Chapter 11







Observations, interviews, personal and official documents, photographs, recordings, drawings, e-mails, and informal conversations are all sources of qualitative data. The most commonly used sources are observations and interviews, sometimes together and sometimes individually. All these types of data have one key aspect in common: their analyses primarily depend on the integrative and interpretive skills of the researcher. Interpretation is necessary because the data gathered are rarely numerical and because the data are both rich in detail and lengthy.

       Having obtained entry into a setting and having selected participants, the qualitative researcher is ready to begin data collection, also commonly called fieldwork. Regardless of how much you read, think about, and discuss fieldwork with experienced researchers, you will not really know what fieldwork is like until you actually like it. Living an experience for a first time always means uncertainty in a new role—uncertainty about how to act and interact with others. It is common to feel nervous as you learn the ropes, try to establish rapport with participants, and get a feel for the setting. Bogdan dan Beklen[1] suggest a number of cautions to make the initial days of entry into the setting less painful.

  1. Do not take what happens in the field personally.
  2. Set up your first visit so that someone is there to introduce you to the participants.
  3. Don’t try to accomplish too much in the first few days. Make your initial visit or observation short. You will have to  take field notes after each data collection encounter, so start with brief data collection episodes to ease into the process of writing field notes.
  4. Be relatively passive. Ask general, nonspecific, noncontroversial questions that allow participants to reply without being forced to provide answers they might find uncomfortable discussing with a relative “stranger.” Ease your way into the context; don’t storm in. the intent is for the participants to gradually become comfortable with you, and you with them. Then you can gradually increase your degree of involvement.
  5. Be friendly and polite. Answer questions participants and others ask, but try not to say too much about the specifics of your presence and purpose, let it influence the participants.


       Decisions about methods and focus of data collection are usually made after site selection, examination of the site, and sizing up the participants. The researcher may even want to “get the feel” of the setting and participants before deciding on the data collection techniques to employ.



Observation can take many forms in qualitative research, depending on the involvement of the observer. The observer can be a participant observer who engages fully in the activities being studied but is known to the participants as a researcher. Alternatively, the observer can be an external or non participant observer of the activities of the group being studied; that is, he or she watches, but does not participate. Between the participant observer and the external observer, there are  a number of other possibilities, such as a combination of both approaches or external observer at the start of the study and participant observer in the latter stages of the study. It is also possible for the observer to be covert, disguising his or her identity from other participants. Although this approach may gather the most realistic data about participants and their setting, there are ethical  issues regarding lack of awareness of other participants. The covert observer is a member of the group under false and unknown premises. Avoid covert observation.

        Most qualitative observational research is naturalistic, encompassing holistic inquiry about participants’ understanding of their natural environment. The emphasis is on understanding the natural environment as lived  by the participants, with no intent on the researcher’s part to alter or manipulate the natural environment. Altering or manipulating the natural research setting destroys the reality of the researched setting and participants.




Field notes are the observer’s record of what he or she has seen, heard, experienced, and thought about during an observation session. They  contain a descriptive and a reflective aspect. The former describes what’s seen and the latter provides the researcher’s thoughts or ideas about the description. Field notes are the data  that will be analyzed to provide the description and understanding of the research setting and participants. In each  session, beginning with the first, observation should produce  field notes that are as detailed as possible. If possible, notes  should be made in the field, during the observation, when they are fresh to the researcher. The longer the interval between  the observation and writing field notes, the more likely that there will be some distortion from the original observation, especially if you have an excellent, but short, memory.

       Each observation session will have its unique focus and interactions, but it is useful to have a protocol  or list of issues to guide observation. This has two benefits. It provides the researcher with a focus during the observation, and it provides a common framework for field notes, making it easier to organize and categorize across field notes. When making field notes, a simple protocol for observation might include these topics:

o   Who is being observed? How many people are involved, who are they, and what individual roles and mannerisms are evident?

o   What is going on? What is the nature of conversation? What people saying or doing? what is the physical setting like how are people seated, and where? How do the participants interact with each other? What are the status or roles of people; who leads, who follows, who is decisive, who is not? What is the tone of the session? What beliefs, attitudes, values, etc. seem to emerge?

o   How did the meeting end? Was the group divided, united, upset, bored, or relieved?

o   What activities or interactions seemed unusual or significant?

o   What was the researcher doing during the session?


