Qualitative research utilizes open-ended interviewing to explore and understand the attitudes, opinions, feelings, and behavior of individuals or a group of people. It provides depth, specificity, range, and context to ideas or concepts. Typical forms of qualitative research are 1) focus groups; 2) in-depth interviews (person to person or phone); 3) mini-groups (dyads – two people and triads – three people). A focus group is the most common qualitative research tool used in market and opinion studies. Qualitative research is used because of the effectiveness of information acquired. Other strengths of this research are that it allows for changing areas of exploration as the study progresses (incremental learning), results are produced quickly, and it is usually cheaper than qualitative analysis (i.e. surveys). The limits of these techniques are related to the small sample size. The very nature of the research necessitates a small sample size. In addition, the recruiting is rarely random -- meaning they are not statistically projectable to the population under study.
The qualitative tools are not a substitute for using quantitative tools because it measures opinions and conclusions cannot be extended to the full population. One should always use quantitative research to make decisions about populations while using the qualitative to sharpen and elucidate the quantitative results.
Qualitative research has great use in cooperative development. Through an organized method of gathering information from small-sized samples, the developer can identify strengths and weaknesses of the project; understand potential cooperative members; help to identify the primary trade area; surface potential community conflicts; brainstorm ideas and strategy; investigate brand/service positioning; use it as a pre-survey to develop the hypothesis to be quantified; or in post-survey to explore in-depth the quantitative findings.
Focus groups, the most popular form of qualitative research, are guided discussions in which 8-10 respondents discuss a topic or series of topics in their own words. It is guided by a moderator and usually lasts 1 ½ hours. Preferably the group takes place in a room where the participants can sit around a table. It is recorded to aid in analysis. Ideally, an assistant moderator takes notes during the session, greatly cutting down on the analysis time. The analysis process usually uses the transcripts of the groups (the recordings are used to augment any notes taken during the session). Key themes, answer ranges, and insights are distilled from the dialogue and summarized for use in feasibility studies, market research, and a variety of other things.
A good moderator will give the session a sense of free-flowing discussion with a light structure. In reality she or he will be following a prepared guide that lays out the questions and potential prompts for drilling down into specific topics. The guide generally goes through several revisions (in consultation with the client) to be sure the best possible conceptualization of the questions is obtained. The moderator keeps the discussion on track without inhibiting flow or interjecting personal thoughts or comments into the discussion. All group members must be encouraged to contribute and dominating participants have to be prevented from taking all of the precious “airtime.”
Example questions for a focus group with core leadership of a start-up cooperative group might be something like the following:
- How much do you know about cooperatives?
- Why did you become involved with this project?
- What do you want from the coop?
- What can it provide that is not already being provided?
- What is your timeline for the cooperative start up?
- Why did you get involved in the start-up project?
- How likely would you be to become involved with the XXXX Food Cooperative long term? If you became involved, how much time in an average week would you be willing to volunteer?
- What is your overall opinion on the feasibility of the food cooperative?