Qualitative Research Methods

This guide is meant as a brief introduction to qualitative research methodology, with pointers to further reading and resources.

Questions about this guide? Contact
  • What is qualitative research?
  • Why and how?
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Qualitative surveys
  • How do I analyze my results?
  • What is IRB?

Qualitative research is a methodological approach with particular theoretical concerns and a range of methods, often exploratory in nature.

While often defined in opposition to quantitative research, this is not a simple binary relationship; in fact, mixed methods approaches often yield rich and complex information about their subjects. The following are some key characteristics of each approach:

qualitative research

  • inductive, emergent approach with a flexible style, seeking to represent the complexities of a social problem or phenomenon through individual contextualized experience, with attention to researcher subjectivity and reflexivity
  • often draws from multiple naturalistic sources, including methods such as interviews, observations, document and artifact analysis, usually in the participant's environment
  • seeks a holistic account of an issue through multiple perspectives, with an emphasis on participants' own meaning of experiences

quantitative research

  • deductive approach with a rigid style, testing theories developed about relationships between variables, seeking to eliminate bias and control for external factors
  • typically represents relationships in terms of measurements with a numerical focus, with statistical analysis performed
  • focuses on reliability and generalizability

mixed methods research

  • applying both quantitative and qualitative approaches to an investigation, in a way that applies the philosophies of each working in concert for the examination of a social issue or phenomenon

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Sources & Further Reading:
Creswell, John W. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2008.

    Qualitative approaches tend to ask more “how” questions, seeking to understand the entire scope of a phenomenon or situation and how those involved perceive their own experiences.

    Different types of approaches have different focuses:

    • basic qualitative study -- how people interpret their experiences, both attributing meaning
      to those experiences and constructing their personal and social worlds
    • phenomenological study -- the “essence” of a particular phenomenon, in terms of how
      people experience it
    • ethnography -- the culture of a group, and how individuals interact within and with this
      culture
    • grounded theory -- building a theory about a particular phenomenon, process, or
      interaction, based on the experiences of participants
    • narrative -- the stories that people tell about their experiences, and the meanings these
      stories contain
    • case study -- a specific event, program, activity, etc. that is delineated in some clear way, examined in-depth (Merriam 2009)

     

    Asking qualitative research questions:
    Creswell (2008) recommends the following approach:

    • come up with one or two central, broad questions
      • generate several subquestions (five to seven) related to that broad theme

     

    Components to consider in design:

    Maxwell’s (2013) model has five components:

    1. goals -- why are you doing this? what do you hope to learn? what do you want to accomplish?
    2. conceptual framework -- what do you think is happening? what theories or prior findings might apply to your problem?
    3. research questions -- what are you investigating? what is the problem? what areas or aspects do you want to know more about? how do these questions connect to each other?
    4. methods -- how are you collecting your information? what approaches are you employing? how are you relating to participants? where are you doing this? when? how are you analyzing your results?
    5. validity-- what biases or gaps are in your approach? what are alternative explanations? how can you address these? how might your findings support or unsettle your conceptual framework?

    ___________________________

    Sources & Further Reading:
    Creswell, John W. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 3rd Edition. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2008.

    Maxwell, Joseph A. Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach. 3 edition. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2013.

    Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation. 3 edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

      when should I do interviews?

      • when looking at experiences, perceptions, constructions, in which your subjects are invested in the situation 
      • can generate thick, rich data from a relatively small number of participants
      • advantages of being able to probe into above areas, without predetermining results (with exception of structured interview) 

      types of interviews

      • structured -- both questions and answer categories are set in advance, commonly used in quantitative approaches
      • semi-structured -- interviewer follows guide of questions, but these can be adapted in the moment, with follow-up questions to trace emerging areas of interest
      • unstructured -- questions mostly driven by the participant’s context, with perhaps general topics to guide the interviewer 

      what are some drawbacks of interviews?

      • might be difficult with sensitive issues, due to lack of anonymity and individual interaction. Some people may be more comfortable discussing certain topics in a group setting
      • time-consuming for the interviewer, to conduct, transcribe, and analyze
      • less breadth of content -- will likely be smaller sample size than other methods
      • may not empower participants -- they don’t have direct control over what you produce as result of interaction
      • limited access to actual experience -- relying upon participant’s ability to recall and articulate experience, and limited by interviewer’s structure of questions
      • only one perspective on particular event, doesn’t fully represent motivations or perceptions of other actors

      _____________________

      Sources & Further Reading:
      Braun, Virginia, and Victoria Clarke. Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners. 1st edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013. 78-81.

      Given, Lisa M. The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2008. 422.

        when should I do focus groups?

        • when you want a wide range of views/perspectives, possibly on a less-researched topic, and are interested in joint meaning-making
        • can work particularly well with sensitive topics, provided the group is constructed and moderated carefully
        • can also be useful as empowering tool for participants, by sharing experiences that might otherwise be isolating, in a context with less power on the moderator’s side  
        • can use in combination with interviews -- for example, gaining a range of perspectives and then narrowing in on individual experiences, or cross-checking conclusions reached

        drawbacks of focus groups?

        • can be difficult to coordinate
        • can be difficult to moderate
        • takes longer than typical interview
        • not well-suited to investigating individual experiences in depth

        _________________________

        Sources & Further Reading:
        Braun, Virginia, and Victoria Clarke. Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners. 1st edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013. 110-113.

