter a nursing home twice, first without finding out about necessary qualifications:
My first job interview.... The administrator of the home had agreed to see me on [the recommendation of two current assistants]. [T]he administrator... probed suspiciously, "Now why would a white guy want to work for these kinds of wages?" ... He continued without pause, "Besides, I couldn't hire you if I wanted to. You're not certified." That, he quickly concluded, was the end of our interview and he showed me to the door. (Diamond, 1992:8--9)
After taking a course and receiving his certificate, Diamond was able to enter the role of nursing assistant as others did, with one qualification:
Ms. North, who conducted the interviews, oriented each of us to the program.... It was a rushed interview because the waiting room was filled, largely with women of color in their twenties and thirties, and Ms. North seemed anxious to enroll her next candidate. "Do you have any questions?" she asked while closing my file. I had many questions, but time for just one. "I'm a little uncomfortable being the only man and one of the few white people signing up. Will I be out of place?" (Diamond, 1992:14--15)
Many field researchers avoid systematic study and extensive reading about a setting for fear that it will bias their first impressions, but entering without any sense of the social norms can lead to disaster. Whyte came close to such disaster when he despaired of making any social contacts in Cornerville and decided to try an unconventional entry approach (unconventional for a field researcher, that is). In Street Corner Society, the account of his study, Whyte describes what happened when he went to a hotel bar in search of women to talk with:
I looked around me again and now noticed a threesome: one man and two women. It occurred to me that here was a maldistribution of females which I might be able to rectify. I approached the group and opened with something like this: "Pardon me. Would you mind if I joined you?" There was a moment of silence while the man stared at me. He then offered to throw me downstairs. I assured him that this would not be necessary and demonstrated as much by walking right out of there without any assistance. (Whyte, 1955:289)
The entry gambit that finally worked for Whyte was to rely on a local community leader for introductions. Such a person may become an informant throughout the project, and most participant observers make a point of developing at least one trusted informant in a group under study. A helpful social worker at the local settlement house introduced Whyte to "Doc," who agreed to help:
Well, any nights you want to see anything, I'll take you around. I can take you to the joints--gambling joints--I can take you around to the street corners. Just remember that you're my friend. That's all they need to know [so they won't bother you]. (Whyte, 1955:291)
Thorne had to begin her study of schoolchildren through the adults in charge:
I entered the field through adult gatekeepers. A friend introduced me to Miss Bailey, the fourth-fifth-grade Oceanside teacher, and she, in turn, agreed to let me observe in her classroom, as did Mr. Welch, the school principal, who asked only that I not "disrupt" and that I report back my findings. My more formal entry into Ashton School, via the district Title IX office, seemed to make the Ashton principal a little nervous. But Mrs. Smith, the kindergarten teacher, and Mrs. Johnson, the second-grade teacher, seemed at ease when I was in their classrooms, and I had ample latitude to define my presence to the students of both schools. (Thorne, 1993:16)
When participant observing involves public figures who are used to reporters and researchers, a more direct approach may secure entry into the field. Fenno approached most of the members of Congress he would study with a "cold turkey" letter:
Dear Representative ------------,
I am writing to ask if you might be willing to let me travel around with you when you are in your district for a three- or four-day period sometime this spring. I am a professor of political science at the University of Rochester and am writing a book on the relations between congressmen and their constituencies. I'm trying to learn about the subject by accompanying a dozen or so House members as they work in their districts. (Fenno, 1978:257)
Fenno received only two refusals. He attributed the willingness of his subjects to be observed and questioned in this way to a variety of reasons, including their interest in a change in the daily routine, their commitment to making themselves available, a desire for more publicity, the flattery of scholarly attention, and interest in helping to teach others about politics. Other groups have other motivations, but in every case some consideration of these potential motives in advance should help smooth entry into the field.
In short, field researchers must be very sensitive to the impression they make and the ties they establish when entering the field. This stage lays the groundwork for collecting data from people who have different perspectives and for developing relationships that the researcher can use to surmount the problems in data collection that inevitably arise in the field.
Developing and Maintaining Relationships
Researchers must be careful to manage their relationships in the research setting so they can continue to observe and interview diverse members of the social setting throughout the long period typical of participant observation (Maxwell, 1996:66). Every action the researcher takes can develop or undermine this relationship:
Although a note-taking adult cannot pass as even an older elementary student, I tried in other ways to lessen the social distance between me and the kids. I avoided positions of authority and rarely intervened in a managerial way, and I went through the days with or near the kids rather than along the paths of teachers and aides. Like others who have done participant-observation with children, I felt a little elated when kids violated rules in my presence, like swearing or openly blowing bubble gum where these acts were forbidden, or swapping stories about recent acts of shoplifting. These incidents reassured me that I had shed at least some of the trappings of adult authority and gained access to kids' more private worlds. (Thorne, 1993:1849)
Maintaining trust is the cornerstone to successful research engagement, as indicated by the following example of a failure in Van Maanen's police research:
Following a family beef call in what was tagged the Little Africa section of town, I once got into what I regarded as a soft but nonetheless heated debate with the officer I was working with that evening on the merits of residential desegregation. My more or less liberal leanings on the matter were bothersome to this officer, who later reported my disturbing thoughts to his friends in the squad. Before long, I was an anathema to this friendship clique and labeled by them undesirable. Members of this group refused to work with me again. (Van Maanen,1982:110)
So Van Maanen failed to maintain a research (or personal) relationship with this group. Do you think he should have kept his opinions about residential desegregation to himself? How honest should field researchers be about their feelings? Should they "go along to get along"?
Whyte used what in retrospect was a sophisticated two-part strategy to develop and maintain relationships with the Cornerville street-corner men. The first part of Whyte's strategy was to maintain good relations with Doc and, through Doc, to stay on good terms with the others. The less obvious part of Whyte's strategy was a consequence of his decision to move into Cornerville, a move he decided was necessary to really understand and be accepted in the community. The room he rented in a local family's home became his base of operations. In some respects, this family became an important dimension of Whyte's immersion in the community: He tried to learn Italian by speaking with family members, and they conversed late at night as if Whyte were a real family member. But Whyte recognized that he needed a place to unwind after his days of constant alertness in the field, so he made a conscious decision not to include the family as an object of study. Living in this family's home became a means for Whyte to maintain standing as a community insider without becoming totally immersed in the demands of research (Whyte, I955:29~297).