      Good qualitative research requires simultaneous data collection and analysis. In the process of observing, writing, and reflecting on field notes, qualitative researchers engage in a process of evolving data analysis. These ongoing analysis lead to a form of data analysis referred to as memo writing . Memo writing is a form of thinking on paper; researchers write memos to themselves that describe their mental exploration of their ideas, themes, hunches, and reflections about the research topic. They are “thought pieces”  that range from a few sentences to many pages. The ideas, themes, hunches, and reflections contained in memos usually form the basis for much of the final research report.






Guidelines for Field Notes

The following guidelines describe important aspects for successfully maintaining field notes in observational research.

  • Do not assume you know what you’re looking for until you “experience” the setting and participants for a while.
  • Try to recognize and dismiss your own assumptions and biases and remain open to what you see; try to see things through the participants’ perspectives.
  • Write up your field notes as soon as possible. When you’re done, list the main ideas or themes you’ve observed and recorded. Don’t discuss your observation until the field notes are written; discussion may alter your initial perspective.
  • List the date, site, time, and topic on every set of field notes. Leave wide margins to write in your impressions next to sections of the descriptive field notes. Write only on one side  of a page. This will save you much photocopying when the time comes “to cut and paste” the field notes into different categories. Draw diagrams of the site.
  • In writing field notes, first list key words related to your observation, then outline what you  saw and heard. Then, using the key words and outline, write your detailed field notes.
  • Although collected together, keep the descriptive and reflective  sections, of field notes separate. Focus on writing detailed descriptive field notes.
  • Write down your hunches, questions, and insights after each observation. Use memos.
  • Number the lines or paragraphs of your field notes. This will help you find particular sections when needed.




A second important qualitative data collection approach is the interview. An interview is a purposeful interaction, usually between two people, focused on one person trying to get information from the other person. Interviews permit the researcher to obtain important data that cannot be obtained from observation. For example, observation cannot provide information about past events, of the way things used to be before Mr. Hardnozed became principal, or why Ms. Haddit has had it and is considering transferring to another school. Information about these events cannot be observed; they must be obtained from people’s own words. Interviewers can explore and probe participants’ response to gather more in-depth data about their experiences and feelings. They can examine attitudes, interests, feelings, concern, and values more easily than using observation.

       It is important to consider two additional aspects of interviews. First, not all qualitative researchers who gather data through interviews would accept the definition of interview stated above. Many researcher would not view the interview as a process of “pulling out” information from respondents about the topic studied. They would say that interviewing is a joint construction of meaning between the researcher and the participant, not just a construction of the participant. Second, while the concept of an interview study seems  straightforward, it can be a complex and difficult undertaking when the gender, culture, and social lines of the interviewee and participant are quite different. Depending on the characteristics of the researcher and the participant, there can be issues of who “controls” the interview, the accuracy of responses provided, and the extent to which the language of the interviewee and the researcher are similar enough to permit meaningful inferences about the topic studied.

       Interview methods can be used as a study’s sole data collection method or used in conjunction with other data collection methods, such as participant observation. Combined with other data gathering approaches, interviews can lead to identifying new topics to explore and can help explain data collected from other methods. For example, issues that arise for observation may be clarified or expanded by interviewing participants.


Collecting Data from Interviews

Interviews have three basic choices for collecting their data: taking notes during the interview, writing notes after the interview, and tape recording the interview. The last  choice is the most viable, although all can be used in a study. Taking notes during the interview is distracting and can alter the flow of the session. Writing notes after the interview is better than trying to write  during the interview, but it is difficult to remember the content of the interview. Plus, long interview sessions limit the usefulness of these two approaches. Thus, the data collection method of choice is tape recording the interview, which provides a verbatim account of the session. Also, tapes provide researchers with the original data for use at any time. although a few participants will not especially if you promise them confidentiality. Make sure that the recording machine is in good working order (new batteries, too) prior to entering the interview setting.

       The transcripts are the field notes for interview data   Interview transcripts are voluminous and usually reduced to focus on the data pertinent to the study. Sometimes this is difficult to do. During data analysis the transcript will be read and important (or thought to be important) sections labeled to indicate their importance.


