Qualitative Research Special

Let’s talk about qualitative research in IO psych. What is it? What kinds of research questions can you ask with it? What are the methods like? How can you get started? In this episode, I’m joined by Julia McMenamin, Dr. Jennifer Pickett, Dr. Deborah DiazGranados, and Dr. Scott Davies.


Julia McMenamin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Ontario. You can follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

Dr. Jennifer Pickett is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn. Also, be sure to check out Dr. Pickett’s fascinating blog.

Dr. Deborah DiazGranados is Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. Check out her faculty page and follow her on Twitter.

Dr. Scott Davies is the CEO of Point Leader Predictive Analytics. You can follow his company on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also connect with Dr. Davies’ personal account on LinkedIn.


This is an AI-enabled transcript and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Julia McMenamin  00:00

Sure, so my name is Julia McManaman. I live in London, Ontario, Canada. I’m currently a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario otherwise known as Western University. So to me, qualitative research is a method of exploring and interpreting rich data from different sources like interviews or focus groups or even sometimes archival documents in text form or other artifacts that we might not want to or even be able to analyze numerically.

Jennifer Pickett, Ph.D.  00:29

Hi, my name is Dr. Jennifer Pickett. I live in Brussels, Belgium, and I am a postdoc researcher and work in organizational psychology at Vrije University Brussels, and that’s the Dutch speaking Free University in Belgium. To me, qualitative research is meeting the participant in their world. So for example, I think quantitative research is, you invite the participant into your world by giving them a survey or something like that. But I think qualitative is is a little bit almost the opposite, where you can step into someone else’s world, someone else’s experiences and really get a really rich description of the way they view the world and their experiences.

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.  01:24

My name is Deborah DiazGranados. I live in Richmond, Virginia. I’m an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the School of Medicine. To me, qualitative research is discovery that’s unpacking something beyond what can be gleaned from quantitative research.

Scott Davies, Ph.D.  01:49

I’m Dr. Scott Davies. I’m the CEO of Point Leader Predictive Analytics Incorporated. We’re located in New Port Richey, Florida, which is right north of Tampa Bay. To me qualitative research is applying research to words, text instead of numbers. It’s starting with the text, the words that come from interviews, transcripts, wherever the written or spoken word is found, and using that information to do research, and sometimes that involves capturing the Zeitgeist of the thing, right? So that you better understand the total situation in which you don’t go about counting the numbers of words or applying numbers to them. You apply your mind to it and gain an understanding of the situation the person’s situation. The the concepts of interest

Julia McMenamin  02:57

I think qualitative research, maybe there’s some variation and how different people perceive it within the IO psychology field. I certainly think that IO psychology has a real emphasis on quantitative research and, you know, numerical data as as backing up our practices and our theories and recommendations for organizations. So I think qualitative research maybe definitely doesn’t get the same amount of attention within the field of bio that quantitative research gets. And I think that’s reasonable, but just because of the the wealth of quantitative research that we have in our field, but I think maybe the perceptions are changing, and maybe more and more people within the field of IO are starting to see the value in maybe incorporating some more qualitative research into sort of broader programs of research because it has some some different value and some different applications that maybe don’t apply to quantitative research itself. So I think maybe it might be changing.

Jennifer Pickett, Ph.D.  03:56

I think qualitative research is underappreciated in our field, a little bit. However, hopefully that is changing. I think both, of course, both areas of research have their values for sure. But I am biased towards qualitative research because that’s the research line that I prefer to conduct. Mostly because I can get really rich data. And from this, I can just find out so much more I think about a certain topic. I think that it is, of course, more time consuming with the transcriptions and everything but on the other hand, I think the data sets can be reused for different studies. And I think that that’s something that is a mindset we haven’t quite gotten to yet because, normally, with quantitative data, you use it once, and that’s kind of it and you know, it’s very rare that you would use it again. But I think with qualitative data, if you look at you know, a different topic through a different lens or something that’s perfectly acceptable to use the same data and that makes it you know, less time consuming, I suppose, are more efficient.

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.  04:56

I think qualitative research in our field, I think it’s changed when I was trained. I wasn’t trained in qualitative research. I don’t know that it was at all talked about or discussed. But when I came into my role as a faculty member, assistant professor at VCU several years ago, many years ago, it’s something that I was very drawn to. I don’t know that it had a positive perceptive perception from our in our field. But I do think that it’s gaining appreciation. I think our field is understanding that there is rigor to qualitative research, and I’m in some of my favorite papers from esteemed researchers in our discipline are qualitative in nature. Having those publications has also helped to make it clear that qualitative research has a place in IO psychology.

