Chapter 5: Qualitative Methods (Part 1)

Every day you are confronted with the need to understand research methodology. In your work life, you are asked to compile and process data. Whether you are researching leadership techniques or analyzing sales statistics, you must be able to interpret the data you encounter. There is an everyday utility to qualitative techniques such as observation or interviewing. Imagine yourself as a new member of an organization. What are the informal rules of the organization? What is the culture of this work environment? Are there expectations other than the ones provided in the job description or by the supervisor? Over time, with keen observation and interview skills, a new organization member can uncover the answers to these and other questions. So, while the information contained in this section approaches qualitative methodologies from a scholarly perspective, the skills and techniques identified herein will help you understand human social action in a variety of situations.

One of the goals of quantitative research is to produce generalized knowledge about a communication event or phenomenon. Quantitative researchers ground their investigations in the scientific method in order to control or manipulate variables, reduce or eliminate researcher bias, and discover verifiable patterns of human behavior. The goals of quantitative research are to explain, predict, and control behavior. Qualitative research, in contrast, seeks to develop subjective understanding of communication phenomena. Rather than the experimental designs and survey instruments of quantitative researchers, qualitative researchers often seek to collect data in natural settings and rely on observations of and interviews with research participants to create data, which is not designed to produce quantifiable and generalizable results, but rather to produce in-depth understanding specific to particular situations. Although noticeably different from quantitative and rhetorical research designs, qualitative research methods are a popular and vital approach to the identification, understanding, and analysis of human interaction. In this chapter, we discuss the fundamental assumptions, philosophical traditions and salient attributes of qualitative research.

The Qualitative Worldview

Individuals engaged in qualitative research approach their projects from a different perspective than quantitative and rhetorical researchers. Even though all researchers share an interest in accurately reflecting social reality and in crafting an intellectual argument that is built on the foundations of valid data collection and observation, several assumptions are specific to qualitative research. Understanding these assumptions can help you better determine whether you need to use qualitative methods for the particular study in which you are interested.

Assumptions of Qualitative Research

Our knowledge of social reality is based on subjective interpretation. Qualitative researchers assume that due to our limited perception and our individual experiences, our understanding of social reality is necessarily subjective. Due to this, qualitative researchers reject the realist worldview that postulates an objective, measurable reality. Instead, reality is a social construction, given life through intersubjective agreement – that is, the contours of reality are defined by general agreement between humans in the society. Another way to think of this is that reality isn't completely objective – existing externally from humans, but subjective – existing in the interpretations of humans. Concepts such as love, democracy, and friendship are difficult to quantify, and are often the result of negotiated understandings between pairs or groups of people. Therefore, for qualitative researchers, it is important to understand how individuals and groups subjectively understand their experiences.

Subjectivity, in regards to qualitative research, manifests itself in two ways. On one hand, there is the recognition that the participants in the research have their own unique way of interpreting and understanding events and their own social actions. For example, a researcher studying leadership would recognize that research participants, whether they are CEOs or workers, coaches or players, preachers or congregation members, have their own unique perspective on leadership. In order to fully understand leadership, a qualitative researcher would need to consider all, or at least as many as possible, of the various subjective understandings of leadership.

On the other hand, the researcher recognizes that he or she is the primary data collection instrument, and her or his subjectivity affects the study. Rather than utilizing a survey, specifically designed to reduce bias and maintain objectivity, a qualitative researcher, whether through observation or interviewing, filters all of the data through his or her own understanding. In this way, a qualitative researcher must recognize his or her subjectivity regarding the collection and analysis of data.

Research proceeds inductively. Induction is the process of moving from a series of specific observations to a general conclusion or theory. Unlike quantitative research, which often proceeds deductively from a general premise or theory to specific examples, qualitative research, through the gathering of subjective interpretations, seeks to develop general understanding through the analysis of the collected data.

For example, it is unlikely that qualitative research will begin with a theory, such as Inoculation Theory (a theory concerning how people resist persuasion), and then through experimental or survey designs, seek to validate and support the theory. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Qualitative researchers, interested in how people resist persuasion, might begin by asking participants for accounts of times when they have successfully resisted persuasive attempts. Qualitative researchers deliberately avoid beginning with the conclusion. After collecting these individual accounts from participants, researchers analyze the data in order to identify situational rules that then facilitate understanding of social action.

