Notes on Qualitative Research



Notes on Qualitative Research
(adapted from a paper by Michael Goldman, SIS MA candidate)

Qualitative Research Step-by-Step

The first step in any research project is to define the problem that the study will seek to address.  The problem statement explains the rationale for engaging in qualitative research.  If, for example, a researcher is conducting a study about the experience of survivors of the Holocaust who lost family members in concentration camps because he/she believes that there is a dearth of information about this topic, the opening paragraph of the research plan will highlight the need for this information to be illuminated (Creswell 1998).

Step two in a research plan is a statement of purpose.  The researcher should clearly outline the intent of the study so the reader knows exactly what to expect from the report.  John Creswell (1998) gives an example of a boiler-plate purpose statement that can be applied to most qualitative projects.

The purpose of this __________________(biographical, phenomenological, grounded theory, ethnographic, case) study is (was? Will be?) to _______________ (understand? describe? develop? discover?) the _________(central focus for the study) for__________( (the unit of analysis: a person? processes? groups? site?).  At this stage in the research, the _____________ (central focus being studied) will be generally defined as ______________(provide a general definition of the central concept) (Creswell 1998).

The purpose statement is an important part of research because it keeps both the researcher and reader focused on the central aims of the study (Creswell 1998).

The third step in the planning phase is to devise research questions, the mechanisms which the researcher will use to uncover the desired information.  Creswell recommends the use of a single, overarching question to guide the study and several sub-questions, which go into greater detail.  Devising relevant and provocative questions is vital to the success of the project and deserves significant attention from the researcher.  The central question, according to Creswell, should be as broad as possible (Creswell 1998: 99).  For example, “What is the experience of Holocaust survivors who lost family members in concentration camps?”  The sub-questions should obviously be more specific and should take the form of either topical questions or issue questions designed to extract as much information as possible from the informants (Creswell 1998).

Selecting a Sample

Creswell (1998) and Weiss (1994) outline several different strategies for selecting a sample of informants depending on the scope of the study, the amount of time the researcher is willing and able to spend in data collection, and the tradition of inquiry used for the project.  The following table describes sixteen types of sampling and the rationale for selecting this strategy.

Type of Sampling


Maximum Variation

Documents diverse variations and identifies important common patterns.


Focuses, reduces, simplifies, and facilitates group interviewing.

Critical case

Permits logical generalization and maximum application of information to other cases.

Theory based

Find examples of a theoretical construct and thereby elaborate on and examine it.

Confirming and disconfirming cases

Elaborate on initial analysis, seek exceptions, looking for variation.

Snowball or chain

Identifies cases of interest from people who know people who know what cases are information-rich.

Extreme or deviant case

Learn from highly unusual manifestations of the phenomenon of interest.

Typical case

Highlight what is normal or average.


Information-rich cases that manifest the phenomenon intensely but not extremely.

Politically important cases

Attracts desired attention or avoids attracting undesired attention.

Random purposeful

Adds credibility to sample when potential purposeful sample is too large.

Stratified purposeful

Illustrates subgroups and facilitates comparisons.


All cases that meet some criterion; useful for quality assurance.


Follow new leads; taking advantage of the unexpected.

Combination or mixed

Triangulation, flexibility; meets multiple interests and needs.


Saves time, money, and effort, but at the expense of information and credibility.

Table 1                Typology of Sampling Strategies in Qualitative Inquiry

Source: Creswell (1998, p. 119)

While the above table gives a comprehensive idea of the many strategies for sampling in qualitative inquiry, Robert Weiss’ (1994), book, Learning From Strangers, gives three concise methods specifically for researchers using interviewing as a means for data collection.  The first of these strategies is a probability sample.  As in quantitative research, this method of sampling seeks to choose informants at random because this will give the researcher the highest mathematical representation of the entire population being researched.  Weiss states that choosing 60 respondents completely independently of each other will result in a statistically significant survey of most populations (Weiss 1994). The second technique involves samples that attempt to maximize range.  This strategy seeks to find as many different kinds of experiences as possible within a given population.  Instead of selecting respondents randomly, the researcher will try to find people who can give different points of view from one another and try to avoid duplication of the same stories.  According to Weiss:

One argument for generalizing to a larger population from a sample chosen to maximize range depends on being able to claim that the sample included the full variety of instances that would be encountered anywhere.  If we find uniformities in our sample despite our having adequately represented the range of instances, then those uniformities must be general.  If we find differences among types of instance, then those differences should hold in a larger population (Weiss 1994: 24).

The final strategy outlined by Weiss is convenience sampling.  This strategy stems from the idea that it is often difficult to take a completely random survey, or to find examples of the entire range of experiences within a population.  Researchers who use convenience sampling basically try to talk to whoever is available that may be able to offer insight to the project.  Friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues are often good places to begin one’s inquiry, especially if they may be able to refer you to others who could become key informants.  Weiss advocates advertising for volunteers in local newspapers or trying to talk to people at events where members of the subject population are likely to congregate (Weiss 1994).  Although convenience sampling is not as scientifically precise as the first two methods, it is a valuable technique which can provide valuable data for a qualitative research project.

The problem of finding respondents is especially salient for fieldworkers in conflict zones.  Researchers from other countries who do not speak the language, are not intimately familiar with the culture in which they are working, or are restricted from certain geographic locations for reasons of physical security, often experience difficulty in this area.  Convenience sampling perhaps becomes the method of choice in these situations, as researchers cannot afford to be overly selective under such volatile circumstances (Armakolas 2001).


