Our work.

The scene:

A focus group of individuals who say they are ‘organised’ when it comes to filling in forms and applications.

The objective:

Investigate their habits and perceptions regarding form filling.


All were 10 minutes late…

Almost half forgot their jacket or bag when they came to leave…

Now, how often do fieldnotes such as these make it into a final report? I would argue not nearly enough.

The above example, while perhaps an extreme case, highlights the often overlooked gap between the verbal and non-verbal aspects of qualitative research. Too often we focus too much on what participants say rather than what they do.

Of course, this difference should be research 101. But often only lip-service is paid to recording participant’s behaviour in favour of listening to their speech.

This is not to say that what the participant pronounces is not vital to research but, less controversially, that good qualitative research involves a combination of both listening and observing. The researcher is more than a dictaphone that records the audio of a conversation: they observe how an opinion is pronounced, what tone of voice is used and what body language is at play.

We should reflect on the above real-world example. While the majority of the group discussion revolved around sharing stories of organisational prowess, the non-verbal signs observed by the researcher in the fieldnotes hint that the participant’s anecdotes are only part of the picture. The non-verbal signs, such as leaving their belongings behind and arriving at the wrong time, not only serve to frame the dynamics of discussion but add nuance to the research. The focus group no longer remains a ‘disembodied’ free-floating conversation but instead becomes grounded in the participant’s day-to-day lives. This in turn helps dissolve the boundary between the discussion inside the room and the participant’s lives outside while at the same time alleviating (part of) the unnatural quality of a focus group methodology.

To sum up, by including participant’s non-verbal cues, researchers can add much greater depth to their analysis of focus groups. Recording behaviour in additional to speech helps frame the discussion within the broader context of participant’s lives. In some instances, as we have seen here, it can enable the researcher to reach conclusions which would have otherwise been missed.

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