The Centre for Public Health encompasses a wide range of research methods and data collection techniques to explore issues within a public health context. The centre is well known for its data monitoring and its capacity to carry out large scale telephone surveys thanks to our in-house data monitoring and telephone research teams, as well as having a number projects relating to systematic reviews and quantitative methods. However, in addition to these aspects of the centre there is also a core group of researchers carrying out a wide range of projects that incorporate qualitative research and analysis.
Qualitative methods have formed a key part of many of the recent projects carried out by the Public Health and Wellbeing Team. Often our projects include mixed methods, with a quantitative component (such as analysis of existing data or data collection through surveys) carried out alongside qualitative data collection usually in the form of semi-structured interviews or focus groups. For example, a recent piece of work (final report soon to be published) that evaluated the pilot of the REST Centre in Liverpool, a daytime facility for street drinkers, incorporated data provided by the REST Centre as well as local services, a survey and interviews with service providers and service users. Whilst the quantitative data was useful in terms of providing figures that demonstrated impact in terms of numbers attending the service, the interviews provided much more depth and understanding about the experiences of those that used this service. Street drinkers often lead chaotic and unstructured lives, with there being numerous factors that lead to them engaging with street drinking. The use of qualitative interviews allowed us to explore their experiences and develop case studies demonstrating the impact of the centre; this enabled the service users to have a ‘voice’ in the evaluation. Additionally, through interviewing staff and service providers we were able to discover more about how they felt the REST Centre had impacted on street drinkers in Liverpool and gained individual examples of impact that provided context for the quantitative data.
Whilst the most common qualitative methods used in the Centre for Public Health are semi-structured interviews and focus groups, there have also been occasions when other elicitation methods have been used alongside these more traditional methods. Work carried out with looked after children and young people in Blackburne and Darwin and with young people at risk of becoming NEET in Liverpool used draw and write and Lego play alongside interviews and focus groups. These methods worked well in allowing the children and young people to express experiences that may have been difficult to articulate verbally and also encouraged them to be more engaged with the research. Again, the use of qualitative methods within these projects meant that context was given the quantitative components of these projects as well as there being a greater depth to the understanding of the research participants’ experiences.
There are also a wide range of PhD research projects at the Centre for Public Health that are using innovative qualitative methods. The nature of PhD research lends itself to opportunities for being more creative and experimental with research methods and the PhD students at the Centre for Public Health are working on some very interesting and exciting topics. These projects involve researching a range of different populations, including some that are often under researched and difficult to recruit, for example Travellers, adult film performers and bodybuilders. As well focus groups, surveys and interviews our PhD students have used a wide range of different methods to engage with these different populations including ethnography approaches, Photovoice, unstructured interviews and analysis of online forum discussions.
Qualitative research methods are a great way to gain insight into research participants’ experiences; they help to give participants’ more of a voice within research. This is especially true of the vulnerable and under researched populations that are often the focus of research within the Centre for Public Health. Staff and PhD students within the centre have a wide range of qualitative research skills and will hopefully have many more opportunities in the future to continue developing these skills and find innovative ways to apply them to research.