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Individual Interviews, Focus Groups, and Observations Methods of Data Collection

Introduction

Individual interviews, focus groups, and observations are some of the methods of data collection used in qualitative research. When conducting an observational study, researchers no longer rely on putting forward a hypothesis and predicting the results: instead, they observe what happens in real life. Individual interviews hinge largely on subjective perception and yet, provide detailed data and allow for clarification of ambiguity and additional questions. Lastly, arranging focus groups lets researchers diversify data by becoming familiar with both individual and group feelings and dynamics. These procedures are instrumental for gathering primary information directly from the context of the design problem. The observational method encompasses video-enhanced observation and video-stimulated recall, which are effective primary data gathering processes.

Observations and interviews have been the subject matter of many philosophical debates. For instance, in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein ponders the nature of both contemplation and communication in human beings. The philosopher is sceptical about the possibility to determine a certain rule or tendency by observing. Further, Wittgenstein questions the validity of obtaining information from people as, to him, they do not know the rules by which they function themselves (Winch 2015). Moreover, when asked, they may alter their opinion on the go, thus making the researcher stray even further from the truth (Winch 2015). While the following review acknowledges the limitations of the chosen methods, it also highlights their value and offers solutions for overcoming the challenges that their application presents.

Individual Interviews

Value

Individual interviews are qualitative methods of collecting data that entail direct engagement with the respondents. Individual interviews are effective since they add a human dimension to impersonal data. They enable the researcher to collect in-depth information regarding the personal feelings, views, opinions, and perceptions of the interviewee (Yerushalmi et al., 2012). The interviewee is challenged to explore him or herself during the process and might be compelled to discuss topics that they do not usually embark on.

The procedure allows the researchers to ask more critical questions (Michaela et al., 2012). As opposed to a survey, an interview is usually semi-structured and leaves some space for clarification of ambiguity. Moreover, the researcher both draws verbal data and reads emotional cues. In case a respondent shows hesitation when answering, the interviewer might govern the conversation in a way that would render it more comfortable. Lastly, the researcher can alter the order in which the questions are asked, starting with less personal and ending with critical and sensitive.

Consequently, the response rate is high, and the researcher can record the respondent’s words for further analysis (Mitropolitski 2015). The researcher can explain the variables clearly for the respondents to understand, creating more time for correcting ambiguities (Yerushalmi et al., 2012). Hence, the direct engagement with the respondents in individual interviews assists the interviewer to establish a formal friendship with the interviewee to gain more critical information. The latter is of value for conducting further analysis and drawing conclusions.

Limitations

Various limitations exist with regards to individual interviews. Firstly, in case a researcher is pressed for time, organizing, transcribing, reporting, and analyzing interviews can be fairly time-consuming. Secondly, the procedures are also prone to failure, especially if the researcher lacks the skills of managing conversations effectively (Mitropolitski 2015). Regardless of the field, an interview is a two-way interaction in which two people with different needs, emotions, and requirements are trying to achieve a common goal. If an interviewee does not understand the purpose of the session entirely, he or she might fail to provide relevant data. Analogically, in case the interviewer lacks a sense of direction, he or she might abstain from asking additional questions and clarifying ambiguity when a situation calls for it.

Thirdly, in case the research is not funded sufficiently, the cost of collecting data when a face-to-face approach is employed is sometimes high. Respondents occasionally require incentives to participate fully in the interview, which may increase costs (Mitropolitski 2015). Moreover, conducting a series of interviews sometimes requires hiring personnel who must be paid as well. Fourthly, failure to guarantee equity in the process of sampling in individual interviews may lead to the collecting of biased information, undermines the validity of the study’s findings and their replicability.

Ethical Issues

It is possible to point out a few ethical constraints that might undermine research balance with regard to individual interviews. Firstly, the researcher bears the significant responsibility of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the respondents. For instance, a study by Petrova, Dewing, and Camilleri (2016) revealed that Maltese practising nurses reported feelings of concern and uneasiness regarding their participation. Since they had to discuss issues in the workplace, they were afraid of having their identities divulged and, hence, ruining their reputation. Petrova et al. argue that qualitative research barely ever ensures full anonymity due to the wide use of direct citations and personal details.

Further, transparency is another major ethical issue when conducting an interview. First, both the interviewer and the interviewee need to have a clear sense of direction and focus on the topic (Ryan, Lopez-Rodriguez & Trevena 2016). This way, the respondent provides relevant information without oversharing that he or she might regret later and see as a breach of confidentiality. Second, transparency allows for understanding how the information is going to be used and disseminated. For instance, a person might be partaking in an interview about workplace bullying but not be aware that the focus is on the work ethics of their respective company. In this case, he or she might not know that they might be exposing themselves where their company obtain the information. Even if the data is cleaned and their personal details are unidentifiable, their coworkers still might make the right guesses. Hence, the interviewee has to be familiar with the subject and the purpose of the research.

