The new conditions of postmodern reality impose new requirements on social research. Social researchers must adjust their research methods to the new conditions of the social reality and develop new research methods, to support researchers in their way to improved validity and reliability of social research results. The development of new social research methods is the measure of last resort. More often than not, researchers will apply to the existing methods of qualitative analysis. The latter are flexible enough to help researchers to meet the goals of postmodern social research. This paper will analyze interviews and focus groups as the two basic forms of qualitative research in social sciences.
Qualitative interviews: Breaking the ice
Qualitative interviews are fairly regarded as one of the most widely used forms of social research. Qualitative interviews are commonly used for various research tasks. Researchers in social sciences apply to qualitative interviews in order gather primary data directly from research participants. Qualitative interviews differ from structured interviews used for quantitative analysis in several ways. First, qualitative interviews are always less structured than those in quantitative research (Bryman 2004). Quantitative interviews must maximize the reliability of key measurements and thus include a predetermined set of structured questions, while qualitative research is more flexible and implies that social researchers may change the formulation of the interview questions, to meet the goals of social study. Second, qualitative researchers are interested in the interviewees’ beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints (Bryman 2004). Instead, quantitative interviews are limited to the basic researcher’s concerns (Bryman 2004). Third, qualitative interviews give interviewers the freedom of choosing the most appropriate schedule and let them depart from this schedule significantly, based on the expected results and the barriers which researchers may encounter during research (Bryman 2004). In quantitative interviews, standardization is of primary importance and interviewees must answer all questions the way they are presented in the interview form and within the given period of time (Bryman 2004). Finally, qualitative interviews are more responsive to the direction, which interviewees choose to take during the interview (Bryman 2004). Here, a probability exists that the social researcher will incorporate new questions to address the emerging problems and concerns (Bryman 2004). Quantitative interviews lack flexibility. It would be correct to say that quantitative interviews and flexibility are incompatible, because standardization usually predetermines the validity and quality of quantitative research results.
The aim of any qualitative interview is to explore the perceptions, opinions, and meanings of the interviewee (Holloway 2005). Here, the researcher faces one of the most difficult tasks: to avoid imposing his (her) own beliefs and viewpoints on what the interviewee is trying to say or to convey during the interview. That means that the interviewer must be open to the interviewee’s ideas, flexible and communicative, and must “not allow preexisting assumptions and ideas to dictate the nature of the interview” (Holloway 2005, p. 44). Qualitative interviews require that social researchers be prepared to go beyond the anticipated boundaries of the superficial; they must ready to be surprised by changes in the interview directions (Holloway 2005). The researcher must be ready to clarify the meanings and perceptions that emerge during the interview, regardless of whether they fit into the researcher’s expectations and beliefs. The interpretation of the findings may come later in the process of analyzing the data, but the clarification of these meanings and perceptions is critical for the success, objectivity, and reliability of qualitative interviews.
Qualitative interviews present social researchers with a number of advantages. Qualitative interviews provide researchers with a unique opportunity to capture the research subjects’ own words, to focus on issues that are salient to the participants and are not necessarily driven by the social research agenda (Holloway 2005). Qualitative interviews allow social researchers to clarify the meanings and opinions immediately; through interviews, researchers can explore the most complex issues in depth (Holloway 2005). In qualitative interviews, social researchers can capture and record non-verbal behaviors of the research participants. Interviews are flexible and do not require specialist equipment (Holloway 2005). The whole process of interviewing research participants draws on the pre-existing skills of communication and conversation (Holloway 2005). Qualitative interviews are particularly useful when exploring the participants’ values, beliefs, observations, and opinions – these are usually difficult to observe and accommodate in a formal questionnaire (Seale 2004). Open-ended interview questions make it easier to get a better weighed and more considerate response and thus provide access to the interviewees’ understanding of the surrounding reality (Seale 2004). This approach to social research is of particular use to social scientists, who stand on the ontological position and consider people’s values, beliefs, and opinions of primary importance in social research (Seale 2004). Qualitative interviews give research participants a chance to convey their own meanings and to speak their opinions in their own language; for this reason, social researchers apply to qualitative interviews whenever they seek to explore the issues, opinions, and meanings that they believe to have been previously misrepresented or misunderstood (Seale 2004).
Qualitative interviews are not without their problems. Interviews are extremely time-consuming, while flexible format makes it difficult to analyze, interpret, standardize, and generalize the interview data (Holloway 2005). Open interviewing and reflexivity are the two complex skills that require experience and practice (Holloway 2005). What interviewees say during the qualitative interview is not necessarily what they feel or think: any qualitative interview requires that the researcher reconstructs the data obtained during the interview based on the subjective interviewees’ characteristics like class, position, and gender (Holloway 2005). Nevertheless, qualitative interviews fit into the system of postmodern approaches to social research. They promote the constructivist vision of the world and favor research methods that are neither oppressive nor progressive (Kvale 1996). The knowledge produced during qualitative interviews can be used either to enhance the interviewees’ human condition or to manage their behaviors more efficiently (Kvale 1996). Today, qualitative interviews signify a broader shift away from the quantifiable and easily observable data closer to humanities and the descriptions of consciousness, which emphasize the relevance of meanings, experiences, perceptions, and narratives/ dialogues in researching various social events (Kvale 1996).