Guidelines for Interviewing

There are a number of actions that can improve the collection of interview data.[2]

  • Listen more, talk less. Listening is the most important part of interviewing.
  • Follow up on what participants say and ask questions when you don’t understand.
  • Avoid leading questions; ask open-ended questions.
  • Don’t interrupt. Learn how to wait.
  • Keep participants focused and ask for concrete details.
  • Tolerate silence. It means the participants’ views or beliefs. You’re there to learn about their perspectives, whether you agree with them or not.
  • Don’t debate with participants over their responses. You are a recorder, not a debater.





Preparing to Analyze Data

Analyzing qualitative data is a formidable task for all qualitative researchers, especially those just starting their qualitative careers. As a novice researcher you have followed the urgings of your qualitative mentors who have emphasized the need to collect rich, thick, and deep data that reveal the perspectives and understandings of the participants studied. And here you now stand (or sit), looking over piles of field notes, piles of verbatim interview transcriptions, or piles of both. Your data are not only rich and thick and deep, they are  voluminous and unorganized. You face the task of bringing order to your data, of separating the wheat from the chaff among your field notes and transcripts. Unlike the quantitative researcher whose data produces numbers that can be organized and “crunched” in fairly routine ways, you must find your own, idiosyncratic path to the meaning  of your data. However, it may be consoling to know that  no qualitative researcher can be amazing enough, brilliant enough, or experienced enough to observe and grasp everything of interest in a given setting.

       You must systematically search, categorize, integrate and interpret the data you have collected, and ultimately provide your own understandings of them. The process is lengthy and time-consuming, not only because the quantity of data to be analyzed is large, but also because the data typically are not organized in a manner that facilitates analysis. You must organize your data before you can begin to analyze and interpret them.


Data Analysis during Data Collection

The process of data collection, either by observation or interview, interacts with the process of data interpretation and analysis. It is difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to completely divorce data collection from data interpretation and analysis. And they should not. Data analysis begins with data collection. The fact that researchers write memos to themselves demonstrates that they  are thinking about what the data mean or how they relate to one another. Further, a researcher observing a group interaction or listening to a participant’s responses to interview questions cannot help but form opinions, interpret activities, and identify patterns. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, the researcher will inevitably bring perceptions, interpretations, and viewpoints from the data collection process to the data analysis process. So, analysis does not begin when data collection and data analysis are intertwined, iterative processes.[3] This is an important characteristic of qualitative research.


Data Analysis after Data Collection

After the data have been collected, the “romance” of field research is over and the difficult task of data analysis and interpretation begins. Guided by insights gained during data collection, data analysis is concerned with describing with what is in the data. Interpretation is concerned with making sense of what the descriptions mean. Data analysis and interpretation  are based on induction; the researcher discovers patterns that emerge from the data and makes sense of them. There are no predefined variables to focus analysis, as there are in quantitative research. The qualitative researcher identifies his or her own variables from examination of the field notes or interview transcripts.

       An immediate problem that faces the qualitative researcher is the lack of agreed-upon approaches to analyzing qualitative data. There are  some guidelines and general strategies for analysis, but few specific rules for their application. Thus, once data are collected, the qualitative  researcher undertakes a multistaged  process of organizing, categorizing, synthesizing, interpreting, and writing about the data. Each of these processes is iterative; in most cases the researcher will cycle through the stages more than once, in a continual effort to narrow and make sense of what he or she sees in the data.


Analyzing Qualitative Research Data

Bearing in mind that data analysis takes place simultaneously with data collection, the first step in data analysis is managing the data so they can be studied. Once the data are organized, data analysis begins in earnest. The researcher cannot interpret data until the data are broken down and classified in some way, so the analysis itself requires four iterative steps: reading/ memoing, describing, classifying, and interpreting. This cyclical process focuses on (1) becoming familiar with the data and identifying main themes in it (reading/ memoing); (2) examining the data in depth to provide detailed descriptions of the setting, participants, and activities (describing); (3) categorizing and coding pieces of data and physically grouping them into themes (classifying); (4) interpreting and synthesizing the organized data into general conclusions or understandings (interpreting).