The goal of qualitative research is understanding. Nineteenth century German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (2010), articulating the difference between the natural and the social sciences, stated that the former sought causes and effects while the latter sought verstehen. Simply put, verstehen means understanding. One of the founders of sociology, Max Weber, elaborated on Dilthey’s work and stated that the purpose and method of the social sciences should be verstehen. Weber (1962) believed that it was not possible to fully predict human social action. Therefore, rather than attempting to predict and control human behavior, qualitative social scientists should seek to understand social action. It is important to recognize that human social action varies immensely, and it would be difficult to identify social actions that are likely to be consistent from one person to the next and across a variety of circumstances. For example, humans would have a wide range of responses to an embrace from an acquaintance, an insult, slapstick humor, physical violence, or being ignored.

Researchers emphasize credibility, rather than validity/reliability. Many qualitative researchers use the word credibility rather than validity or reliability. This is not to say that qualitative researchers do not desire validity, but rather to recognize that currently validity and reliability are synonymous with the quantitative approach to research. The use of the term credibility is a deliberate choice and refers to the veracity and accuracy of the data collected. Essentially, qualitative researchers are creating an argument—an argument which claims that the conclusions derived from the qualitative research are an accurate reflection of social reality. For example, if a U.S. Senator were giving a speech, we might ask whether or not the speaker is credible and whether or not the information presented in the speech is credible. In much the same way, we might evaluate qualitative research by asking whether or not the researcher and the argument presented in the research are credible.

Knowledge is created through intersubjective agreement. Qualitative researchers believe that knowledge is built through intersubjective agreement. For example, a researcher investigating friendship development among college students realizes that his or her study is only one piece of the puzzle and that a similar study would likely reveal new elements or focus on different characteristics of friendship. It is through the sharing of this body of knowledge that understanding is built. In fact, it is the very process of how research participants collectively construct multiple understandings in which the researcher is interested. Participants define and construct understanding intersubjectively and researchers document this process, enter their findings into the public record through publication, and then jointly construct meaning with other researchers, other participants, and other publications. Participants then become co-researchers with the researcher. This process results in an intersubjective, rather than an objective, understanding of the social world.     

The social setting or context is an important element in understanding any communication interaction. Qualitative researchers believe that context is integral to understanding communication. Research often takes place within the natural setting of the participants. For example, a researcher conducting an ethnography of college wrestling would observe the participants at practice, meetings, and competitions, etc.—paying careful attention to the characteristics of the setting. So, why is the context so important? In the case of a wrestling ethnography, many contextual factors aid our understanding of the group. Is the coach new or a seasoned veteran? Does the program have a stellar reputation or is it struggling for respectability? Does the team have 15 members or 45? Does the program have a state-of-the-art practice facility? All of these distinctions can help facilitate the researcher’s understanding of a group in a way that differs from quantitative research involving a survey of 200 wrestlers.

The values of the researcher cannot be completely separated from the research. Qualitative research is a subjective endeavor. A researcher relies on his or her ability to accurately interpret the available data in order to make a valid argument regarding the phenomena under investigation. Because the researcher is the data collection instrument and the values of the researcher are present during the interpretation, extra effort must be made to ensure that the biases of the researcher do not diminish the quality of the interpretation.

In life, it is obvious that people often see what they want to see. If a politician is giving a speech, it is likely that supporters will interpret elements of the speech in a manner that is entirely different from the way that detractors interpret those same elements. Because of this, it is important that researchers recognize and acknowledge the role that their values play in the interpretation of the data and to ensure that their conclusions are built on fully substantiated and supported claims.

In summary, qualitative assumptions include:

  1. Knowledge of social reality is based on subjective interpretation;
  2. Research proceeds inductively;
  3. The goal of qualitative research is understanding;
  4. Researchers emphasize credibility;
  5. Knowledge is created through intersubjective agreement;
  6. The social setting or context is an important element in understanding any communication interaction; and
  7. The values of the researcher cannot be completely separated from the research.

These assumptions represent the worldview shared by qualitative researchers. Ultimately, decisions regarding methodology rest on the types of questions that the researcher wants to answer. If your goal is to understand a particular communication phenomenon in depth, qualitative methods are a good research choice for you.

The Traditions of Qualitative Research

While quantitative research has the firmly established tradition of the scientific method, qualitative research locates its roots in a variety of philosophical strains. Cultural studies, critical theory, ethnomethodology, and others have all contributed to the theoretical traditions of qualitative methodology. However, the three traditions to be discussed here are hermeneutics, phenomenology, and symbolic interactionism.

