The Web Center for Social Research Methods defines qualitative data as any information that is not numerical in nature and has identified the major methods of qualitative data collection. Qualitative research is useful for collecting respondents’ beliefs and feelings in their own words. Whereas a quantitative study might ask people to rate the friendliness of a school on a seven-point scale, a qualitative approach asks respondents to talk about what’s friendly and unfriendly about a school’s environment. Qualitative research is time consuming because it takes time to go through and identify trends in open-ended responses.
One-on-one interviews can be a source of qualitative data, but the questions must be open-ended so they encourage the respondent to reply using her own words. A question that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” does not produce qualitative data. A question like “What do you think makes a good high school?” is open to many possible answers and calls for the respondent's personal views; thus it will produce qualitative data. In open-ended interviews, the interviewer follows the respondent's lead and asks follow-up questions that might differ from one interview to another.
A focus group brings a small group of people together so they can be interviewed all at once. The focus group’s facilitator introduces the purpose for the group and asks an open-ended question of the group and then facilitates discussion, letting the talk go where the group wants to take it. The facilitator works to assure that all members of the group get a chance to speak. The question “What do you think makes a good high school?” could be asked of a focus group, but the interviewer would need to keep track of who says what as the group discusses the question.
Participant observation calls for the researcher to immerse herself in a context and observe and note what happens. To get an accurate picture of what typically occurs in the situation under study, the researcher tries to be nonintrusive so her presence doesn’t alter events or influence behavior. To address the good high school question, the researcher would need to spend time in a high school that people agree is good, noting aspects of the environment that appear to contribute to the quality of the school.
Self-reported data are generated when people are asked to tell what they know or feel about something. For example, members of the high school community might be asked to sit down and write about what they think is good and bad about the school. Other than the request for the report, no other questions are asked. Once the responses are in, they are analyzed by the researcher, who looks for trends to determine which elements of the environment are important assets and liabilities from the respondents’ perspective.
Charlie Rossiter is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications such as Milwaukee Journal, Science Digest" and the Robb Report as well as online. He received an NEA Fellowship for creative writing and is profiled in "Contemporary Authors." His advanced degree is in communication and he's been writing professionally for more than 30 years.