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Key Concepts: From Quantitative to Qualitative

Here we discuss traditionally quantitative methods that researchers are developing for use in qualitative research. These offer an innovative alternative to the collection of small samples of self-report data, which are characteristic of much qualitative research in psychology. Although a number of methods exemplify this alternative, we focus on the qualitative survey (sometimes also called an open-ended questionnaire)—an adaptation of a familiar and popular tool—and story completion (SC), a technique which offers exciting potential for producing quite different data.

Reclaiming the Survey as a Qualitative Research Tool

Surveys have traditionally been used by psychologists to examine the attitudes and opinions of groups of participants to particular phenomena or other groups of people. At first sight, they may seem ill-suited to qualitative research, which traditionally prioritises face-to-face interaction with small groups of participants, rather than anonymous data collection from large groups. However, qualitative researchers, including ourselves, have been using surveys to explore a number of different concerns, from social norms around body hair removal (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004) to the experience of being a donor off-spring (Turner & Coyle, 2000). We argue they provide a useful method for qualitative researching, allowing us to address many of the different types of research questions that interest us as qualitative and critical psychologists, and fitting comfortably within both experiential and critical approaches to qualitative research.

Qualitative surveys typically consist of a series of open-ended questions about a topic: as few as four questions (Frith & Gleeson, 2004) to as many as 25 (see Braun, Tricklebank, & Clarke, 2013) have been used. However, qualitative surveys are not limited to a question/answer format—participants can be set drawing tasks (see Braun et al., 2013), or, if using online software to construct and distribute the survey, shown video or audio clips. Indeed, the range of qualitative possibilities that surveys offer has yet to be fully explored. In addition, qualitative-/^ surveys provide a handy way to combine qualitative and quantitative data collection (Terry & Braun, in press). Although the inclusion of open-ended questions in otherwise quantitative surveys is not unusual (sometimes called ‘mixed-method’ surveys), the resulting qualitative data are often analysed in a limited way (e.g. coded into categories and reported as category names with frequency counts). In contrast, qualitative- led surveys prioritise the qua/itative data, and collect and analyse them in a way in keeping with the assumptions of a qualitative paradigm (Braun & Clarke, 2013; Terry & Braun, in press).

Qualitative surveys suit research questions exploring people’s views and opinions—for instance, how they perceive and make sense of particular matters such as pubic hair (Braun et al., 2013) or media representations of BDSM (Barrett, 2007). As participants respond in their own words to open questions, rather than ticking pre-determined response categories as they would in quantitative surveys, researchers capture what’s important to the partici- pants—as well as to the researcher—and access participants’ own language and terminology, an oft-claimed key benefit of qualitative methods (Frith,

2000). Qualitative surveys have also been used to address concerns unique to qualitative research, including around the lived experience of particular groups—such as lesbian and bisexual women’s experience of pregnancy loss (Peel, 2010), young adults’ experience of orgasm (Opperman, Braun, Clarke, & Rogers, 2014) and Jewish gay men’s experiences of identity and growing up ‘different’ (Coyle & Rafalin, 2000). These demonstrate the value of qualitative surveys for topics typically addressed in face-to-face interviews. In addition to ‘giving voice’ to participant’s experiential ‘realities’, qualitative surveys can be used to interrogate the discursive construction and negotiation of meaning. For example, we have used qualitative surveys to explore how lesbian and bisexual women (Clarke & Spence, 2013), and gay and bisexual men (Clarke & Smith, 2015), discursively negotiate their visual identities in ways that are responsive both to dominant norms around authenticity and individuality and to a ‘coming out imperative’ in queer communities.