Experienced participant observers have developed some sound advice for others seeking to maintain relationships in the field (Whyte, l955:300--306; Wolcott, 1995:91--95):
Develop a plausible (and honest) explanation for yourself and your study.
Maintain the support of key individuals in groups or organizations under study.
Don't be too aggressive in questioning others (for example, don't violate implicit norms that preclude discussion of illegal activity with outsiders). Being a researcher requires that you not simultaneously try to be the guardian of law and order.
Ask very sensitive questions only of informants with whom your relationship is good.
Don't fake your social similarity with your subjects. Taking a friendly interest in them should be an adequate basis for developing trust.
Avoid giving or receiving monetary or other tangible gifts but without violating norms of reciprocity. Living with other people, taking others' time for conversations, going out for a social evening all create expectations and incur social obligations, and you can't be an active participant without occasionally helping others. But you will lose your ability to function as a researcher if you come to be seen as someone who gives away money or other favors. Such small forms of assistance as an occasional ride to the store or advice on applying to college may strike the right balance.
Be prepared for special difficulties and tensions if multiple groups are involved. It is hard to avoid taking sides or being used in situations of intergroup conflict.
Sampling People and Events
Decisions to study one setting or several and to pay attention to some people and events rather than others will shape field researchers' ability to generalize about what they have found as well as the confidence that others can place in the results of their study. Limiting a particular study to a single setting allows a more intensive portrait of actors and activities in that setting but also makes generalization of the findings questionable.
We may be reassured by information indicating that a "typical" case was selected for study or that the case selected was appropriate in some way for the research question. We also must keep in mind that many of the most insightful participant observation studies were conducted in only one setting and draw their credibility precisely from the researcher's thorough understanding of that setting. Nonetheless, studying more than one case or setting almost always strengthens the causal conclusions and makes the findings more generalizable (King, Koehane, & Verba, 1994).
To make his conclusions more generalizable, Diamond (1992:5) worked in three different Chicago nursing homes "in widely different neighborhoods" and with different fractions of residents supported by Medicaid. He then "visited many homes across the United States to validate my observations." Thorne 1993:6--7) observed in a public elementary school in California for eight months and then, four years later, for three months in a public elementary school in Michigan:
The demographics of the Oceanside and Ashton schools were remarkably similar. Each had around four hundred students who were from various "white" ethnicities; between 12 and 14 percent were Chicano or Latino; around 5 percent were African-American. In the California school there were a few Filipino-American and Japanese-American students, and one child with parents from India, and in the Michigan school there were a scattering of Native American students. (Thorne, 1993:7)
In both studies, the researchers' ability to draw from different settings in developing conclusions gives us greater confidence in their studies' generalizability. Still, the two schools that Thorne studied represented little more than a convenience sample of schools--the schools that were available to her for study when she was ready to study them. Diamond's selection of nursing homes seems somewhat more purposively determined to ensure the representation of different types of homes (see also Maxwell, 1996:69-73).
A more systematic approach to sampling in participant observation studies has been termed theoretical sampling (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). When field researchers discover in an investigation that particular processes seem to be important, implying that certain comparisons should be made or that similar instances should be checked, the researchers then choose new settings or individuals to study as well (Ragin, 1994:98--101). Fenno's strategy for selecting members of Congress to observe in their home districts exemplifies this type of approach:
Whom should I observe?... If I had been certain about what types of representatives and what types of districts to sample, I would already have had answers to a lot of the questions raised in this book. My procedure was slowly to build up the size of the group being observed and constantly to monitor its composition to see what commonly recognized types of members or districts I might be neglecting. Then I would move to remedy any imagined deficiencies. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a priori what types of members or districts might pose serious tests for, or exceptions to, whatever generalizations seemed to be emerging--with the intent of bringing such members or districts into the group. At one point, I noticed there were too many lawyers; the next two people I chose were nonlawyers. (Fenno, 1978:253)
You already learned in Chapter 4 about nonprobability sampling methods, which can also be used to develop a more representative range of opinions and events in a field setting. For instance, purposive sampling, of which theoretical sampling is a type, can be used to identify opinion leaders and representatives of different roles. With snowball sampling, field researchers learn from participants about who represents different subgroups in a setting. Quota sampling also may be employed to ensure the representation of particular categories of participants. Using some type of intentional sampling strategy within a particular setting can allow tests of some hypotheses that would otherwise have to wait until comparative data could be collected from several settings (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994).
When field studies do not require ongoing, intensive involvement by researchers in the setting, the experience sampling method (ESM) can be used. The experiences, thoughts, and feelings of a number of people are sampled randomly as they go about their daily activities. Participants in an ESM study carry an electronic pager and fill out reports when they are beeped. For example, 107 adults carried pagers in Robert Kubey's (1990) ESM study of television habits and family quality of life. Participants' reports indicated that heavy TV viewers were less active during non-TV family activities, although heavy TV viewers also spent more time with their families and felt as positively toward other family members as did those who watched less TV Although ESM is a powerful tool for field research, it is still limited by the need to recruit people to carry pagers. Ultimately, the generalizability of ESM findings relies on the representativeness, and reliability, of the persons who cooperate in the research.
Written notes are the primary means of recording participant observation data (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). Of course, "written" no longer means handwritten; many field researchers jot down partial notes while observing and then retreat to their computer to write up more complete notes on a daily basis. The computerized text can then be inspected and organized after it is printed out, or it can be marked up and organized for analysis using one of several computer programs designed especially for the task.
It is almost always a mistake to try to take comprehensive notes while engaged in the field--the process of writing extensively is just too disruptive. The usual procedure is to jot down brief notes about highlights of the observation period. These brief notes can then serve as memory joggers when writing the actual field notes at a later session. With the aid of the brief notes and some practice, researchers usually remember a great deal of what happened, as long as the comprehensive field notes are written within the next 24 hours--that night or upon arising the next day.
