Statement of research question
In this paper I’m going to demonstrate my knowledge of the qualitative methods of research applying them to a specific issue – the experience of Chinese students studying in Britain. First of all, I’ll start with a general overview of the existent qualitative methods of research focusing on advantages and disadvantages of each. Then, I’m going to choose a specific method most applicable to the problem in question and justify my choice. After it, I’m going to describe the specific details of the use of the chosen method in order to make a comprehensive conclusion.
Details of methods to be used
Qualitative methods of research are a well-established academic tradition in such fields as sociology, anthropology, history and geography. It’s characterized by certain principles, and they are should be better perceived not only as a discrete set of tools and techniques, but as complementary methods which can be used along a continuum of overlap with other methods.
The main attention is dedicated to understanding different perceptions, aspirations and interests and how these impact the information about facts and events rather than trying to reduce them to one vision of reality. For instance, men and women often have different accounts of levels of family wealth and roles in the decision-making in family. Different people often have different views on power relations within organizations or companies.
Qualitative research addresses these differences as indicators of relative power and as likely explanatory aspects in differential results of intervention. Qualitative research is also heuristic, interpretative and inductive. It develops freely rather than restricts itself to initial hypotheses or problem. Every study begins with an intensive familiarization with the context, institutions and policies to be researched and progressively have an overall comprehension of the related processes. Due to the focus on understanding complexity the scope and emphasis on the study are continually redefined as knowledge various aspects of the process enhances and new issues are brought in the limelight.
So, qualitative methods usually comprise (O’Connor, 2004):
- Dramaturgical Interviewing
- Natural Experiment
- Case Study
- Unobtrusive Measures
- Content Analysis
- Secondary Analysis of Data
Studying the specific problem – the experience of Chinese students studying in Britain – I decided that this problem is interview. Interview allows gathering sufficient amount of information while taking into account a variety of perspectives. This method is known for the fact it allows to collect the most comprehensive information during face-to-face communication. It helps receive trustworthy responses because contact between the interviewers and interviewed is generated. Comparing all the methods described above, I can make a conclusion that this specific method is most relevant to the study of the problem in question, and although it’s rather effort and time consuming, it can render the most accurate picture.
Details of selection strategy
For the purposes of the research, I completed a questionnaire. It had two parts: the first part covered the issues related to study, while the second focused on the issues not related to study. I include the sample of this questionnaire:
- Part I
Are you satisfied with studying in Britain?
What field are you studying in?
What was the reason for coming to Britain to study?
Is language barrier an obstacle to studying?
How is education system/process different in China and Britain?
Do you plan to return find employment here or back home?
Do you find knowledge and skills received during the course of your studies sufficient to become a good specialist?
Do you feel that university facilities (i.e. libraries, computer classes, gyms) meet all your needs?
Do you like the professors and the way they teach?
Do you think that the atmosphere in the classroom is open and good for studying?
What do you like most about studying in Britain?
Did British education meet your expectations? What was the major disappointment about studying in Britain?
- Part II
Do you find British people friendly and helpful?
Do you find your fellow students friendly and helpful?
Did you feel a cultural shock after arriving to Britain?
Did you find the authorities (e.g. school authorities or dorm warden) supportive?
Have you made friends with British students? If yes, how quickly and with how many people?
Do you usually hang out with Chinese or British students?
Where do you usually hang out? What do you do? Would you have a chance to do the same in China?
Do you live at the dorm or somewhere else? If you live in the dorm, what do you think about living conditions, regulations, and atmosphere in the dorm?
How student life is different in Britain and China?
In your view, where are students’ right protected better, in Britain or China?
Do you participate in extra-curriculum activities?
Have you ever had a British girl/boyfriend?
Do you think that British society is more liberal when it comes to question like sex or alcohol?
What is the best and worst habit you’ve got into while studying in Britain?
Have you ever noticed any signs of xenophobia, intolerance or discrimination towards you?
There were also certain ad hoc questions. Senior students were asked one more question about their perceptions of Britain, school, and student life changing over the years.
After synthesizing the raw data, I was able to get the general picture.
