INTRODUCTIONQualitative data deals with quality, so that they aredescriptive rather than numerical in nature. Unlike quantitative data, they aregenerally not measurable, and are only gained mostly through observation.Narratives often make use of adjectives and other descriptive words to refer todata on appearance, color, texture, and other qualities.Qualitative data collect information as written or visual images and reportfindings as words.
Yet qualitative data collection is more than justconversations, records, or observations. Rigorous collection and analysis ofthe words and pictures, gathered as evidence about a topic, enhance theposition of educators to build a convincing body of knowledge on which toimprove educational practices.HOW IS QUALITATIVE DATA USEFUL?Qualitative evidence,when rigorously analyzed, makes it possible for PAR (Participatory Action Research) teams to uncover, expose, andconsider the complexities within their community.
While no scientist wouldendeavor to measure a situation with an infinite number of variables, this isprecisely what school leaders do when investigating educational issues.Qualitative evidence extracts depth and adds body to the conclusions drawn byPAR teams. Data collection and analysis tools are employed when practitionersneed to delve deeply into circumstances and understand the human motivationsinvolved. These data are particularly informative to answer questions of· Meaning:The significance of situations (held in peoples’ minds as meanings) aresubjective and vary, depending upon personal experiences. More than other typesof queries, a question about meaning will surface the biases of both theindividuals who ask the questions and the individuals who respond.· Context:Influences understanding. This is true whether it is a personal context (e.
g.,age, gender, or cultural background) or the community context (e.g.
, wealthy orpoor; rural, suburban, or urban; stable or changing demographics; economicallystable or unstable).· Understanding of process: In order for the PAR conclusions to betransferable to other contexts, the background that led to the situation andthe actions that resulted need to be understood and reported. In addition, thereporting on either the success or failure of programs in schools calls forunderstanding both the planning and implementation phases of programdevelopment.· Causal relationships: Understanding the complex situations that causepeople to take action is the key to understanding the cultural and societalmechanisms that make up the fabric of life within a community or school. Thestudy of causal relationships requires a strong chain of logic, with a widerange of diverse opinions collected and analyzed at each link in the chain(Maxwell, 1996).WHATMAKES QUALITATIVE EVIDENCE DIFFICULTQualitative evidence collection is subject to thebiases of the people involved, both in collecting the evidence and in providingit. Researchers may have a preconceived notion about the evidence they arelikely to find in their investigation.
Unconsciously they may ask questionsphrased in such a way as to heighten the chance the respondent will answer asexpected. Likewise, the respondent may have biases about either the researchersor their topic and may not be willing to disclose personal ideas or feelings.This is likely to occur when issues connected to power, sensitive feelings, orcultural values enter the topic under study. PAR teams, acting as criticalfriends, help each other through diligence to search out and overcome biases. As mentionedbefore, qualitative data collection extends beyond a sole conversation, record,or observation. Likewise, the understanding to be gained from gathered evidenceexceeds simple reflection.
Covered in the next chapter, qualitative dataanalysis requires breaking down the data (words or pictures) in such a way thateach bit can be analyzed and resorted. Subsequently, with a sufficientaccumulation of “bits,” new understanding develops.QUALITATIVEDATA COLLECTION METHODSAs mentioned earlier, qualitative data areparticularly appropriate for PAR projects because they can help us understandpeople’s reactions, beliefs, and behavior more clearly. This section outlinesthe ways to collect qualitative data and discusses practical considerationsthat researchers need to take into account as they implement these strategies.Though distinct categories are listed, in reality these categories may seemmuch more ambiguous to researchers gathering data in the field.
Nonetheless, itis useful to divide them here for the purpose of discussion (Byrne-Armstrong,Higgs, & Horsfall, 2001; Maxwell, 1996; Patton & Patton, 2002; Snape& Spencer, 2003; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).DATACOLLECTED DIRECTLY IN WORDS FROM PEOPLE: INTERVIEWS AND FOCUS GROUPSInterviews and focus groups are similar methods, asboth allow researchers to question subjects and probe responses with furtherquestions. In both settings, researchers· Develop their questions through aniterative initial process, testing the way in which they ask the questions tohelp ensure that their questions are understood by their subjects.· Work to set up an environment that enhancesthe potential for full disclosure, being both comfortable and safe from a researchsubject’s point of view.· Keep a short list (four to five questions) ofthe topics from which they are gathering evidence, with the backup of a longerlist of potential probing questions they may use. Qualitative Data Collection71 04-James (Participatory).qxd 6/25/2007 12:53 PM Page 71 · Commit to starting and ending between 45 and60 minutes to avoid participant fatigue. · Utilize multiple means of collecting data.
Inthe ideal, there is someone taking notes on a computer, the tape recorder isrunning to help capture exact words, and the facilitator is working with a flipchart to provide feedback to the subject’s responses and from which to askclarifying questions.Take time to ensure that the surrounding area isquiet and that electronic equipment is in working order. It is best to notdepend exclusively on the use of electronics and to be prepared in case ofequipment failure or difficulties. This can be accomplished by having at leastone person taking notes. Then if the recorders fail, all data will not be lost.Both interviews and focus groups are flexiblemethods for gathering qualitative evidence, offering PAR practitioners insightinto the human dynamics in the situations they are studying. To achieve thegreatest benefit, researchers must balance the time taken for data collectionwith considerations about analysis (Byrne-Armstrong et al.
