Innovations in Qualitative Methods

Virginia Braun, Victoria Clarke, and Debra Gray

The ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies and methods—primarily qualitative—not to mention politics, associated with critical psychologies have shaken the foundations of the discipline. Critical (social) psychology is, for many (but not all), synonymous with qualitative research, research which has focused on (participant) meaning, understood knowledge as contextual, valued the subjectivity and reflexivity of the researcher and (often) treated language as a productive force, rather than a neutral medium for communication. For many, it brought sweet relief from the tight corsets of positivist empiricism and quantitative experimentation. From the early days, the richness and flexibility of interviews dominated the qualitative research scene; discourse analysis (e.g. Potter & Wetherell, 1987) became de rigueur in certain circles. Then, discursive psychology challenged the value and validity of interviewgenerated data (e.g. Potter & Hepburn, 2008), but many of us clung to the comfort and possibility of the interview; when focus groups offered a way to focus on topics and social-meaning-making (Wilkinson, 1998), we rapidly incorporated those into our methodological tool kit. [1] [2]

The field of qualitative research—most particularly in critical (social) psychology—appears marked by both an established tradition and exciting innovation. We’re sure others share our slight sense of despair at seeing yet another interview study—or another ‘discourse analysis’, ‘grounded theory’ or (now) even ‘thematic analysis’ of qualitative data—where some thinking outside of these now traditional approaches could have resulted in a far more exciting project—new and different results, answers to different questions, different possibilities for participant engagement and/or local or broader socio-political change. Don’t get us wrong: we love interviews, discourse analysis and even thematic analysis! But we believe critical social psychology needs to remain cutting edge in its thinking around the ways and whys of our data collection and our data analysis, the potentialities and purposes of our research. It’s a vital, reflexive project for the discipline. With this challenge in mind, we offer a chapter that signals moments of innovation and development but locates these within the contexts and traditions of qualitative researching familiar to many of us. The chapter aims to serve a practical purpose: signalling and illustrating the use of ‘innovation’ in accessible ways.

Innovation is a fraught term—always inviting a ‘call that innovation?’ critique or a competitive claim of ‘my innovation is better than yours’. Innovation in qualitative researching happens in diverse ways—some innovations offer seismic shifts that radically change the research landscape, while others offer gentle waves that imperceptibly, but inevitably, shift the contours of the shoreline. Over the decades, innovation has developed across the whole domain of qualitative research, and although psychology hasn’t always been the innovator, or even an early adopter, it has been fostered and flourished in psychology in a range of ways.

The rapid expansion of information and communication technologies (ICT) has fundamentally shifted how many of us do research (Hine, 2005). For some, this has led us to look at new forms of data (e.g. blogs [e.g. Hookway, 2008] and online forums [e.g. Giles & Newbold, 2010; Jowett, 2015]) that provide important insight into the production (and consumption) of everyday social life. Researchers within discursive traditions (including conversation analysis) have theorised and opened up the value of (such) ‘naturalistic’ data—data where the researcher’s influence is minimised or entirely absent— which also include talk data. In a wide range of ways, visual elements have been incorporated into data generation (Reavey, 2011); increasingly, they’ve shifted from secondary to the text, to an integral aspect of the analysis itself. Scholars seeking different forms of knowledge, and social engagement, have pushed beyond the traditional ‘ivory tower’ modes of dissemination (and researching), and disciplinary silos, with developments like performative social science that connect with, draw on and develop tools from the creative and performing arts (e.g. Guiney Yallop, Lopez de Vallejo, & Wright, 2008; Jones, 2015). Indigenous research frameworks have challenged westernised modes of ethics and researcher relationships, and knowledge production and, in some cases, introduced quite radically different knowledge frameworks (e.g.Denzin, Lincoln, & Smith, 2008 ; Smith, 2012). We have been challenged to move from reporting ‘what is’ to engaging in ‘future forming’ actions (e.g. Gergen, 2015).

In the sections below, we explore four particular ways in which change has pushed qualitative researching beyond the familiar. We have chosen these both for their practicality and because they are tools and techniques we have used ourselves; as committed qualitative researchers, we can attest to their value. First, we identify the way innovation has occurred in response to rapidly changing socio-technological contexts: adaptations and expansions of traditional modes of researching, such as interviewing and focus groups, to utilise the potential of the connected, online worlds we increasingly live in. Second, concurrent with, but not synonymous with, theoretical shifts that have argued against a focus just on ‘the text’ (Chamberlain, 2012), we discuss the blossoming of pluralistic or multi-modal forms of interviewing and focus group research. These two offer examples of how traditionally qualitative methods have expanded beyond their origins; the next two offer examples of techniques which have been released from their quantitative moorings: qualitative surveys offer researchers access to familiar forms of data—personal accounts, perspectives and so on—often conceptualised as ‘representing the self’, somehow; story completion tasks, in contrast, provide something radically different: a window into the social meaning worlds of our participants. Read on—we hope you are inspired!

  • [1] V. Braun (*) University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  • [2] Clarke University of the West of England, Bristol, UKD. Gray University of Winchester, Winchester, UK© The Author(s) 2017 B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology,DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_13
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