Qualitative research: Data collection

Different methods are used in qualitative research. The most common are interviews, focus group discussions, observational methods and document analysis. Combining two or more data collections methods, for instance interviews as well as focus groups (‘data triangulation’) enhances the credibility of the study. Irrespective of the data collection method applied, it is important to keep a diary during the study, with reflections on the process (e.g. regarding method and participant selection) and the role and influence of the researcher (‘reflexivity’).

Read more:

  • Choo, E.K. et al. (2015) Qualitative research in emergency care part I: Research Principles and common Applications. Academic Emergency Medicine, 22: 1096-1102
    Part I of a two-article series, provides an introduction to general principles of applied qualitative health research and examples of its common use in emergency care research, describing study designs and data collection methods most relevant to our field, including observation, individual interviews, and focus groups. Table 2 in this article provides an overview of different qualitative data collection methods with their advantages and challenges.
  • Ranney, M.L. et al. (2015) Interview-based Qualitative Research in Emergency Care Part II: Data collection, Analysis and Results Reporting. Academic Emergency Medicine, 22: 1103-1112.
    Outlines the specific steps necessary to conduct a valid and reliable qualitative research project, with a focus on interview-based studies. These elements include building the research team, preparing data collection guides, defining and obtaining an adequate sample, collecting and organizing qualitative data, and coding and analyzing the data. With a discussion on potential ethical considerations unique to qualitative research as it relates to emergency care research.

Example using methodological triangulation:

  • Sewdas, R. et al. (2017) Why older workers work beyond the retirement age: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health, 17: 672.
    This study is based on a combination of semi-structured telephone interviews and focus groups.

 

Interviews

Interviews are useful to explore experiences, views, opinions, or beliefs on specific matters. Accounts can be explored and compared to others, to develop an understanding of the underlying structures of beliefs (See chapter 4 in Green & Thorogood, 2010). There are different grades of structuring the interview: structured, semi-structured or open/in-depth, dependent on the characteristics of structuring the interview by the researcher. Often the researcher develops a topic list before the start of the interview, which can be used in a flexible manner. As the interview is a product of interaction between the researcher and the interviewee, the setting and skills of the researcher are of importance (e.g. the ability to build a sense of trust (developing rapport), the way of phrasing questions, give the interviewee room to tell a story, body language). Furthermore, it is important to think about the type of transcription of audio tapes.

Read more:

  • Britten, N. (1995) Qualitative interviews in medical research. BMJ, 311, 251-253.
    This paper provides an outline of qualitative interview techniques and their application in medical settings. With a practical guidance for conducting interviews.
  • Green, J. & Thorogood N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third Edition. London: Sage Publications.
    See chapter 4 on in-depth interviews.
  • Gubrium, J.F. & Holstein, J.A. (2001) Handbook of Interview Research. Context & Method. London: SAGE Publications.
    This handbook offers information on different forms of interviewing, interviewing distinctive respondents (e.g. children or ill people), technical aspects, different analytic strategies, and the topic of reflection and representation.
  • Gubrium, J.F. et al. (2012) The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research. The Complexity of the Craft. London: SAGE Publications.
    This second version of the handbook also offers information on the logistics of interviewing, the self and other in the interview and ethics of the interview.
  • Ranney, M.L. et al. (2015) Interview-based Qualitative Research in Emergency Care Part II: Data collection, Analysis and Results Reporting. Academic Emergency Medicine, 22: 1103-1112
    Gives an outline the specific steps necessary to conduct a valid and reliable qualitative research project, with a focus on interview-based studies. These elements include building the research team, preparing data collection guides, defining and obtaining an adequate sample, collecting and organizing qualitative data, and coding and analyzing the data. With a discussion on potential ethical considerations unique to qualitative research as it relates to emergency care research. Table 1 provides an outline of an Interview Guide for Focus Groups or Semi-structured Interviews. Table 2 gives examples of qualitative questions suitable for a topic list

Dutch reference:

  • Evers, J. (red.), (2007) Interviewen: kunst én kunde. Den Haag: Boom Lemma uitgevers.

