How Do You Study Personal Experience?
A key part of social science research is data collection. In order to explore social phenomena and create new knowledge, we need information to analyse. In research, all forms of information, whether that’s statistics, interview transcripts, photos, or artefacts, is called data. Data can be collected in a variety of ways.
Firstly, you may have heard of the terms primary and secondary data. Primary data is data that you collect yourself, whilst secondary data is data that someone else collected. For example, if I conduct interviews, the information that my interviewees give me is data I collected myself, therefore it is primary data. If I am analysing transcripts from a different study and which another researcher had produced, this is secondary data.
Another two terms you may heard of are quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative data, as the name suggests, is mainly concerned with quantity, numbers, and statistics. Quantitative data is often collected through surveys, polls, or experiments, and, as such, is measurable and provides insight into means, percentages, and correlations. Many sociologists make use of quantitative data, however where personal experience is concerned, it is widely argued that quantitative data analysis offers limited insight. Qualitative data, however, is ideal for exploring experiences, feelings, and beliefs as it relies on interpretation to understand phenomena. It is not necessarily representative of the wider society, as it can reveal multiple truths, but it does explore and provide insight into the lives of individuals, which nevertheless is still extremely valuable. Qualitative data is often obtained through interviews, narratives, and observation.
In my own research I favour the qualitative approach as I am interested in how individuals experience religion and veganism, and how they interpret different values, beliefs, and practices. This is not something that can easily be understood through numbers, so I need to engage in in-depth discussions with participants and seek to understand their lives through their eyes.
I am currently in the process of deciding what data collection methods to use during my PhD. I do have a list of ideas, many of which are common qualitative data collection methods, so I will explore what they are below. Please note though, that many other qualitative data collection methods do exist; the list below only explores the ones I am considering.
Interviews are where a researcher asks a participant lots of questions. They can be semi-structured, structured, or even conversational. Semi-structured interviews, which I have most experience of, are based around a list of questions the researcher wants to explore. So I will go into my interviews with an interview guide or an interview protocol as it is sometimes called. This is a list of questions I want to ask based on interesting and relevant themes. The interview is called semi-structured however, as I am not limited to those questions. If the participant starts to talk about something I hadn’t planned to talk about or perhaps wasn’t even aware of, the discussion can develop and explore new themes. Structured interviews meanwhile stick to the list of questions, whilst conversational interviews are usually quite informal, allowing the participant more freedom in where the discussion is going. Interviews are fantastic for collecting valuable, insightful data, but they can be time-consuming to conduct and analyse.
Focus groups are like a group interview. A number of participants will join a researcher in a group setting and the researcher will ask a series of questions which the group will then discuss. This is useful for collecting a wide range of views and experiences in a short space of time. As such, focus groups are less time-consuming to conduct and analyse than interviews. However, there is always the risk that individuals may not wish to talk about certain things in front of others, and so important information may be withheld. Furthermore, being in a group setting, it is not easy to probe or focus in any great depth on individual answers. For example, if a person had a really interesting experience, the researcher could not explore this in any significant depth during a focus group, as it would take up valuable time and make other attendees feel as though they are not as important.
Participant observation is one of the most common methods in ethnographic research. Ethnographic research is a branch of anthropology, also often used in sociology and geography, and which seeks to explore social and cultural environments and the lives of the individuals within them. A researcher will go into this environment and will take field notes on how the people there live their lives, how they interact with others, and how the culture or society operates. This is the observation part – the researcher observes and makes copious amounts of notes. However, the researcher also interacts with the individuals they are studying, hence the “participant” part of the name. In short, the researcher immerses themselves into a social or cultural environment, observes, and participates. This could work well for me if I were to attend ritual gatherings or vegan events to explore how religious vegans experience these, as well as get a good understanding of how such rituals or events operate. Immersion is hugely insightful and can provide rich data, however trust is important. If the people being studied do not trust the researcher, they may withhold information or behave and interact in ways different to the norm. The researcher will also need to gain sufficient knowledge of the context they are studying and maintain an open mind to be able to make sense of what they are studying and portray it accurately.
Digital ethnography, also referred to as online ethnography, virtual ethnography, mobile ethnography, or cyber-ethnography, is similar to the ethnographic research carried out during participant observation, however it relates to the online world. So in short, it is an observation of online communities and how individuals interact with others online. It is common for digital ethnographers to explore social media, blogs, and online groups and forums to gain an insight into people’s lives and a better understanding of their experiences. It’s convenient, fast, and can be collected at any time, but there is an important question to consider, and that is to what extent are our online identities and experiences representative of our real-world experiences?
This involves asking participants to write a series of journal or diary entries, either self-directed or in response to prompts. The participants would write about particular experiences or events, what happened, who was there, how they felt, and so on. They can also include photographs and other relevant materials, so in my case this could be a meal diary. Journal writing can be hugely insightful for understanding personal experience, although it does require a degree of reflexivity. For the greatest benefit, you would want participants to write a number of journal entries over a period of time, however this is time-consuming for individuals and when you consider it is not always possible to reimburse them for their time, challenges may arise in finding participants who are willing to contribute.
Whichever method a researcher uses, considerable thought needs to be given to research ethics. But since this is such a huge topic, I’ll save it for another post! Another consideration, especially at the present time, is access. With Covid-19 restrictions in place, it is likely to be a while before face-to-face data collection methods can resume. So for now, my interviews will have to be conducted using online software, such as Zoom or Skype, and I will have to make use of digital methods for the time being. I am hopeful that further down the line, I will get the chance to attend ritual gatherings and religious and vegan events so I can do some participant observation too, but ultimately, only time will tell!
Are you a qualitative researcher? What data collection methods did you use or are thinking of using?