As for the issues related to study, students reported high level of satisfaction related to the quality of studies. They often cited the reason for coming to Britain to study: China simply doesn’t have such good schools like in Britain. Students were especially excited about the opportunity to choose subjects themselves. The majority of male respondents study in the technical or economic field, the most widely cited examples were engineering, business administration and finance. Girls usually study philology and management. The students were fully satisfied with the facilities their universities offered, though many of them reported that the most reputable schools in China also have good equipment.
The education system in Britain was more “serious,” as some students called it. In China, the dominant type of higher education institution is the so-called short-cycle college, while in Britain universities prevail.
Language barrier was (and is) a problem for many Chinese students. Some of the students confessed that they were inherently shy, language barrier being an additional obstacle they were often afraid of speaking out. In the classroom, they were often silent and inactive because of the combination of these two factors. They also noticed that the professors focused more on the stronger students than weaker ones, while in China it’s vice-verse. The professors were reported to be very friendly and highly qualified, and many Chinese students recalled one or two professors that were helping them a lot during the whole course of studies.
Many students believe that knowledge and skills acquired while studying in Britain were sufficient to become good specialists in their field. The strongest side of British education, in their view, is its closeness to real life – professors use practical example and often have much experience in the subject. The overwhelming majority was confident of their will to return to China to make a career – British diploma automatically guarantees them good employment chances. However, girls admitted that in China for a woman it’s still hard to find a decent job. Therefore girls would prefer to stay in Britain or go to some another country to study further or start a career.
Generally, the most depressing experience for almost all the students were the feelings of embarrassment and helplessness during the first days in college or during a new course. They also experienced same feelings when performed badly during the studies. Chinese students are very diligent and hardworking, and discovering that their knowledge in a certain field is scarce due to the differences in high school curricula was a very unpleasant thing for them. One of the students even told me about the concept of “loosing face” applied to this issue. This concept is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and entrenched in virtually all aspects of social life. This concept is used to refer to a situation of public humiliation, and that’s one of the worst things that can happen to a Chinese. Therefore, this sort of experience was reported as painful and depressing.
As for the social experience, here the students admitted the existence of certain problems. While they never noticed any signs of open discrimination, many of them failed to integrate fully in the student life. Though many British people were seen as friendly, some of them were indifferent and reluctant to help. (Getting these answers was especially hard and I had to tell them many stories of me facing discrimination abroad in order to have them talking about the way they really felt). But they told that the authorities were doing their best to help them.
As for cultural shock, many students told that they wouldn’t describe their emotion after arriving to Britain as a shock. There was much surprise and confusion, but very few dared to call it a shock. Those who had had experience traveling abroad before coming to Britain told that the cultural shock was much stronger upon arriving to other countries, like the US or Russia.
The only thing that was strikingly different was the concept of privacy. Chinese students were not used to privacy and had to learn to respect privacy of other students.
Students believes that the national character of the British was very similar to Chinese – same respect for the law and tradition, same emphasis on holding back one’s emotional, same respect for cool reason and reserved character. However, the Chinese admitted that all these characteristics applied only to the older generation – fellow students were most frequently described as “crazy.”
Still, Chinese students reported hanging out predominantly with the students of their own nationality. Chinese students named many British buddies and acquaintances, yet “true friends” were still to be found among the Chinese. Few spoke about British girl/boyfiend, and that was usually a short-term relationship.
Chinese students quickly adopted the lifestyle of British students – the most widely cited leisure activity was a movie and pizza. Again, it took time to get the students talking, but many of them reported starting drinking and smoking in Britain. They believed that the British society was far more liberal than Chinese. Students living at the dorm described the atmosphere there as “incredible” with parties and accessible sex.
Student life, as the Chinese students reported, was more vigorous in Britain, but they told it was “badly organized.” While the emphasis was on self-organization, this approach often failed.
Details of access strategy and role to be adopted
Now I’ll pass over to explaining the details of the use of interviewing process. I negotiated access to different groups of Chinese students ranging from freshmen to PhD students in the most convenient way – interviewing students at the faculty and dorm. As for the persona to choose, I introduced myself as a student from another university with a deadline for the coursework approaching. This generated compassion of the interviewed towards to interviewer. However, I didn’t express any familiar notes, because one of the weaknesses on this researched method is that interviewee may distort information through recall error, selective perceptions, desire to please interviewer.
