Social Research Methods/Qualitative Research

Qualitative Research


Qualitative research is collection of research methods that collect verbal or text data in order to answer sociological questions. This kind of research looks at processes and explanations in answering these questions.

Three qualitative methods include:

  1. content analysis
  2. interviews
  3. field research

Field research


Field research is the systematic observation of people in a natural setting for an extended period of time. This research has its origins in investigative journalism and cultural anthropology.

Topics appropriate for field research

  • Topics that defy simple quantification
  • Attitudes and behaviors best understood in their natural settings
  • Social processes over time

Elements of social life appropriate for field research

  • Practices
  • Episodes
  • Encounters
  • Roles and Social Types
  • Social and Personal Relationships
  • Groups and Cliques
  • Organizations
  • Settlements and Habitats
  • Social Worlds
  • Subcultures and Lifestyles

Potential problems

  • Bias - both experimenter bias and participant bias
  • Reactivity - a related idea in which subjects alter their behavior as a response to the knowledge that they are being studied
  • Possibility of the experimenter "going native" or becoming part of the culture they are studying
  • Some subjects may not consent to being observed

Strengths and Weaknesses of Qualitative Field Research


  1. effectiveness for studying subtle nuances in attitudes and behaviors and social processes over time
  2. flexibility
  3. inexpensiveness


  1. no appropriate statistical analyses
  2. reliability (because this research is not easy to replicate)
  3. validity

Types of validity include...

  • ECOLOGICAL VALIDITY is the degree to which the researcher’s construction of the field site corresponds to the subjects’ own conception of it
  • NATURAL HISTORY VALIDITY is the degree to which outsiders other than the researcher accept that the methods used by the researcher are valid
  • MEMBER VALIDITY is the degree to which subjects confirm the accuracy and fairness of the researcher’s field notes
  • COMPETENT INSIDER PERFORMANCE VALIDITY is the degree to which the researcher has been accepted into the social world of the field site

Qualitative Field Research Paridigms

  • Naturalism - an approach to field research based on the assumption that an objective social reality exists and can be observed and reported accurately
  • Phenomenology - an approach to field research based understanding the lived experience of the participants[1]
  • Institutional Ethnography - a research technique in which the personal experiences of individuals are used to reveal power relationships and other characteristics of the institution within which they operate. It links the microlevel of everyday personal experiences with the macrolevel of institutions. The level of analysis in this paradigm is culture. It does this through explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge, and thick description.
  • Ethnomethodology - an approach to the study of social life that focuses on the discovery of implicit, usually unspoken, assumptions and agreement. This paradigm usually focuses on "breaking the rules" as well as finding and analyzing "what everyone knows". The units of analysis typically include words, gestures, and body language and are typically studied through breeching experiments.
  • Breeching Experiment- an experiment in which the researcher breaks tacit social norms in order to test people's reactions.
  • Grounded Theory - an inductive approach to the study of social life that attempts to generate a theory from the constant comparing of unfolding observations. The guidelines for this paradigm include thinking conservatively, obtaining multiple viewpoints, periodically stepping back, maintaining an attitude of skepticism, and following the research procedures[2].
  • Case Studies - the in-depth examination of a single instance of some social phenomenon[3]
  • Extended case method - a technique in which case study observations are used to discover flaws in and to improve existing social theories
  • Participatory Action Research - an approach to social research in which the people being studied are given control over the purpose and procedures of the research
  • Emancipatory Research - research conducted for the purpose of benefiting disadvantaged groups.

Conducting Qualitative Field Research

  • Prepare for the field

In preparing for field research, most methodologists suggest selecting a site where the researcher is a stranger. This ensures a more balanced perspective. However, it can be difficult for researchers to obtain access to such sites. Situations in which the researcher is an insider or is perceived as a member of the same general community can also be helpful. Sometimes, obtaining access to a site may be facilitated by obtaining the interest and trust of a gatekeeper, who may have formal or informal authority. Personal connections are often especially important when deviant or elite populations are being studied. Personal connections can even play a role in every-day situations, aiding the researcher in transforming “access” into “acceptance.”

A few important steps in preparation for field research:

  • Be familiar with relevant research
  • Discuss your plans with others in the area
  • Identify and meet informants (when appropriate)
  • Make good first impressions, as these are important
  • Establish rapport, which is an open and trusting relationship

The roles a researcher can take on in field research are defined by the relationship the observer has with the subject. This is because the involvement the research has with the subject will affect how in depth the research is, and it may also incur the observer effect, in which the subject changes his/her behavior based on the knowledge that he/she is being observed. Another way in which the researcher impacts the research is based on his own involvement in the experiment itself; this participatory involvement is defined by how involved the researcher is with the subjects and their behavior throughout the course of the experiment. The researcher can be entirely an outside observer, never interacting directly with the subject, or be entirely in the group and part of the group they are researching, or any level in between these two extremes. Depending on the research and what is being studied, the researcher will decide what level of involvement will be appropriate for the research, and what level of involvement will give the best results and not affect the quality of the data.

  • Take into account any ethical considerations

Institutional review boards typically exercise great caution in approving field research studies. While field research is unlikely to harm the subjects, it can be very risky for harming the institution. This is especially true when the research subjects are children.

