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Qualitative research methods coursework review

mophe 4 / 2  
Jun 1, 2008   #1

Can you kindly help me review my attached coursework. The question for the assignment is shown below

Choose 2 qualitative research approaches and critically consider the potential appropriateness for studying a topic area of your choice. For each method you can consider

1. its benefits & challenges
2. how it can be put to practice with quality
3. what skills and approaches are required of the reseacher
4. what types of information and understanding will be provided
5. what are its limitations
6. the ethical issues involved

The best assignments will set their discussion in the context of broader reseach perspectives as covered during the course. You can also consider how the 2 methods chosen night complement each other.



My dissertation entails the development of an effective e-commerce strategy for the UK Meteorological Office. To successfully achieve this, I will be evaluating the flow and direction of information between MET office's business development/client services staff and the organisation's corporate customers and the interpretation of this information by MET office's information technology (IT) staff. To explore the MET office's e-commerce antecedents, trends, issues as well as tease out the implications of its current and proposed strategies, I will carry out a qualitative research using two methods which I think are most suitable; (1) Focus groups and (2) One-to-one qualitative interviewing.

The origins of focus groups can be traced to market research though it is increasingly being used in politics, I will use focus groups to get the responses of the staff of MET office' corporate customers (akin to a consumer panel forum). This is required to assess/determine their satisfaction with MET office's product offerings, customer service delivery and website usability. One-to-one in-depth qualitative interviews will be used with the client services staff, client services mangers and IT managers of the MET office to get their responses on how customers' needs are interpreted, articulated and satisfied. One-to-one interviews is preferable for the MET office staff because since the MET office is the sponsor of the research, its staff will likely be more comfortable giving their views in private rather than in the presence of their colleagues; possibly due to fear of reprisal effects if they have unpopular views. While the focus groups sessions for staff of MET office's corporate customers will be held at a neutral location arguable to all participants, it is very likely that the one-to-one interviews for MET office staff will be held within the MET office.


Benefits and challenges

A focus group is a group interview which has as its emphasis, a particular issue, product, service or topic and involves the need for interactive discussion among participants (Carson et al, 2001). The participants are selected due to certain characteristics they share which relate to the topic being discussed and they are encouraged to discuss/share their points of view without any pressure to reach a consensus (Krueger and Casey, 2002). The presence of several participants allows a wider range of view points to emerge and for participants to respond to these views (Saunders et al, 2007; Bryman and Bell, 2003). The use of focus groups is also an efficient way to interview more individuals than would be otherwise possible through one-to-one interviews. (Saunders et al, 2007; Marshall and Rossman, 1999).

The method of focus group interviews is socially oriented since the atmosphere in which participants are studied is more natural than what obtains in artificial experimental circumstances and more relaxed than the exposure of a one-to-one interview (Marshall and Rossman , 1999). The moderator or facilitator can flexibly explore unanticipated issues as they emerge in the discussion.

The downsides of focus groups include the following.
- Loss of control by researcher over proceedings: There can be time wastage when irrelevant issues are discussed by participants .Unlike in one-to-one interviews, a delicate balance has to be maintained as to how involved a moderator should be and how far a set of questions/prompts should influence the conduct of a focus group. (Bryman and Bell, 2003; Marshall and Rossman, 1999).

- Difficulty in data analysis: Focus groups typically generate large amounts of data quickly. Audio recordings are prone to inaudible elements which affects transcription. Establishing an analytic framework that incorporates both the themes in what people say and patterns of interaction is usually quite challenging.

- Organisational difficulties: The researcher has to secure the agreement of people to participate in his/her study and also persuade them to turn up at a particular time. Inducements such as refund of transport expenses and provision of lunch are usually employed but at times, participants still fail to show up (Bryman and Bell, 2003). There are also logistical challenges pertaining to the availability of special room arrangements and audiovisual aids (Marshall and Rossman, 1999).

- Transcription difficulties: Recordings are usually more time consuming to transcribe than those of individual interviews due to variations in voice pitch and the need to take into account who says what (Bryman and Bell, 2003).