Thirdly, the autonomy of the participant is another critical ethical problem in individual interviews since the dominant role is taken by the interviewer may influence the respondent to feel betrayed or undermined (Guest et al., 2017). For instance, the interviewee and the interviewer might have two different perspectives on what information or what part of the information is important. The researcher pursues his or her own interests and might deliberately focus on a particular piece of data, which to the interviewee might seem insignificant. Autonomy might be fostered by explaining the purpose of each additional question so that the respondent knows that he or she make an informed decision of sharing information. On the contrary, if the respondent feels violated or stifled by the interrogative character of an interview, he or she might provide incomplete data due to growing mistrust. Hence, the researcher has to ensure an ethical balance to guarantee the freedom of expression of the interviewee(s).

Practical Issues

Several practical constraints that might undermine individual interviews are apparent. Firstly, the entry strategy into the facility is a critical practical issue because the researcher is new and not a member of the respondents’ group. First impressions matter: the way the researcher shows up, greets the interviewees and explains the guidelines lay a foundation for further communication. The strong and positive presence of the researcher might help relieve the tension from being put in an unfamiliar environment (Coad et al., 2014). Consequently, respondents would feel more at ease and start engaging faster, thus, allowing for better time management and an interview structure. Similarly, the exit also is a significant issue to avoid leaving a bad impression that will discourage the respondents from participating in a similar interview in the future.

In case the researcher and the respondents have met before, it is essential to maintain a friendly relationship without, however, pushing boundaries and making the connection personal. If an interviewee views the interviewer as his or her close friend, they might start oversharing. This additional information might be irrelevant to the researcher, and the respondent who disclosed too much might feel regret.

Focus Groups

Value

Focus groups are a qualitative method of collecting data where the researcher holds a discussion or interview with individuals that share similar characteristics such as age, gender, or occupation field. The method allows the researcher to obtain the general views and opinions of the target group (Palacios-Ceña et al., 2016). The procedures are cost-effective compared to individual interviews and less time-consuming because more respondents are interviewed at one time or using the same tool. Adams, Raeside, and Khan (2014) make a valid point by claiming that the sampling process in focus groups is easier and does not require ensuring randomization. While normally, researchers aim at diversifying their sample, a focus group is built based on particular criteria such as rank, gender, and social status. Such a sampling method enables the collection of information relevant for a particular demographic, making the data inferential for those who share the key characteristics with the respondents.

Limitations

Some limitations are associated with focus groups. Firstly, planning for the interview is more challenging since it requires a dedicated method of identifying techniques for building cohesion within the group (Guest et al., 2017). Secondly, managing people’s feelings and emotions during the conversation can be difficult because the conflict of interests among respondents may cause serious research disruptions (Guest et al., 2017). Thirdly, focus groups require a clear and precise definition of the topic or question, which influences participants’ behaviour to respond in a specific manner. However, the greatest limitation is the possibility of the emergence of “the Other” within a group: while respondents were invited based on certain shared characteristics, other personal traits might vary greatly and contribute to creating subgroups. Group management might help overcome the said limitations: by stating the purpose, outlining behaviour guidelines, and regulating group processes, the researcher can foster a feeling of unity and togetherness.

Ethical Issues

Several ethical constraints might undermine research balance with regard to focus groups. Firstly, confidentiality is hard to maintain in any group: if in an individual interview, the researcher takes the responsibility of enforcing ethical guidelines, in a group, this responsibility is shared. The group session involving unfamiliar respondents might create an ethical dilemma, rendering the method less effective in collecting sensitive information. It is only natural that a person feels reluctant to share in front of a group of strangers, especially if he or she is not sure how the researcher will follow through with ethical considerations.

However, personal boundaries might vary greatly in people, and the polar opposite of the last problem is oversharing. Boateng and Nelson (2016) suggest that the researcher prevent over-disclosure, especially if the topic is highly critical. The authors make a valid point since guiding conversations is the researcher’s responsibility, and while the purpose of the study is communicated to each respondent, the researcher possesses more knowledge and leverage. To stop a respondent from sharing too much sensitive information, the interviewer might consider moving on to the next question or kindly reminding a respondent about time constraints. Secondly, fundamental ethical values of respect and trust apply equally to all group members, and this provision might be neglected due to personal behavioural differences.

The mentioned difficulties can be overcome if the interviewer starts a session by outlining clear ethical guidelines such as not sharing information obtained during this part of a study. During the process, the interviewer should not only ask questions but be a mediator and a regulator to group processes: predict emerging conflicts, resolve the tension, and help people feel connected. Further, giving each person an equal chance to express themselves does not only make them feel validated but also allows for better time management for the entire group (Flynn, Albrecht & Scott 2018). Group management skills are applicable to all focus groups as not a single group is immune to conflicts and misunderstandings.

Practical Issues

The building of strong relationships is a key practical issue that dictates the effectiveness of the research. Consequently, the researcher has to make the impression that he or she is a member of the group and is concerned with the problems faced (Flynn, Albrecht & Scott 2018). Upholding such a facade allows for becoming a confidant – someone who understands respondents’ personal struggles. Yet, it is essential that internally, the interviewer remains uninvested to a certain degree so that his or her subjective perception and sympathy do not distort the results. In addition, individual opinions of each respondent are assumed as the views of the group since the groups themselves are built based on particular criteria, be it personal experiences or professional background.

