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Section 5: Data Collection Methods

Principles of Qualitative Methods: Section 5. Data Collection Methods


In contrast to survey questionnaires, qualitative interviewing aims to delve deep beneath the surface of superficial responses to obtain true meanings that individuals assign to events, and the complexity of their attitudes, behaviours and experiences. There are two types of interviews, unstructured and semi-structured, their usage depending on the aim of the study.

Unstructured interviewing allows the respondent to tell their own stories in their own words, with prompting by the interviewer. Lofland summarised the objective of the unstructured interview as being, 'to elicit rich, detailed materials that can be used in qualitative analysis. Its objective is to find out what kind of things are happening rather than to determine the frequency of predetermined kinds of things that the researcher already believes can happen' (1971:76). In an unstructured interview, the researcher simply has a list of topics that they want the respondent to talk about. But the way the questions are phrased and which order they come will vary from one interview to the next as the interview process is determined by the responses (stories) of the interviewees.

Semi-structured interviews are characterised by topic guides containing major questions that are used in the same way in every interview, although the sequence of the questions might vary as well as the level of probing for information by the interviewer. Semi-structured interviewing is suitable when the researcher already has some grasp of what is happening within the sample in relation to the research topic. However, the researcher should ensure there is no danger of loss of meaning as a consequence of imposing a standard way of asking questions (Fielding & Thomas: 2001). This could be achieved by conducting pilot interviews (these use broad topic guides with few direct questions) prior to data collection.

Regardless of whether unstructured or semi-structured, the questions posed during the interview should be as open-ended as possible, in order to avoid yes/no or rehearsed answers. Further, the questioning techniques should encourage respondents to communicate their underlying attitudes, beliefs and values that are so central to this method. This can be limited where the interviewee has a lack of awareness/information or is not used to putting feelings into words. Interviewees might feel exposed by questions (in particular where attitudes are probed in sensitive topics such as political attitudes, sexual orientation, borderline or illegal behaviour). On the other hand, interviewees might feel that they need to present themselves in a specific way in order to fit in with their perception of the researcher's requirements, or wish to bring in their own agenda of life-topics that do not fit easily with the aim of the interview. For these reasons, it is important to build a rapport with the interviewee before starting the interview so that both sides can feel more at ease. Different ways of posing questions and using probing and prompting help to elicit more information or steer the interview. More information about how to use these strategies, to develop a topic guide, interviewer effects and recording methods are given in the following references - see Fielding & Thomas (2001) for a good overview of issues in qualitative interviewing; see Wengraf (2001) for a very detailed discussion of qualitative interviewing.

Focus groups

Focus groups are a form of group interview with the aim of capturing the interaction between the participants based on topics that are supplied by the researcher (Morgan, 1998). The main purpose of focus group research is to evoke a level of respondents' attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences and reactions otherwise not available when using methods, such as observation or interviewing. These attitudes, feelings and beliefs may be partially independent of a group or its social setting, but are more likely to be revealed via the social gathering and the interaction created in a focus group. Focus groups are particularly useful when there are power differences between the participants and decision-makers or professionals, when the everyday use of language and culture of particular groups is of interest, and when one wants to explore the degree of consensus on a given topic (Gibbs, 1997). For these reasons it is important to make sure that the participants have a specific experience/opinion about the topic to be discussed, and that a specific interview guide is used.

Despite all the potential of focus groups, this method has its limitations. However, these limitations are dependent on the study design and can be reduced by diligent planning. Four of the main limitations are:

(a) The researcher has less control over the data produced

(b) The researcher has little control over the interaction other than generally keeping participants focussed on the topic

(c) The researcher can have difficulties in recruiting and assembling the focus group (e.g. finding a date and time for seven busy health care professionals, or resistance from people who are less articulate or confident)

(d) The researcher cannot assure full confidentiality and anonymity as information is shared in the group.

The practical organisation of focus groups requires the following:

  • Planning the recruitment process
  • Negotiating the date and time of the focus group
  • Choosing a venue (a neutral place is usually of advantage; where participants live/work too far apart the focus group can also be conducted via a telephone conference line)
  • Insuring adequate recording facilities
  • Organising a co-moderator (e.g. to take notes and monitor recording equipment), deciding how many people should be in the focus group (usually six to ten)
  • Informing participants about the potential length of the focus group (usually one to two hours).
  • Being clear about the role of the moderator. This will require the researcher to provide clear explanations of the purpose to the group, ask questions and facilitate interaction between group members (e.g. allowing quieter participants to speak).

For a detailed discussions on preparation and conducting focus groups see e.g. Morgan (1998) and Bloor et al. (2001).


When undertaking observational fieldwork the researcher is also known as the 'ethnographer' as he/she attempt to discover the practices and meanings that the members of the group under study take for granted (Denzin:1989). By observing a group of people, the researcher sets out to identify the meanings people develop about their existence (Bowling:1997). In participant observation, the researcher adopts the perspective of those studied. For example, a study might be interested in the rules of the waiting room in a GP practice. The researcher in his/her observing role would adopt the perspective of a patient waiting to be called in to see the doctor. He/she would observe the interaction of the people present, e.g. the receptionist, other patients, cleaning staff, an occasional appearance of a nurse. However, this does not mean simply adopting a passive watching role; the researcher might also interact with those that he/she is observing.

