Conducting Qualitative Research During Times of Uncertainty

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Dr Amir Qamar looks at the influence lockdown has had on qualitative research, and discusses the pros and cons of conducting research online.

The following piece is taken from the latest Academy of International Business (AIB) Research Methods Shared Interest Group (RM SIG) newsletter, which can be found here.

There are approximately 6.3 million Covid-19 confirmed cases spread across over 200 countries around the world and the global pandemic has resulted in a radically altered environment, given social distancing, quarantining and lockdowns. Not only will this have long-term repercussions within the global economy, but it will also reshape the Higher Education environment. Although there is much focus on how universities are rapidly adjusting their infrastructure and modes of teaching in line with this new reality, there has been less discussion about how as social scientists we will conduct our research under these conditions. We are undoubtedly living in an unusual time, but perhaps we can use this shock to remould traditional methodological practices and encourage greater innovation.

While the current situation provides new research topics, it is important to think about how we will conduct research in these very different circumstances. From a methodological perspective, it is expected that quantitative researchers who make use of secondary datasets will be less impacted by such constraints (Marhefka et al., 2020). It could be argued that qualitative researchers will be disproportionally affected, given their traditional reliance on interaction with their participants in ‘natural’ field settings. However, qualitative researchers have been quick to start the discussion about how they can adapt their methodological practices during times of restrictions of movement, lockdowns, remote working and social distancing.

Before outlining some of the ways we can move forward, it is important to remember that the design of qualitative research encompasses three different stages, namely: 1) site selection and sampling; 2) data collection methods; and 3) data analysis strategies (Ravitch, 2020).

Given that physical networking is not occurring, researchers may be apprehensive about how they can identify participants for their studies and so may feel anxious when asking people for their time to conduct interviews.

Arguably, the first two stages will be most impacted by current constraints. Given that physical networking is not occurring, researchers may be apprehensive about how they can identify participants for their studies. Moreover, researchers may feel anxious when asking businesses, and in turn, people, for their time to conduct interviews. This is an important ethical consideration, not just practical constraint, as the pandemic has resulted in many businesses reaching the tipping point in terms of their survival and individuals facing increased stress due to being displaced or unemployed, or working from home while trying to juggle family responsibilities. While working from home might also provide a more relaxed and informal setting than a traditional office environment, Jowett (2020) advises researchers to be sensitive to these pressures when approaching potential research participants. While these considerations suggest that response rates and willingness to participate in research may be low, as many people work from home, away from social environments of work, on the positive side they may be willing to engage in interviews due to the human interaction they offer.

Typically, qualitative data collection is heavily dependent on face-to-face interactions (Jowett, 2020) as it enables data to be acquired via interviews, focus groups and fieldwork (Ravitch, 2020). However, online means of identifying samples are now well established. Social media has grown significantly over the last decade, and researchers can use platforms such as LinkedIn or Twitter to identify and sample relevant businesses and individuals. There is also a range of technologies (Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc.) which can be used to replace in-person encounters virtually.

Yet, we must remember that these approaches also have limitations. For instance, some participants may not know how to use certain technologies, and poor internet connections may hinder smooth interviews. Although phone-based interviews might be necessary in these kinds of situations, video interactions via technologies such as Skype or Zoom have the advantage that they can almost replicate the interaction a participant experiences during an in-person interview. This is because video interactions activate both auditory and visual senses, which potentially can generate greater levels of engagement (Marhefka et al., 2020).

While working from home might also provide a more relaxed and informal setting than a traditional office environment, Jowett (2020) advises researchers to be sensitive to these pressures when approaching potential research participants.

In essence, video and phone calls are a substitute for face-to-face in-person interviewing, and they offer a number of benefits: there is no expenditure on travel, they offer a faster way of collecting data and interviews can easily be conducted with respondents in across the world without worrying about any pandemic-related restrictions. Methodological guidance is also available on how best to conduct interviews in a virtual environment (Geisen, 2020; Jowett, 2020; Ravitch, 2020). DeHart (2020) highlights that ethnographic research may still be possible as long as three factors are considered, namely:

1) what is under investigation;

2) where will the study take place; and

3) who is involved.

While the aforementioned strategies relate to how researchers can adapt ongoing projects or make use of technology in new research initiatives going forward, it is important to remember that secondary data also offers many opportunities for qualitative researchers seeking to engage in new research projects (Jamieson, 2020). Institutions often have access to qualitative data archives of research interviews and focus groups. This data is usually generated from peer-reviewed, funded and published studies and has often already been anonymised and quality-assured, presenting opportunities for reanalysis and/or application. The analysis of archival data is particularly useful for postgraduate students who have a relatively short time in which to complete a dissertation. Drawing on secondary qualitative data archives is less ethically risky and can increase the credibility of student outputs (Jowett, 2020). However, using deposited data is just one example of secondary qualitative research; there is an abundance of potential qualitative data available. For example, one can also use print and broadcast media to analyse social representations of a wide range of topics. Some social scientists have also conducted secondary qualitative analysis of textbooks, websites, speeches, debates. These data sources are not only easy to find but also provide researchers with the opportunity to examine current and legitimate issues in society, as opposed to collecting specific data for the sole purpose of their – sometimes less relevant – research.

In conclusion, restrictions and social distancing mean that in-person fieldwork is most likely to be one of the last areas of scholarship that will return to a state of normality (Wood, 2020). Moreover, countries vary in the nature and level of their restrictions. Thus a researcher’s decision on when to start or resume field research should be guided by their institution and the advice of relevant governments. However, the pandemic does not mean that fieldwork, and more precisely, interviews, should cease. Technologies have revolutionised daily lives, but as this article demonstrates, they also provide opportunities to adapt extant data collection practices. While some researchers do already make much of such platforms, the current situation will perhaps boost their use for data collection purposes and encourage the adoption of more innovative approaches to doing research, including engaging in secondary qualitative research using data that has already been collected using traditional means.

Sources:

DeHart, M. 2020. Thinking Ethnographically in Pandemic Times. Social Science Research Council.

Geisen, E. 2020. Social distancing in market research: Pivoting in-person methodologies. Qualtrics.

Jamieson, L. 2020. COVID 19 and ‘Big Qual’ Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology.

Jowett, A. 2020. Carrying out Research Under Lockdown: Practical and Ethical Considerations. London School of Economics, Blog.

Marhefka, S., Lockhart, E., & Turner, D. 2020. Achieve Research Continuity During Social Distancing by Rapidly Implementing Individual and Group Videoconferencing with Participants: Key Considerations, Best Practices, and Protocols. AIDS and behavior, 1–7.

Ravitch, S. M. 2020. The Best Laid Plans… Qualitative Research Design During COVID-19. Social Science Space.

Wood, E. J. 2020. Resuming Field Research in Pandemic Times. Social Science Research Council.


This blog was written by Dr Amir Qamar, Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Strategic Management, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham and an Associate of City-REDI / WM REDI

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Disclaimer: 
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham.

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