Participant diaries

Dr. Tom Farrelly Participant Diaries


Presentation on the use of diaries in social research. Based on the work I undertook for my DEd.

Transcript of Participant diaries

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Dr. Tom Farrelly

Participant Diaries

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Case Study – Diaries in ActionClassificationJustificationBenefits – What they offerImplementation Considerations & Difficulties


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Case Study – Diaries in Action

HSE – Upskilling Social Care WorkforceOutreach E-Learning (OEL)Case StudyOffered the opportunity to delve into

experiences. E-Learning, a panacea for creating lifelong learning opportunities?

Principal tool –Diaries, Diary/Interview

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Classification - Bryman (2004)

Researcher's Log/Diary

Unsolicited Diaries

Solicited Diaries

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An important argument that supports the relevance of diary writing emerges from the application of metacognitive theory to the interaction between thinking and writing … writing diaries helps developing the skills to think about described facts, the diaries provide strong potentialities for analysis and understanding of the social process that occurred in the classroom

(Sá, 2002:152)

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What they offer…Because diaries offer the possibility of

documenting the present; ‘there is a perception at least that diaries are less subject to the vagaries of memory’ (Elliot, 1997:2.4)

Diary writing ‘has the advantage of immediate and experiential penetration in the related facts’ (Zabalza, 1994:19 cited in Sá, 2002:152).

Diaries provide the opportunity to ‘observe’ a group of people deemed to be members of a counter-culture that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to effectively study due to its inherent inaccessibility and ‘freedom from a conventional schedule of activities’ (Zimmerman & Wieder, 1977: 483).

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What they offer… (contd.)

With retrospective data collection methods respondents are usually required to summarise or reconstruct a sequence of events (e.g. how many times did the event happen? How did you feel when you engaged in a particular activity?)

Stone & Shiffman, (2002) argue that the process of summarising can result in undue weight being given to more salient or more recent experiences.

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Methodological Issues and Considerations

Wiseman et al. (2005) argue that the primary concern with the use of diaries is the issue of fatigue.

In fact, as Wiseman (2005:397) notes the question of how long should a diary be maintained ‘is perhaps one of the most hotly debated issues around diaries’.

Coxon et al. (1993) recommend that diaries should generally not cover a period of over one month, however the time frame for recording will naturally depend on the number of entries required daily and/or per week.

Conrath et al. (1983) found that diary data were more reliable than questionnaire data, however, if diary entry required more than five to ten minute minutes per day to complete the reliability may be compromised (cited in Marino et al. 2004: 401).

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Methodological Issues and Considerations II

Diary studies are often classified into three categories of interval-contingent, signal-contingent and event-contingent (Bolger et al. 2003).

Modern communications technology can be used to improve response rates even where a standard written diary is being used.

Arguably the event-contingent method has the added advantage or providing a greater degree of ecological validity to the study as the recording of the event solely relies on the participant him/herself choosing the time/s to provide the record at naturally occurring intervals. Although this can present problems.

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Methodological Issues and Considerations III

‘Paper and pencil diaries were the earliest and are still the most commonly used approach in diary research’ (Bolger et al. 2003:593). In many ways the benefits of such an approach are quite clear: ease of use for the participant (providing literacy is not an issue) and relatively inexpensive to administer.

A number of limitations with the paper and pencil approach (Feldman Barrett & Barrett 2001, Shiffman & Stone 1998): honest forgetfulness, where participants simply forget to enter a record at the required time; in the case of interval-contingent studies, failing to have the paper diary on hand at the appropriate time in the case of event-contingent studies.

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Implementation Checklist (Abridged Version: Corti, 1993:3)1. An A4 booklet of about 5 to 20 pages is

desirable, depending on the nature of the diary2. The inside cover should carry a clear set of

instructions on how to complete the diary – this should stress the importance of completing at the correct times also emphasising that keeping the diary should not influence behaviour

3. An model example of a correctly completed entry

4. Pages should be clearly ruled up as a calendar with prominent headings and enough space to enter all the desired information

5. Checklists of the items, events or behaviour to help jog the diary keep’s memory should be printed somewhere fairly prominent

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Corti (1993) contd.6. There should be an explanation of what is

meant by the unit of observation, such as a “session”, an “event” or a “fixed time block”

7. Appropriate terminology or lists should be designed to meet the needs of the sample under study, and if necessary different versions of the diary should be used for different groups

8. Following the diary pages it is useful to include a simple set of questions for the respondent to complete, among other things, whether the diary-keeping period was atypical in any way compared to usual daily life. It is also good practice to include a page at the end asking for the respondents’ own comments and clarifications of any peculiarities relating to entries

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Quantitative DataNot necessarily within the context of qualitative approach‘Diary designs are excellent for studying temporal

dynamics. By having participants report their experiences over hours, days, weeks and sometimes months, researchers can ask questions such as: Does the variable of interest fluctuate from morning to night, behave differently on weekends and weekdays …Do individuals differ in these changes over time?’ Bolger et al. 2003:585

In addition to simply counting events or occurrences researchers may well be interested in the reason behind these frequencies or changes in frequencies thus can provide a combined or triangulated approach to data collection

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Marino et al. (2003:402/3) identify five potential shortcomings regarding the use of diaries:

time needed to train the diary keepers

variable response ratescomplexity of data-collection and analysis

the conditioning and increasing fatigue of the diary-keepers

limitations specifically related to the topic under study.

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ConclusionThe use of participant diaries for data

collection can be extremely effective across a range of qualitative studies particularly those studies adopting an ethnographic approach.

They can provide a sense of immediacy to an event that may not be possible in a retrospective interview no matter how skillful the interview is conducted.

There remain a number of considerations that need to be acknowledged and dealt with if they are to be used effectively (as with any method).

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ReferencesAlaszewski, A. (2006) Using Diaries for

Social Research. London: Sage PublicationsBryman, A. (2004) Social Research

Methods (2nd Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Corti, L. (1993) Using Diaries in Social Research. Social Research Update. University of Surrey [Available from: Accessed 23/05/2006]

Coxon A. M, Coxon, N. H, and Weatherburn, P. (1993) Sex role separation in sexual diaries of homosexual men. AIDS (7), pp. 877–882

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References II

Elliott, H. (1997) The Use of Diaries in Sociological Research on Health Experience.Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 2, Available from: [Accessed 27/03/07]

Feldman Barrett, L. & Barrett, D.J. (2001) An introduction to computerized experience sampling in psychology. Soc. Sci. Comput. Rev. 19:175-85

Marino, R., Minichiello, V., Browne, J (2004) 'Reporting on events using diaries', In: Minichiello, V., Sullivan, G., Greenwood, K., Axford, R. (eds), Handbook of Research Methods for Nursing and Health Science (2nd Edition). Pearson/Prentice Hall, 393-410

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References IIISá, J. (2002) Diary Writing: An interpretative

Research Method of Teaching and Learning. Educational Research & Evaluation, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 2: 149-168

Stone, A.A. & Shiffman, S. (2002) Capturing Momentary, Self-Report Data: A Proposal for Reporting Guidelines. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 24, Number 3 pp.236-243

Wiseman, V., Coneth, L. & Matovu, F. (2005) Using diaries to collect data in resource-poor settings: questions on design and implementation. Oxford University Press in Association with The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, pp. 394-404