Observing in public areas is generally accepted but some public areas have special considerations: one are not part of the “public” if the group is homogeneous and he/she is different (woman in an all male group, adult among kids, etc…) Researchers should only take the liberty to "act invisible" and hide their role as a researcher if the behavior they are researching is completely public and completely anonymous, for example, study habits in a library, how people approach one another in a bar, etc. However, a researcher must disclose their researcher role when observing in private locations.

  • Interviewing/Stages in complete interviewing process:
  1. Thematizing
  2. Designing
  3. Interviewing
  4. Transcribing
  5. Analyzing
  6. Verifying
  7. Reporting

Qualitative Analysis


Qualitative Analysis is the numerical examination and interpretation of observations, for the purpose of discovering underlying meanings and patterns of relationships. This is most typical of field research and historical research.


Discovering Patterns

  • You must try to find frequencies, magnitudes, structures, processes, causes and consequences.
  • Cross-Case Analysis – an analysis that involves an examination of more than one case; this can be either a variable-oriented analysis
  • Variable-Oriented Analysis – an analysis that describes and/or explains a particular variable
  • Case-Oriented Analysis – an analysis that aims to understand a particular case or several cases by looking closely at the details of each
  • Ground Theory Method (GTM) – an inductive approach to research introduced by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in which theories are generated solely from an examination of data rather than being derived deductively
  • Constant Comparative Method – a component of the Grounded Theory Method in which observations are compared with one another and with the evolving inductive theory

Four stages of constant comparative method (Glaser and Strauss):

  1. Comparing incident application to each category
  2. Integrating categories and their properties
  3. Delimiting the theory
  4. Writing theory
  • Semiotics – the study of signs and the meanings associated with them. This is commonly associated with content analysis
  • Conversation Analysis (CA) – a meticulous analysis of the details of conversation, based on a complete transcript that includes pauses, hems, and also haws

Conceptualization in qualitative analysis

In quantitative analysis, it is usually obvious what the variables to be analyzed are, for example, race, gender, income, education, etc. Deciding what is a variable, and how to code each subject on each variable, is more difficult in qualitative data analysis.

  • Concept Formation - is more sophisticated in qualitative data analysis. Concept formation is the creation of variables (usually called THEMES) out of raw qualitative data.
  • Casing - the process of determining what represents a case, is an important part of concept formation. CODING is the actual transformation of qualitative data into themes.

Coding in qualitative analysis

  • Open Coding – the initial classification and labeling of concepts in qualitative data analysis. In open coding, the codes are suggested by the researchers’ examination and questioning of the data
  • Axial coding – a reanalysis of the results of open coding aimed at identifying the important concepts (themes).
  • Selective coding – this builds on the results of open coding and axial coding to identify the central concept that organizes the other concepts that have been identified in a body of textual materials.
  • Memoing – writing memos that become part of the data for analysis in qualitative research such as grounded theory. Memos can describe and define concepts, deal with methodological issues, or offer initial theoretical formulations. Memos can be thought of as a researcher's diary.
  • Code memos – identify the code labels and their meanings
  • Theoretical memos – reflections on dimensions and deeper meaning of contexts, relationship among contexts, theoretical propositions, etc.
  • Operational memos – deal primarily with methodological issues.
  • Concept Mapping – the graphical display of concepts and their interrelations, useful in the formulation of theory

Social network analysis

Social network analysis is a technique to discover, analyze, and display sets of relations among a group. It emerged from the sociometric study of small groups. Examples of groups would be school classes, summer camps, etc. It utilizes a graph (diagraph) for display, and ties between individuals are represented as edges (arcs) in this graph. In order to determine the ties, questions that could be used include: “Whom do you know personally?”, “Who are your best friends?”, “Whom do you most respect?”, “With whom would you most like to be friends?”, etc. Ties are typically represented by 0 or 1, but they can also be given magnitudes. Finally, structurally similar individuals are clustered together.

Questions for Evaluating the Quality of Qualitative Research

  • Credibility of the findings
  • Ways that the research has extended knowledge or understanding of the subject
  • Effectiveness of evaluation in addressing its original aims/purposes
  • Explanation of the scope for drawing wider inferences
  • Clarity of the basis of evaluative appraisal
  • Defensibility of the research design
  • Defense of the same design/target selection of cases/documents
  • Description of the eventual sample composition and coverage
  • Quality of data collection process
  • Clarity of approach to, and formulation of, analysis
  • Portrayal and retention of contexts of data sources retained and portrayed
  • Exploration of diversity of perspective and content
  • Coherence in conveying detail, depth, and complexity of the data
  • Clarity of links between data, interpretation, and conclusions
  • Clarity and coherence of reporting
  • Clarity of assumptions/theoretical perspectives/values that shape the evaluation's form and output
  • Evidence of attention to ethical issues
  • Adequacy of documentation of research process

  1. Gill, M. J. (2014). The Possibilities of Phenomenology for Organizational Research. Organizational Research Methods, 17:2, 118-137.
  2. Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory; Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.
  3. Yin, R. K. (2013). Case study research: Design and methods: Sage publications.