Scott Davies, Ph.D.  05:49

I think in the field of IO psychology, qualitative researchers have been ignored for way too long. I don’t know if you remember a few years ago there was a group of folks who tried to start a qualitative research group within SIOP. And it died away fairly quickly. I don’t, I haven’t looked lately if they’re doing it again or not, but I was a member of that group. This was probably 15 years ago. It’s been a while we just couldn’t really get much interest at all. Everyone looked at us and thought, well, all you have to do is count those words. And then you’ll have numbers that you can use. And they missed the whole point about well, no, you need to be able to understand from a focus group what the people are really thinking, and there’s nothing there to count. Right. There’s no numbers involved. It’s the whole Zeitgeist idea, right? What’s the whole of the thing what, what what is it that’s going on here, the power of persuading those people, of understanding their issues, and then using that, I think is sorely lacking in IO psychology, and I don’t, I think part of it is because we tend to attract a lot of quantitatively based people into IO psychology, they don’t tend to be that interested in qualitative things or maybe they just don’t have that in them, perhaps.

Julia McMenamin  07:16

So far, the kinds of qualitative research I’ve done have been interview studies. So one-on-one interviews with individuals. So the first one I was involved in had to do with interviewing new users have sort of a beta version of an AI product being introduced to organizations by a startup company. So those were just one-on-one interviews with people about their reactions to using the product and about sort of the broader issue of incorporating AI tools into their workplace in general interview studies like that involve doing some background research, coming up with some potential ideas that you might want to explore in these interviews, maybe some preliminary research questions and then distilling that down into sort of a basic interview guide with some interview questions to start out with over time as you do some interviews, you can sort of alter those questions, add new questions based on things that come up sort of go on organically from there. When you have those interviews conducted and you feel like you sort of reached a saturation point in terms of learning new things from interviewing more and more participants course there’s a transcription process, you have to go through whether you transcribe yourself or have a service to help you with that, or some type of technological tool. And then you get into the interpreting of those findings and coming up with themes and so on for insights that you can sort of glean from that to carry forward into maybe a next stage of research or simply in reporting what you’ve learned from that qualitative data that you’ve uncovered in those interviews with people.

Jennifer Pickett, Ph.D.  08:46

Yeah, so some of the methods that I use are, I don’t think it’s a very common method, it’s interpretive phenomenological analysis, or IPA for short. And that is kind of based on are a set of very in-depth research questions. The guide that looks at flushing out more of the participants experience is theirs. For example, you ask questions about narrative, you ask comparison questions and things like like that. So you’re sort of asking questions to get different angles of their experience, I guess.

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.  09:29

So some of them some of the methods that I’ve used previously in terms of qualitative research design I’ve used case study, I do research study several years ago, really looking at different types of teams within healthcare, getting a deeper understanding of that team and how they, how they work, interacted with with patients, and with themselves. I’ve done grounded theory works really examining certain phenomenon that don’t quite have well developed theories and it’s something of interest to then ideally, conduct a mixed method study or follow up with a quantitative study, and also phenomenology research. So really examining lived experiences and situations and understanding subjectivity from different perspectives or individuals in different contexts.

Scott Davies, Ph.D.  10:25

The qualitative method that is most used and cited in IO psychology, which is the critical incident technique that John Flanagan used when he started at IR. The critical incident approach is a qualitative approach in that you spend a whole bunch of time in a structured manner, gathering critical incidents from people and interviewing them, and then you take all of that and there’s a very precise manner in which you apply numbers to it and come out with a job analysis, and you use it to build bar scales and, and all of this stuff, and I think that it’s the example that most IO psychologists have in their head, if they know anything about qualitative research, that is what they use.

Julia McMenamin  11:17

Qualitative research allows you to ask research questions that are still evolving in your own mind compared to quantitative research methods. So you might have some general research questions that have come to mind after maybe doing overview of literature or talking to people in a certain field sort of casually, you might have some ideas about things you want to explore. And the great thing about doing qualitative research is you can sort of continue that process of looking for information maybe in a bit more systematic way. But still with that flexibility that comes from maybe doing an interview with people and seeing what kinds of answers they give you to your preliminary questions and then following those leads, sort of in real time and thinking, Oh, what what else? Can I actually drill down and learn from this person based on this this one answer they gave me. It allows you to sort of alter and change those questions and update them during the study as opposed to maybe having to take a survey back, redesign it reincorporate new things and launch a new study. It really gives you that opportunity to explore questions that maybe aren’t fully formed yet.

