Collecting, Analyzing, and Interpreting Qualitative Data

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Overview

In this Skill, we introduce you to a range of methods selected from the many for collecting qualitative data, emphasising their inherent strengths and limitations while providing guidance on best practice. Sometimes we refer to these methods as techniques, or even tools.

Different groups of people or individuals may respond better to different methods. Think for example of interviewing young children about their views on favourite types of play. You would have to consider how you framed the questions, the language you used, and the children’s attention spans, particularly if you were conducting this in an area surrounded by a range of distracting toys and other activities. You may decide that it would be better to build on your data gathering by first observing, followed by asking individual children, or even a group of children, questions in a more open-ended interview format.

Similarly, if you are interested in learning more about the leisure pursuits of a group of senior adults who are in a club or a day centre, you may find that it is preferable to hold a focus group. This can encourage the members not only to give you their thoughts about their preferences but also they can react to the views of other people in the group. As a facilitator, you can help to steer the conversation and encourage everyone to join in. In this way, they are providing the information that is personally important to them as well as addressing the aim of your research project.

You may, however, want to get some qualitative data from a much larger number of people, perhaps from many different settings or locations. Then it would not be feasible to interview everyone, nor to hold focus groups. So, here, a questionnaire with opportunities to answer open-ended questions and to offer additional comments might be your method of choice. In the Choosing an Appropriate Research Methodology Skill, we gave the example of wanting to consider how many people lived in one specific region compared to another, to provide adequate infrastructure facilities in each. If you also wanted to know why people lived in those regions, and you were interested in what expectations they had of their region, then you would need to collect information about people’s reasons and perceptions. Here a questionnaire with open-ended questions and room for comments to be added could be a good way of gaining their views.

Questionnaires are often distributed digitally nowadays, and interviews can be conducted ‘face to face’ via electronic media platforms too. However, those are not the only manifestations of digital research methods. Given the unique characteristics of the Internet, you need to rethink how to differentiate data collection methods. Participants can engage anytime, anywhere, on computers, phones, or mobile devices. While you can still pose questions verbally in interviews or focus groups, or in writing through questionnaires, there are other options. The Internet is a visual medium, where you can communicate with photographs, drawings, or audio and/or visual media.

There are a range of constructivist methods that involve elicitation of meaning using visual media as well as narrative accounts that are revelatory of perceptions and beliefs. Many of the techniques can be applied across age groups and cultures; some are very structured, whereas others are more open and participant-directed. These techniques tend to be very incisive, often evoking submerged attitudes, causing participants to be surprised by what they reveal about themselves. Thus, they need to be applied with sensitivity.

Pause for Thought

Before reading on, think about the methods you might use, when and where, and how confident you feel about analysing and making sense of your data.

When it comes to analysing your data, it is important to decide in advance how best to do so. This will be related to the kinds of research questions you have asked, and the methods chosen to gain the data. It may be that you need more than one method of analysis or would like to explore tools to help in the process, such as qualitative data analysis software. All these approaches will be considered in this Skill.

Providing an analysis of the data is not the end of the story. You will need to interpret the data in order to draw conclusions from it. Often this will require an integration of data, from the different participants and perhaps from different sources if more than one method has been adopted. At this point, you will need to be clear about the justification for inferences made, which may entail going back to participants to check these inferences using participant ratification, sometimes referred to as respondent validation or member checking. The processes of integration, interpretation, and drawing out implications are very creative aspects of analysing and making sense of qualitative data.

Did You Know?

There’s a glossary of terms and concepts available for this entire Module in the Beginning Your Research Skill.

Suggested Readings

Clark, T., Foster, L., Sloan, L., & Bryman, A. (2021). Bryman’s social research methods (
6th ed.
). Oxford University Press.
Gerrish, K., & Lathlean, J. (Eds.). (2015). The research process in nursing (
7th ed.
). Wiley Blackwell.
Silverman, D.(2021). Doing qualitative research (
6th ed.
). SAGE.