, 2001; Maxwell,1996; Patton & Patton, 2002; Snape & Spencer, 2003; Strauss &Corbin, 1998). For example, if PAR practitioners decide to record interviewsrather than intrude on the conversation with note taking, time allotment fortapes transcription will be needed prior to data analysis. On the other hand,should transcription services be available, full transcriptions offerresearchers the richest data. Tapes may take, on average, 4 hours to transcribe1 hour of conversation. These two methods of collecting data are dissimilarin other ways. An interview allows in-depth personal probing of a responseuntil researchers feel they understand the answer and its implications to theirtopic. However, in a focus group, the facilitator needs to progress withquestioning and balance his or her curiosity related to specific responses withthe need to maintain momentum in the group process.
Besides time, other factorsmay influence the decision to question people as individuals or in groups. Traditionally, these data-gathering techniques havebeen segregated into three categories: structured, unstructured, or semi structured(Maxwell, 1996; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The divisions relate to therelationship of ideas and concepts to the manner in which data are gathered.For instance, a structured interview is one in which all subjects are askedexactly the same questions—the questions are based rigorously on prior evidence.These questions may take the form of “Please relate your understanding of therelationship between X and Y.
” The researchers have structured the questions tofocus the subjects’ responses in a particular way. Unstructured interviewsstart with general ideas or areas of concern, and the specific questions askedare likely to change, depending on the subjects’ responses and interests.Unstructured questions may be open-ended, such as “Tell us about yourexperience of this topic.”In our experience, the semi structured middle groundis effective for PAR practitioners (James, 2004; Reynolds, 2005). Semi structuredinterviews are developed when researchers know what the literature says abouttheir topic and map out pertinent questions with possible probing sub questions.
Semi structured interviews allow the opportunity to digress from the primaryquestion and probe a response to understand more clearly what is seen as aprovocative remark on the part of the interviewee. Such remarks may come in twocategories: (1) the researcher has not heard that position stated before or (2)what has been said seems to be in contradiction to comments others have madepreviously. In situations when the research subject is particularly articulate,with pertinent responses useful for direct quotations, an interviewer may takeextra time and effort to capture not only the subject’s meaning but the exactwords of the response.
Structuredinterviews also have value in PAR studies. In this more formal technique,researchers decide upon a series of questions and read the questions exactly toindividuals to establish an understanding of their ideas on a topic. Forexample, in a PAR study on homelessness, the research team asked respondents aseries of questions about attitudes toward families and children who livedwithout homes in their community. An interview was solicited from every fourthperson who came out of a mall on a given Saturday (James, 2005b). Mc Kernan(1996) and others (Legard, Keegan, & Ward, 2003; Stringer, 2004) presentthe following list of question stems as appropriate for interviews and focusgroups: “Why,” “Should,” or “How important is . . .
?” In addition, aresearcher may want to query affect by asking about feelings and emotionalresponses. It is appropriate to form a leading question by asking, “What do youthink about . . . ?” or “Do you remember your experience of . . . ?”CASESTUDIESIn thisqualitative method, data is gathered by taking a close look and an in-depthanalysis of a “case study” or “case studies” – the unit or units of researchthat may be an individual, a group of individuals, or an entire organization.
This methodology’s versatility is demonstrated in how it can be used to analyzeboth simple and complex subjects.However, thestrength of a case study as a data collection method is attributed to how itutilizes other data collection methods, and captures more variables than when asingle methodology is used. In analyzing the case study, the researcher mayemploy other methods such as interviewing, floating questionnaires, orconducting group discussions in order to gather data.· (+)It is flexible and versatile, analyzing both simple and complex units andoccurrence, even over a long period of time.
· (+)Case studies provide in-depth and detailed information, thanks to how itcaptures as many variables as it can.· (-)Reliability of the data may be put at risk when the case study or studieschosen are not representative of the sample or population.CONCLUSIONQualitative evidence can be words orpictures. Whether collected from individuals, throughout a process of change,or during an event, PAR teams rely on strategies that balance time and resourceconstraints while collecting enough data to rise above the subjective nature ofunderstanding. Overall, the strongest strategy is to collect data from multiplesources and then compare results. Each method has positive attributes that helpthese data add to the richness and variety of understanding on which the PARteam will base their conclusions.
These strategies are constrained by eitherissues of time, subjective understanding, or the biases of either theresearcher or subject.The people collecting qualitative datacan take steps to ensure that their work is accurate and precise. The qualityof these data when they work as critical friends to establish usable tools,double-check for bias, and adhere to a regular timetable for date collection.Finally, data emerging from various qualitative and quantitative strategiesshould be compared.
Mixed methodology aids PAR teams to build a rigorous,cohesive set of conclusions about their topics.