Examples:

  • Bakker, M. et al. (2015) Need and value of case management in multidisciplinary ALS care: A qualitative study on the perspectives of patients, spousal caregivers and professionals. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Frontotemporal Degeneration, 16(3-4), 180-186.
  • Bakker, M. et al. (2016) Experiences and perspectives of patients with post-polio syndrome and therapists with exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy. BMC neurology, 16(1), 23-34.
  • Ockhuijsen, H.D.L. et al. (2014) Pregnancy After Miscarriage: Balancing between Loss of Control and Searching for Control. Research in Nursing & Health, 37, 267-275.

 

Focus group discussions

Focus group discussions are useful to examine how social knowledge is produced. The researcher stimulates discussion in order to examine how knowledge and ideas develop and operate in a given group. Most of the times, a facilitator guides a discussion about a particular topic in a group of usually 6-12 people. Some sensitive issues might be more easy discussed within a group, although other (personal) information might be withheld, for instance when persons are acquainted with each other or because of hierarchical relations within the group. The role of the facilitator is to create an open atmosphere, involve participants in the discussion and manage this discussion. The organization of a focus group requires careful attention. This includes the sampling and recruitment of participants, the composition of the topic list and how the data will be collected.

Read more:

  • Green, J. & Thorogood N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third Edition. London: Sage Publications.
    See chapter 5 on Group Interviews.
  • Gubrium, J.F. & Holstein, J.A. (2001) Handbook of Interview Research. Context & Method. London: SAGE Publications.
    Offers a chapter on focus groups.
  • Kitzinger, J. (1994) The methodology of Focus Groups: the importance of interaction between research participants. Sociology of Health & Illness, 16, 1, 103-121.
    This article introduces focus group methodology, explores ways of conducting such groups and examines what this technique of data collection can offer researchers. It concentrates on one feature which inevitably distinguishes focus groups from one-to-one interviews or questionnaires – namely the interaction between research participants – and argues for the overt exploration and exploitation of such interaction in the research process.
  • Kitzinger, J. (1995) Introducing focus groups. BMJ, 311, 299-302.
    This paper introduces focus group methodology, gives advice on group composition, running the groups, and analysing the results.

Example:

  • Middelweerd, A. et al. (2015) What features do Dutch university students prefer in a smartphone application for promotion of physical activity? A qualitative approach. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 12: 31.

 

Observational methods

Observational methods are used to understand phenomena by studying people’s accounts and actions in an everyday context. There are different types of observations, with various degrees of research participation, like non-participating observation (e.g. by using video recordings), and participant observation or ethnography. Ethnography ‘usually involves the researcher participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, and/or asking questions through informal and formal interviews, collecting documents and artefacts’ (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007: 3).

Read more:

  • Atkinson, P. et al. (2001) Handbook of Ethnography. London: Sage Publications
    Offers chapters on various aspects of (conducting) ethnography.
  • Emerson, R.M., Fretz, R.I. & Shaw, L.L. (2011) Writing ethnographic fieldnotes (2nd edition). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Green, J. & Thorogood N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third Edition. London: Sage Publications
    See chapter 6 on Observational Methods.
  • Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (2007) Ethnography. Principles in practice. Third edition. London: Routledge.
  • Reeves, S. & Hodges, B.D. (2008) Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography. BMJ, 337: a1020.
    This article provides background for those who will encounter this methodology in their reading rather than instructions for carrying out such research.

Example:

  • Pasman, H.R.W. et al. (2003) Feeding nursing home patients with severe dementia: A qualitative study. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 42, 3, 304-311.
    This paper is based on participant observation by two researchers in two Dutch nursing homes.

 

Document analysis

Document analysis is based on existing sources, like government reports, personal documents, articles in newspapers, books or medical records.

