The role of Qualitative Methods in (Psychological) Research
This is the first of a nine-part series about the appreciation and use of qualitative research methods in science
The moment of my realization - Part 1
One thing you should know about me is that I get excited easily (yes, even about statistics). But even more so, I get excited about research and how to carry out good science. In 2018, I was teaching the statistics practical in the bachelor of the Psychology programme when a Master’s degree student, let’s call him Bob, wanted access to my classroom to conduct research on education. I gave him my permission to come and have a look at how I teach. On the agreed-upon date, Bob showed up, installed a camera in the back of my classroom and left. Two hours later, he came back to pick up the camera.
Interested in his research questions and design, I asked him about his plans. Bob told me that he was interested in the interplay between my posture and energy as a teacher and the number of questions students asked. He would watch the videos he made of me and my colleagues, and look at our way of moving around and talking. Then he would count how many students would raise their hands to pose a question. He was planning to do this in various groups, analyse the data, and see whether there was a statistically significant relation.
This was a fascinating question to me. I was immediately prompted to give him some background information related to his research question. I told him that in the previous block I had two groups. The first group was at 9 AM, and for understandable reasons, this group was a bit on the quiet side. They didn’t collaborate and they didn’t ask many questions. This group mostly kept their heads down and did (or pretended to do) their exercises. The second group would arrive at 11 AM, bursting with energy. They would discuss the questions amongst themselves rather loudly and would often call me over to help them out.
In the current block, though, I only had the noisy group. The quiet group was now taught by my colleague, who had a calmer and more to-the-point way of teaching than me. At that moment, I could already imagine Bob looking at the data. He would see my ‘spirited’ teaching style followed by lots of interaction with the group. As for my colleague, he would observe her calm manner and lack of interaction with the students. This could lead Bob to find a pretty strong relationship between the posture of the teacher and the behavior of the students. Unfortunately, I knew this conclusion could be problematic because the vibes between these two groups were so different.
Bob was glad to have talked to me because he agreed this was something important to consider. Previously, he had proposed to his supervisor to conduct interviews with the teachers, in addition to gathering video data, to get access to these insights. Bob thought that it might provide him with some important context to his statistical data. But unfortunately, his supervisor had discouraged him from including these qualitative methods in his research design, stating that it “was not worth the effort.”
Because of that discouragement, Bob was faced with a difficult choice. Had he interviewed me, he could have used what I said as evidence in his research and taken this into account in his analysis. But he hadn’t interviewed me. So now, he could choose: to forget what I had told him, or try to somehow work this nuance into the discussion section as a limitation to his design. That sounds like a nice solution until you realize what that effectively means. He could say: “I have this nice research which I designed in such a way that, even though I found a strong relationship, I actually didn’t.” Or, in other words: “In hindsight, this research was pointless, and I could just as well not have carried it out in the first place.”
Neither of these two options sounded ideal to me. In fact, both options would have dire ethical consequences. Pretending not to be aware of information is problematic in the context of scientific integrity for obvious reasons, but demanding time from participants to carry out pointless research is also generally frowned upon. Then again, the only reason Bob had been caught in this awkward position was because his supervisor discouraged him from interviewing the teachers for some much-needed context. That sounded so wrong to me that it piqued my interest – what had led his supervisor to discourage Bob from interviewing the teachers?
It felt so wrong to me because I was under the assumption that, in science, gaining knowledge was the primary goal, and the methods through which to attain this knowledge are meant to serve that goal. To put it differently, one should use the methods that do the best job in answering one’s particular research question. However, now I found out that a range of methods offer insight into the personal experience, but those methods appeared not to be valued or used by the established rank of researchers. Surely psychological researchers would not only be interested in averages and standard deviations but also in people and their individual experiences? How else could we call ourselves ‘psychologists’?
And that led me to another profoundly strange realization: I received a lot of education in statistics, but during the entire bachelor in psychology, there had not been a single course on qualitative research methods. For these 3,5 years that I spent learning about psychological research, I wasn’t even introduced to the idea that there might be such a thing – a kind of psychological research that wasn’t solely relying on statistics. When I realized this, I was keen on finding out how that could have happened.
To find an explanation, I chose a unique master track called Theory and History of Psychology at the RUG. During my own Master’s research project, I was able to find some answers. In the next article, I will shed light on these answers I found during my own historical research. Throughout the rest of this series, I will dive deeper into what qualitative research entails, and explore how the different kinds of qualitative methods play an important role in other scientific disciplines.
Rinske Vermeij is a PhD student at the Theory & History of Psychology department at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. Her Master Thesis about the place of qualitative research in psychology won the Jan Brouwer Scriptie Prize in 2020. She currently chairs the Qualitative Research Group. To share your thoughts, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.