(Qualitative) Vignette Study

If you want to compare responses of people to similar situations, vignette study could very well serve your research aim. A vignette is a short description of a hypothetical incident, event or situation that is presented to informants in order to collect their views, opinions and reactions. They are typically accompanied by questions asking participants to respond to the scenario either by giving their opinion regarding the course of action that should be taken or by explaining what they would do in the situation presented.

Researchers from a range of disciplines have used vignettes to explore a variety of research issues and problems. Vignettes are relatively well established as a means of exploring judicial decision making. In socio-legal research vignettes are commonly used to examine the impact of various factors on judicial decision-making and to examine the extent of consistency in the decisions of different actors: by asking decision-makers to respond to a common scenario they allow a comparison of decision-makers’ responses to the same stimulus. In criminal law it has been used extensively to research variation in sentencing decision-making in a similar criminal case for example. Any observed differences in responses reflect the differences between decision-makers rather than any differences in case factors. This quality also makes vignettes very useful in an international comparative research design.

Most applications of the method tend to be quantitative in nature. As such vignette research allows the opportunity to test the effect of various factors on a response in a statistical model. Traditionally, the qualitative use of vignettes is less prevalent within social research although in recent years this is changing. A qualitative use is in nature more open and leaves the opportunity to include respondents own interpretations and definitions of the situation. Therefore qualitative use of vignette methodology is in particular useful for a more explorative design.

Vignette methodology also has some weak points of which the most important is its lack of ecological validity. This entails, first of all, that there is no conclusive evidence on the convergence between what people say they do and what they actually do in practice. Second, it is impossible to replicate real live situations in vignette descriptions and as such this type of research could not provide reliable insight into practice. Although it must be admitted that vignette studies cannot predict behaviour, they can give good insight though in the process of decision making and the relevant factors, meanings and interpretations of the actors studied. Besides vignette study can be easily combined with other methods as, for example, observations and file study. Triangulation is therefore highly recommended.

To conduct a vignette study four steps have to be taken. 1. design a vignette and accompanying questionnaire; 2. test the vignette; 3. use the results of the pilot to improve and complete your research instrument; 4. develop an analytical framework to analyse your results. With regard to step 1 it is important to sketch realistic scenario’s. Try to formulate as neutral as possible, but take national and cultural differences into account. In a qualitative design it is recommended to keep the case description relatively short, while using an extensive, semi-structured questionnaire to catch as much difference as possible. This approach requires a well thought-out analytical framework, however, to make all these different responses comparable.


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