The following excerpts shed light on the note-taking processes that Diamond and Thorne used while in the field. Taking notes was more of a challenge for Diamond because many people in the setting did not know that he was a researcher:
While I was getting to know nursing assistants and residents and experiencing aspects of their daily routines, I would surreptitiously take notes on scraps of paper, in the bathroom or otherwise out of sight, jotting down what someone had said or done. (Diamond, 1992:6--7)
Thorne was able to take notes openly:
I went through the school days with a small spiral notebook in hand, jotting descriptions that I later expanded into field notes. When I was at the margins of a scene, I took notes on the spot. When I was more fully involved, sitting and talking with kids at a cafeteria table or playing a game of jump rope, I held observations in my memory and recorded them later. (Thorne, 1993:17)
Usually writing up notes takes as long as making the observations. Field notes must be as complete, detailed, and true to what was observed and heard as possible. Quotes should be clearly distinguished from the researcher's observations and phrased in the local vernacular; pauses and interruptions should be indicated. The surrounding context should receive as much attention as possible, and a map of the setting always should be included, with indications of where individuals were at different times.
Careful note-taking yields a big payoff. On page after page, field notes will suggest new concepts, causal connections, and theoretical propositions. Social processes and settings can be described in rich detail, with ample illustrations. Exhibit 8.4, for example, contains field notes recorded by Norma Ware, an anthropologist studying living arrangements for homeless mentally ill persons (see the discussion of Goldfinger, Schutt, et al., 1997, in Chapter 1). The notes contain observations of the setting, the questions the anthropologist asked and the answers she received, and her analytic thoughts about one of the residents. What can be learned from just this one page of field notes? The mood of the house at this time is evident, with joking, casual conversation, and close friendships. "Dick" remarks on problems with household financial management, and at the same time we learn a bit about his own activities and personality (a regular worker who appears to like systematic plans). We see how a few questions and a private conversation elicit information about the transition from the shelter to the house, as well as about household operations. The field notes also provide the foundation for a more complete picture of one resident, describing "Jim's" relationships with others, his personal history, his interests and personality--and his orientation to the future. We can see analytic concepts emerge in the notes, such as the concept of "pulling himself together" and of some house members working as a "team." You can imagine how researchers can go on to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the setting and a set of concepts and questions to inform subsequent observations.
Field Notes from an ECH[Exhibit 8.4]
I arrive around 4:30 P.M. and walk into a conversation between Jim and somebody else as to what color jeans he should buy. There is quite a lot of joking going on between Jim and Susan. I go out to the kitchen and find Dick about to take his dinner out to the picnic table to eat (his idea?) so I go ask if I can join him. He says yes. In the course of the conversation, I find out that he works 3 days a week in the "prevoc" program at the local day program, Food Services branch, for which he gets $10 per week. Does he think the living situation will work out? Yes. All they need is a plan for things like when somebody buys something and then everybody else uses it. Like he bought a gallon of milk and it was gone in two days, because everyone was using it for their coffee. I ask if he's gone back to the shelter to visit and he says "No. I was glad to get out of there." He came to [the ECH] from [a shelter] through homeless outreach [a Department of Mental Health program]. Had been at [the shelter] since January. Affirms that [the ECH] is a better place to live than the shelter. Why? Because you have your own room and privacy and stuff. How have people been getting along with each other? He says, "Fine." I return to the living room and sit down on the couch with Jim and Susan. Susan teases Jim and he jokes back. Susan is eating a T.V. dinner with H and M's for dessert. There is joking about working off the calories from the H and M's by doing sit-up's, which she proceeds to demonstrate. This leads to a conversation about exercise during which Jim declares his intention to get back into exercise by doing sports, like basketball.
Jim seems to have his mind on pulling himself together, which he characterizes as "getting my old self back." When I ask him what he's been doing since I saw him last, he says, "working on my appearance. And in fact, he has had a haircut, a shave, and washed his clothes. When I ask him what his old self was like, he says, "you mean before I lost everything?" I learn that he used to work two jobs, had "a family" and was into "religion." This seems to have been when he was quite young, around eighteen. He tells me he was on the street for 7-8 years, from 1978-1985, drinking the whole time. I ask him whether he thinks living at [the ECH] will help him to get his "old self back" and he says that it will "help motivate me." I observe that he seems pretty motivated already. He says yes, "but this will motivate me more."
Jim has a warm personality, likes to joke and laugh. He also speaks up--in meetings he is among the first to say what he thinks and he talks among the most. His "team" relationship with Bill is also important to him--"me and Bill, we work together."
Complete field notes must provide even more than a record of what was observed or heard. Notes also should include descriptions of the methodology: where researchers were standing while observing, how they chose people for conversation or observation, what counts of people or events they made and why. Sprinkled throughout the notes also should be a record of the researchers' feelings and thoughts while observing: when they were disgusted by some statement or act, when they felt threatened or intimidated, why their attention shifted from one group to another. Notes like these provide a foundation for later review of the likelihood of bias or of inattention to some salient features of the situation.
Managing the Personal Dimensions
Our overview of participant observation would not be complete without considering its personal dimensions. Because field researchers become a part of the social situation they are studying, they cannot help but be affected on a personal, emotional level. At the same time, those being studied react to researchers not just as researchers but as personal acquaintances--and often as friends, sometimes as personal rivals. Managing and learning from this personal side of field research is an important part of any project..
The impact of personal issues varies with the depth of researchers' involvement in the setting. The more involved researchers are in multiple aspects of the ongoing social situation, the more important personal issues become and the greater the risk of "going native." Even when researchers acknowledge their role, "increased contact brings sympathy, and sympathy in its turn dulls the edge of criticism" (Fenno, 1978:277).