        Given, Lisa M. The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2008. 353.

          qualitative surveys

          • open-ended questions on a topic, can be hard-copy or online formats
          • can include drawing as well as word-based responses

          when should I do qualitative surveys?

          • when investigating sensitive topics
          • to get a broader view of a topic
          • to allow participants to still answer “in their own words,” so their perceptions/framework comes through

          drawbacks of qualitative surveys?

          • lack of opportunity to extend responses and probe further
          • chance for participants to misunderstand instructions, questions
          • potentially low/non-response

          _________________________

          Sources & Further Reading:
          Braun, Virginia, and Victoria Clarke. Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners. 1st edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013. 136, 142.

            Qualitative analysis often requires a significant time commitment, due to the need to transcribe material and then apply a variety of analytic strategies, which can include coding, writing memos, and “connecting strategies” like narrative analysis (Maxwell 105).

            When should I start?

            It is easy for material to pile up and become overwhelming; analysis shouldn't wait until data collection is complete. You can begin analysis after completing your first interview or observation, and should continue it throughout the research process (Maxwell 104; Braun and Clarke 204).

            How should I do it?

            You should consult works that describe and demonstrate analytic approaches in detail. A few that could get you started:

            • Creswell, John W. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Approaches. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2006.
            • Flick, Uwe, ed. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Analysis. 1 edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013.
            • Saldana, Johnny. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. 3rd edition. Los Angeles; London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2015. 

            What are common processes and strategies?

            Data cleaning/reducing
            Regardless of your specific approach, you will need to do some amount of reviewing your raw data and transforming it into a form suited to analysis. This may happen throughout the project, as you'll want to review your data in full, as well as in process.

            Coding

            • A process of categorizing information by applying codes to specific chunks of material. Codes can be a single word, or a phrase, that describes what is significant or interesting about a section of your material (Braun and Clarke 207).
            • Codes can be based on prior theory, specific concepts relevant to your concerns, characteristics or aspects, or terminology or keywords. They can be descriptive or interpretive, and may use participants’ own words, as well as your own (Asher and Miller 21). 
            • You can use a combination of approaches with codes, both applying pre-developed codes based on your research questions or hypotheses, and being open to new themes and relationships that emerge from the material (Taylor, Lewins, and Gibbs 2010).

            Memos

            • Making notes of your own perceptions of and analytic thinking about your data, throughout the process, both in order to trace the shifts in your own approaches and understanding and to spur deeper investigation  (Maxwell 105).
            • More in-depth than codes, and can be used as a form of pre-writing for your final analysis (Braun and Clarke 215)

            Connecting Strategies

            • Narrative analysis is a type of analytic strategy that focuses on the material holistically, focusing on the relationships between different elements and the entire “story” in context  (Maxwell 112)
            • Other approaches include thematic analysis, which works to identify broader, unifying concepts that are illustrated or demonstrated across the data (Braun and Clarke 224)

            How long will this take?

            This depends on the specifics of your project, but generally, transcribing and analyzing your data will take a long time. Asher and Miller describe a four-to-one relationship: four hours of transcription needed for one hour of interview material (8).

            For data analysis, Braun and Clarke recommend allocating over half of the total research project timeline to data analysis, in a timeline with overlapping stages (69).

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            Sources & Further Reading:
            Asher, Andrew, and Susan Miller. “So You Want to Do Anthropology in Your Library? Or A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries.” ERIAL Project, 2011. Accessed 31 Aug. 2016.

            Braun, Virginia, and Victoria Clarke. Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners. 1st edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013. 136, 142.

            Maxwell, Joseph A. Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach. 3 edition. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2013.

            Taylor, Celia, Ann Lewins, and Graham Gibbs. "What Is Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA)?" Online QDA Web Site. (2010). www.onlineqda.hud.ac.uk/Intro_QDA/what_is_qda.php. Accessed 9 Sept. 2016.

              IRB stands for Institutional Review Board. If you are conducting research that involves human participants, you will need to get approval from Amherst's IRB before you collect your information.

              The goal of review and approval is to ensure that there is no/minimal risk to participants, and that they are fully aware of their rights under federal regulations.

              What do I need to do?

              You will need to fill out and submit an application available on Amherst's IRB webpage, which includes an Ethics Review form and Consent Form.

              Broadly, you should think through your project in each of these aspects, to prepare for your application:

              • purpose -- why are you doing this study? what do you hope to accomplish?
              • participants -- who are you asking to participate in this research? are there any vulnerable populations (prisoners, children, mentally/cognitively disabled, pregnant women, economically/educationally disadvantaged)? what negative consequences might occur as a result of participation, and how will you protect against these?
              • procedure -- what are you asking participants to do? if you are interviewing participants, what are you asking them about? are there any sensitive or potentially damaging aspects to your inquiries/observations?
              • power -- how will you obtain informed consent? how will you ensure that participants are able to review their own contributions and control their privacy?

              You will also need to complete human subjects training, which can be done online and for free. Three options are available on Amherst's IRB webpage, and you should request a certificate of completion to include with your other application forms.

              What does the process look like?

              After you apply, the Initial Reviewer will assign a category to your application: Exempt (no foreseeable risk), Expedited Review (minimal risk), or Full Board Review (more than minimal risk and protected subjects).

              Most research projects will likely be Exempt, in which case it requires no further review. Expedited Review projects are forwarded to the Expedited Reviewer. Full Board Review projects require the most time, with the IRB as a whole performing the review.

              Amherst's IRB webpage has more detailed information on the process and components, including links to the required application form and ethics training.