Jennifer Pickett, Ph.D.  12:29

For me, it’s more the population that you want to know about. For example, I’m looking at human performance in extreme environments. And my one research is looking at person who has survived a boat sinking in Alaska, a commercial fisherman and then four days in a life raft in the Bering Sea and winter, no survival equipment. And all the crew survived. And then what I’m finding is, is obviously it’s a very rich story. And it’s a very in depth interview that we have that we’ve done and stuff that he has told me that I couldn’t even think to ask. I guess that’s those are the questions that qualitative research answers are the questions that you don’t even know to ask because in him describing, you know, just the situation and the environment and what he did and didn’t do and what he thought and felt and, and all those, all those things. I’m learning so much more about, gosh, there’s so many different areas of psychology that has been touched on they’re not just IO psychology because you know, he was at work but also positive psychology and survival psychology. And, you know, he is bringing in aspects of both and if I had just created a survey and asked, you know, the 5-10 questions I could have thought of off top my head or what I think it would be like to be in a life raft for four days in winter in the Bering Sea, I would only be the tip of the iceberg. Pun intended, I guess, of what I’ve learned by flipping it around and letting the participant tell me what it was like.

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.  14:16

I think related to the types of questions that you can answer with qualitative or quantitative, qualitative I think allows you to gain a deeper knowledge to really understand context and the influence of how humans behave, think quantitative can really focus in on more specific questions. Whereas qualitative questions, I believe, are are broader, but broader because there’s more information to gather in order to make sense of what’s happening.

Scott Davies, Ph.D.  14:48

So where qualitative can help with quantitative, I believe that my dissertation is a good example of that. I was reading the literature on emotional intelligence 20 years ago. The measures were not reliable. And so Bob Billing stuck me into doing something on emotional labor. And he said, at least it’s something that we could see this behavior, right? But but there wasn’t a whole lot of research at the time there was Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart, which was totally qualitative. She hadn’t done any quantitative work at all, on emotional labor, and that’s where it’s not what’s inside the person that helps them portray the emotion that they should. It is very much what is visible that a person exhibits the emotions that or or doesn’t exhibit the emotions that are appropriate for the situation. It’s what the Walt Disney employee does. When they walk you through the gate. Even if they don’t feel well that day. They are going to smile and attempt to listen to smile at a view and that’s emotional labor. And yes, some people are good at it. Some people aren’t. But there wasn’t anything quantitative at the time on emotional labor. So the first thing I did was start talking to people who do emotional labor like grad students who were teaching who were having to graduate teaching assistant who has a class of freshmen, undergrads, and they’re trying to interest them in psychology, they are doing emotional labor, they’re smiling when they should they’re frowning when they should they’re disciplining the class when they should, even if they think that the person who did something stupid was funny, that as a teacher, they can’t show that they have to manage the emotions of themselves and the others, even when they don’t. There’s dissonance there. And and I just let them talk about that. It was really useful for my understanding of what it was both the predictors, the emotional intelligence side, and the behavioral performance side of emotional labor. And from that, I started putting together, I wrote it all down, right? I took serious notes of it all. And and I would come back to them and tell them well, this is what I think I hear you saying and get them to talk more. And then we would have focus groups. Once I had some idea of what to even talk to the focus groups about decide on whether or not this was a good construct to include Is this a dimension of emotional labor or not. And from that, we came up with questions to use as a performance measure of emotional labor. And then we went back to them and talk to them again and then ended up with interviews with the original group. And I told them what I had found with my data, and after the survey and everything and what the results were, and we talked through that more. And I think that that is what we need to do more of

Julia McMenamin  17:54

What I would recommend to an IO psychology student or an IO psychologist looking to get into qualitative research, you definitely need to fill in any gaps in your knowledge about what qualitative research is and what the tools are and how to best use them. Chances are, as an IO psychologist, or a student, you’ve had a lot of training and quantitative methods and statistical analysis and probably not a lot of training and the qualitative methods. So definitely, I recommend finding that knowledge any way you can. If you can find a mentor, that’s fantastic. If you can’t, maybe you can sign up for a course whether it’s in person or online. Definitely find yourself some good resources like textbooks on the subject just to get yourself a bit more up to speed so you feel more comfortable designing a qualitative study, and then I think it’s good to just get out there and do it. If you’ve ever done an interview study, I think you know that it’s it’s definitely a skill that you have to build. And I don’t think anyone is grayed out it to start with and the only way you’re going to get great at it is by getting out there and doing it. So Don’t be afraid to design a study and take a stab at it and you’ll probably be hooked.