- Problems of group effect: The well known experiments of Asch (1951) showed that an emerging group view may lead to the suppression of as perfectly legitimate perspective held by just one individual. Evidence also points to the fact that as a group comes to share a particular point of view, its members begin to think uncritically about it and develop an almost irrational attachment to it (Janis, 1982). Some participants may be more dominant and vocal than others and the moderator has to encourage involvement by all participants to maintain the interviews exploratory purpose

- Inappropriate circumstances: There are circumstances when focus groups may not be ideal since they could cause discomfort among participants (Madris, 2000). Individual interviews are better in such situations.

Researcher skills

The skill of the interviewer both as initiator and facilitator is very important. In focus group interviews, this role is called a moderator. Ideally, a researcher should be able to establish and create rapport between participants before the discussion takes off. Additionally, the researcher must possess executive skills which make participants confident in him/her and allow him/her guide the direction of the conversation. The researcher must be able to create a supportive environment, ask focused questions, and encourage the discussion and expression of different opinions and viewpoints (Marshall and Rossman, 1999)

The researcher must be able to keep the group within the boundaries of the topic being discussed. Additionally, he/he must generate sufficient interest in the topic and encourage discussion whilst not leading the group towards certain opinions (Saunders et al, 2007).The researcher must allow the discussion to flow freely while also intervening to bring out salient issues especially when the participants do not do so (Bryman and Bell, 2003).


Benefits and challenges

Qualitative interviewing tends to be flexible thereby allowing the researcher to respond to the direction in which the interviewee takes the interview and perhaps adjust the areas of interest in the research based on significant issues that emerge in the course of the interview (Bryman and Bell, 2003). Qualitative interviews also allow for an interviewee to be interviewed more than once and immediate follow up and clarification is possible.

I would be using individual unstructured interviews (in-depth interviews) with the involved MET office staff since this is an exploratory study that aims to understand the reasons for the decision/actions that my interviewees have taken (or will take), or to understand the reasons for their attitudes and opinions. Although there might not be any pre-determined list/sequence of questions to ask the interviewee during such interviews, an interviewer needs to be clear about which aspect(s) he/she wants to explore. In in-depth interviewing, the interviewee can freely talk about events, behaviour and beliefs related to the research topic. This makes this method non-directive (Saunders et al, 2007). The use of in-depth interviews allows for an opportunity to probe answers so that interviewees can explain or build on their responses. This is important if a researcher is adopting an interpretivist epistemological orientation where he/she needs to understand the meanings interviewers ascribe to various phenomena

However since interviews involve personal interaction, the co-operation of the interviewee is very essential. An interviewee may be uncomfortable discussing all the interviewer hopes to explore and have reasons to be economical with the truth. Additionally, an interviewer may be unskilled in asking the types of questions that should elicit long narratives from the interviewee (Marshall and Rossman, 2006). The interviewer may also not properly understand responses to the questions or various parts of the conversation.

One of the drawbacks of qualitative interviewing is that since the interview data consists solely of verbal statements and or talk, it is subject to fabrications, deceptions, exaggerations and distortions that can characterise any conversation (Taylor and Bogdan, 1984). While an interviewee's verbal account may shed more light on their thought process, there might be variations in what they say and what they actually do. Secondly, since interviews are situational, an interviewer must not assume that what an interviewee says in an interview is what that person says or believes in other situations. Thirdly, since interviewers do not directly observe people in their everyday lives as part of their research, they might not understand many of the contextual perspectives in which they are interested (Taylor and Bogdan, 1984).

Researcher Skills

According to (Marshall and Rossman, 2006), an interviewer should have superb listening skills and be skilful at personal interaction, question framing and gentle probing for elaboration where necessary. An interviewer must be able to really listen to what people are saying whether or not the interview is being recorded (Mason, 2002). It is essential that a good balance be struck between talking and listening. Interviewers will also do well to observe and pick up verbal and non-verbal cues about the social situation, its visual and spatial dynamics and the mood of the interviewee. The interviewer must be accomplished in notes taking and/or using a recorder.

Taylor and Bogdan (1984) suggests the following attitudes on the part of an interviewer

- Being non-judgmental
- Letting people talk
- Paying attention
- Being sensitive
- Ability to probe
- Ability to crosscheck
Kvale's (1996) ten criteria of a successful interviewer are shown in the figure 1 below. Bryman and Bell (2003) have added two more criteria.