Fenno minimized this problem by returning frequently to the university and by avoiding involvement in the personal lives of the congressional representatives he was studying. To study the social life of "corner boys," however, Whyte could not stay so disengaged. He moved into an apartment with a Cornerville family and lived for about four years in the community he was investigating:
The researcher, like his informants, is a social animal. He has a role to play, and he has his own personality needs that must be met in some degree if he is to function successfully. Where the researcher operates out of a university, just going into the field for a few hours at a time, he can keep his personal social life separate from field activity. His problem of role is not quite so complicated. If, on the other hand, the researcher is living for an extended period in the community he is studying, his personal life is inextricably mixed with his research. (Whyte, 1955:279)
The correspondence between researchers' social attributes-age, sex, race, and so on--and those of their subjects also shapes personal relationships, as Diamond noted:
The staff were mostly people of color, residents mostly white.... Never before, or since, have I been so acutely aware of being a white American man. At first the people who lived in the homes stared at me, then some approached to get a closer look, saying that I reminded them of a nephew, a son, a grandson, a brother, a doctor. This behavior made more sense as time went on: except for the few male residents and occasional visitors, I was the only white man many would see from one end of the month to the next. (Diamond, 1992:39)
Thorne wondered whether "my moments of remembering, the times when I felt like a ten-year-old girl, [were] a source of distortion or insight?" She concluded they were both: "Memory, like observing, is a way of knowing and can be a rich resource." But "When my own responses, . . . were driven by emotions like envy or aversion, they clearly obscured my ability to grasp the full social situation" (Thorne, 1993:26).
There is no formula for successfully managing the personal dimension of field research. It is much more art than science and flows more from the researcher's own personality and natural approach to other people than from formal training. But novice field researchers often neglect to consider how they will manage personal relationships when they plan and carry out their projects. Then suddenly they find themselves doing something they don't believe they should, just to stay in the good graces of research subjects, or juggling the emotions resulting from conflict within the group. As Whyte noted:
The field worker cannot afford to think only of learning to live with others in the field. He has to continue living with himself. If the participant observer finds himself engaging in behavior that he has learned to think of as immoral, then he is likely to begin to wonder what sort of a person he is after all. Unless the field worker can carry with him a reasonably consistent picture of himself, he is likely to run into difficulties. (Whyte, 1955:317)
If you plan a field research project, follow these guidelines (Whyte, 1955:300-317):
Take the time to consider how you want to relate to your potential subjects as people.
Speculate about what personal problems might arise and how you will respond to them.
Keep in touch with other researchers and personal friends outside the research setting.
Maintain standards of conduct that make you comfortable as a person and that respect the integrity of your subjects.
When you evaluate participant observers' reports, pay attention to how they defined their role in the setting and dealt with personal problems. Don't place too much confidence in such research unless the report provides this information.
Asking questions is part of almost all participant observation (Wolcott, 1995:102-105). However, many qualitative researchers employ intensive interviewing exclusively, without systematic observation of respondents in their natural setting.
Unlike the more structured interviewing that may be used in survey research (discussed in Chapter 7), intensive interviewing relies on open ended questions. Qualitative researchers do not presume to know the range of answers that respondents might give and seek to hear these answers in the respondents' own words. Rather than asking standard questions in a fixed order, intensive interviewers allow the specific content and order of questions to vary from one interviewee to another.
What distinguishes intensive interviewing from less structured forms of questioning is consistency and thoroughness. The goal is to develop a comprehensive picture of the interviewee's background, attitudes, and actions, in his or her own terms; to "listen to people as they describe how they understand the worlds in which they live and work" (Rubin & Rubin, 1995:3). For example, Sharon Kaufman (1986:6) sought through intensive interviewing to learn how old people cope with change. She wanted to hear the words of the elderly themselves, for "the voices of individual old people can tell us much about the experience of being old."
Intensive interview studies do not reveal as directly as does participant observation the social context in which action is taken and opinions are formed. But like participant observation studies, intensive interviewing engages researchers more actively with subjects than does standard survey research. The researchers must listen to lengthy explanations, ask follow-up questions tailored to the preceding answers, seek to learn about interrelated belief systems or personal approaches to things--rather than measure a limited set of variables. As a result, intensive interviews are often much longer than standardized interviews, sometimes as long as 15 hours, conducted in several different sessions (Kaufman, 1986:22).
The intensive interview becomes more like a conversation between partners than between a researcher and a subject.
I tried to place my informants in the role of teacher. I think I was most often put in the role of empathetic acquaintance. For a number of people, I was a confidant. From my viewpoint, and I think from that of my informants as well, our conversations were undertaken in a spirit of friendliness, honesty, and enjoyment. Data that I obtained in this manner were spontaneous, thoughtful, and usually self-reflective. Anyone overhearing one of my "interviews" (except another anthropologist) probably would have thought that we were friends carrying on a conversation, or that we were acquaintances, and that I was simply trying to get to know the other person better. This is the context in which I acquired information about [older persons'] identity. (Kaufman, 1986:23)
Intensive interviewers actively try to probe understandings and engage interviewees in a dialogue about what they mean by their comments. Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton (1985) elaborate on this aspect of intensive interviewing in a methodological appendix to their national best-seller about American individualism, Habits of the Heart:
We did not, as in some scientific version of "Candid Camera," seek to capture their beliefs and actions without our subjects being aware of us. Rather, we sought to bring our preconceptions and questions into the conversation and to understand the answers we were receiving not only in terms of the language but also, so far as we could discover, in the lives of those we were talking with. Though we did not seek to impose our ideas on those with whom we talked... ,we did attempt to uncover assumptions, to make explicit what the person we were talking to might rather have left implicit. The interview as we employed it was active, Socratic. (Bellah et al., 1985:304)
The intensive interview follows a preplanned outline of topics, which often are asked in a reasonably consistent manner of selected group members or other participants. Some projects may use relatively structured interviews, particularly when the focus is on developing knowledge about prior events or some narrowly defined topic. But more exploratory projects, particularly those aiming to learn about interviewees' interpretations of the world, may let each interview flow in a unique direction in response to the interviewee's experiences and interests (Kvale, 1996:3-5; Rubin & Rubin, 1995:6; Wolcott, 1995:113--114). In either case, qualitative interviewers must adapt nimbly throughout the interview, paying attention to nonverbal cues, expressions with symbolic value, and the ebb and flow of the interviewee's feelings and interests. "You have to be free to follow your data where they lead" (Rubin & Rubin, 1995:64).
Random selection is rarely used to select respondents for intensive interviews, but the selection method still must carefully be considered. If interviewees are selected in a haphazard manner, as by speaking just to those who happen to be available at the time that the researcher is on site, the interviews are likely to be of less value than when a more purposive selection strategy is used. Researchers should try to select interviewees who are knowledgeable about the subject of the interview who are open to talking, and who represent the range of perspectives (Rubin & Rubin, 1995:65--92). Selection of new interviewees should continue, if possible, at least until the saturation point is reached, the point when new interviews seem to yield little additional information. As new issues are uncovered, additional interviewees may be selected to represent different opinions about these issues.