The validity and the effectiveness of focus groups depend on the ability to build cohesion between participants (Nind, Kilburn & Wiles 2015). Two scenarios are possible: some respondents might stray from the group and stick to their vastly different opinion, thus, creating deviation. Second, part of the interviewees might experience group pressure and alter their views to keep them in line with the dominant paradigm. It is safe to assume that the relationship between group members is a key determinant of the effectiveness of focus groups. Allowing everyone to speak their mind ensures that participants do not alienate themselves as a sign of protest or conform to avoid a conflict.

Observations

Value

Observations in qualitative research may be collected through video-enhanced, and video stimulated recall. The two procedures collectively enable the researcher to show a video to the respondents that describe their behaviour, empowers them to gain a critical understanding of the topic. Paskins et al. (2017) assert that the data collecting process generates an exceptional experience for the participants, which provides relevant data. The method accentuates research-based convenience to the respondents, which allows higher participation levels (Nind, Kilburn & Wiles 2015). The nature of the responses also enables accuracy by allowing critical evaluation of the relevant issues and adding value to research (Paskins, McHugh & Hassell 2014). Hence, video-enhanced and video-stimulated recall observational methods enables the acquisition of necessary details, making the data collection more meaningful for further research.

Limitations

Various limitations associated with observation as a qualitative research method are apparent. Firstly, the procedure limits the availability of data as the presence of a video camera may provoke anxiety and distress among the participants. Worries and speculations are highly associated with video effects, which increases the reason for participatory resistance (Paskins, McHugh & Hassell 2014). Secondly, the method is often seen as unfit for collecting sensitive information knowingly due to video recording (Paskins, McHugh & Hassell 2014). Storing video data might give rise to an ethical issue: respondents might feel that their trust is breached and their participation is no longer confidential.

Overall, the ethical issues of video recording can be overcome if participants are offered a comprehensive written consent form describing how the data will be used and disseminated. They need to understand that the present form is legally binding, and researchers’ abuse of power would be persecuted. Knowing that they are protected by law, respondents might feel more at ease. Thirdly, management of the feelings and emotions of both interviewers and interviewees is challenging with the accuracy of observation as qualitative research. Emotional analysis of a situation depends on the observer’s subjective perspective, which might distort the data. At the same time, allowing a team of observers to interpret the same situation might lead to conflicts and misunderstandings while a consensus would have yet to be reached.

Ethical Issues

Several ethical issues exist that might undermine observational research. Firstly, privacy and confidentiality are critical ethical challenges associated with qualitative observations. Gathering data through videos renders the respondents susceptible to privacy violations, which overburdens the researcher with the responsibility of implementing strict measures to protect the participants’ confidentially (Rashid 2015). It puts a strain on respondents’ feelings as well as when leaked; video recordings might be used for ruining their reputation or blackmail. Secondly, transparency is critical because failure to disclose the purpose of the interview may provoke false disclosure. Such research behaviour produces biased information, which undermines the quality of the project. Again, it creates an ethical issue regarding consent: participants only gave permission to analyzing specific information. When a researcher decides to use some additional details provided and make them front and centre of data analysis, respondents might feel misled and deceived. Hence, the various ethical constraints relating to observational research can cause distortion of information and conduct of unethical research in cases of highly sensitive issues.

Practical Issues

Observations, as a qualitative method, require several practical measures, especially in case collecting sensitive information is the end goal of a study. Firstly, prior preparation of the scene is needed because it has a significant effect on the manner the respondents will behave. When put in an unfamiliar environment, many people experience discomfort, which might prevent them from sharing and speaking their mind. Hence, it is essential that they perceive the new milieu as welcoming and comfortable from the start.

Secondly, the shooting process has to occur skillfully to display the real behaviour and emotional sincerity from the participants. According to Cutter-Mackenzie, Edwards, and Quinton (2015), age and demographics also play a vital role in the practicality of the method because it might not be suitable for some groups to use video-enhanced observation and video-stimulated recall methods, for instance, the elderly.

Thirdly, the approach is more effective if the participants and researchers possess some similarity in character, status, mentality, and/or power. However, while it eliminates some practical issues, drawing a sample of candidates based on similitudes creates bias and division. A group that is too homogeneous cannot provide data that would be inferential for broader populations. Hence, observations become a difficult method to implement practically, especially when the respondents are diverse. Yet, the observational study design has the potential of creating an actual situation in which the respondents behave naturally or close to how they act in real life. This allows for drawing relevant data, which might outweigh the disadvantages of observation.

To recall, individual interviews, focus groups, and observations are essential qualitative research methods. These procedures are instrumental for gathering information, but they are not deprived of several limitations and ethical issues despite their value in gathering primary information. For instance, the observational method is impeded by the participants’ worries and speculations that are associated with casting. Individual and group interviews raise typically concerns regarding confidentiality, which might prevent some of the participants from sharing. Nonetheless, the methods are categorically instrumental when the sample population is best selected according to the practicality and value of each procedure.

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