Qualitative Research

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Chapter 4: Data-collection in Qualitative Research

This Chapter is about methods and techniques in data-collection during a qualitative research. We mentioned earlier that qualitative research is eclectic. That is, the choice of techniques is dependent on the needs of the research. Although this should be true for almost all social research, it is particularly so with qualitative research in that the appropriate method or techniques is often identified and adopted during the research. Qualitative research is also multi-modal. The researcher may adopt a variety of research techniques, or a combination of such, as long as they are justified by the needs. The discussion below is therefore not to identify a set of techniques unique to qualitative research, but rather, to introduce the methods and techniques most commonly used in qualitative research, and the issues related to such use.

We shall introduce the methods and techniques in three broad categories: observations, interviews and study of documents. These are also the basic methods used in cultural anthropology (Bernard, 1988:62). Indeed, the discussions about qualitative research in education can be viewed as a particular case in cultural anthropology.

Observations

Observation usually means the researcher's act to find out what people do (Bernard, 1988:62). It is different from other methods in that data occur not necessarily in response to the researcher's stimulus.

Observation may be obtrusive or unobtrusive. A researcher may simply sit in the corner of a school playground and observe how students behave during breaks. He may also stand by the school gate and observe how students behave at the school gate. Such cases of observation may be seen as unobtrusive. In other cases, the researchers may not apply any stimuli, but their presence per se may have some influence on the scene. The most common example in this category is classroom observation. Although the researcher may just sit quietly at the corner of a classroom, the presence of the researcher may change the classroom climate. It is, nonetheless, still observation.

Observation is a basic technique used in almost all qualitative research. Even if other methods or techniques are used, the researcher remains the most essential "sensor" or "instrument" and hence observation always counts (McCracken, 1988:18-20). For example, when interviewing is used, a qualitative researcher also takes into account the tonic or facial expressions of the informant, because they help interpret the verbal responses. Such expressions are only sensed by observation. If the interview is done in the field, then the surroundings of the interview site also provide meaningful data for the research. The surroundings can only be depicted through observation. Hence observation is indispensable in almost all occasions of qualitative research. However, the term observation may sometimes go beyond what is seen. It also pertains to what is heard, and even sometimes what is smelled. Case 4.1 provides one of such examples.

Case 4.1: Classroom Observation Scheme

In the IIEP project on basic education, Leung designed for the Chinese research a scheme for classroom observation. Classroom was taken as one of the environmental factors affecting students' learning. The scheme was designed after Leung stayed in local schools for two days. The scheme did not confine itself to the performance of the teacher, although that was a part. The figure on the next page shows one of the six sections of the scheme.

Different writers have different ways of classifying observations. Without running into juggling of definitions, we shall briefly introduce observations as participant observations and non-participant observations. More detailed classification of observations can be found in Bernard (1988), Goetz and LeCompte (1984) and Patton (1990).

Participant Observation

Participant observation is perhaps the most typical of...
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