Hermeneutics

According to Schwandt (2001), hermeneutics refers “to the art, theory, and philosophy of interpreting the meaning of an object” (p. 115). The “object” under examination can take a variety of forms: a Black-Eyed Peas song, a conversation between friends, a commercial for the latest iPhone, or a Presidential State of the Union Address. Hermeneutists call these objects “texts,” and they serve as the data for a hermeneutic study. The process of interpreting meaning makes hermeneutic analysis so fundamental to qualitative research. This process goes beyond the translation of a text and involves an effort to interpret the text. We are engaged in the process of interpretation every day. For example, lawyers, judges, and politicians are constantly in the process of interpreting laws. An ongoing discussion in the United States is whether or not the Bill of Rights is a “living, breathing document,” thus necessitating new interpretation, or is an unchanging document that means the same today as it did upon its ratification in 1791.

Hermeneutics, or interpretation, as a scholarly practice traces its roots to ancient Greek society. However, it is in the area of biblical scholarship that the more recent foundation of hermeneutics rests. Biblical scholars must not only translate ancient religious documents, but must interpret them for a new time period. For example, during the Protestant Reformation, new interpretations of biblical passages strengthened the Protestant cause while shifting away from Roman Catholic interpretations of the text. This process of interpretation is important because it acknowledges that texts must be reevaluated and re-interpreted in order to ascertain applicability and relevance.

Modern hermeneutics, as developed by Dilthey (2010), Gadamer (1976), and Ricoeur (1981), moved hermeneutic analysis beyond the study of ancient texts to include the range of “texts” that we consider for analysis today. Texts can include a near limitless range of social actions—transcripts from an interview, a movie, Congressional proceedings, a commercial, etc. In order to properly understand a text, the interpreter must have an understanding of not only the text, but of the cultural and historical epoch from which it originates. What do we know about the whole of the text? What do we know about the author or authors of the text? What do we know about the time period in which the text was created? Remember, the charge for a hermeneutic researcher is to interpret the text, and the goal of the hermeneutic researcher is understanding. Scholars in this tradition believe that one cannot fully understand a text until one understands the range of forces involved in the creation of the text. In this tradition, the emphasis is on the relationship among the text, author, context, and the researcher.

Phenomenology

While the centrality of interpretation in hermeneutic scholarship marks an approach that is clearly divergent from quantitative research with its scientific method roots, it is with phenomenology that we see a deliberate rejection of quantitative social science and its focus on an objective, measurable reality. Phenomenologists deny the existence of a reality that exists independent of our perceptions. 

Phenomenology originated with the work of Edmund Husserl (1990) as he sought to develop a way of objectively studying subjective experiences. Husserl focused on understanding events or phenomena by understanding how people consciously experience those events or phenomena. Husserl’s form of phenomenology, known as transcendental phenomenology, included carefully cataloguing all of the attributes of an item, such as democracy, and then bracketing, or setting aside, those attributes of democracy that are completely subjective—byproducts of culture and the perceptions of the person conducting the analysis. Therefore, if a researcher wanted to understand a concept such as democracy, he or she would identify all of the essential characteristics of democracy. Husserl would then advocate that those items on our list of essential characteristics of democracy that are culturally situated (for example, there are aspects of current U.S. democracy that differ from how other countries define democracy) be bracketed or set aside. By removing our cultural assumptions from the list through the process of bracketing, we are left with those items that seem universally, rather than contextually, valid—the essential characteristics of democracy.

While Husserl was interested in bracketing out the culturally based characteristics of a phenomenon, his student, Alfred Schutz (1967), found that the cultural variations that manifest in individual interpretation of experiences are the most interesting facets of the phenomenon. Therefore, Schutz’s social phenomenology emphasizes the subjective interpretation of everyday experiences. According to Schutz, these types of localized understandings are represented by people’s values, beliefs, etc. He called these typifications. In summary, while Husserl encouraged us to set aside our biases, Schutz asked us to consider how and why our biases develop.

Phenomenology focuses on intersubjectivity. One way to understand the phenomenological concept of intersubjectivity is to imagine a group of researchers independently studying a previously undiscovered tropical island. One researcher, who is able to study the island via helicopter, is able to chronicle those island characteristics viewable from the air. Another researcher studies the island from a submarine and is able to describe the island characteristics viewable from this undersea vantage point. Finally, a third researcher is able to walk around the island and study it from within, and is able to see the island from a different perspective than either the aerial or nautical researcher. When the three researchers get together to share their findings, they identify those areas where their data overlaps—thereby revealing the essential characteristics of the island and achieving an intersubjective understanding. This does not mean that the observations unique to each researcher are invalid, just that it is never fully possible for others to experience the world in exactly the same manner as someone else and that the process of understanding a phenomenon is a process that is both ongoing and contingent. In distinguishing between the phenomenological approaches of Husserl and Schutz, Husserl would focus on where the researchers overlap, while Schutz would be more interested in the unique observations of each of the researchers.