Jennifer Pickett, Ph.D.  19:05

Right, the advice I would give to a student who wanted to start doing qualitative research would be do a little bit of reading and read a few articles I think that that are qualitatively done the next step would be to practice a little bit with with your friends maybe to build a build report just work on your interview skills and build rapport with with the participant because I think that’s the hardest thing is that just because you have these burning questions to ask doesn’t mean that the participant feels comfortable telling them to you so you know, I think that’s one step Miss sometimes and then just keep practicing and in like anything, it will get easier and it will get better and with time, just keep keep at it.

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.  19:53

My advice for those who want to start in qualitative research is to definitely do it. I think it, it helps us. I, early on in in grad school, one of my advisors, Bob Pritchard gave me this advice of if you ever have the opportunity of observing a workplace, whether it be, you know, a man manufacturing plant to the C suite of Google, if you will take that opportunity because it allows you a sneak peek into different contexts of work. People are interested in doing the qualitative research diving in and being, you know, the lifelong learners that we are in the field and dive into the textbooks and the research on how to do it and actually start doing it because it’s fascinating to hear from people their experiences, their description of some of the Io, Io psychology terms and constructs and theories and phenomena. interesting to hear it from their words, rather than hear it from the theorists that have have developed measures and the theories, I would add that as if, if it’s, you know, graduate student interested in this method and and it requires them to convince and or make the case to an advisor about it, it’s well worth the time to build that argument and to request it in the in, you know, in that person’s education because they found isn’t already in IO psych program. I highly would recommend that it be and I think, you know, the the students out there that are that can help drive educational program will take them. I think it’s well served for students to kind of take that take that initiative to make the case to advisors and professors and saying this is this would be interesting to study also from a qualitative research lens, helping a faculty member develop their skills as well.

Scott Davies, Ph.D.  21:50

I think that what an IO psychologists should do who wants to do qualitative research, if they have the time is to go enroll in a program evaluation class. Sit through it and listen to what it is these people are trying to figure out and understand that Well, the only way you’re going to find out is to go sit and listen to people that that these research questions that they have been assigned, right? So they get some contract that has to have a program and there’s all kinds of programming evaluators out there. There’s program evaluations going on all the time. GSA requires it for like every government contract. So there’s no dearth of program evaluators or, or courses that you can take in a local community college or whatever. And and listen to those people. And you’ll be confused at first, because you’ll say, well, there’s just no way on earth you’re going to find that unanswerable. Right. And but they have to do it they have to find out what the impact of one thing is. Another and it opens your mind up to the possibilities of how you go about doing qualitative research or go to someplace like I went a grad school class on qualitative research, where there’s a good professor who is a real qualitative researcher, and not just some court person who’s trying to tell you how to put numbers to words,

Julia McMenamin  23:27

Maybe that there’s some pushback from people in IO, that maybe they don’t see the value in qualitative research as part of IO. And I think that that comes from the fact that IO was really built on this idea that we need to use quantitative data to support organizations and making evidence based decisions. And I think that that’s fantastic. And that’s how it should be. But I think I’ll really also was originally built on this idea of understanding the experiences of the worker as well. And I think that the only way you’re going to have a deep understanding of individual And workers in different situations is by actually talking to them in a way in which they have control over what kinds of information you can glean from them and and they can sort of lead you in different directions that you might not have gone if you hadn’t actually interact interacted with them on a one on one basis like that.

Jennifer Pickett, Ph.D.  24:19

I would like to see qualitative research become much more accepted, because I think it’s really a shame especially in you know, journals that have limited word count or something that, you know, a third of it is just defending the fact that you’ve done qualitative research, you know, in defending your methods, whereas that could have been, you know, space given towards the the results, you know, which are usually so colorful, or the quotes that you’ve gleaned from people

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.  24:50

Thinking about qualitative research in that it isn’t only interviews. It isn’t only observation And kind of imagine the Hawthorne studies where people were observed. It’s there’s so many layers and so many approaches that one can take with qualitative research and but also understanding that there is rigor to it.

Scott Davies, Ph.D.  25:16

But if I’m interested enough in it that I want to spend the time doing it, then it seems rather selfish. But if that’s what’s really required is the researcher becomes the research tool, right? And the data collection piece, the the survey, and you’re building up your own knowledge base, you’re learning