I’ve recently used some research methods that involved interview participants producing maps/drawings, which where then explored and developed in a subsequent discussion/conversation. I’m still in the process of co-writing a paper about this but the research builds on some collaborative cognitive mapping research that I was part of carrying out. I’ve also previously reflected on the benefits of getting people to create as part of the research process in a post on using Lego for research purposes.
You could consider this type of research activity with a limited number of participants (eleven in this case) and the data gathered as being an instance of small scale data. And perhaps viewing this as ‘small data’ is an easy – but I would argue not very useful – classification in this time where there is often a focus on ‘big data’, which I take mainly to mean data from a lot of people and/or possibly a lot of data points – such as instances of social media activity or in the case of higher education, the number of times students access a virtual learning environment, use online resources, view video captured lectures or access any number of institutional systems.
However, as my anthropological roots continue to manifest themselves, and I realised how rich the visual maps and discussions turned out to be in terms of developing our understanding*, I couldn’t help but remember the classic notion of ‘thick description’ associated with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Although as Geertz himself notes in the chapter ‘Thick Description: Towards and Interpretive Theory of Culture’ the term itself he borrowed from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle.
Very briefly the idea of ‘thick description’ is for the anthropologist to not only present descriptions or facts about another culture (Geertz’s argument is also that such ‘objective’ descriptions are not possible, there is always interpretation and analysis, layers of meaning upon meaning) but to present detailed interpretive descriptions of actual behaviour, which allow for context that give the data presented meaning and is a way to understand the world in which the anthropological subjects live.
‘…to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them.’
(Geertz 1993, p. 24)
So in short it is a way to make meaning that can develop our understanding of the why and how (and everything else) of other peoples’ lives – I should also say I really like the idea that the reason for this is to be able to have conversations/enter into a dialogue. But what I take away as a really important point is that it is the contextualised interpretation that makes meaning. And, this is what I think the ‘interviews with maps’ accomplished to some extent. I think it also important to note that in the interviews we were doing at least some of the interpreting together when we were exploring what bits of the maps meant and why they had chosen to represent some things and not others. I hasten to add that the notion that interviews are instances of joint meaning making is not new (see for instance Kvale 1996).
And this brings me back to why some of the hype about the power of ‘big data’ to ‘deliver insights’ doesn’t sit very well with me because very often there is little context added and therefore very little potential to understand what the data actually means or can tell us about the peoples’ lives represented by the data points. This is not to say that large scale data, quantitative or survey data is not useful and it was, in fact, an analysis of large scale data that highlighted that some students were not accessing the university library as much as others, which informed the design and focus of the qualitative research that was carried out.
In thinking about this I wanted to avoid setting up dichotomies, eg. between quantitative and qualitative research or big data and small data, so I hope that is clear from the above musings.
*I am not sure it really matters what the research topic was but in case you are wondering it was to learn more about academic study practices of students – I’ll possibly write about this in more detail in another post.
Geertz, Clifford (1993). The Interpretation of Cultures. Original printed 1973
Kvale, S. (1996). InterViews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. London:Sage.