chapter 3 Looking at Well-being Data in Context
Interviewers are able to ask people what they think well-being means and what things are important in their life. We have already noted that questionnaires are used in national-level survey data collection; these usually use closed questions which can easily be added up quantitatively. The questions are asked by ‘interviewers’, whose job is to ask closed questions and make the experience of the questionnaire as similar as possible for all respondents.
Contrarily, interviews are a common feature of smaller data collection projects, where the questions can be more open-ended and may have very few questions at all. It is also common for an interviewer to develop a rapport with an interviewee: something which you might hear talked about in positive terms when journalists interview key figures. Having a connection with your interviewee can, therefore, make the interview better, because people trust the person they are speaking to—because the data (the information) are richer and more detailed.
We tend to think of interviews as one-to-one situations, but you can do group interviews, often called focus groups. In my PhD research, I started my focus groups with a question from the ONS’ MNW debate: ‘What Matters to You?’ They were designed as group discussions, where people had a lot of time to talk about a few questions at length, rather than asking lots of questions and people having less time to answer them. There are merits to both approaches, but I decided that it was more important to my research that people speak amongst themselves about what was important to them and think about how it related to well-being . What we call ‘a structured interview’ has a strict set of questions which all interviewees answer, and these can be applied in a group setting. A ‘semi-structured interview’ is more fluid, allowing the interviewee to bring up whatever they want, which could be entirely unexpected, and so each discussion can take a completely different direction. Taking the former approach would have made my conversations as similar as possible for comparability; the latter allowed me to watch people chat away about anything they thought important.
The group discussions I have organised in previous research projects have produced qualitative data that are largely subjective and about all different domains of people’s lives and experiences. For my well-being focus groups, people talked about all sorts: redundancy, bereavement, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, parenthood, their sexuality, education, careers, disabilities, dwindling community resources and transport and their hobbies. To return to the concert example, in the kind of well-being data I collected with open questions, people might talk amongst themselves about local events, without being asked a question about concerts at all. As it was, although many people talked about the value of their leisure activities , the only occasion people talked about concerts specifically was not to say how much they enjoyed one in particular. Instead, one young person barely noticed and the other (in the exchange below) was highly critical of a large-scale cultural event in Northern Ireland. Here’s a snippet between a 17- and 18-year-old, who I’ve renamed James and Jack:
|James:||During the summer when they had the big concerts and stuff, that was like the only time I noticed that town was different. It kind of seemed like it was all decorated and everyone was kind of buzzing.|
|Jack:||Yeah but I just think was kind of a distraction purpose to turn everyone’s heads away from the real issue. Like a home basically, we need a home to live, people die on the streets how many times a year? And they’re dressing up the city as, oh we’re a great city and people are lacking the basic human rights, that is not right.|
One thing about research which aims to evaluate how people feel about things is that the longer you allow them to talk, the more comfortable they feel, which can mean that they become more honest. It can also mean that they deviate from the topic, and may not say what you anticipate. Another example from this research was a community arts project where I expected people to mention the arts project in relation to their well-being—especially as it was the one thing they had in common and the reason we were meeting. Yet, they did not refer to it, not even once. Instead, they held a very political discussion about the lack of community services for their families in their area. This may be that they thought that was what I was there to listen to, so I could report back in some way to an authority that would do something about these aspects of their lives. It is not always possible to conclusively know why an open conversation has followed a particular path, and part of qualitative research is to reflect on the possibilities of why that may be.
Another thing to bear in mind with these sorts of data collection is that through discussion, people find themselves agreeing with others in the group. This may mean that opinions expressed independently at the beginning of a focus group have evolved through discussion and group ‘meaning-making’  or it can mean that they feel pressurised to assimilate to ‘groupthink’. It can be hard to establish which of the two processes have provoked a changed opinion and how that affects your results. Again, aspects of the context can give you clues and are part of your methodology in group interviews and focus groups, as much as any other approach. Their limitations can be as much opportunity as confounder, as long as they are considered.
My PhD focus groups enabled me to speak to over a hundred people and listen to them discuss what mattered to them about well-being. This was important to my research question which wanted to recreate a debate-like feel and therefore encourage people to talk—and debate—amongst themselves. But this can mean that quieter people’s views are not as audible and that it is not possible to understand how many of a group feel one way over another. As you can see, all decisions have pros and cons to weigh up.
One-to-one interviews enable you to understand the perspective of one person in detail and then compare that with the views from another interview, if appropriate. They can be used in evaluations and impact studies, providing testimonials of experience. Also, much like with focus groups, these are often transcribed into long pieces of text. This turns audio qualitative data into textual qualitative data and can take considerable time to analyse and compare. Interviews offer incredibly rich data on a person’s well-being, and with a well-thought-out strategy, can enable researchers to make some broader claims about how a particular group of people experience something like well-being, or indeed what is important to them about it. However, these claims must acknowledge the limits of context as discussed above.
- Qualitative researchers will often acknowledge how they affect the person being questioned. Interviews can be quite intimate meetings, where interviewers hear important details about someone’s life. How that person relates to the interviewer will greatly affect what they say—the data. Also, qualitative researchers acknowledge their own relationship to the person being interviewed, the research questions or issues being discussed, even the ‘research site’. This is called ‘positionality’ and in-depth qualitative research acknowledges how a researchers’ position—be it race, gender or life experience, (e.g.) affects how they interpret qualitative data
- Focus group methodologists can often be very specific on the difference between a group interview and a focus group (see note 24 for great literature on how to do focus groups, and the limitations and benefits of different approaches).
- Oman 2017
- As Table 3.1 acknowledges, resource is a big consideration. This is both in time processing data but also in compensating people to participate in data collection. If people give up their time for a focus group, it is important to consider compensation, at least in transport cost. This isn’t a how-to guide but it may be relevant to factor this in to your thinking when designing your own research, or thinking about that of others
- Oman 2020
- For the benefts and complexities of focus groups, see Carey 1994; Crabtree et al. 1993; Hennink 2008; Kamberelis and Dimitriadis 2013; Kitzinger 1994; Liamputtong 2011.
- Freeman 2013
- Very briefy, my PhD looked at the Measuring National Well-being debate, conducted by the ONS in 2010 to establish what the UK should adopt as its measures of national well-being. My PhD reanalysed some of the debate data (described in this chapter), undertook policy analysis, observation of well-being experts, focus groups with people and interviews with key actors in the debate from the ONS.