Research Methods for Information Research

5. Other Methods

5.1 Beyond interviews and focus groups

How do researchers go about deciding which research methods to deploy in their latest project? Not too many social science research reports focus on how these decisions are made or even make any reference to the problems involved in taking such decisions. As a result of this lapse all we usually have to go on is what methods are actually chosen plus comments offered at research methods workshops and in ‘how to do research’ guides about the pros and cons of various methods. These comments might be summarised as “Structured observation requires a lot of preparation and is expensive to conduct; naturalistic observation presents problems in maintaining a research focus, recording research evidence and in interpreting the results; and questionnaires provide little scope for going into depth – so let’s go with interviews.”

There is little doubt that interviews (whether we are talking about individual face-to face sessions, telephone interviews or focus groups) provide an appropriate way of exploring most social science research questions – or is there? One of the most experienced and authoritative UK social researchers, David Silverman, recently published a very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about qualitative research, which he conveniently entitles ‘A very short, fairly interesting …’ (etc.).10 He challenges the tendency of researchers to ‘manufacture’ their data by setting up artificial events (interviews or focus groups) rather than to ‘find’ it in the ‘field’ by observing or other means, asserting that:

Despite their earnest claims to do something different from quantitative research (more ‘humanistic’, more ‘experimental’, more ‘in-depth’), such manufacture of data to answer a specified research problem is precisely the method that quantitative research espouses. (p.37)

Silverman offers a variety of evidence to suggest that social science students and researchers tend to opt for interviews and focus groups, almost regardless of the topic under consideration, and cites examples of interview-based research where studies of behaviour would have been much more appropriate. These findings are very much in line with my own experience. One instance that springs to mind involved us in evaluating a series of national research projects in which the researchers consistently baulked at trying to get at the impact of library services. Instead, several of the research teams settled for doing interviews in which they asked service providers to tell them about other people’s use of those services. (Worse, some of the projects confined themselves to asking librarians about what sorts of services they offered, as though these would automatically meet people’s needs.) As Silverman noted, the interview approach tends to result in the research question being presented to the respondents, which causes two problems. First, if respondents are made aware of your interests this can affect their responses. Second, it can lead to lazy research in which careful data analysis is simply replaced by reporting back what people tell you, or as a variant, provide a selection of ‘representative’ quotes with a running commentary.

Silverman goes on to challenge the assumption (reinforced in some books on qualitative research) that the sole topic for qualitative research is ‘people’, arguing that we can learn as much or more by studying what he describes as ‘naturally occurring material’. In the library and information research context, this might include such materials as committee minutes (what can you learn about, for example, how university curriculum planning groups see the value of their library from how they propose to involve library staff and whether the comments made by library representatives are recorded and acted upon?), as well as student assignments (do they show how the students are using a variety of information sources?), not to mention records of user enquiries and notes on how these were dealt with. It was probably worth writing (and reading) the book simply to restore a balance between interviewing and the study of naturally occurring material within information research.

Elsewhere in the book Silverman challenges the notion that what we take to be standard research methods, such as the interview are in themselves mere research instruments, citing with approval Potter’s ‘Dead Social Scientist Test’11. The question posed by this test is “whether the interaction would have taken place in the form that it did had the researcher … got run over on the way to the university”. What makes Silverman’s argument enjoyable and stimulating, however, is that having mounted his challenge against research interviewing he then retires from his position to argue that no data (however collected) are either intrinsically unsatisfactory or untouched by the researcher’s hands. In other words, the real issue is about constantly questioning and examining what we do as researchers and actively working to ensure that research methods are not taken for granted. He reinforces this standpoint by offering sets of positive and negative precepts for the conscientious researcher. Three of his five positive rules have immediate implications for which research methods to adopt and apply; these are to:

  • treat ‘obvious’ actions, settings and events as potentially remarkable [that is, to treat each new situation as ‘anthropologically strange’ – assuming that you don’t really understand any situation, however familiar, at the outset]
  • recognise that talk, documents and other artefacts as well as interaction can offer revealing data
  • recognise the everyday skills we all use and try to start a dialogue with the people in your study based on understanding how those skills work out in practice.

To find out what the last of these three points means, to review Silverman’s five negative precepts, and to be subjected to a range of other stimulating ideas about doing qualitative research – buy his book – it is at the same time enjoyable and an antidote to research methods complacency.

10. Silverman, D. A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about qualitative research London: Sage 2007 ISBN 978-1-4129-4595-0

11. Potter, J. ‘Discourse analysis and constructionist approaches: theoretical background’ in Richardson, J. (ed) Handbook of qualitative research methods for psychology and the social sciences Leicester: BPS Books 1996; 135.