Qualitative surveys are sometimes used as a substitute for interviews (Coyle & Rafalin, 2000) or to extend their geographic reach (Clarke & Demetriou, 2016), but this is not the limit of their usefulness. Rather, they offer particular benefits to qualitative researchers. The (various levels of) anonymity they offer mean they are ideally suited to research on sensitive topics (like experiences of pregnancy loss, and orgasm, or views on pubic hair, as discussed above). Some participants may feel more comfortable disclosing information they consider embarrassing or socially undesirable without a researcher sitting opposite them or probing for more information. Furthermore, precisely because of the lack of direct contact between researcher and participant, surveys side-step some of the ethical concerns associated with neophyte researchers discussing sensitive topics face-to-face with participants. They thus expand the range of research topics open to student researchers: the ‘experiences of orgasm and sexual pleasure’ survey mentioned above was conducted for Cassandra Rogers’ undergraduate project. Ethical questions would likely be asked if an inexperienced undergraduate student proposed studying this topic using interviews or focus groups.

Like the online methods discussed above, surveys, particularly if delivered electronically (online or emailed), can also circumvent the constraints of physical geography and allow researchers to collect data from people across a country or, indeed, across the globe. For example, Peel’s (2010) online delivery allowed her to collect data from lesbian and bisexual women who had experienced pregnancy loss from four different countries. Another advantage is potential speed of data collection: for their research on chronic health experiences of non-straight individuals, Jowett and Peel (2009) collected 364 responses to their online survey in only eight weeks, with minimal effort

(recruiting via email lists, social networking sites and personal contacts snowballing). It would require a very large research team to collect a similar number of interviews in eight weeks! Terry and Braun’s (2013) data collection was even faster—they collected most of their nearly 600 completed surveys about body hair over just one weekend following a media story. Qualitative research is often perceived—rightly—as labour-intensive and time-consuming, which makes it challenging in contexts in which time and resources are limited (e.g. student research). These examples highlight a practical and pragmatic advantage of surveys: taking some of the labour intensity out of data collection, freeing up researcher time for data analysis.

Survey samples sizes can be similar to interview samples (e.g. 16 participants in Turner & Coyle, 2007) but more often tend to be larger than is typical in qualitative research; samples of 60 (Peel, 2010), 99 (Clarke, 2016), 119 (Opperman et al., 2014) and even 678 (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004) have been reported. Bigger is not necessarily better, but the facility of surveys to collect large samples opens up new possibilities for qualitative research, allowing a ‘wide-angle’ lens (Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004) on the topic of interest. This is particularly useful when seeking to understand social norms—such as those around body hair removal (Braun et al., 2013; Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004) or clothing (Frith & Gleeson, 2004, 2008)—or to capture a broad range and diversity of experience or perspectives. Smaller samples can produce homogeneity and larger samples allow researchers to practise sampling strategies such as ‘maximum variation’ (Sandelowski, 1995) or ‘maximum heterogeneity’ (Fassinger, 2005), which emphasise diversity, rather than typicality.

A large sample, and greater breadth of response, can also ‘compensate’ for shallower/shorter responses that are sometimes apparent in qualitative survey research (see Terry & Braun, 2017). Without the presence of a researcher to prompt, probe and in other ways gently encourage greater detail and disclosure, survey responses can be perfunctory—though participants do tend to stay ‘on topic’; one-line ‘zingers’ characteristic of social media, and flippant answers, can also feature (Terry & Braun, 2017). Moreover, the absence of a researcher can encourage participants to ‘answer back’, sometimes rudely, challenging the wording of a question or the assumptions perceived to underlie it (norms of politeness means this rarely happens in face-to-face encounters). This points to another key characteristic of qualitative surveys—despite the researcher pre-determining the questions asked, participants have more control over the research process. Much like virtual asynchronous interviews or focus groups, survey participants determine when and where they complete the research and how long they spend doing so; the ‘tone’ of their engagement is something they also have total control over. Opportunities for follow-up are limited or non-existent, which can be frustrating when, after reading the data, you want to ask a participant to clarify a response or provide more detail.

All methods of data collection have limits—they provide access to certain things and obscure others. Despite their limits, we are excited by the possibilities surveys offer us as qualitative researchers! The opportunity to hear from participants all over the country (and the world) without significant time and expense, to gain a ‘wide’—and hence different—angle on social norms and to engage a diversity of participants in our research, is highly attractive. This is especially the case if, like us, you conduct research on sensitive topics and/or social groups that are socially marginalised and hence ‘hidden’ or geographically dispersed.

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