‘How am I supposed to collect qualitative data? It all sounds a bit scary, I know where I am with the numbers we collect.’
‘I don't have time to collect lots of detailed accounts of what people do.’
‘Is qualitative data any use to me? I'm not sure what I would do with it even if I had it.’
Qualitative approaches to research, evaluation and audit are concerned with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of what people do. This approach to research aims to explore issues or questions in a particular context and provide ‘thick description’ of both the issues or questions and the environment in which they occur. Ryle (1971) separates actions into layers – the first layer, or ‘thin description’, tells us what was done and how often it was done. The second layer, or ‘thick description’, emerges once we begin to explore the context in which it was done, how it was done and why it was done. This level of detail not only allows for deeper understanding but it also allows for transferability of the findings from one context to another if those contexts are sufficiently similar. Transferability is the qualitative equivalent of generalization. For this reason context is important in qualitative research and wherever possible the research should be carried out in the natural setting of research participants, in order to witness the framework of their own multilayered environment. This makes it an ideal approach for practitioner research, as you are already embedded in your context and you can bring understanding and insight to what goes on there. In qualitative research you, as the researcher, are central to the whole process and are able to use all of your knowledge and understanding of a situation to investigate the question and interpret the findings. (For further discussion on the nature and purpose of qualitative research see Denzin and Lincoln, 2011.)
Designing qualitative research
A qualitative research study starts out with a broad map of the research question or topic you want to explore, the context in which you will be exploring it and an indication of how you intend to explore it. Your research question will usually come from something that you've noticed in everyday practice or in the literature you've been reading.