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Focus groups: the value of interaction
Qualitative interviews are not the only way of conducting social research. Focus groups is just another method of research in social sciences, which adds its value to qualitative interviews and provides social researchers with unique data collection opportunities. Focus groups are defined as “small structured groups with selected participants, normally led by a moderator. They are set up in order to explore specific topics, and individuals’ views and experiences through group interaction” (Litosseliti 2003, p. 1). Focus groups are always special in terms of their composition, size, and purpose; they are designed to participate in a carefully led discussion and exemplify a permissive, non-threatening environment, through which social researchers can access and obtain participants’ perceptions, observations, values, and beliefs (Litosseliti 2003). Focus groups create and maintain an enjoyable and open environment, where the discussion is always comfortable and openness is favored and encouraged. In focus groups, participants do not feel the pressure to conform to the prevailing majority but have an opportunity to express diverse points of view (Litosseliti 2003).
Focus groups are the best when the idea the researcher wants to explore is new, and when the best results will come from letting the participants discuss and evaluate this idea directly (Edmunds 2000). Like interviews, focus groups can be readily used to explore the data and ideas that used to be misrepresented or neglected before. Focus groups can participate in social experiments and test the ideas presented by the researcher. In the process of discussing participants’ ideas, perceptions, and results social researchers will have better opportunities to identify participants’ needs, requirements, and the existing gaps in social knowledge (Edmunds 2000). Social researchers can apply to focus groups, to create a questionnaire which will be later used for quantitative research (Edmunds 2000). Focus groups can help discuss the results of quantitative research (Edmunds 2000). Finally, focus groups are an excellent brainstorming mechanism, which can provide fresh insights into the problem the researcher could not resolve earlier (Edmunds 2000).
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Like any other method of qualitative social research, focus groups are an effective means of collecting qualitative data and have their strengths and weaknesses. One of the basic strength is in that focus groups rely on the researcher’s focus and produce the data that relate directly to the topic of social research (Morgan 1997). Compared with qualitative interviews and participant observations, the data produced by focus groups is usually compact and targets directly the interests of the social researcher (Morgan 1997). Focus groups combine the benefits of observation and interviewing, and they are often referred to as some “magical synergy” which makes group interactions more explicit and provides better insight into participants’ experiences and opinions (Morgan 1997). In distinction from qualitative interviews, focus groups are less time-consuming and are more efficient: eight-person focus groups will produce more efficient data that ten qualitative interviews (Morgan 1997). That, however, does not mean that focus groups are always a preferable option. More often than not, focus groups will present researchers and participants with numerous dilemmas, including logistics: some participants may find it difficult to travel to the focus group destination and will not be able to participate in a focus group discussion (Morgan 1997).
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Another significant strength of focus groups is in their reliance of dialogue and interaction. Morgan is correct in that in the era of diversity and the growing multitude of experience, opinions, and viewpoints focus groups discussions are of particular value, because they provide social scientists with direct data on the most complicated issues (Morgan 1997). When focus group participants engage in close interaction and share their experiences and viewpoints with each other, they turn into valuable sources of data and insights into their own motivations and behaviors (Morgan 1997). Unfortunately, these strengths often turn into a weakness. For example, the group’s reliance on the researcher’s focus makes focus groups less natural and naturalistic: the group’s moderator, in his (her) striving to maintain the group’s focus, may change the direction of the group’s interactions (Morgan 1997). In a similar vein, the focus group’s reliance on interaction can be the source of the major research weaknesses, because focus groups are associated with both the tendency toward conformity and the tendency toward polarization (Morgan 1997). Focus group participants’ reactions to both polarized and conforming viewpoints is difficult to predict, and the researcher cannot be confident that what group participants say is not because they simply want to follow the majority. Finally, not all group participants may have skills, knowledge, and expertise in each particular topic and thus will lose a valuable opportunity to engage in group discussions. Whether social researchers prefer qualitative interviews to focus groups depends on a variety of factors, but it is clear that both can be successfully used to explore the most complex social phenomena characteristic of the postmodern reality.
Qualitative methods provide social researchers with a variety of research opportunities. Focus groups and qualitative interviews are just two out of numerous social research methods scientists can use to meet their research goals. Prior to initiating a new study, researchers must familiarize themselves with the major strengths and weaknesses of each research method, evaluate available resources, and choose the method that will make the new study results reliable and valid. Qualitative interviews and focus groups are equally valuable, whenever social scientists seek to analyze human perceptions, opinions, feelings, and beliefs, and to use these to improve the participants’ human condition. However, both methods have their limitations should be used appropriately, to avoid misunderstanding and research bias.