Once the research plan is complete and the sample is selected, the researcher’s next task is to actually collect the data by conducting interviews with the respondents who have agreed to participate in the study.   Interviewing is an especially important means for data collection because, as Robert Weiss explains, “interviewing gives us a window on the past.  We can also, by interviewing, learn about settings that would otherwise be closed to us: foreign societies, exclusive organizations, and the private lives of families and couples (Weiss 1994: 1).” 

There are generally two kinds of interviews: 1) Surveys, which are used mostly for quantitative research, and feature close-ended questions which can easily be turned into statistical data.  2) Qualitative interviews are replete with open-ended questions, whose answers should take the form of a narrative by the respondent about his/her experiences.  Qualitative studies are generally much smaller in scope because of the sheer volume of data which much be analyzed by the researcher.  Weiss (1994) favors the latter approach because he believes that the qualitative approach of interviewing will give researchers, and eventually readers, a more complete picture of the perspective of the subjects of the study (Weiss 1994).

In preparation for a qualitative interview, a researcher should either prepare a simple outline of topics he/she wishes to cover in the interview to be used as a research guide if the respondent seems to be veering from the topic (Weiss 1994), or a succinct set of questions that must be asked sequentially by the interviewer (Creswell 1998).  The research guide technique favored by Weiss allows the interviewer and respondent to form a relationship within the interview, and can lead to the process having the feel of a conversation as opposed to a structured academic procedure.  Weiss believes that this setting will allow the respondent to be more at ease, and therefore more likely to divulge valuable personal information (Weiss 1994).  The more formal strategy favored by Creswell has the advantage of ensuring that the interviewer will not stray from his/her research plan, and that all of the questions will be answered (Creswell 1998).  However, this technique could put strain on both the interviewer and the respondent, and therefore lessen the likelihood of a productive interview (Weiss 1994).

The researcher must decide how to record the interview.  There are basically three options available: 1) Tape record the session; 2) Take detailed notes; 3) Tape record the session and take detailed notes.  Weiss (1994) states that many researchers believe that recording interviews is not advisable because note-taking forces the researcher to concentrate more closely.  Additionally, many respondents are made uncomfortable by the presence of a tape-recorder, and may therefore withhold information.  Despite this criticism, Weiss believes in the merits of taping because it is impossible for an interviewer to record every word on a note-pad, shorthand cannot account for pauses in the dialogue or qualifiers like ‘you know what I’m talking about,’ and that if he is taking notes he cannot concentrate on the body-language of the subject (Weiss 1994).  Creswell also believes in taping interviews.  He states that researchers should use lapel-mics to ensure quality of recording and to lessen the intrusiveness of a Dictaphone.  He also recommends that interviewers take notes on their questionnaire forms in the event that the tape-recorder malfunctions (Creswell 1998).

Once the interview begins, the researcher should try to establish a friendly rapport with the respondent.  Before he/she begins taping, small-talk will help to relax the respondent.  The researcher should have consent forms to be signed and should ensure the respondent of the confidentiality of the results, the reason for the study, and the sponsoring institution.  According to Weiss, a positive relationship is vital to the success of any interview because if the respondent is tense or hostile, his/her narrative will not be particularly useful (Weiss 1994).

Questions should generally be open-ended, giving the respondent ample room to discuss the topic.  It is important to remember that this person has been chosen because he/she has some insight to offer, so the questions chosen should allow him/her to speak about their experiences.  It is equally important to: never interrupt an interview, not to badger the respondent to answer the question more fully, and try to not talk too much about yourself because you there to learn from the respondent (Weiss 1994).  It is advisable, however, to try and direct the conversation to the topics covered by the research guide.  Weiss states that if the respondent begins to tell stories which are completely irrelevant, the interviewer should subtly try to change the subject to something more topical.  Occasionally, it will also be necessary for respondents to be prodded into giving more detail.  Questions like “how did you feel when that happened?” or “could you tell me a little bit more about that?” are often successful in helping respondents to further develop their answers (Weiss 1994).  An interview can be an extremely valuable means to gather information, but if it is conducted poorly or if the respondent is reluctant to talk, it can easily become an exercise in futility.  Weiss (1994) and Creswell (1998) recommend that researchers conduct pilot interviews before the study begins in order to test their research questions and to hone their interviewing skills (Weiss 1994, Creswell 1998).[1]

Works Cited

Armakolas, I. (2001).  A Field Trip to Bosnia: The Dilemmas of the First-Time Researcher.  In M. Smyth & G. Robinson (Ed.), Researching Violently Divided Societies; Ethical and Methodological Issues, 165-184.  Tokyo, New York, Paris, United Nations University Press.

Creswell, J. (1998). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design; Choosing Among Five Traditions.  London, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 372 p. + notes, index.

Smyth, M. & Darby, J. (2001). Does Research Make Any Difference?  The Case of Northern Ireland.  In M. Smyth & G. Robinson (Ed.), Researching Violently Divided Societies; Ethical and Methodological Issues, 34-55.  Tokyo, New York, Paris, United Nations University Press.

Weiss, R. (1994).  Learning From Strangers; The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies.  New York, The Free Press, 222 p. + notes, index.

[1] The final phase of the qualitative research project is to analyze the data and write a report.  Since this subject of this paper is the process of gathering data through interviews, I will not be covering the literature on these topics.

Julie Mertus • Assistant Professor • American University • • (202) 885 - 1541