Read more:

  • Green, J. & Thorogood, N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third Edition. London: Sage Publications.
    See chapter 7 on Physical and virtual documentary sources.
  • Prior, L. (2003) Using Documents in social research. London: Sage Publications.
    With a focus on the analysis of documents. Offers examples from the sociology of health and illness.

Example:

  • Stuij, M. & Stokvis, R. (2015) Sport, health and the genesis of a physical activity policy in the Netherlands. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. 7 (2): 217-232.
    This paper is based on an analysis of policy documents and existing surveys on sport participation.

 

Quality procedures

Devers (1999) formulated several strategies for enhancing the rigor of qualitative research:
Criteria Strategies
Credibility / Internal validity
  • Triangulation. The purpose of triangulation is to make use of multiple data sources, investigators, methods or theory to the extent possible to provide corroborating evidence.
  • Search for Disconfirming Evidence (“deviant” or “negative” cases). Instead of ignoring cases or information that “doesn’t fit”, the researcher actively looks for cases that do not fit the pattern and refines the theory and working hypotheses in light of this evidence. The researcher(s) continues this process until all cases fit, eliminating all outliers and exceptions.
  • Subject Review (Also called “member checking” and “dialogue with participants”). The researcher(s) solicits research “subject”, group member, or participant views of the credibility of interpretation and findings. In some cases, this strategy is also used to increase the probability that research results will be used.
Transferability / External validity
  • Detailed Description of the Context, i.e. the study context, the investigator’s role in the context and of how the context affects the ability to answer the original research question.
Dependability / Reliability
  • Data Archiving/Creating an Audit Trail. The researcher(s) should ensure the completeness and accuracy of documents (e.g. interviews, observations, etc.) and be clear about the coding schemes and data analysis process. Theoretically, this would allow someone not connected with the study to review the primary documents and coding schemes to assess whether the findings, interpretations, and conclusions are supported.
  • Skeptical Peer Review. A skeptical peer-reviewer plays the role of devil’s advocate, asking difficult questions about methods, meanings, and interpretation of the data. This process provides an external check on the research.
Confirmability / Objectivity
  • Triangulation. See description above.
  • Skeptical Peer Review or Audits. See above.
  • Search for Disconfirming Evidence or Negative Cases. See above.
  • Reflective Journal Keeping by the Researcher. Because the researcher is the research instrument in qualitative research, he or she should keep journal notes on how his or her personal characteristics, feelings, and biases may be influencing the work and how he or she tries to manage them to the extent possible.

Read more:

  • Devers, K.J. (1999) How Will We Know “Good” Qualitative Research When We See It? Beginning the Dialogue in Health Services Research. Health Services Research, 34 (5): 1153-1188.
    The purpose of this article is to lay the foundation for an explicit review of, and dialogue about, the criteria that should be used to evaluate qualitative health services research.
  • Frambach, J.M. et al. (2013) AM Last Page: Quality Criteria in Qualitative and Quantitative Research. Academic Medicine. 88; 4: 552.
    This page provides an overview of quality criteria in qualitative research and a number of techniques that researchers can use to meet these.
  • Mays, N. & Pope, C. (2000) Assessing quality in qualitative research. BMJ, 320: 50-52.
    This article outlines two views of how qualitative methods might be judged and argues that qualitative research can be assessed according to two broad criteria: validity and relevance.

 

Responsibilities and ethics

It is important to carefully reflect on and think about ethical dilemmas related to the practice of qualitative research as well as responsibilities of the researchers, especially regarding respondents. These are for instance related to informed consent, protecting the privacy of respondents or dealing with different stakeholders. Please consult the guideline on privacy. For specifics in a study, contact the privacy officer.

Read more:

  • Green, J. & Thorogood, N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third Edition. London: Sage Publications.
    Chapter 3 provides information on responsibilities, ethics and values.

 

V3.0: 20 Oct 2017: Revision guideline
V2.0: 12 May 2015: Revision format
V1.2: 1 Dec 2011: Removal of link kwalitatief sterk
V1.1: 1 Jan 2010: English translation
V1.0: 23 Nov 2006: Draft version has been rewritten in full