Figure 1: Qualification criteria of an interviewer (Bryman and Bell, 2003)


The ontological approach for this research will be subjectivism which means social entities are considered as social constructions built up from the perceptions and consequent actions of social actors (Saunders et al, 2007). This position is also frequently referred to as constructionism. This constructionist view is that social phenomena are created from the perceptions and consequent actions of social actors (Bryman and Bell, 2003). Constructionism asserts that social phenomena and their meanings are continuously being achieved by social actors.

Remenyi et al (1998) stress that it is imperative to study "the details of the situation to understand the reality or perhaps a reality working behind them". Constructionism is allied with the epistemological position of interpretivism which stresses the necessity of exploring the subjective meanings motivating the actions of social actors so that a researcher can understand these actions (Saunders et al, 2007).


The epistemology for this research is interpretivism. Interpretivism is an epistemological perspective that advocates the necessity of researchers understanding the differences between humans in their role as social actors (Saunders et al, 2007). This perspective requires a researcher to adopt an empathetic stance, thereby challenging researchers to go into the world of their research subjects and understand the world from their point of view (Saunders et al, 2007).

This approach is being taken because the subject matter in social sciences (i.e. people and their institutions) is different from that of the natural sciences; a reasoning not shared by the proponents and users of positivism (Bryman and Bell, 2003). Interpretivism allows the study of the social world using a different logic of research procedure, one that reflects the distinctiveness of humans as against the natural order. One of the key concepts that has aided the popularity and acceptance of interpretivism is phenomenology; a philosophy that is concerned with the question of how people make sense of the world around them and the methods through which a researcher should set aside pre-conceptions in his/her understanding of that world (Bryman and Bell, 2003). The intellectual heritage of interpretivism includes Weber's notion of Versehen (Weber, 1947), the hermeneutic-phenomenological tradition (Schutz, 1962; Hughes, 1990) and symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1962; Hammersley, 1989; Collins, 1994).


The components of the methodology for my research are captured in figure 2 below.

Aim Invention

Starting point Meanings

Design Reflexivity

Techniques Conversation

Analysis/interpretation Sense-making

Figure 2: Methodology components (Adapted from Easterby-Smith et al, 2002)


The sampling method for this research will be purposive. While this is a non-probability sampling technique, it will allow me use my judgement select participants that best enable me answer my research questions and meet my objectives. This type of sampling is usually used when working with very small samples and a researcher wishes to select cases that are particularly informative (Saunders et al, 2007) This aligns perfectly with my grounded theory strategy. I will be adopting Strauss' model of the grounded theory approach because I believe my role as a researcher is an integral part of the research process and my own pre-conceptions are inevitable. As such, I will actively interrogate the data to elicit theories. The approach to the research will be flexible relying on insights from many sources (Strauss, 1987; Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The grounded theory approach also means both in-depth individual interviews and focus group sessions will be done until theoretical saturation is achieved (i.e. no new data is being obtained from research participants).


The quality of this research will be established through its validity, reliability and generalisability. From the constructionism perspective, this means the research must satisfactorily meet these key conditions (Easterby-Smith et al, 2002)

Validity: The study must clearly gain access to the experience of those in the research setting

Reliability: There must be transparency in how sense is made from the raw data

Genaralisability: The concepts and constructs derived from this study should have relevance to other settings.


In carrying out my research, I would be guided by Diener and Crandall's (1978) framework (found in Bryman and Bell (2003) by ensuring that

- There is no harm to participants
- Participants give their informed consent to take part in the research
- The privacy of my participants will not be invaded/violated in any way
- The participants will not be deceived about any area of the research.

I will bear in mind the above-mentioned and the following ethical issues as highlighted by Saunders et al (2007)

- Voluntary nature of participation and the right to withdraw partially or completely from the process
- Maintenance of the confidentiality of data provided by individuals or identifiable participants and their anonymity.
- Reaction of the participants to the way in which I seek to collect data, including embarrassment, discomfort, pain and harm
- Effects on participants of the way, in which I use, analyse and report my data, in particular the avoidance of embarrassment, stress, discomfort, pain or harm.

- My behaviour and objectivity as a researcher (self reflexivity)

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