Key Concepts: Out with the Old...
Here, we explore developments in what are usually conceived of as the ‘core’ methods of qualitative data collection: interviews and focus groups. These two methods have dominated qualitative research for decades, including in critical social psychology—although critique has increasingly questioned their taken- for-granted status as the essential methods (e.g. see Chamberlain, 2012). We argue that no method should be static, and these are no exception. We now consider some ways these have begun to be reimagined within psychological research, in particular in relation to (1) the growth in online forms of data collection and (2) the move towards multi-modal forms of data collection.
Interviews and Focus Groups as Online Methods
The rapid expansion of ICT noted above has led to opportunities for researchers to critically examine how more traditional research methods like interviews and focus groups can be reworked in online environments—and not just as ‘second-best’ options. This has led to a variety of exciting possibilities for interactive data collection online, including online focus groups (OFGs), email interviewing, Instant Messaging (IM) interviewing and the use of Internet-based video calling (e.g. Skype™ or FaceTime™)—and it’s not stopping. Advances in computer-mediated communication technologies continue to open up new ways of collecting interactive data online.
Online approaches offer more or less radical alternatives to traditional (often in-person) interviews and focus groups. Skype interviews closely mimic the interactive features of the more traditional face-to-face spoken interview, in that they provide real-time interaction between the researcher and participants, and also include visual interaction. They thus retain features of interviews that are seen as essential to building rapport with partici- pants—for example, cues such as body language (Silverman, 2013). Recent developments in video- and web-conference technologies allow researchers to conduct group discussions effectively ‘face-to-face’ (e.g. Tuttas, 2015). In contrast, OFGs, email interviews and IM interviews typically require participants to respond to questions in written format, and the participants and the researcher will usually never meet face-to-face (or even over the telephone). OFGs and email interviews also offer the possibility of including a temporal dimension to data collection, as they can be synchronous or asynchronous: data collection can involve the participants and researcher interacting in ‘real time’ (e.g. in a chat room or over email at a scheduled time—synchronous) or researchers posting questions that participants respond to in their own time (e.g. via a discussion board or email over the period of a week or more—asynchronous). These elements move us further away from traditional conceptions of what a focus group or interview is (and is for!). An asynchronous OFG, for instance, could never replicate the kinds of interactional dynamics of a realtime offline focus group or indeed, the ‘fast, furious, and chaotic’ (Mann & Stewart, 2000, p.102) nature of a ‘real-time’ OFG. However, what they offer are different possibilities for the collection of data—gains rather than losses. For example, Gibson (2010a, 2010b) argued that the detailed and considered nature of asynchronous email interviews allows participants to reflect on, and construct a narrative around, their experiences—something that’s particularly useful for research which focuses on understanding people’s past experiences and memories.
For critical researchers, a key advantage of OFGs and online interviews is the ability to (more easily) recruit beyond the ‘usual suspects’ (i.e. white, middle class, heterosexual, etc.) of psychological—even qualitative psychological—research. The Internet means that researchers can involve people from across the globe without incurring significantly added cost—although they do require participants to have access to, and a degree of comfort with, the Internet or email. Online methods can also be more inclusive for people who are reluctant to, or unable to, participate in research due to health, mobility or time constraints (Gibson, 2007; Horrell, Stephens, & Breheny, 2015; Morgan, Gibbs, Maxwell, & Britten, 2002). Young people, for example, often find it difficult to participate in more traditional focus groups as they are often reliant on others for transportation; participating online might be easier (see Fox, Morris, & Rumsey, 2007a; Nicholas, Lach, King, Scott, Boydell, et al., 2010), and the format is typically familiar. Likewise, the written format of OFGs and email interviews can be advantageous for people who find it difficult to express themselves verbally, such as people with cognitive disabilities, or speech or hearing difficulties (Tanis, 2007). Finally, the disembodied nature of these methods can encourage participation by those who lack the social confidence to participate in face-to-face groups, such as individuals with appearance concerns (Fox, Rumsey, & Morris, 2007b). Thus, OFGs and online interviews can reach people that traditional interviews and focus groups cannot, and for this reason they hold appeal for critical scholars.
The anonymity offered by methods like OFGs and email interviews means that participants can choose how much of themselves to disclose (including their identities), an aspect particularly useful for participants who may value anonymity highly. For example, we used online discussion groups to research people’s experiences of abortion services, precisely because we anticipated anonymity would be valued; the high rates of participation suggest it was. This is echoed by other researchers who have used OFGs or online interviews to effectively facilitate discussion across a range of potentially sensitive topics that participants might be reticent to discuss in-person, including suicide and deliberate self-harm (Adams, Rodham, & Gavin, 2005), drug consumption (Gibson, 2010a, 2010b), sexual health (Ybarra, DuBois, Parsons, Prescott, & Mustanski, 2014) and cancer (Thomas, Wootten, & Robinson, 2013). It would appear that the disembodied nature of these methods can mean that participants feel able to respond more openly without fear of judgement, embarrassment or discomfort (Mann & Stewart, 2000; Nicholas et al., 2010). And OFGs and online interviews can offer participants a great degree of control over the research environment (for instance, around how, when and where they participate), which may also contribute to a willingness to disclose sensitive information.
It is becoming increasingly clear that these tools are not simply a way of replicating existing face-to-face methods in an online environment—doing ‘information gathering’ in a more convenient (i.e. cheaper and less timeconsuming) way (Giles, Stommel, Paulus, Lester, & Reed, 2015). Instead, there are possibilities for different kinds of interactions online, and for the collection of different kinds of data and from different kinds of people. This presents entirely new considerations for researchers: the ways in which online and offline social practices are entwined, for instance; the specific interactional dynamics of online contexts and how to critically engage with online spaces as both contexts of interaction and spaces of being (Giles et al., 2015; Markham, 2004). In the future, this may require an even more radical (and more critical) ‘reimagining’ of methods like focus groups and interviews!