Qualitative research

A couple of years ago, I met a family friend who used to be the head of research at Pfizer. “So, you do qualitative research”, he teased, “that’s just talking to people and stuff, isn’t it?”. That’s understandable given the relevance of randomized control trials and quantitative research in pharma. And quant research has its value. But qualitative research does too and is often maligned.

I haven’t published a separate piece on this yet – my methods sections have always been integrated into publications – but I did write a short conference article on how we should be serious about representing people’s voices in digital development:

Bailur, S. (2009) “Representation and reflexivity in ICTforD (telecentre) research”, invited speaker at panel on Computing for Sustainable Socio-Economic Development, at HCI International, San Diego, July 19-24 2009.

My key question has always been: how do qualitative methods (interviews, focus groups and so on) help us understand technology and development?

Talking with a purpose

Qualitative research is what I love (just talking to people?! … but with a purpose). How do civic tech activists evaluate their digital citizen engagement programmes, as my co-authors and I discussed in our evaluating digital citizen engagement guide commissioned by the World Bank?  What does a founder of a freedom of information site say were his/her critical success factors (our research of 27 FOI sites for mySociety)? In what ways do 18-25 year old women living on under $2 earn an income through phones or smartphones (our work in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda for Mastercard Foundation)? What are the main uses of a community telecentre in rural India (my PhD fieldwork supported by Microsoft Research India)?

In the trend for big data, I echo Tricia Wang’s concern that it’s a risk to ignore voices – we need what she calls thick data – stories, context (at least for me as a reader – this is what I connect with). All my projects above had similar methods. What do people say? What do they leave out? Voices are critical – they provide the insights, opinions and granularity (to use the academic term) to complement numbers. I get a nerdy pleasure from designing, conducting and analyzing interviews and focus groups – and just bonding with others. My preferred tool for coding and analysis is Dedoose (no endorsement, but I’ve used it for the past three consultancy/research projects, and find it easier than Atlas.ti or Nvivo). Besides, you sometimes have fun interactions like this (for the Digital Lives study):

(F = facilitator; R = respondent)

F: Okay. Do you know what an app is?
R1: Yes.
F: What is it?
R1: App?
F: Yes.
R2: It is a sleep during day time. A nap
F: No, it’s App.
Chorus: It’s an application on a phone.


But the second part of this is about “being thoughtful”. I’m a firm supporter of the principles of digital development and a member of the responsible data forum (read the reflection stories of using data & tech – really interesting!) but we need to make sure this is genuine, not just a check-box exercise. All too often, data collection can be an extractive process, particularly in development contexts.  I wrote about how we don’t discuss our methods enough in ICTD for the HCI conference back in 2009. How can we ensure that as consultants and researchers in ICTD, we are ethical? (Tony Roberts has interesting thoughts around a Buddhist philosophy in ICTD – I was thinking maybe we should apply the eight-fold path in our work). Similarly, I’d like to keep in mind Josh Woodward’s concerns around informed consent in photography. And I apply LSE’s research ethics code, whether or not the research is supported by LSE.


Some key qualitative research readings which have helped me:

Alvesson, M., & Sköldberg, K. (2009). Reflexive methodology: New vistas for qualitative research. SAGE Publications Limited, London.
Czarniawska, B. (2004). Narratives in social science research. SAGE Publications Limited, London.
Silverman, D. (2013). Doing qualitative research: A practical handbook. SAGE Publications Limited, London.

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