Analysis and interpretation of qualitative data

Group discussions or depth interviews represent the most common ways in which qualitative data is collected. In both cases it is normal for the moderator, in the case of group discussions, or the depth interviewer, to tape-record each data collection session, which normally will last from one and a half to two hours. Group discussions may also be held on premises where they can be watched through a one-way mirror or recorded by video camera, so that behaviour, as well as verbal responses, can be observed. A typical survey involving group discussions might cover six to eight groups and a typical survey involving depth interviews might cover 10-20 depth interviews. In each case it is usual for the individual who was responsible for the collection of the information, i.e. the moderator or depth interviewer, to carry out the analysis of the tapes. The person who conducted the interviews can bring much greater insight and understanding to bear on their interpretation, since they will have been conscious of the whole range of non-verbal communication going on during the data collection process.

The tapes of an interview with a doctor on the subject of his use of and attitude towards a number of treatments for bronchial disorders apparently revealed an extremely aggressive respondent. The field manager was impressed that the interviewer had managed to complete the whole course of the two hour interview and had doggedly gone on asking questions even after most vehemently expressed negative answers accompanied on the tape by the sounds of violent altercation. In fact, the respondent concerned had leaned forward and thumped the desk close to the microphone in order to emphasize the points he was making. On the tape it sounded quite alarming but the interviewer present was aware from the friendly facial expressions of the respondent that this was just his manner of speech and presentation and not an aggressive response to the interview. If someone else had analysed that tape, quite a different interpretation would have been put on the respondent's approach and attitude to the topic. This illustrates how helpful video recordings can be in improving the analysis of group discussions and depth interviews._

How then does the moderator or depth interviewer go about analysing recorded information? In the first place he or she will listen several times to each interview, making notes on points made and categorizing and classifying the answers into the separate topics covered by the respondent.

An alternative method of analysis is to have the tapes transcribed and perform a 'content' analysis of the transcriptions, perhaps by cutting them up into statements and grouping related statements together for analysis and comment.

Since the research is on such a small scale it is important that all responses are considered. One of the aims of this type of research is to collect the range of possible responses, but not to count them. However, when there is a very clear and strong measure of agreement between respondents, the researcher will indicate this, as well as when there is no clear agreement between respondents.

The results of qualitative research should never be expressed in terms of percentages. This is extremely dangerous because it implies that results are somehow representative quantitatively of what a wider sample of respondents might say. Since no statistical procedure has been used in selecting the sample for qualitative research this is not the case. While the researcher and the immediate user of the research may both appreciate this point, the fact of using percentages in interpreting the data will lead to less informed readers of the report talking about market percentages as if they had representative validity.

The outcome of analysis of qualitative data is a report that indicates the range of views expressed on the topics covered and some indication of whether the views were strongly held and widely supported. When proper interpretation takes place by skilled analysts (usually psychologists) the report goes deeper than this, and underlying attitudes and motivations are 'interpreted' even though not explicitly verbalized. Hence, this is not a game for amateurs. A characteristic of qualitative research reports is that they contain direct quotations to indicate the way in which respondents express their opinions and the language used. It is this aspect of qualitative research that is often of most use, particularly when considering promotional ways of approaching the market: what to say in advertisements, what environment to use as the background for an advertisement, and so on.

Characteristically, then, analysis of qualitative data is subjective and impressionistic. It conveys to the decision maker insights into people's feelings about the market, the product, the advertising and their attitudes towards the use of competitive products. How good the analysis and interpretation of qualitative data is depends on the individual who undertakes both the conduct of the research and analysis of the tapes produced. This introduces a high risk of bias in both the conduct and interpretation of qualitative research. For this reason, once organizations find a qualitative researcher who produces good and useful guidance they will often continue to use the same individual. The advantage of this is that the researcher identifies closely with the organization's interests and is better able to probe areas likely to be of most interest. This also explains why many qualitative research agencies are small one- or two-person consultancies.

Various software packages are available to help the researcher with the analysis of qualitative data. The best known of these are the NUD*IST N6 package and NVivo, both from QSR software. These are valuable in helping the researcher to handle the large amount of data that often derives from extended qualitative research. QSR's software products help the researcher to interpret and manage data and emerging ideas from qualitative data. The software looks for patterns and meanings and places these in a manageable context.

QSR's website has full details of the two products, and the software is downloadable along with tutorials and examples of how the programs are used.

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