Strategy for recording and analysis
When the interviewee grants permission, the easiest strategy for recording will be video/audio taping. In other cases, it should be summarized in notes. Detailed recording is a necessary part of interviews. Carefully crafted interview guides with ample space for taking down the interviewee’s answers are needed.
As for data transcription and analysis, three strategies exist. According to the first one, “the interviewer (or in some cases the transcriber) listens to the tapes and writes a verbatim account of everything that was said. Transcription of the raw data includes word-for-word quotations of the participant’s responses as well as the interviewer’s descriptions of participant’s characteristics, enthusiasm, body language, and overall mood during the interview.” (Frechtling & Westat, 1997)
The major strengths of this transcription method are its completeness and a chance it affords for the interviewer to stay attentive and focused. The major weaknesses are the amount of time and effort necessary to produce complete transcriptions and the inhibitory impact tape recording has on some interviewees.
The second strategy “draws less on the word-by-word record and more on the notes taken by the interviewer or assigned notetaker…This approach is recommended when resources are scarce, when the results must be produced in a short period of time, and when the purpose of the interview is to get rapid feedback from members of the target population.” (Frechtling & Westat, 1997)
Third approach is used when there is “no tape recording, but instead [the interviewer] takes detailed notes during the interview and draws on memory to expand and clarify the notes immediately after the interview. This approach is useful if time is short, the results are needed quickly, and the evaluation questions are simple.” (Frechtling & Westat, 1997)
I decided to use the second approach. I was taking quick notes during the interview and then summarized them, both analyzing and synthesizing.
Discussion of ethical issues
As for the ethical issue, cross-cultural perspective should be applied. The interviewer should remember that the definition of privacy and private information is different across the nations and cultural groups. The researcher should also be aware of the cultural references and sensitive issue every culture has.
There are certain norms of behaviour the interviewer has to observe carefully while interviewing the Chinese students. For instance, the Chinese do not use their hands while speaking, and will be annoyed if an interviewer does so. The representatives of this nation also dislike being touched by unknown people.
There is also a heavy emphasis on repressing emotion, so the interviewer should hold back the emotions while conducting the interview.
As for deeper ethical concerns, the interviewer should keep in mind that Chinese people have great sense of collectivism. Therefore, they may be unlikely to share the information that can discredit the communities they belong to or to characterize them as antisocial persons. Also, the Chinese have great respect for authority, so they can be reluctant to speak their mind on the issues related to governmental policies or school administration’s decisions and actions.
Therefore, an open disclaimer was made concerning the fact that the interview results were to be kept highly anonymous and wouldn’t be used for other reasons than scientific. A promise not to pass the information to the third parties was made.
In this paper I conducted the comparative analysis of different qualitative research methods in order to choose the most appropriate one to the study of the experience of Chinese students in Britain. The main advantages of this method are richer data and information about various dimensions of the same problem, opportunity to assess affective and cognitive aspects of responses, the chance to communicate face-to-face, be flexible, and explain or clarify interview questions.
The weaknesses of this method include its expensive and time-consuming nature, large volume of information, often with a large percent of irrelevant data included, and distortion of information due to recall error, selective perceptions, or desire to please interviewer. Another disadvantage discovered during the formulation of the research strategy was the need to take into account a variety of ethical issues and behavioural models.
I can conclude that “[i]nterviews provide very different data from observations: they allow the evaluation team to capture the perspectives of project participants, staff, and others associated with the project.” (Frechtling & Westat, 1997)
O’Connor, T. (January 6, 2004). “Qualitative Social Science Research Methodology.” North Carolina Wesleyan College. JUS 308 Syllabus, Lecture #9. Retrieved December 24, 2005, from http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/308/308lect09.htm
Frechtling, J., Westat, L.Sh. (ed). (August 1997). “Common Qualitative Methods.” User-Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluations. National Science Foundation. Retrieved December 24, 2005, from http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1997/nsf97153/chap_3.htm
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