Qualitative Research Methods in Action

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

birkbeck_qualitative_methods_day_webOn 23 May 2017, Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology was delighted to host a one-day conference to discuss the latest methodologies in the field – Qualitative Research Methods. Qualitative research is an area of growing interest for organizational psychologists because of its ability to provide unique insight into trends in thought and opinions, and dive right to the heart of a problem. The day’s presentations and panel discussions provided a fantastic platform to engage with the work of academic staff, current and recently completed PhD students from the department, with a particular focus on the challenges and opportunities posed by the participant-researcher relationship that develops over the course of a study.

What are Qualitative Methods?

Where both qualitative and quantitative research methods play a pivotal role in contributing to understandings of work and organizations, qualitative research comprises a wide range of methods developed from a variety of theoretical perspectives and underpinned by a range of philosophical stances. These include critical, postmodern and social constructionist perspectives, reflecting the landscape of influential European philosophies.  More traditional positivist quantitative research methods are used to quantify the problem by generating numerical data for statistical analysis, but qualitative research typically applies inductive methods to explore socially constructed reality, focusing on meanings, ideas and practices.  This approach can provide rich data about sense-making, identity, and lived experience that quantitative studies simply cannot match. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches have their strengths and limitations but essentially they are used to address very different research questions. The Department of Organizational Psychology is committed to a plurality of research methods and their underpinning philosophies as a means of enhancing the methodological options available to work psychologists.

The focus of this event was on the participant-researcher relationship in qualitative research with a particular focus on the role of trust, time and technology.

Building the Trust

So – qualitative data collection takes time, but are there other challenges in qualitative research? Certainly, but the biggest challenge can also be considered the biggest opportunity – the relationship that develops between researcher and participant. The audience heard this first-hand from several presenters, like PhD student Jane Setten. She described trust as the ‘central mechanism’ to her longitudinal study, in which she will meet her participants over several years to map changes in their work-life situations. While the relationship between researcher and interviewee could, in the first instance, create a barrier to authentic and useful data if the participant was wary of the researcher, it can become a window to ‘successfully understand a situation or behaviour from an insider’s perspective’. Qualitative research methods rely on the researcher-participant relationship – it is a key part of co-constructing the data to analyse.

The audience also heard from Paula Fitzgerald, who shared not only her experience of qualitative photo-elicitation and interview methods but a great example of how – regardless of discipline – a research journey is rarely linear. Paula’s qualitative data collection resulted in her beginning to analyse her own experience of conducting research, from the researcher’s perspective – ‘an embodied experience’. Her work shed light on the role of the researcher as nuanced and permeable, and the idea that a researcher can be seen by their participants either as an insider or an outsider.

In Pursuit of Publication

The OP Qualitative Methods in Action day succeeded in providing an informal overview of leading-edge, innovative methods that are currently being used by qualitative researchers in the department. However, qualitative research, like longitudinal case studies carried out over a number of years, and visual approaches, like responses to pictures and participant video diaries, are still considered less traditional than quantitative methods. Student and staff presentations were thus augmented by an insightful keynote on the challenges and opportunities in publishing qualitative research, delivered by Professor Bill Lee, from the University of Sheffield Management School. Professor Lee has not only published widely on topics across management and related disciplines, but is also an associate editor for Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management (QROM) and of the European Management Review (EMR). At EMR he has recently established a new section, “Methodology Matters”, which provides a peer-reviewed outlet for articles that make a methodological contribution.

After leading the audience through the development of opportunities for qualitative research, and the context on which the debate on research methods is based, Professor Lee highlighted the importance of perseverance and resilience in pursuit of publication. New sections such as “Methodology Matters” open up new opportunities for people interested in methods and associated fields, helping to bolster accessibility and diversity within all research fields.

The Department of Organizational Psychology would like to thank all participants and attendees for their thought provoking presentations, posters and questions.

You can follow Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology on Twitter @bbk_orgpsych or find out more about upcoming events on their website.

The graphic recording of the day’s proceedings was provided by Laura Sorvala, from Auralab. You can follow her on Twitter @_auralab or visit her website.

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