Qualitative evaluation approaches focus on exploring the experiences, perspectives and opinions of those involved. They can help us understand what an arts activity or process ‘means’ to participants. They can be illuminating about other subjective elements such as project delivery. These approaches frequently rely on interviews and focus groups to collect data which is then analysed to identify themes and patterns within participants’ words.
It is important to make a distinction between ‘anecdote’ and qualitative evaluation. Personal testimonial or case studies are often used in advocacy by arts and health organisations but these ‘anecdotes’ are often chosen because they tell a good story, usually positive. This process lacks credibility, and is unlikely to be helpful in developing a project in the longer term. In contrast, balanced reporting of qualitative data, carefully collected from a sample of participants, can produce rich, detailed evidence and stories. This can inform advocacy and give really meaningful information to support improvement of a project.
Arts and health evaluations may benefit from using a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to both identify specific outcomes for participants and explore their subjective experience.