Establishing and Maintaining a Partnership
Because intensive interviewing does not engage researchers as participants in subjects' daily affairs, the problems of entering the field are much reduced. However, the logistics of arranging long periods for personal interviews can still be pretty complicated. It also is important to establish rapport with subjects by considering in advance how they will react to the interview arrangements and by developing an approach that does not violate their standards for social behavior. Interviewees should be treated with respect, as knowledgeable partners whose time is valued (in other words, avoid coming late for appointments). A commitment to confidentiality should be stated and honored (Rubin & Rubin, 1995).
But the intensive interviewer's relationship with the interviewee is not an equal partnership, for the researcher seeks to gain certain types of information and strategizes throughout to maintain an appropriate relationship (Kvale, 1996:6). In the first few minutes of the interview, the goal is to show interest in the interviewee and to explain clearly what the purpose of the interview is (Kvale, 1996:128). During the interview, the interviewer should maintain an appropriate distance from the interviewee, one that doesn't violate cultural norms; the interviewer should maintain eye contact and not engage in distracting behavior. An appropriate pace is also important; pause to allow the interviewee to reflect, elaborate, and generally not feel rushed (Gordon, 1992). When an interview covers emotional or otherwise stressful topics, the interviewer should give the interviewee an opportunity to unwind at the interview's end (Rubin & Rubin, 1995:138).
Asking Questions and Recording Answers
Intensive interviewers must plan their main questions around an outline of the interview topic. The questions should generally be short and to the point. More details can then be elicited through nondirective probes (such as "Can you tell me more about that?") and follow-up questions tailored to answers to the main questions. Interviewers should strategize throughout an interview about how best to achieve their objectives while taking into account interviewees' answers.
Habits of the Heart again provides a useful illustration:
[Coinvestigator Steven] Tipton, in interviewing Margaret Oldham [a pseudonym], tried to discover at what point she would take responsibility for another human being:
Q: So what are you responsible for?
A: I'm responsible for my acts and for what I do.
Q: Does that mean you're responsible for others, too?
Q: Are you your sister's keeper?
Q: Your brother's keeper?
Q: Are you responsible for your husband?
A: I'm not. He makes his own decisions. He is his own person. He acts his own acts. I can agree with them, or I can disagree with them. If I ever find them nauseous enough, I have a responsibility to leave and not deal with it any more.
Q: What about children?
A: I...I would say I have a legal responsibility for them, but in a sense I think they in turn are responsible for their own acts. (Bellah et al., 1985:304)
Do you see how the interviewer actively encouraged the subject to explain what she meant by "responsibility"? This sort of active questioning undoubtedly did a better job of clarifying her concept of responsibility than a fixed set of questions would have.
Tape recorders commonly are used to record intensive and focus group interviews. Most researchers who have tape recorded interviews (including me) feel that that they do not inhibit most interviewees and, in fact, are routinely ignored. The occasional respondent is very concerned with his or her public image and may therefore speak "for the tape recorder," but such individuals are unlikely to speak frankly in any research interview. In any case, constant note-taking during an interview prevents adequate displays of interest and appreciation by the interviewer and hinders the degree of concentration that results in the best interviews.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Fenno presents a compelling argument for avoiding the tape recorder when interviewing public figures who are concerned with their public image:
My belief is that the only chance to get a nonroutine, nonreflexive interview [from many of the members of Congress] is to converse casually, pursuing targets of opportunity without the presence of a recording instrument other than myself. If [worse] comes to worst, they can always deny what they have said in person; on tape they leave themselves no room for escape. I believe they are not unaware of the difference. (Fenno, 1978:280)
Combining Participant Observation and Intensive Interviewing
Eric Hirsch (1990) used a combination of methodologies--including participant observation, intensive interviewing, and a standardized survey--to study the 1985 student movement that attempted to make Columbia University divest its stock in companies dealing with South Africa. The study illustrates the value of combining methods.
One point Hirsch tried to establish in his study was the importance of "consciousness raising" for social movements. Participant observation revealed that consciousness-raising was done in a variety of small group settings, including dormitory rap sessions, forums, and teach-ins. Coverage of [Coalition for a Free South Africa] activities in the Columbia student newspaper and television reports on the violent repression of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa increased student consciousness of apartheid and encouraged many students to support divestment. (E. Hirsch, 1990:247)
Hirsch also found an association between student questionnaire responses indicating "raised consciousness" about apartheid in South Africa and those indicating support for the divestment campaign. Comments from intensive interviews then deepened Hirsch's understanding of how consciousness was raised and the role that it played. Here's one example of a subject's observations:
I remember in '83 when the [Columbia University Student] Senate voted to divest. I was convinced that students had voiced their opinion and had been able to convince the minority of administrators that what they wanted was a moral thing. It hadn't been a bunch of radical youths taking buildings and burning things down, to destroy. But rather, going through the system, and it seemed to me that for the first time in a really long time the system was going to work. And then I found out that it hadn't worked, and that just reaffirmed my feelings about how the system at Columbia really did work. (E. Hirsch, 1990:247)
Comments like these, combined with survey responses and Hirch's own observations, provided a comprehensive picture of students' motivations.
Focus groups are groups of unrelated individuals that are formed by a researcher and then led in group discussion of a topic. The researcher asks specific questions and guides the discussion to ensure that group members address these questions, but the resulting information is qualitative and relatively unstructured. Unlike most other survey designs, focus groups do not involve representative samples; instead, a few individuals are recruited for the group who have the time to participate and who share key characteristics with the target population.
Focus groups have their roots in the interviewing techniques developed in the 1930s by sociologists and psychologists who were dissatisfied with traditional surveys. Traditionally, in a questionnaire survey, subjects are directed to consider certain issues and particular response options in a predetermined order. The spontaneous exchange and development of ideas that characterize social life outside the survey situation is lost--and with it, some social scientists feared, the prospects for validity.
