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Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods for Monitoring and Evaluation

As an evaluator, I am continually amazed by the level and richness of understanding that qualitative data provides. Qualitative data helps me to understand how and why projects are working, or even not working. Using a qualitative approach to evaluation research does not mean taking a quantitative data analysis and conducting a couple of interviews to support findings. It does not mean quantifying qualitative data either. Rather, using such an approach means finding systematic ways to identify qualitative indicators that measure project performance—utilizing many of the qualitative data acquisition and collection tools that I discuss in this series on Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation.

This series in Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation grew out of my practical experiences in research, measurement, and evaluation. My research and evaluation experience has been mainly in southern Africa, where I lived and worked for about 15 years. While in southern Africa, I worked on large-scale infrastructure and small-scale community development projects. I have been involved with a number of projects targeting women and the rural poor in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Darfur, Kenya, and Tanzania; and have managed democratization projects, including project monitoring and evaluation processes, in several countries in West Africa, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, and The Gambia, among others.

When I carry out evaluation research, I always try to understand issues from the perspectives of those on the ground—the stakeholders. An anthropologist would call this the emic perspective: trying to understand social and development phenomena from the perspective of the local population. I developed this series on Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation out of my experiences living in villages, working on projects, and carrying out evaluation research in several countries in Africa—where I saw project managers, evaluators, and stakeholders communicating and working at cross purposes, largely because their core understandings of projects, and project successes, were just so different. One way that we can get in touch with the emic perspective is to use qualitative methods, such as those I discuss in this series. Qualitative data acquisition and collection techniques such as observation, participant observation, participatory tools, and interviews are all ways for us to get to the root of the emic perspective.

I do not believe that you can learn how to use qualitative methods in program evaluation research from just reading about them in a textbook. Using qualitative methods is an art form which requires lots of practice! When I teach Qualitative Methods as part of American University’s online courses in the MS in Measurement and Evaluation, I encourage my students to carry out assignments where they practice qualitative methods in research and evaluation. Students in my classes carry out participant observation, interviews, and focus groups under my guidance.

I stress three points about program evaluation research to my online students. First, we need to remember that all evaluations need to be systematic and logical, and we should consider what method would best answer our evaluation questions, be it qualitative or quantitative. We might need to consider how qualitative data will combine with quantitative in a mixed method evaluation. Second, there are many, many qualitative methods at our disposal. Each gives us different kinds of data. Deciding which one or which set is most appropriate to answer our evaluation question is key. Third, once we know what data acquisition and collection methods will be best, we need to carry these out systematically. Some people have the mistaken impression that qualitative data acquisition and collection techniques are easy to use…all we need to do is a few interviews and voila! You have valid and reliable program evaluation research. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, using qualitative methods in monitoring and evaluation takes practice and training.

I think that I am a better evaluator—and a better program planner—because I use qualitative methods and integrate them into my evaluations. Also, I think that I can craft better programs in the future because my depth of understanding of previous project successes and obstacles is that much greater—having done qualitative program evaluation research in the past. Development funders are no longer just wanting grantees to track number of trainings or number of people in attendance at events. Funders want to see qualitative and mixed method evaluations, as they also realize the depth that qualitative methods bring to our understanding of project operations, successes, and obstacles.

Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation Series

  1. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Causal Mechanisms: Let’s Consider Golf Balls
  2. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: The Philosophy of Science and Qualitative Methods
  3. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Thoughts Considering the Project Cycle
  4. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: The Emic and the Etic: Their Importance to Qualitative Evaluators
  5. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Observation, Participant Observation, and M&E
  6. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Conducting a Census
  7. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Interviews
  8. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Using Focus Groups
  9. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Focus Groups for Qualitative Data Collection
  10. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Participatory Tools for Qualitative Data Collection
  11. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Seasonal Calendars and Timelines
  12. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Card Sorting: A Participatory Tool for Qualitative Data Collection
  13. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Analyzing Qualitative Data
  14. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring & Evaluation: Free Lists
  15. Qualitative Methods in Monitoing & Evaluation: Ethical Considerations
  16. Qualitative Methods in Monitoring & Evaluation: Qualitative Interviewing Tips

About the Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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