Stewart and Mickunas (1990), after noting the lack of consensus in defining phenomenology, stated, “one can characterize phenomenological philosophy as centering on the following basic themes: a return to the traditional tasks of philosophy, the search for a philosophy without presuppositions, the intentionality of consciousness, and the refusal of the subject-object dichotomy” (p. 5). In summary, phenomenology contributes to qualitative research with its recognition of subjective experiences and its goal of intersubjective meaning construction. Quantitative researchers use sophisticated surveys as measuring devices. In qualitative research, the researcher is the data collection device.

Symbolic Interactionism

The third tradition influencing modern qualitative scholarship is Symbolic Interactionism. The aim for researchers in this tradition is to ascertain how meaning develops. Humans use symbols (words, phrases, images, nonverbal gestures, etc.) to interact with one another. How is it that people are able to agree on common understandings for these symbols? According to Symbolic Interactionists like Mead and Blumer (1986), the cultural meanings that people attach to symbols develop through their interactions with members of their social network, mediated images in their environment, and social context in a larger sense. Through these shared symbolic understandings, people are able to make sense and interpret their experiences.

Symbolic Interactionism focuses on the interplay among mind, self, and society. Mind includes individual human thoughts, while self considers interaction with others. Society provides the context in which meaning is made possible. What each know, their stock of knowledge, is shaped by their experiences and their interactions within a societal network, and knowledge, in turn, impacts the societal network.

Even though people often successfully share meanings, it is important to remember that meanings are constantly under negotiation. While most might share a collective interpretation of the essential characteristics of a dog, the meanings of other terms, like liberal or conservative, are constantly under negotiation. Your own political orientation, the political orientation of your social group, and the political orientation of your family members all shape your understanding of these terms. Additionally, other factors such as how distinct media outlets define liberal or conservative or how you feel about specific politicians influence and guide how you conceptualize these terms. 
 
Over the course of the evolution of Symbolic Interactionism, key components developed to further explain the results of interaction among social groups. Significant symbols and significant others are two examples of essential characteristics of this approach to human social action. Significant symbols are those, that when used, elicit understanding among the social group. For example, others might interpret the use of an image of an eagle or an American flag pin on your lapel as representative of your patriotism. The term significant others refers to those whom most shape a person’s understanding of cultural symbols.

Consider a concept such as corporate branding—where a corporation hopes to build a specific connection between a symbol representing their company and their target audience. For example, Nike wants customers and athletes to immediately connect the swoosh on their logo with quality or performance. However, it is important to remember the roles social groups play in people’s interpretation of significant symbols like the Nike swoosh. Some, due to Nike’s lawsuits, might associate the swoosh with unfair labor practices or poor working conditions. This example serves to further demonstrate that cultural understandings are always contingent.

If one considers that these three philosophical traditions represent the foundation of qualitative research, the individual pillars of the foundation reveal themselves. From hermeneutics comes the centrality of interpretation and the identification of texts (in all their myriad forms) as fundamental elements of scholarly analysis. From phenomenology comes the recognition that everything a person understands about reality is filtered through her or his own individual perceptions and that we should strive for intersubjective understandings of reality. Finally, from symbolic interactionism comes the realization that how people experience reality is shaped by the shared symbolic meanings that arise from their social network, cultural group, or philosophical standpoint. All three of these foundations reject a realist ontology; that is, the idea that there is a single objective reality that we can know independent of our subjective interpretation. Elements from nearly all of the assumptions of qualitative research, interpretation, textual artifacts, subjective understanding, and contextual shaping  can be traced back to these pillars.

Attributes of Qualitative Research

Before proceeding to an in-depth examination of specific steps for initiating and conducting a qualitative research project, there are a few general attributes and elements of qualitative research to consider. In this section, the authors discuss the primacy of observation as an essential attribute for a qualitative researcher, the types of questions posed by researchers, the different forms of data common to qualitative research, the varieties of sampling, and ways to improve the accuracy of your qualitative findings.

Observation

Having established the relationship between subjectivity and qualitative research and having established that the qualitative researcher, unlike the quantitative researcher, is the primary data collection instrument, it is necessary to consider one of the primary means of data collection in qualitative research: observation. It is common in qualitative research for researchers to immerse themselves in the social environment under investigation. People naturally engage in the process of observation every day—seeing what the weather is like, paying attention to what friends or professors are saying, or attending a meeting with a campus organization. However, systematic, scholarly observation differs from casual observation.