Focus groups were used by the military in World War II to investigate morale and then were popularized by the great American sociologist Robert K. Merton and two collaborators, Marjorie Fiske and Patricia Kendall, in The Focused Interview (1956). But marketing researchers were the first to adopt focus groups as a widespread methodology. Marketing researchers use focus groups to investigate likely popular reactions to possible advertising themes and techniques. Their success has prompted other social scientists to use focus groups to evaluate social programs and to assess social needs (Krueger, 1988:18-22).
Most focus groups involve 7 to 10 people, a number that facilitates discussion by all in attendance. Although participants usually do not know one another, they are chosen so that they are relatively homogeneous, which tends to reduce their inhibitions in discussion. (Some researchers conduct discussions among groups of people who know one another, which may further reduce inhibitions.) Of course, the characteristics of individuals that determine their inclusion are based on the researcher's conception of the target population for the study. Focus group leaders must begin the discussion by creating the expectation that all will participate and that the researcher will not favor any particular perspective or participant.
Focus groups are used to collect qualitative data, using open-ended questions posed by the researcher (or group leader). Thus a focused discussion mimics the natural process of forming and expressing opinions--and may give some sense of validity. The researcher may also want to conduct a more traditional survey, asking a representative sample of the target population to answer closed-ended questions, to weigh the validity of data obtained from the focus group. No formal procedure exists for determining the generalizability of focus group answers, but the careful researcher should conduct at least several focus groups on the same topic and check for consistency in the findings as a partial test of generalizability.
Richard Krueger provides a good example of a situation in which focus groups were used effectively:
[A] University recently launched a $100 million fund drive. The key aspect of the drive was a film depicting science and research efforts. The film was shown in over two dozen focus groups of alumni, with surprising results to University officials. Alumni simply did not like the film and instead were more attracted to supporting undergraduate humanistic education. (Krueger, 1988:33--37)
Focus groups are now used extensively in political campaigns, as a quick means of generating insight into voter preferences and reactions to possible candidate positions. For example, focus groups were used by Michigan Democratic legislators to determine why voters were turning away from them in 1985. Elizabeth Kolbert found that white, middle-class Democrats were shifting to the Republican Party because of their feelings about race:
These Democratic defectors saw affirmative action as a direct threat to their own livelihoods, and they saw the black-majority city of Detroit as a sinkhole into which their tax dollars were disappearing.... [T]he participants listen[ed] to a quotation from Robert Kennedy exhorting whites to honor their "special obligation" to blacks. Virtually every participant in the four groups--37 in all--reacted angrily. (Kolbert, 1992:21).
Focus group methods share with other field research techniques an emphasis on discovering unanticipated findings and exploring hidden meanings. Although they do not provide a means for developing reliable, generalizable results (the traditional strong suits of survey research), focus groups can be an indispensable aid for developing hypotheses and survey questions, for investigating the meaning of survey results, and for quickly assessing the range of opinion about an issue.
Analysis of Qualitative Data
The data for a qualitative study most often are notes jotted down in the field or during an interview, from which the original comments are reconstructed, or text transcribed from an audiotape. Diamond's (1992:7) procedure is typical: "Off duty I assembled the notes and began to search for patterns in them. The basic data are these observations and conversations, the actual words of people reproduced to the best of my ability from the field notes."
Many are the projects that have slowed to a halt because a novice researcher becomes overwhelmed by the quantity of information that has been collected. A one hour interview can generate 20 to 25 pages of single-spaced text (Kvale, 1996:169). Analysis is less daunting, however, if the process is broken into smaller steps.
The Phases of Analysis
The analysis of qualitative research notes typically proceeds sequentially, with the researcher first identifying problems and concepts that appear likely to help in understanding the situation. This phase of the analysis should begin while the researcher is still engaged in the field or conducting interviews, so analytic insights can be tested against new observations--as in this study of medical students:
When we first heard medical students apply the term "crock" to patients, we made an effort to learn precisely what they meant by it. We found, through interviewing students about cases both they and the observer had seen, that the term referred in a derogatory way to patients with many subjective symptoms but no discernible physical pathology. Subsequent observations indicated that this usage was a regular feature of student behavior and thus that we should attempt to incorporate this fact into our model of student-patient behavior. The derogatory character of the term suggested in particular that we investigate the reasons students disliked these patients. We found that this dislike was related to what we discovered to be the students' perspective on medical school: the view that they were in school to get experience in recognizing and treating those common diseases most likely to be encountered in general practice. "Crocks," presumably having no disease, could furnish no such experience. We were thus led to specify connections between the student-patient relationship and the student's view of the purpose of his professional education. Questions concerning the genesis of this perspective led to discoveries about the organization of the student body and communication among students, phenomena which we had been assigning to another [segment of the larger theoretical model being developed]. Since "crocks" were also disliked because they gave the student no opportunity to assume medical responsibility, we were able to connect this aspect of the student-patient relationship with still another tentative model of the value system and hierarchical organization of the school, in which medical responsibility plays an important role. (H S. Becker, 1958:658)
This excerpt shows how the researcher first was alerted to a concept by observations in the field, then refined his understanding of this concept by investigating its meaning. By observing the concept's frequency of use, he came to realize its importance. Then he incorporated the concept into an explanatory model of student-patient relationships.
Development of theory occurs continually in qualitative research and occurs explicitly in interaction with analysis of the data (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996:23). The goal of many qualitative researchers is to create grounded theory--that is, to build up inductively a systematic theory that is "grounded" in, or based on, the observations. The observations are summarized into conceptual categories, which are tested directly in the research setting with more observations. Over time, as the conceptual categories are refined and linked, a theory evolves (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Huberman & Miles, 1994:436).
Simply reading the notes or transcripts is an important step in the analytic process. Researchers should make frequent notes in the margins to identify important statements and to propose ways of coding the data: "husband/wife conflict," perhaps, or "tension reduction strategy." An interim stage may consist of listing the concepts reflected in the notes and diagramming the relationships among concepts (Maxwell, 1996:78--81).
As observation, interviewing, and reflection continue, researchers refine their definitions of problems and concepts and select indicators. They can then check the frequency and distribution of phenomena. How many people made a particular type of comment? How often did social interaction lead to arguments? Social system models may be developed, which specify the relationships among different phenomena. These models are modified as researchers gain experience in the setting. For the final analysis, the researchers check their models carefully against their notes and make a concerted attempt to discover negative evidence that might suggest the model is incorrect.
