Thursday, 19 July 2012

Seeing is believing: exploring qualitative methods beyond text and talk

Posted by Shelina Visram (with Ann Crossland)

In the run up to the recent UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence meeting, I received an email asking for volunteers to help organise and deliver workshops. One of the suggested topics – ‘The use of novel qualitative methods in evaluation research’ – immediately caught my eye. I’ve been involved in a number of evaluations and most have relied on qualitative methods. So I put myself forward and was glad to hear Professor Ann Crosland had volunteered too. We decided Ann should do the bits on using commonplace methods in novel ways and I’d do the bits on visual methods. Then we went our separate ways to work on the content.

That’s when I stopped and thought: how much do I really know about visual methods? Yes, I’ve used them in a number of projects but I’m certainly no expert. I wondered who would attend this workshop. Would they be expecting to explore the philosophy of creative methods? Should I be using words like epistemology and ontology? Or could I get away with showing cute pictures drawn by small children? I decided the most sensible approach would be to hedge my bets and do a bit of both (without getting bogged down by philosophy).

Picture drawn by a 7-year-old when asked “What things affect your health?” during the evaluation of a weight management programme 
Here comes the science… Qualitative research relies heavily on the things people write or say. If you’re a positivist, you might ask how we know whether this information is ‘true’, i.e. does it accurately reflect the ‘real world’? We interpretivists tend not to worry about those things and instead accept the existence of multiple realities and therefore multiple versions of the ‘truth’. However, we still assume that what people write or say is a reliable account of their truth. Yet we know that people have different capacities and motives for sharing information. During interviews or focus groups, participants are telling particular stories in a particular social context. To what extent can we use these stories to draw interpretations about their lives outside of that context?*

This is part of the rationale for using visual methods. We acknowledge that the information people provide verbally or in writing is only ever partial and cannot be taken at face value. Visual methods give us an alternative means to examine their beliefs, attitudes, experiences and ideas about themselves. These methods are particularly useful in exploring the routine of daily life that tends to go unnoticed. For example, how many of us could describe our journey to work in any great detail? Yet if we were asked to draw, map, photograph or film our travels, we would undoubtedly provide a far richer picture of the same journey. Other examples of creative methods include spider diagrams, clay modelling, body mapping, and something called Lego Serious Play which I am desperate to try (but maybe with Fuzzy Felts – remember them?).

Advantages of using visual methods include the fact that they are interactive, encourage free expression, and often generate unexpected findings. They are also inclusive, in that they don’t require participants to be especially articulate in speaking or writing in English. I’ve used drawing in a project involving children from 4-years-old and this helped to give them a ‘voice’ in evaluating a service. Challenges include the potential to generate vast amounts of data that can be difficult to interpret, although visual methods are generally used alongside interviews and focus groups. This helps to engage participants in the process of interpretation. There are also ethical issues to consider; for example, consent is required if others appear in photos or videos.

It can take a lot of time, energy and resources to use creative methods in any research or evaluation activity. But I would argue that they represent one way of overcoming some of the criticisms about the validity and anecdotal nature of qualitative research. And they’re fun too.

*For an in-depth discussion of this argument, read this book.

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