Data Managing

Data managing involves creating and organizing the data collected during the study. Try to envision what the data from an observation or interview study looks like. Piles of field notes or transcripts and numerous computer files await order and organization.

      There are two main purposes for data managing. The first is to organize the data and check it for completeness.  The second is to start the researcher on the process of analyzing and interpreting  the data. In organizing the data the researcher also  examines observer’s comments, memos, notes and the like that were made on the field notes or interview transcripts. The researcher also begins the initial questioning of the data by noting themes, patterns, regularities, and issues that have previously emerged on that currently attract his or her  attention. At this early stage, data questioning is general and rudimentary. A more detailed analysis is needed to uncover the meaning of the data.


Reading/ Memoing

The first step in analysis is reading/ memoing; reading the field notes, transcripts, memos, and observer comments to get a sense of your data. Find a quiet place and plan on reading for a few hours at a time during the initial reading of the data. It is important that you write  notes in the margins or underline sections or issues that seem important to you so that you will have a record of your initial thoughts and sense of the data. You might find that many of these early impressions will not be useful once you are deeper into analysis, but you will also find some initial impressions that do hold up through analysis. In addition to recording initial impressions from the data, at this stage of analysis you also will begin the search for themes or common threads that reoccur throughout  the notes.




Description addresses this issue: What is going on in this setting and among these participants? It is based on the observations and field notes collected by the qualitative researcher. The aim is to provide a true picture of the settings and events that took place in it so the researcher  and the reader will have an understanding of the context in which the study took place. Description is often held in less esteem than analytical or theoretical aspects of research, but in qualitative research description is an integral and important aspect. Early in the analysis process, the researcher develops thorough and comprehensive descriptions of the phenomena studied. Such description is often called thick or thorough description, to contrast it to thin description that only contain facts. Description focuses on painting a verbal picture of the context, processes, and the world as viewed from the participants’ perspective.



Qualitative data analysis is basically a process of breaking down the data into smaller units, determining the import of these units, and putting the units together again in an interpreted form. The typical way qualitative data are broken down and organized it through the process of classifying, which means ordering field notes or transcriptions into categories that represent different aspects of the data. A category is a classification of ideas or concepts. When concepts in the data  are examined and compared to one another and connections are made, categories are formed. Note, also, that lower-level categories can themselves be organized into even higher, more abstract conceptual categories.



Data interpretation is based heavily on the connections, common aspects, and linkages among the data, especially the identified categories and patterns. One cannot classify data into categories without linking about the meaning of the categories. Thus, implicitly or explicitly, the researcher is interpreting data whenever he or she uses some conceptual basis or understanding to cluster a variety of data pieces into a category. To aid interpretation requires more conceptual and integrative thinking than data analysis, since interpretation involves identifying and abstracting important understandings from the detail and complexity of the data.


Writing the Report

The final stage in the qualitative research process is the writing of a report to describe the study and its finding.[4] Of course, the characteristics and length of the report will depend on the type of report being written. If you are preparing a journal article or a conference paper, it will be relatively short, often limited by number of pages available to the journal’s editor or minutes you have to present your report. Oddly, in most instances, the shorter the report, the harder it is to write because of the large amounts of data of a theme, or topic. A thesis is a position you state and then argue—for example, “Researchers have claimed that … this report demonstrates that they have over-looked important information.” A theme is some conceptual issue or finding that emerges from your data—for example, “This study describes a phenomenon called the ‘pork barrel effect’ in a first-grade classroom.” A topic is a descriptive presentation of some process or activity in your data—for example, “This report describes the process of acculturation among kindergarten children in an inner city school.” Notice that in each instance, the title of the report provides a helpful indication of its focus.








[1] Bogdan, R.C. and Beklen, S.K. (1998). Qualitative research in education. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon (pp. 79-81).

[2] Seidman, I.E. (1991). Interviewing as qualitative research . New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

[3] Wolcott, H.F. (1994). Transforming qualitative data. Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage.

[4] Wolcott, H.F. (1990). Writing up qualitative research . (Qualitative research methods, series 20.) Newbury Park, C.A:Sage.

Wed, 11 May 2011 @16:08




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