Finally, the researchers should add a "natural history" of the development of the evidence so that others can evaluate their findings. Thorne provides a good example of this final element of the analysis:
Many of my observations concern the workings of gender categories in social life. For example, I trace the evocation of gender in the organization of everyday interactions, and the shift from boys and girls as loose aggregations to "the boys" and "the girls" as self-aware, gender-based groups. In writing about these processes, I discovered that different angles of vision lurk within seemingly simple choices of language.
How, for example, should one describe a group of children? A phrase like "six girls and three boys were chasing by the tires" already assumes the relevance of gender. An alternative description of the same even -- "nine fourth-graders were chasing by the tires"--emphasizes age and downplays gender. Although I found no tidy solutions, I have tried to be thoughtful about such choices.... After several months of observing at Oceanside, I realized that my fieldnotes were peppered with the words "child" and "children," but that the children themselves rarely used the term. "What do they call themselves?" I badgered in any entry in my fieldnotes. The answer, it turned out, is that children use the same practices as adults. They refer to one another by using given names ("Sally," "Jack") or langauge specific to a given context ("that guy on first base". They rarely have occasion to use age-generic terms. But when pressed to locate themselves in an age-based way, my informants used "kids" rather than "children." (Thorne, 1993: 8-9)
Evaluation of Conclusions
No set standards exist for evaluating the validity of conclusions in a qualitative study, but the need to consider carefully the evidence and methods on which conclusions are based is just as great as with other types of research Individual items of information can be assessed in terms of at least three criteria (H. S. Becker, 1958):
How credible was the informant? Were statements made by someone with whom the researcher had a relationship of trust, or by someone the researcher had just met? Did the informant have reason to lie? If the statements do not seem to be trustworthy as indicators of actual events, can they at least be used to help understand the informant's perspective?
Were statements made in response to the researcher's questions, or were they spontaneous? Spontaneous statements are more likely to indicate what would have been said had the researcher not been present.
How does the presence or absence of the researcher or the researcher's informant influence the actions and statements of other group members? Reactivity to being observed can never be ruled out as a possible explanation for some directly observed social phenomenon. However, if the researcher carefully compares what the informant says goes on when the researcher is not present, what the researcher observes directly, and what other group members say about their normal practices, the extent of reactivity can be assessed to some extent.
A qualitative researcher's conclusions should also be assessed by their ability to provide a credible explanation for some aspect of social life. That explanation should capture group members' tacit knowledge of the social processes that were observed, not just their verbal statements about these processes. Tacit knowledge of "the largely unarticulated, contextual understanding that is often manifested in nods, silences, humor, and naughty nuances"--is reflected in participants' actions as well as their words and in what they fail to state but nonetheless feel deeply and even take for granted (Altheide & Johnson, 1994:492493). These features are evident in Whyte's analysis of Cornerville social patterns:
The corner-gang structure arises out of the habitual association of the members over a long period of time. The nuclei of most gangs can be traced back to early boyhood.... Home plays a very small role in the group activities of the corner boy...
The life of the corner boy proceeds along regular and narrowly circumscribed channels...Out of [social interaction within the group] arises a system of mutual obligations which is fundamental to group cohesion.... The code of the corner boy requires him to help his friends when he can and to refrain from doing anything to harm them. When life in the group runs smoothly, the obligations binding members to one another are not explicitly recognized. (Whyte, 1955:255-257)
In Gender Play, Thorne notes how the tacit knowledge of her young subjects contributed to her conclusions:
I have argued that kids, as well as adults, take an active hand in constructing gender, and that collective practices--forming lines, choosing seats, teasing, gossiping, seeking access to or avoiding particular activities--animate the process...Gender is not only a category of individual identity and the focus of symbolic constructions, but also a dimension of social relations and social organization. I have traced the weaving of gender in the creation of groups, and, at a more abstract level, institutions. The organization and meanings of gender vary from one social context to another, from families to neighborhoods toschools, and, within schools, from foursquare to scenes of chasing to classrooms and lunchrooms...[A]t the level of social situations, gender has a fluid quality (Thorne, 1993:157458)
Her logic is compelling, although she offers no test of rival explanations for what she observed. Subsequent research would be useful to evaluate these propositions more systematically.
Confidence in the conclusions from a field research study is also strengthened by an honest and informative account about how the researcher interacted with subjects in the field, what problems he or she encountered, and how these problems were or were not resolved. Such an account is important first and foremost because of the evolving and variable nature of field research: To an important extent, the researcher "makes up" the method in the context of a particular investigation rather than applying standard procedures that are specified before the investigation begins.
In recent years qualitative researchers also have become increasingly sensitive to the idea that a social situation or process is interpreted from a particular background and values and not simply from the situation itself (Altheide & Johnson, 1994). Researchers are only human, after all, and must rely on their own senses and process all information through their own minds. By reporting how and why they think they did what they did, they can help others determine whether, or how, the researchers' perspectives influenced their conclusions. "There should be clear 'tracks' indicating the attempt [to show the hand of the ethnographer] has been made" (Altheide & Johnson, 1994:493).
Can the participant observer truly gain access to the minds and behaviors of other people? Can participant observation really lead to insights into the social world? Consider Thorne's (1993:12) reflection on her experiences with children: "Like Westerners doing fieldwork in colonized Third World cultures, or academics studying the urban poor, when adults research children, they 'study down,' seeking understanding across lines of difference and inequality." Most field researchers now believe that no outsider can really see the world just as an insider does. We all filter our observations through a subjective mental apparatus. But doesn't Thorne's qualitative approach seem to get us closer to the reality of ongoing social life than a survey or experiment would?