One way to think of how qualitative observation differs from casual observation is to consider playing a game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker. When you get together and play with your friends for skittles or peanuts, you may or may not pay enough attention to see if your opponents are bluffing. Now imagine that you are playing Texas Hold ‘Em on ESPN for ten million dollars. Under those circumstances it is critical that players are able to read the behaviors of others and also have a high awareness of their own behaviors. This is similar to the characteristics of a scholarly observer. When conducting observations for research purposes, researchers need to be able to sort through, process, and accurately capture the variety of stimuli occurring simultaneously in the environment. Additionally, researchers need to be cognizant of their own interpersonal behaviors and consider how they are impacting those in the environment.

Observation plays a very specific role in ethnography, which is when the researcher immerses him or herself into the culture or group being investigated. It also takes a keen eye for observation when conducting focus groups or interviews. Oftentimes, during the early stages of a research project, the researcher might rely on observation to get a preliminary sense of the communication context of the research participants. In general, the observation continuum looks like this:

While the explanation of each type of observation is fairly straightforward, it is worth exploring how each differs from the other. When a researcher takes on the role of complete observer, he or she is usually not already a member of the group under observation. When we study a group as an outsider, we call this adopting an etic perspective. Simply put, it would be difficult to carry out our day-to-day responsibilities as a group member and focus extensively on capturing detailed notes of our observations of the group. Consider a student on the campus of who is having difficulty understanding why the student organization in which he or she is a member (e.g., the Chess Club) is having trouble functioning effectively. This student might identify successful student organizations with the intent of sitting in as an observer in order to try to determine what those groups do that contributes to their success. The student might select a public relations student organization and attend several meetings, not with the intention of joining, but with the intention of identifying the social actions that help make the PR group a successful organization. By carefully and successfully documenting the procedures and activities of the public relations organization, the observer might be able to integrate these behaviors into her or his own organization.

On the other side of the continuum is the complete participant, someone who is already a member of the organization that he or she wants to study. Imagine again that you are the president of the Chess Club, and you want to improve the functioning of your student organization. Because you are the president and have all of the responsibilities associated with that position, it would be very difficult to take time off from your regular duties to take extensive field notes about the Chess Club’s organizational procedures. When you study an organization from an insider’s perspective, as you are in this example, it is called taking an emic perspective. In this case, the complete participant wants to carry out his or her routine responsibilities and then, after the meeting, attempt to write detailed notes describing the activities and experiences of the meeting.

Before discussing the two perspectives that mark the middle areas of the continuum, it is necessary to highlight three salient points regarding differences between taking an etic perspective or an emic perspective.

  1. Although complete observers may bring a fresh set of eyes and be able to focus exclusively on the act of observing, they may find that access is limited and acceptance of their presence is not guaranteed.
  2. Although complete participants have the advantage of understanding the history, rituals, and jargon of the organization, their pre-existing biases may greatly cloud their interpretation of events.
  3. Both types of observers must pay considerable attention to the concept of trust—complete observers, if the participants are aware of his or her presence, may have difficulty gaining the trust of the group and getting them to behave as they naturally would (consider the Hawthorne effect that states that people behave artificially when they know that they are being observed). Complete participants may begin with the trust of the participants, but will likely find themselves navigating a difficult path, particularly if they become aware of behaviors and activities that portray some members of the group in a negative light.

So what is the difference between an observer-as-participant and a participant-as-observer? A few years ago, a colleague was doing an ethnographic study of the emergency room in a large hospital. She had no training in the medical profession. She received permission to conduct observations and interviews over the course of several months. She began the study as a complete observer. However, over the course of her ethnographic study, she had multiple experiences that caused her to shift from complete observer to an observer-as-participant role. On one occasion, due to shortages on the staff, she was asked to hold a patient’s leg in place in order for the doctor to attempt to set the broken leg prior to putting it in a cast. Needless to say, the colleague was not expecting to play any kind of active role in the hospital emergency room other than active observation. So, an observer as participant is when an individual maintains the primary role of observation, but on occasion is asked to participate. Another example is when other professors visit your classroom in order to observe and evaluate your professor or teaching assistant. In this case the primary role is the observation, but in some circumstances the observers find themselves participating in class activities such as discussion or role-playing. Now imagine that you are a nurse in an emergency room who has been asked by administration to document communication patterns in the emergency room and recommend improvements. The participant-as-observer still has the primary responsibility of being a nurse in the emergency room, but he or she might also have specific time in meetings or every hour or so to document and reflect on observations. In this way she/he fulfills the primary role of nurse, but also is able to allocate time to observation and analysis on the side.

