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Qualitative methods

In this step, we will learn about qualitative research. Qualitative research is essentially a systematic way of collecting, analysing, and interpreting non-numerical data. This involves capturing and analysing people’s experiences, their attitudes, and meanings. One of the features of qualitative research is that it allows us to explore the variations in people’s experiences, as well as the meanings of these experiences to different people. For example, what does disability mean to you? Using qualitative methods, we are able to explore the experiences of a person with a disability, what it means to them, how it shapes their experiences– for example, in getting employment– and examine it alongside experiences of a person with a different type of disability or a person without disability.
The key characteristic of qualitative research is that it is subjective. We are more focused on a person’s experiences or perspective rather than searching for an absolute truth. Qualitative methods are useful when little is known about a topic. You may need the information to develop a theory or to develop the content of a questionnaire. We can also use qualitative methods to explain a quantitative result and understand reasons behind a survey finding. For example, why are so many people with mental health issues not attending referral appointments with psychiatrists? Using qualitative methods, we can also explore social and cultural understanding linked to this. Perhaps people’s decisions to skip psychiatric appointments are influenced by how mental illness is perceived in that culture.
Qualitative methods are also a great approach to illustrate a more holistic picture by capturing complexity and intersectionality. This is how a person’s characteristics like gender, race, disability overlap to shape their experiences. So in our example, it could be that whoever seeks help from a psychiatrist may be facing stigma from the community. Perhaps being a man makes it more complex to seek help for his mental health. So you see, qualitative methods can help you explore a lot of the questions that start with how and why, and indeed, why not. There are a number of methods that may be used for qualitative research, each with features that make it suitable or unsuitable for the aspect you want to explore.
We could do observations, which may be structured or unstructured, depending on what we are trying to capture. We can also do document analysis, which could range from policy documents to personal letters or diaries, depending on the focus of our research. Or we could do in-depth interviews or focus group discussions, which are the two most common methods for collecting qualitative data. In-depth interviews are usually one on one discussions between an interviewer and a participant. In some cases, like interviews with children or people with difficulties understanding or communicating, there might be caregivers or interpreters present. In-depth interviews can have different levels of structure.
They can be unstructured, where you ask a very open and broad question, or it can be very structured, where you have a set of questions that need to be asked exactly as written. The most common approach is semi-structured, where the interviewer has some flexibility in question order and to ask to follow-up questions. If your research is exploring an issue that is quite personal or is considered sensitive in that context, for example, sexuality or experiences of violence, in-depth interviews are more suitable than focus group discussions, because these are private and confidential discussions. Focus group discussions typically involve six to 12 participants grouped together based on shared characteristics. For example, they might all be health workers.
Some people might think focus group discussions are a quick way to interview many people at once. This is incorrect. Focus group discussions are not the same as group interviews, because in interviews, we focus on what participants say to us. In a focus group discussion, the researcher’s role is to facilitate discussions between the participants. We are interested in group dynamics, capturing agreements and disagreements. Focus group discussions are great when you want to capture broad information, not in-depth, and a range of views and opinions. You would need to watch out for dominant speakers and social dynamics that lead some people to agree with the majority. So it is good practise to try to encourage everyone to speak and allow room for disagreements.
Let’s look at the preparation process of using a qualitative method. We’ll use an example from one of our studies. We notice from the survey that many Syrian refugees living in Istanbul have mental health issues, but do not seek professional help. First, we would assess whether a qualitative approach is appropriate. Yes, it is, because we need to understand why they do not seek this help even when referred. Then we consider which qualitative method is best suited for this. From the way people reacted to the survey questions, it seems like mental illness is a sensitive subject. So we would go for in-depth interviews. Next, we need to select the sample, the people we want to interview.
Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research is not about getting a representation of all the subgroups of a population. Instead, we want to maximise variation so that we can capture as many different characteristics and experiences as possible. So we’ll have a mix of men and women, people of different age groups, maybe people in rural and urban areas. In disability research, it is good practise to select people across the different types of impairments such as hearing, mobility, and so on, because this is likely shaping their experiences. We now need to decide how many interviews we should conduct– the sample size. Again, unlike quantitative research, there is no formula, and more is not always better.
We can decide the number of interviews based on logistical details like time and money. Try to have a good spread of people who meet the characteristics we identified earlier– gender, age, types of impairment. Then we prepare the tools. For in-depth interviews and focus group discussions, we typically use an interview or topic guide. This would be five to 15 questions to guide the discussion, to ensure consistency between interviews and to cover all important topics. The questions need to be carefully constructed. They should be open-ended and neutral, so that no judgement or correct answer is implied in the way you ask the question. You must have these translated and tested before you use it with participants.
There are steps we must follow to ensure that our research is conducted ethically. You will learn more about this in week 3, so this is just a brief mention of three key points. One, all participants must be provided with information about the research before beginning an interview or focus group discussion. Two, we must not begin any form of data collection before obtaining their informed consent, either written or verbal. Three, we need to ask participants’ consent to record the audio of the interview or focus group discussion. This is how qualitative data is captured, because it will be too distracting and indeed difficult to take notes during the session. Under no circumstances should you record without consent from the participant.
In order to collect high-quality data, we must consider factors that could influence the data we collect. First, timing of the interview or focus group discussion. It must be a convenient time for the participant, and we must allocate enough time for the discussion to be unpressured and unrushed. It is good practise to spend some time establishing rapport with the participant, because they are more likely to give you open and honest responses if they are comfortable interacting with you. Location or venue, too, can influence the data we collect. Is the location accessible and is it neutral? For example, in a study investigating how people feel about the care they receive from doctors, a hospital is not a neutral setting.
We also need to ensure that the internal environment is private, quiet, and distraction-free. Lastly, we need to consider the influence we, the researchers, have on the data being collected. This includes being mindful of cultural taboos. In some contexts, it may be inappropriate for a male interviewer to interview a female participant alone in a room. Some social hierarchies created by characteristics such as age or race may be unavoidable, but it is good practise to acknowledge it. This is called researcher reflexivity. In summary, you should now be able to recognise when qualitative research methods are appropriate, to appreciate the range of approaches that can be used, and to identify some influences on qualitative data.

In this step, you will hear from Dr Shaffa Hameed about qualitative methods in disability research. As Dr Hameed describes, qualitative research is essentially, a systematic way of collecting, analysing, and interpreting non-numerical data. Dr Hameed is a qualitative researcher at the International Centre for Evidence in Disability.

In this video, she describes the types of data collection methods that can be used in qualitative research. This includes in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and document analysis. Later in the course, Dr Hameed will also describe how this type of data can be analysed.


We would love to hear from you on your experience with using qualitative methods.

  • Have you ever been involved in research (as a participant or a researcher) that used the methods described in this step?

  • When do you think these approaches would be beneficial?

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Global Disability: Research and Evidence

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