What is Qualitative Research?
Participant Observation
Stages in Participatory Observation
Differences between quantitative and qualitative research
Problems with qualitative studies
What type of field observation to use?

What is Qualitative Research?

    Qualitative research is aimed at gaining a deep understanding of a specific organization or event, rather a than surface description of a large sample of a population. It aims to provide an explicit rendering of the structure, order, and broad patterns found among a group of participants. It is also called ethnomethodology or field research. It generates data about human groups in social settings.

    Qualitative research does not introduce treatments or manipulate variables, or impose the researcher's operational definitions of variables on the participants. Rather, it lets the meaning emerge from the participants. It is more flexible in that it can adjust to the setting. Concepts, data collection tools, and data collection methods can be adjusted as the research progresses.

    Qualitative research aims to get a better understanding through first hand experience, truthful reporting, and quotations of actual conversations. It aims to understand how the participants derive meaning from their surroundings, and how their meaning influences their behavior.

    Qualitative research uses observation as the data collection method. Observation is the selection and recording of behaviors of people in their environment. Observation is useful for generating in-depth descriptions of organizations or events, for obtaining information that is otherwise inaccessible, and for conducting research when other methods are inadequate.

    Observation is used extensively in studies by psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and program evaluators. Direct observation reduces distortion between the observer and what is observed that can be produced by an instrument (e.g., questionnaire). It occurs in a natural setting, not a laboratory or controlled experiment. The context or background of behavior is included in observations of both people and their environment. And it can be used with inarticulate subjects, such as children or others unwilling to express themselves.

Participant Observation

    Participant observation is a period of intensive social interaction between the researcher and the subjects, in the latter's environment. It becomes the full-time occupation of the researcher. Participant observers are trained in techniques of observation, which distinguishes them from regular participants. Examples of participant observation include:

Street corner society
Cancer patient wards
USAF training program
UFO group
Mental hospital
Alcoholics anonymous

    For the participant observer, everything is noted as if it were happening for the first time, and everything is subject to inquiry. Nothing is taken for granted. It is an attempt to see the world from the other person's point of view. It assumes that what people say and do is a product of how they see and interpret the world.

    Participant observation is founded on the theory of symbolic interactionism. This assumes that people are constantly in a process of interpretation and definition as they move through various situations that are more or less familiar to them. This is how situations obtain their meaning. People develop shared perspectives through social interaction. Objective frameworks, rules, goals, norms, values, rewards, organizational structures may set conditions and fix consequences for actions, but they do not determine what people will do. People act in terms of the meaning of these structures for them.

    Methods of observation vary with the position of the researcher, but can vary from covert to overt. On the one hand, the researcher may begin as an overt observer only and slowly become an observer-participant. However, this creates problems of reactivity to the influence or intervention of the researcher. On the other hand, the researcher may begin as a covert participant only, and move toward being a participant-observer. However, this creates a problem of ethics.

    Observation consists of taking field notes on the participants, the setting, the purpose, the social behavior, and the frequency and duration of phenomena. Observations may be made of non-verbal behavior, verbal behavior, and physical phenomena. Other sources of data may include archival records, private records, anecdotes, erosion or accretion, etc. Problems include sampling, reliability and validity, as well as observer influence and memory distortion.

To qualify as research, observation:
1) serves a formulated research purpose;
2) relates to existing literature or theories;
3) is systematically planned
4) is recorded systematically
5) is refined into general propositions or hypotheses
6) is subject to checks and controls on validity and reliability

Stages in Participatory Observation

1. Selection of a site and definition of problems, concepts, and indicators.

    The researcher tentatively identifies the problem or phenomenon of interest, and tries to discern what will yield the greatest understanding of that problem or phenomenon. The researcher then identifies preliminary concepts and what data will be gathered as indicators of those concepts.

2. The researcher chooses a strategy to move into the research setting.

    The researcher has to get past the "gatekeepers." This may involve an overt or a covert role for the researcher. Issues may include how to record observations (written notes, tape recordings, video tape, two-way mirrors, or trained observers) as well as ethical issues (privacy, anonymity, confidentiality, etc.).

    Strategies include: adopting a passive role at first, learning the ropes; don't seek data aggressively until later; be a researcher, not a therapist; answer questions but don't be an expert on anything; be frank and truthful; don't be forced into a particular role; and don't become closely identified with any one person or subgroup until you are sure it will not cost you information in the long run; be non-partisan.

3. Selecting people and events to observe.

    The researcher may identify primary sources of information, known as "key informants." These people may be relied upon in the beginning to help the researcher get acculturated to the situation. The statements of key informants can be taken as evidence, even if their statements are somewhat self-serving. The researcher must also be aware of possible differences between the validity and intention of volunteered statements versus statements that are made in response to the researcher's questions.

4. Develop relationships with the participants.

    Researchers must have the trust and confidence of the informants. Researchers must speak their "language" and have the ability to understand their "world." Researchers must also be conscious of interpersonal and psychological dynamics. Behavior may be different between the researcher and one informant alone, compared to the researcher and the informant within the informant's group. The researcher can note the differences, rather than accept one and reject the other. The researcher must determine whether certain things are not being said because of his or her role as "researcher" or whether they can use their position as "neutral outsider" to gain more information.

5. Analyzing observations.

    The researcher can check whether none, all, or some proportion of behaviors or events occur under distinct circumstances. The researcher can generate a preliminary model to explain the data collected. Explanations place particular social facts in reference to their environment. Further observations are then collected which can strengthen or weaken the researcher's preliminary model.

6. Final analysis and interpretation.

    Models are checked against the evidence (field notes). Advanced concepts and evidence for their support and/or refutation are checked. The major problem is how to present the data in a brief but meaningful form.

Differences between quantitative and qualitative research:

    In quantitative studies, the research methods are set before observation begins and specify the methods of observation which may be used and the type of data which may be collected. Observations are collected before analysis begins. After analysis is complete, no more observations are taken.
Observations Analysis

    In qualitative studies, research methods are set up which suggest the type of methods of observation which may be used and the type of data which may be collected. Analysis begins as soon as data begin to be collected. Analysis and data collection proceed in a cyclical fashion, where preliminary analysis informs subsequent data collection and so forth.

Observations Analysis Observations Analysis Observation Analysis

Problems with qualitative studies include:

-more time consuming
-masses of data to transcribe
-more difficult to code data
-not applicable to widely dispersed social settings
-generally only a case study with limited applicability to other situations
-usually gives only nominal level data, difficult to quantify
-difficult to control for researcher bias

Comparison of Different "Field" Methods of Obtaining Information
Type of Information Desired Mail or Telephone Surveys In-person Interviews Participant Observation
Frequency Distributions Best Form Less adequate Neither efficient nor adequate
Generally known rules and status Adequate but inefficient Best Form Good for non-verbal behavior
In-depth description of events Neither adequate nor efficient May be adequate and efficient Best form