It is important to determine which observation role is best suited for your research. You must consider whether you are an insider or an outsider for the organization. You must then determine if you will be taking a covert (undercover) role or a more overt (out in the open) role. Regardless of the type of observation in which the researcher engages, specific and systematic expectations for data gathering and analysis govern your research. The role that you take impacts the type of data that you are able to collect.

Research Questions, Seldom Hypotheses

Qualitative research proceeds inductively—beginning with a specific group or a specific question and then gathering data in order to lead to a general explanation or perhaps even a theory. Qualitative researchers are seldom engaged in testing existing theory in the same sense that quantitative researchers are. Therefore, qualitative research relies on broad research questions asking “how” or “what” rather than testable hypotheses that make clear predictions. Consider the following sample research questions from three different qualitative studies.

RQ1: In what ways are employees’ constructions of mistreatment in the workplace muted or privileged? 
RQ2: What are the processes that silence or encourage discussion of mistreatment by employees? (Meares, Oetzel, Torres, Derkacs, & Ginossar, 2004, p. 9)

RQ1: What are the components of high self-esteem for the women in the study?
RQ2: How do they say they manage the construction and maintenance of high self-esteem in their lives? (DeFrancisco & Chatham-Carpenter, 2000, p. 77)

RQ1: How do disabled organizational members experience and negotiate organizational assimilation? (Cohen & Avanzino, 2010, p. 278)

While these three qualitative studies clearly follow the pattern of asking “how” or “what” questions, it is important to remember that, in general, there is more flexibility regarding the normative presentation of qualitative research. In some cases, such as the research of Wong and Goodwin (2009), because there was already an existing body of evidence on which to base their research, they proffered hypotheses with their qualitative study on marital satisfaction. Their hypotheses included:

H1: Bonding and the interactions between the spouses would be more important in individuals’ evaluation of marital relationships in modernized societies where independence is valued.
H2: Relationships with other family members would be more important in the evaluation of marital relationships in societies where interdependence is valued.
H3: Financial security would be a more important factor in marital satisfaction in less modernized settings. (Wong & Goodwin, 2009, p. 1014)

Wong and Goodwin gathered their data through in-depth qualitative interviews, but due to the large body of existing scholarship on marital satisfaction, they were confident in presenting hypotheses. However, it is necessary to point out that while hypotheses in qualitative research may exist, they are rare.

To further demonstrate the variation in qualitative research, some research studies may eschew research questions altogether. In these cases there is often a research purpose stated prior to describing the methods, but this purpose may take the form of a tentative statement rather than a research question. For example, Weinstein (2007) used field observations, interviews, and written documents to explore how inner city youths used writing (poetry, lyrics, etc.) to negotiate gender and sexual identity. She states, “I hope to contribute to the ongoing work done by researchers on adolescents’ and young adults’ uses of written and oral composition to find workable identities in the midst of multiple and shifting social contexts” (Weinstein, 2007, p. 30). In another case, Hundley and Shyles (2010) studied teenagers’ perceptions of technology and, rather than asking a research question, they simply stated, “this research continues the line of inquiry by listening to teenagers and gaining a perspective on what they think about emerging digital technologies and the functions various devices serve in their lives” (p. 418).

Thus, variation exists regarding the presentation of research goals in qualitative research. Goals may range from general purpose statements to specific research questions. Although hypotheses are rare, and research questions and research statements are more typical in qualitative research, one must remember that regardless of the approach, the methodology must be in the service of the overall research purpose.

Types of Data in Qualitative Research

The data for qualitative research takes many forms. Interviews and focus groups provide responses to carefully designed questions. Observation and ethnography provide detailed notes of the research setting. Participant responses or observation events may range from brief, specific responses to detailed, descriptive stories. A truly extensive ethnography, for example, might combine detailed field notes, descriptive stories, and specific responses to field interview questions. Stories, field notes, and interview/focus group responses are all valid forms of qualitative research data.

Stories. Some qualitative techniques, such as narrative analysis, seek to elicit stories from the research participants, while in other cases, like interviews or focus groups, stories may arise naturally over the course of the research. Fisher (1984) said that it is natural for humans to communicate using stories. It is not hard to imagine the range of situations in which stories may either be elicited or arise spontaneously. Imagine an interview question where the researcher asks, “tell me about a time when you experienced conflict with a co-worker?” Or, consider doing research on U.S. wedding rehearsal dinner rituals. One can imagine the richness of the stories naturally arising in that setting. Qualitative research offers details and descriptions that are richer and more in-depth than quantitative research—the collecting of stories is a perfect way to capture the richness of our social activity.

