Researching Human Subjects: Interviews, Focus Groups, and Observation Research

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Short Answer Questions

1. Explain why interviews are important in political science research.

Interviews are an important tool for political science research. Through interview research, political scientists are able to expand our understanding of political and governance practices. Many political and policy research questions require an understanding of context or political processes. Research on political or policy-making processes often requires interviewing.

Explanatory research is also well served by interviews. Why was a particular decision made? Who were the key actors? What were the organizational procedures? What were the circumstances surrounding a particular event? Answers to such questions often cannot be found in written documents, and the questions may not be well suited to a survey or other data collection technique.

Political scientists often turn to interview research when dealing with small or hard-to-reach populations. Certain individuals, including politicians, are less likely to respond to a survey than to an interview. Overall, a key advantage of interviewing is that researchers can obtain very detailed, often private, and otherwise inaccessible information.

2. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups.

There are numerous advantages to focus group research. They are a fast and economical means of obtaining data from multiple participants; the social aspect of focus groups can promote discussion and information sharing. Focus groups can provide a useful complement to conventional survey research. They allow the researcher to dig beneath the surface opinion captured by the larger survey, to probe for details and nuance.

Although focus groups present a number of research advantages, they are more appropriate to some research questions and some questions and some types of research subjects than to others. Focus groups are a suitable technique when participants are knowledgeable, willing, and capable of communicating; the topic and group setting facilitate group interaction; and the group moderator is skilled enough to guide the discussion. However, when group rapport and trust cannot be established, the data collection will not be of value. Without trust within the group, individuals may either censor their statements or start to conform to the dominant group opinions, limiting the value of the focus group data.

3. Explain the role of the moderator in focus groups.

Running a focus group effectively is a challenging task. Managing the interpersonal dynamics and drawing out opinions without imposing the researcher’s own biases are art forms in themselves. The moderator begins the session by providing a short introduction that establishes the purpose of the session, sets group rules that will guide the discussion (such as speaking order), and outlines ethics considerations (such as how data will be protected). Once the discussion begins, questions are open-ended and the moderator must guide the group discussion to remain focused on the topic. To do so, they must be clear about the goals of the focus group; they will have a number of scripted questions and prompts but will be flexible in moving between them as the conversation naturally unfolds.

Moreover, the moderator must be flexible in allowing the discussion to veer off course on occasion, as such tangents may allow for unanticipated but valuable information. The moderator must manage the group to ensure that one or two participants do not dominate the discussion. Focus groups typically conclude with an overarching question that allows participants to raise any final issues.

4. Discuss the advantages of participation observation.

One advantage of participant observation is that it allows for greater understanding of context: by becoming a member of the group, one has maximum access to that group’s beliefs and world paradigm. An action may have significantly different meaning in a particular group context than in the world at large, and in some cases being a member of the group is the only way that a researcher can access this information. Finally, there are some subgroups that can be accessed only through covert participant observation. Consider a sociologist exploring a particular religious cult or a police officer investigating drug smuggling. Neither group could be penetrated unless the researcher assumed the identity of a group member.

5. Explain some challenges to evaluating measurement as an element of a qualitative research study.

With qualitative political science approaches, the research is typically semi-structured, which allows the researcher to be open to new information, and the researcher will develop some of the themes during or after the data collection is complete. As a reader, you will want to consider the extent to which the data quality may have been impacted by reactivity, potential misinformation due to lapsed time and mistaken recollection, or a lack of cultural awareness or sensitivity. You will also want to consider whether the researcher independently verified information (when appropriate).