Observation can involve a combination of methods, including e.g. unstructured conversations/interviews, notes on observations, recordings (audio and video) and illustrative material (floor maps, information material). Nevertheless like all data collection methods, observation does have its limitations. These include observer bias (the influence the observer's presence might have on the situation he/she is watching), and the difficulty of replicating the data.

There are a number of points that a researcher needs to be cognisant of before embarking on observational fieldwork, a selection are listed here with references for further reading:

  • Selecting the field setting (Denzin, 1989)
  • Gaining access (Hornsby-Smith, 1993)
  • Deciding whether participant observation will be concealed (e.g. gaining employment to field setting without informing anyone there about the observation) or open (i.e. being open about the observing role). A famous study of concealed participation was conducted by Rosenhan (1973), for a discussion of methods see Lofland & Lofland (1995).
  • Recording the action - field notes (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003)
  • Validation of the observations (Fielding, 2001)


'Methodological triangulation', a term coined by Denzin (1989), implies that the researcher may use several methods in different combinations in order to gain the most detailed picture of participants' experiences. Triangulation is a characteristic of qualitative design as it allows for multiple views of framing the problem, selecting research strategies and extending discourse across several fields of study. For example a study investigating patient views on doctor-patient interaction, might be designed in such a way that the researcher observes the interaction in the consultation room, interviews the patients prior to and after their consultation and interviews groups of patients in focus groups. Here the three different methods and four data sets enable the researcher to establish a fuller picture. The interviews prior to the consultation allow the researcher to establish the patients' expectations of the consultation, the observation show what is happening in the consultation, and the interviews after the consultation provide information on how patients experienced the consultation. The data allows the researcher to extract emerging themes and to have them discussed in the patient focus groups. Triangulation requires comparison across data sets and adds validity to the findings, e.g. field-notes from the observations can be compared with patients' experiences described in the post-consultation interviews.

Document research

Also known as 'documentary analysis', this research method involves the study of existing documents, either to understand their substantive content or to illuminate deeper meanings which may be revealed by their style and coverage. These may be public documents like media reports, government papers or publicity materials, procedural documents (e.g. minutes from meeting, formal letters or financial accounts), personal documents (e.g. diaries, letters, photographs). Researching documents is particularly useful where the history of events or experiences has relevance and where private as well as public accounts are needed (particularly true in public health research). A further reason for drawing on document sources is that it is not always possible to engage in direct observation or questioning e.g. private meetings or the death of key person.

It might be helpful to set up a questionnaire that can be filled in for each document read and analysed. That way the researcher builds a system of information that is easily accessible and helpful in comparing documents and cross-referencing. This type of questionnaire should be designed to capture the following information:

  • Title of document
  • Date of publication
  • What kind of document is it?
  • First reading: relation to research question (e.g. relevance, importance, type)
  • Context: why was the document written
  • Method: how was the document developed (e.g. purpose and scope, objectivity, entitlement)
  • Content (e.g. accessibility and readability, ownership, argument)
  • Implementation (What was the distribution plan? Timetable for implementation? Evaluation and review?
  • Notes and thoughts

Case Studies

As a research method deployed within social and behavioural scientific research, the case study is utilised in order to gain an in-depth contextualised examination of social interaction within a single social setting; this may be within anorganisation or focused on the playing-out of a specific social process (Yin:1994).These studies generally utilise several data collection methods for example, observation, interview and documentary analysis. Case study research is exploratory in nature, and is typically used to generate models and hypothesis of the process under investigation in a specific context, which can then be tested through larger scale quantitative surveys. It is not possible to generalise about the wider social situation directly from the findings of a single case study.

Case studies as utilised within policy analysis would typically study the micro-workings of large scale organisations, for example an in-depth observation of staff in a single health care unit in order to understand how public health policies are implemented at ground level. They are also used by clinicians in order to gain a detailed understanding of a disease process in context outside the laboratory, or by medical anthropologist's engaged in biographical research in order to gain a personal narrative of the experience of living with a chronic illness over time.

Action Research

This is a collaborative and cyclical (between practical action and research) approach to research, in which both practitioners (e.g. clinicians, nurses, public health specialists, etc) and researchers (although they can potentially be one and the same) look for a solution to a practice-related problem or to bring about change in a particular setting. Action research methodologies aim to integrate action and reflection, so that the knowledge developed in the research process is directly relevant to the issues being studied. Action research has a long history, going back to social scientists' attempts to help solve practical problems in wartime situations in both Europe and America. Over the past ten years there has been a resurgence of interest, and many developments in both theory and practice. The newer approaches to action research place emphasis on a full integration of action and reflection and on increased collaboration between all those involved in the inquiry project. They include, among other approaches, "co-operative inquiry", "participatory action research", and "action science" or "action inquiry".

The work of Pawson and Tilley (1997) and their advocating of a 'realist' approach to the evaluation of policy interventions has been of particular influence in the fields of social policy and public health in recent years. Although methodologically pluralist rather than uniquely qualitative in approach, Pawson and Tilley's contribution to evaluative (or action) research is that it places the emphasis on social and cultural conditions necessary for policy changes and interventions to be successfully implemented. An understanding of a specific organisational culture ('context') and the change 'mechanisms' that operate therein, in order to evaluate the 'outcomes' of programs or policy interventions requires that the researcher listen to, and utilizes key stakeholders knowledge of these processes.

For further information on undertaking action research, see a very useful on-line summary at:

© ICrinson & MLeontowitsch 2006