|Issue 25||Summer 1999|
Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Use of Vignettes in Qualitative Research
Christine Barter is an NSPCC research fellow with the University of Luton. She has previously worked on a range of projects concerning the experiences of children and young people. At present she is involved in a study of violence between young people in childrens homes, funded by the ESRC.
Emma Renold has just completed her PhD on an ethnographic exploration into the construction of childrens gender and sexual identities. She is employed by the NSPCC as a research assistant working on the violence in childrens homes project and is writing a literature review on the sexual exploitation of children.
There are few detailed accounts about the use of vignettes, particularly within qualitative research and as a complementary method with other data collection techniques. Nevertheless, the literature is clear about what constitute vignettes. Finch (1987:105) describes them as short stories about hypothetical characters in specified circumstances, to whose situation the interviewee is invited to respond. Although she is describing their use within a quantitative paradigm, others offer similar definitions of their use within qualitative research:
Short scenarios in written or pictorial form, intended to elicit responses to typical scenarios (Hill 1997:177).
Concrete examples of people and their behaviours on which participants can offer comment or opinion (Hazel 1995:2)
Stories about individuals, situations and structures which can make reference to important points in the study of perceptions, beliefs and attitudes (Hughes 1998:381)
The vignette technique is a method that can elicit perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes from responses or comments to stories depicting scenarios and situations.
Vignettes are employed in different ways and for different purposes. Some of the major differences are: whether they are used as a self-contained method or an adjunct to other research techniques; how the story is presented; at what stage in the data collection process they are introduced; and how responses are structured. Nevertheless, vignettes generally fulfil three main purposes:
Employing vignettes as an ice breaker at the beginning of an interview can facilitate a discussion around participants opinions and the terms they use (Hazel 1995:2). It can also be a good way of developing rapport by making them feel at ease. However, where the main aim of the research is to explore participants own definitions and evaluations, caution should be exercised in case the vignette forecloses areas by channelling participants responses.
Vignettes have been used to elicit cultural norms derived from respondents attitudes and beliefs about a specific situation. Finch (1987) explores the merits of tapping into the general imagery of respondents, especially when using more than one vignette and varying the story with respect to age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Vignettes have also been used to explore participants ethical frameworks and moral codes. Wade (1999), for example, used vignettes to explore the ethical frameworks informing childrens thinking about issues such as the family. Neales (1999) research into post-divorce family life used vignettes as a useful way of exploring young peoples moral codes and their contingent status within different contexts. <>br
Vignettes have been widely used as a complementary technique alongside other data collection methods (see Hazel 1995; Hughes 1998). They can be employed either to enhance existing data or to generate data not tapped by other research methods (such as observation or interviews). With regard to the former, MacAuley (1996) sought to explore childrens perceptions and experiences of long-term foster care, using vignettes, unfinished sentences, postal boxes, response cards, games and other visual stimuli to achieve an insider position on childrens perceptions and value systems. Wade (1999) employed vignettes following individual interviews in her study about childrens perceptions of the family. She selected stories on topics that had not been covered in the interview or which would benefit from further exploration. Barter and Renold (1999), in their work on violence between young people in residential childrens homes, also used vignettes in conjunction with semi-structured interviews. They routinely asked all participants to respond to a range of selected vignettes, regardless of whether they had disclosed a similar situation in the interview. In this way, a systematic comparison of individual responses to different behaviours could be generated.
Vignettes can be useful in exploring potentially sensitive topics that participants might otherwise find difficult to discuss (Neale 1999). As commenting on a story is less personal than talking about direct experience, it is often viewed by participants as being less threatening. Vignettes also provide the opportunity for participants to have greater control over the interaction by enabling them to determine at what stage, if at all, they introduce their own experiences to illuminate their abstract responses.
Vignettes also offer the possibility of examining different groups interpretations of a uniform situation. In their childrens homes research, Barter and Renold (1999) use vignettes to explore young peoples, residential care workers and managers evaluations and perceptions concerning different forms of violence between children. Responses were then analysed to reveal the level of harmony or discord between adult and child evaluations, thus providing benchmarks for understanding differences in interpretation.
Some researchers have used vignettes because they offer a way of winding down the interview and broadening the focus from personal experiences to more abstract issues. This can be particularly useful when highly sensitive topics are under discussion (Wade 1999, Rahman 1996).
Vignettes can be used with participants individually or within a focus group, a method that is becoming increasingly popular with social researchers (see Wilkinson 1998). However, little has been written about the use of vignettes in groups, although it is often used as a warm-up exercise to get participants to start talking to each other. Maclean (1999), exploring childrens perspectives on the work-family interface, commented that it encouraged even the quietest group member to voice an opinion.
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Summer 1999 © University of Surrey
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