In general, the usual approach to the analysis of qualitative data contrasts markedly with the procedures used to analyze quantitative data collected in experimental and survey research. Qualitative researchers seek to maximize the validity of their understanding of the social world by learning as much as possible about how it works and why people think as they do. They return again and again to the field to explore new ideas as old ideas are elaborated or rejected on the basis of previously collected data.This inductive approach is quite different from the deductive, hypothesis-testing logic that guides the analysis of quantitative data. But just as experimental and survey researchers engage in exploratory analyses to gain insights into social patterns, so qualitative researchers sometimes develop quantitative indicators from their data and formally test hypotheses. Qualitative analysis software facilitates the process of blending qualitative with more quantitative approaches to data analysis. The two approaches are complementary, and understanding their advantages and disadvantages enhances our ability to fit our methods to the problems we investigate.
Ethical Issues in Qualitative Research
Qualitative research can raise some complex ethical issues. No matter how hard the field researcher strives to study the social world naturally, leaving no traces, the very act of research itself imposes something "unnatural" on the situation. Consider Thorne's description of her own research experience:
Although the teachers made few formal demands that drew me into their orbits of authority, they sometimes turned to me for a kind of adult companionship in the classrooms. While the students were seated, I usually stood and roamed the back, while the teacher often stood in front. That arrangement spatially aligned me with the teacher, and it was easy for our adult eyes to meet, literally above the heads of the kids. When something amusing or annoying happened, the teacher would sometimes catch my eye and smile or shake her head in a moment of collusive, nonverbal, and private adult commentary. During those moments, I felt a mild sense of betrayal for moving into allegiance with adult vantage points and structures of authority. (Thorne, 1993:19)
It is up to the researcher to identify and take responsibility for the consequences of her or his involvement. Four main ethical issues arise:
Voluntary participation. Ensuring that subjects are participating in a study voluntarily is not often a problem with intensive interviewing and focus group research, but it is often a point of contention in participant observation studies. Few researchers or institutional review boards are willing to condone covert participation because it offers no way to ensure that participation by the subjects is voluntary. Even when the researcher's role is more open, interpreting the standard of voluntary participation still can be difficult. Practically, much field research would be impossible if the participant observer were required to request permission of everyone having some contact, no matter how minimal, with a group or setting being observed. And should the requirement of voluntary participation apply equally to every member of an organization being observed? What if the manager consents, the workers are ambivalent, and the union says no? Requiring everyone's consent would limit participant observation research only to settings without serious conflicts of interest.
Subject well-being. Every field researcher should consider carefully before beginning a project how to avoid harm to subjects. It is not possible to avoid every theoretical possibility of harm nor to be sure that any project will cause no adverse consequences whatsoever to any individual. Some of the Cornerville men read Whyte's book and felt discomfited by it (others found it enlightening). Some police accused Van Maanen of damaging their reputations with his studies. But such consequences could follow from any research, even from any public discourse. Direct harm to the reputations or feelings of particular individuals is what researchers must carefully avoid. They can do so in part by maintaining the confidentiality of research subjects. They must also avoid adversely affecting the course of events while engaged in a setting. Whyte (~955:335-337) found himself regretting having recommended that a particular politician be allowed to speak to a social club he was observing because the speech led to serious dissension in the club and strains between Whyte and some club members. These problems are rare in intensive interviewing and focus groups, but even there, researchers should try to identify negative feelings and help distressed subjects cope with their feelings through debriefing or referrals for professional help.
Identity disclosure. We already have considered the problems of identity disclosure, particularly in the case of covert participation. But how much disclosure about the study is necessary, and how hard should researchers try to make sure that their research purposes are understood? Less-educated subjects may not readily comprehend what a researcher is or be able to weigh the possible consequences of the research for themselves. Should researchers inform subjects if the study's interests and foci change while it is in progress? Current ethical standards require informed consent of research subjects; can this standard be met in any meaningful way if researchers do not disclose fully their identity? But isn't some degree of dissimulation a natural part of social life (Punch, 1994:91)? Can a balance be struck between the disclosure of critical facts and a coherent research strategy?
Confidentiality. Field researchers normally use fictitious names for the characters in their reports, but doing so does not always guarantee confidentiality to their research subjects. Individuals in the setting studied may be able to identify those whose actions are described and may thus become privy to some knowledge about their colleagues or neighbors that had formerly been kept from them. Researchers should thus make every effort to expunge possible identifying material from published information and to alter unimportant aspects of a description when necessary to prevent identity disclosure. In any case, no field research project should begin if some participants clearly will suffer serious harm by being identified in project publications.
These ethical issues cannot be evaluated independently. The final decision to proceed must be made after weighing the relative benefits and risks to participants. Few qualitative research projects will be barred by consideration of these ethical issues, however, except for those involving covert participation. The more important concern for researchers is to identify the ethically troublesome aspects of their proposed research and resolve them before the project begins and to act on new ethical issues as they come up during the project. Combining methods is often the best strategy.
Qualitative research allows the careful investigator to obtain a richer and more intimate view of the social world than with more structured methods. It is not hard to understand why so many qualitative studies have become classics in the sociological literature. And the emphases in qualitative research on inductive reasoning and incremental understanding help to stimulate and inform other research approaches. Exploratory research to chart the dimensions of previously unstudied social settings and intensive investigations of the subjective meanings that motivate individual action are particularly well served by the techniques of participant observation, intensive interviewing, and focus groups.
The very characteristics that make qualitative research techniques so appealing restrict their use to a limited set of research problems. It is not possible to draw representative samples for study using participant observation, and for this reason the generalizability of any particular field study's results cannot really be known. Only the cumulation of findings from numerous qualitative studies permits confident generalization, but here again the time and effort required to collect and analyze the data make it unlikely that many particular field research studies will be replicated.
Even if qualitative researchers made more of an effort to replicate key studies, their notion of developing and grounding explanations inductively in the observations made in a particular setting would hamper comparison of findings. Measurement reliability is thereby hindered, as are systematic tests for the validity of key indicators and formal tests for causal connections.
In the final analysis, qualitative research involves a mode of thinking and investigating different from that used in experimental and survey research. Qualitative research is inductive and idiographic; experiments and surveys tend to be conducted in a deductive, quantitative, and nomothetic framework. Both approaches can help social scientists learn about the social world; the proficient researcher must be ready to use either. Qualitative data are often supplemented with counts of characteristics or activities.
And as you have already seen, quantitative data are often enriched with written comments and observations, and focus groups have become a common tool of survey researchers seeking to develop their questionnaires. Thus the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research techniques is not always clear-cut.