So you are thinking of doing a qualitative study, are you? RRRRUUUUUNNNNNN!!! No, not really, you’ll be fine. I have just written up my first qualitative study which used the methodology of grounded theory. It was a great experience, but easily the most challenging research experience I have faced so far (faint chuckling of seasoned researchers). Since I enjoyed and cursed my first go at qualitative research in equal measures, I would like to share a few thoughts which might be helpful.
Unless you have completed an extensive undergrad module in qualitative research, it is the epitome of a Pandora’s Box. Qualitative research seems like doing some interviews and musing over the data, for about 5 minutes. The literature behind each and every question you need to consider, when planning and starting off, is vast. Qualitative research is newer than quantitative, but is highly developed. So the controversies and debates can seem overwhelming and constantly in flux. Factor in the time this will take and the training or guidance you might need. Reading early on will save you from mistakes or misunderstandings along the way.
As with any new endeavour, learning about and executing a qualitative study takes time. But there’s time and there’s the time it takes to do a qualitative study. I cannot keep track of the number of wildly underestimated timelines I had to forget about. But it’s more important to have timelines, even if you don’t stick to them and have to re-evaluate, than proceeding without structure and organisation. Gantt charts and keeping a diary can be helpful.
Being trusted to collect, interpret and present the experiences and accounts of other people can be a lonely and challenging journey. At times, I felt I had come upon such insight, only to come back to my memos or back to the data with such uncertainty. The process of qualitative research may seem a bit airy fairy on first reading. However trusting in the instructions or guidance of your chosen qualitative methodology is a more effective thing than I can tell you. The tool I felt most helped me to keep track of my thought processes was to continually write and try to answer my own questions.
Think you have an idea what’s going on in your data? Write your thoughts down, or even better, try to draw your ideas. This will test whether you can really explain your interpretations. Cycling between your written and doodled accounts of the data highlights gaps in the story, trends, variations and conflicts.
In the same way that staring at an SPSS database full of variables and numbers can result in mental blocks, staring at your themes, concepts, or models in a qualitative study can become just as stalled. Qualitative research is a creative as well as intellectual process. Sharing, discussing and debating with your supervisor, a local expert in the method or topic, or even your peers can really get your thoughts and ideas flowing again. These methods should all be part of you method, factored into the plan for your study and recorded.