Field notes. Whether one is observing a focus group, an emergency room, or the proceedings of a student organization meeting, field notes are a necessary tool for capturing the social activity as it unfolds. If the researcher is conducting an ethnography, and is involved in the act of cultural immersion, the observational field notes provide the data for the study. Field notes are a record of the activities of the participants of a study. The field notes are a written log of the researcher’s observations. Perhaps you like to go to the mall and watch the people as they come and go. Even with a good memory it is doubtful that you would be able to remember more than one or two interesting points if asked about it the next day. It is for this reason that detailed field notes, which describe the setting and participants in real time, are the best way of documenting a researcher’s time in the social environment.

For an ethnographer, the field notes are the data that allow the researcher to develop a credible argument in the final report. For a researcher observing a focus group, field notes enable the researcher to note the physical setting of the focus group or to chart how interaction proceeds over the course of the focus group. One of the most common ways to set up your field notes is to divide your page from top to bottom down the middle. On the left side of the page, the researcher should include specific observations, while on the right side of the page, the researcher should include tentative questions or concepts or future ideas. It is always important to also include the date, time, and location of the observation—and perhaps even a map of the research setting.

A good student activity is to select a location—the union, a class, a restaurant, etc.—and practice taking your own field notes. Just spend 30 minutes observing the location and see how accurately you are able to capture the setting and the ongoing interaction among the participants.

Consider the following example of field notes from observation of a graduate class:

Setting: Tom Hall’s Introduction to Research Methods Course
Lang Hall 308
9:00 – 9:50
Date: Monday, September 23, 2013
Participants: 21 students, 1 professor; 12 female students, 9 male students
The class is arranged in two semicircle rows

Observations Concepts/Questions
9:03 Professor Hall arrives late for class, greets everyone, and then calls attendance 9:03 Is Hall always late for class? What might this tell me about his classroom style?
9:05 Hall announces that if students have questions he would prefer to answer those questions face to face rather than via email, so come visit him during office hours or before or after class 9:05 Face-to-face communication versus computer mediated communication
9:07 Student (male) asks a question about an upcoming assignment    
9:08

After answering the question, lecture begins

   
9:08-9:30 Lecture proceeds covering levels of measurement in research
Observations during lecture:
15 of the students are actively taking notes on the lecture
3 students seem to be paying attention, but not taking notes
2 students text throughout the lecture
1 student (male, far right corner of the class) continuously nods off
Hall defines each concept, provides an example, and then asks for questions, before proceeding to the next concept
No questions are asked during the lecture
9:17 Did the students who aren’t taking notes already read and outline the chapter?
9:22 Was the Walmart story an attempt to re-engage the students?
9:22 Hall tells a funny story about Walmart 
Hall uses a lot of hand and facial gestures
9:28 Do the hand gestures facilitate understanding and comfort or are they a distraction? Look into nonverbal communication and teaching
9:31 Class is divided into groups to work on an activity where each group develops examples of the different levels of measurement. I am placed in a group with four others 9:30 Are students randomly divided into activity groups or do they always choose nearby students?

In-depth interviews & focus groups. Quite a bit of qualitative data is neither collected using field notes nor involves a detailed story. Much of the data follows the natural give and take of everyday conversation. Whenever possible, an audio recorder is a useful tool for capturing participant responses to interview questions. Open-ended responses that are not as extensive as a detailed story are very common in qualitative data. If brief, closed-ended responses are the type of data you need, you probably want to consider a quantitative survey. However, if you are interested in understanding how and why participants engage in certain activities or adopt certain values, qualitative interviewing will likely provide you with the type of data you need.

Stories, field notes, interview and focus group responses, and field notes are three common forms of data in qualitative research. All researchers are interested in producing the most accurate and valid conclusions from their data. Prior to and during the research process, there are choices the researcher can make to strengthen his or her results. The choices are rooted in a process called triangulation, which means you may choose multiple ways to collect data or multiple methods to explore the answer to your research question/s (Denzin, 2006).

Sampling Characteristics

Selecting the participants for a qualitative study often relies on a very deliberate process. Whereas quantitative research improves its accuracy through random sampling that is representative of the population to which it seeks to extend its results, qualitative research, with its emphasis on context and focus on understanding, will generally use a purposive non-random sampling strategy, rather than a random, sampling process. Once again, the fact that qualitative research proceeds inductively (starting with a specific group or setting), rather than deductively, reinforces the necessity of purposive sampling practices. If a researcher wants to observe and understand the communication practices at a large retail store, he or she would purposely select a retail store as the setting for the study. According to Schwandt (2001), qualitative samples “are chosen not for their representativeness but for their relevance to the research question, analytical framework, and explanation or account being developed in the research” (p. 232). 

