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Qualitative Methods


This resource has drawn together a selection of materials on qualitative research that could be helpful to educational researchers at different stages of their careers. The resource was produced as part of the ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP)'s commitment to research capacity building. TLRP itself has now developed a more comprehensive suite of resources on research approaches designed to help develop researcher expertise. However, it was felt that the different way this set of resources was put together may still be of interest to those who want an insight into educational research methods rather than a more comprehensive set of resources. The intention is to illustrate a range of qualitaive methods in use in educational research. Some methods (which are often used in combination) include:
  • Observation (participant / repeat / non-participant)
  • Interviewing
  • Use of technology (e.g. email, computer assisted interviewing, video)
  • Instruments and tools (e.g. questionnaires, diaries and learning logs)

A case study approach is often used, which frequently draws upon a mixture of methods. Any consideration of research methods should also give attention to:

  • Decisions about which methods to use (eg epistemological positions)
  • Methods in action (adapting and using methods in context)
  • Data handling, reduction, analysis and synthesis (eg validation, tracking, coding, etc)
  • Ethical concerns
  • Scope of the study (eg longitudinal, snap-shot)

Of course methods are not used in a vacuum. They are used in accordance with theoretical / epistemological perspectives, and for a discussion of these see Educational Research and Policy: a TLRP resource produced by David Bridges and colleagues.

Forum: Qualitative Social Research has published a special issue (Forum Volume 6, No. 3 – September 2005) on The State of the Art of Qualitative Research in Europe. The Cabinet Office / Strategy Unit produced a report Quality and Qualitative Evaluation: A framework for assessing research evidence, in which it put forward a framework built on certain premises surrounding the nature of qualitative enquiry, how it can be used for evaluative purposes and how its quality can be assessed. The Qualitative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Innovation, Integration and Impact (QUALITI) project, based at Cardiff University, focuses on the innovation, integration and impact of qualitative research methods, paying particular attention to the social contexts in which research methods and methodologies are situated.

There are extensive web-based support materials on qualitative research methods ranging from introductory guides aimed at practitioners, such as that produced by Penisula RDSU Qualitative Research Methods, through to guides for post-graduate students, such as those produced by RESINED of the University of Plymouth on Qualitative Research. The latter was produced by Peter Woods (2006) and covers Features of Qualitative Research (with sections on A focus on natural settings; An interest in meanings, perspectives and understandings; An emphasis on process; Inductive analysis and grounded theory); Methods of Qualitative Research (with sections on Observation; Interviews; Sampling; Written materials; Questionnaires; Validity; Ethics; Qualitative Research Assessed); Qualitative Analysis (Primary analysis; Category and concept formation; The generation of theory) as well as Tasks; Further Reading and References. Specialist papers are also available on issues such as Qualitative Research Methods and Transcription. Our intention here is not to duplicate such collections but rather to pick on a number of topics on which material from TLRP research can be used to inform a broader discussion that may be of interest to researchers at different stages of their careers.

For this purpose, as well as the following contributions, we draw on Social Network Analysis as a topic to be investigated at greater depth.

Use of artefacts in the research process: for a general introduction of the use of photos and other techniques for eliciting responses from interviewees, see Surrey Social Research Update (25) on Photo-Interviewing for research and Surrey Social Research Update (12) on Elicitation Techniques with Young People. For more on the use of photo-elicitation and other charts and documents to help get respondents talk about aspects of their work, see Christine Fessey's (2002) article on Capturing expertise in the development of practice: methodology and approaches, Learning in Health and Social Care 1 (1), 47–58.

Use of vignettes in reporting research findings: for a general introduction, see Surrey Social Research Update on use of vignettes in qualitative research. Emma Renold gives an overview of Using vignettes in qualitative research, while for a fuller discussion see:

Barter, C. and Renold, E. (2000) ‘I wanna tell you a story’: exploring the application of vignettes in qualitative research with children and young people, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 3 (4), 307-323.

Finch, J. (1987) The vignette technique in survey research, Sociology, 21, 105-11.

Use of focus groups: for a general introduction, see Surrey Social Research Update (19) on Focus Groups. The OMNI Research and Training, Inc., a social science research firm based in Denver, has produced a useful toolkit for conducting focus groups.

The TLRP project on Towards Evidence-based Practice in Science Education 4: Users’ perceptions of research combined the use of vignettes with focus groups. Calls for evidence-based practice raise issues about what constitutes 'evidence' for development of educational policy and classroom practice. This project focused on the experiences of teachers of science and a range of other science education practitioners and set up focus groups to examine the extent to which findings from science education research were seen as convincing and persuasive, and might lead to a change in practice. Focus group participants were presented in advance with eight vignettes describing real examples of educational research. Discussion concentrated on the extent to which participants were familiar with the research, found it credible or convincing, and its likely influence on their practice.

TLRP showcase:
Discussions on nature of qualitative research

The May 2004 special issue (8) of 'Building Research Capacity' on Making qualitative judgements of quality features responses to the Cabinet Office document Quality in Qualitative Evaluation: A framework for assessing research evidence by Liz Spencer, Jane Ritchie, Jane Lewis and Lucy Dillon of the National Centre for Social Research (2003).

Qualitative research on learning at work

The following paper by Stephen Steadman (2005) is an example of an extended commentary on methodological issues associated with researching learning at work: Early Career Learning at Work (LiNEA) Project Methodology and Theoretical Frameworks. It is drawn from the TLRP project on Early Career Learning.

Use of photos, charts and documents in the interview process

The TLRP Learning as Work and Early Career Learning projects both used photo-elicitation and other charts and documents to help get respondents talking about aspects of their work, see for example the Steadman (2005) paper on Methodolgy and theoretical frameworks from the latter project detailing how this approach worked in practice.

Using vignettes in qualitative research

Emma Renold, writing in the July 2002 issue (3) of Building Research Capacity, gives an overview of Using vignettes in qualitative research.

Auto/biographical and narrative approaches

Pat Sikes (2007) Auto/biographical and narrative approaches.