Another characteristic of qualitative research samples concerns sample size. Because qualitative research focuses on understanding rather than generalizations, the size of the sample is typically much smaller than a sample for a quantitative survey. For example, consider the amount of time it takes to set up, conduct, and transcribe ten average length interviews compared to an on-line survey that automatically compiles the data and uploads it into a statistical program. Also, if a researcher wants to study the large retail store with many departments, it is easy to imagine the amount of time necessary to complete a thorough ethnography. Even if the researcher only chooses to focus on a single department within a retail store, observing different shifts and different workers would take a considerable investment of time. Qualitative samples are both purposefully selected, to meet the research objective, and deliberately small, to be manageable for the researcher.

The Importance of Triangulation

All researchers seek to produce an accurate or credible account of the phenomenon under investigation. Researchers have a variety of options to improve the credibility of their studies. Triangulation is the process of using two or more types of evidence to provide a more clear and accurate interpretation of the data. Triangulation takes multiple forms from researcher triangulation to data triangulation. The basic premise behind triangulation is that if the multiple data sources converge, validity/credibility has been enhanced. We will briefly discuss several of the more popular forms of triangulation.

Multiple methodologies. This type of triangulation involves the researcher or researchers using multiple techniques to gather the data. Suppose that a researcher wants to study the communication practices of a local restaurant. One of the ways that the researcher might collect data is by interviewing the employees of the restaurant. The results of the interviews might paint a very accurate picture of restaurant activities. However, the researcher might also want to observe the restaurant as the social actors engage in their day-to-day activities. The idea behind triangulation is that the data collected from the interviews and the data collected from the observations of the restaurant, when combined, paint a more complete and accurate picture of the restaurant than either one of the methods alone. Of course, a researcher could also include a third method, focus groups, in an effort to corroborate the conclusions drawn from the interviews and the observations. Using multiple methodologies for triangulation does not have to be limited to qualitative methods. For example, it is very common for a researcher to conduct interviews in order to gain a basic understanding of a concept and then use that information to create quantitative surveys to distribute to a larger sample. The goal is to create the most credible interpretation of the data, and triangulation of methods is one way to improve the accuracy of a study.

Multiple researchers. This type of triangulation involves multiple researchers gathering data on the same subject. In the example regarding the ethnographic study of a retail establishment, it is easy to see how a research team would have an easier time collecting observations than an individual researcher would. It is not just that multiple researchers can spread out and cover more ground, thereby creating a more fully realized picture of the organization, but also that multiple researchers increase the chance of accurately capturing all of the activities occurring when viewing the same event. Think of all of the activities going on during a typical organizational meeting—multiple researchers would be able to capture a fuller spectrum of social activity in less time than just one researcher. Additionally, multiple researchers contribute to the development of intersubjective understanding. Multiple researchers can mitigate some of the biases of each researcher, helping to avoid reaching a premature conclusion or being overly subjective.

There are other forms of triangulation, such as multiple research settings (observing at different times or in different places) or multiple disciplinary approaches (one observer versed in organizational communication and another versed in organizational behavior). These forms of triangulation are not mutually exclusive; researchers can combine, and often do combine, a variety of these approaches.

General Strengths and Weaknesses of Qualitative Research

Perhaps the greatest strength of qualitative research is the sheer amount of depth it can bring to our understanding of social action. Qualitative data can capture many of the complexities of human interaction that are unable to be uncovered through a quantitative survey. Because it proceeds inductively, it is both strong at discovering new phenomena and at generating theories of human behavior. Qualitative data collection often occurs in the participants’ natural environment, improving the ecological validity of the study. As long as the researchers are able to overcome the Hawthorne effect, the data collected should reflect actual behaviors in ways that self-reported surveys or laboratory studies are unable to reflect. Finally, qualitative researchers allow the participants to tell their own stories rather than reducing the stories to numbers.

Qualitative research also has obvious weaknesses because the researcher is the data collection instrument, so the quality of the data is only as good as the researcher. Has the researcher collected enough data to paint an accurate picture? Has the researcher attempted to minimize individual bias to the fullest extent? These concerns represent just a few of the problems that could result from the subjective nature of qualitative research. Qualitative research is not good for generalizing results to a larger population and it is not good for examining causal relationships. There is also a considerable investment of time associated with this type of research.