Qualitative Research Methods

SUMMARY: (use book for detailed information)

  • Interpretivists favour unstructured interviews as a way of accessing actors’ meanings, but they’re more costly, time-consuming and difficult to analyse than structured interviews. Positivists criticise them for their lack of reliability and representativeness
  • Participant observation (PO) gives first hand insight into a group’s life but there can be problems both joining and leaving, as well as the risk of ‘going native’. It can be time-consuming and stressful. Covert PO may produce valid data but poses ethical and practical problems. Overt PO avoids these difficulties, but the group may act differently
  • Interpretivists favour PO for its flexibility, validity and the opportunity to develop grounded theory, but positivists argue that it is unreliable and unrepresentative. Its micro-level focus means it can’t study structural factors. Positivists prefer structured non-participant observation
  • Documents are secondary sources that save time and money, providing data that sociologists may not be able to gather themselves. Sociologists use personal and public documents. Interpretivists favour them for giving insight into actors’ meanings, but they may not be authentic or representative. Sociologists may apply content analysis to documents

Quick-Check Questions

  1. Unstructured interviews may lack reliability as they aren’t standardised (they’re unique) and, therefore, impossible to replicate.
  2. Structured interviews are particularly useful when investigating unfamiliar subject because the researcher can learn what questions are useful as the study progresses.
  3. “Rapport” refers to a relationship that contains trust and understanding. With this in mind, respondents are more likely to open up because they trust the interviewer.
  4. Two advantages of using group interviews are the participants can respond to one another’s comments and feel more comfortable in the interview setting. Two disadvantages include the idea that one individual may dominate the group, leaving the rest with little to say or worse, give in to minority influence or group pressures.
  5. A structured observation schedule is a pre‐determined list of the types of behaviour the sociologist is interested in. Each time the behaviour occurs, the observer records it on the schedule. 
  6. a) The group studied is usually very small. The ‘sample’ is often selected haphazardly, for example through a chance encounter with someone who turns out to be a key informant. This means that the group studied may be unrepresentative of the wider population

b) it isn’t standardised or a scientific measuring instrument. Instead, the success of the research depends heavily on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher. This means it is impossible for any other investigator to check the original study by replicating it, so we cannot be as confident its findings are true. The fact that participant observation usually produces qualitative data also makes comparisons with other studies difficult.

  • Two ethical problems of using covert participant observation is it tends to involve deception and researchers don’t tend to get informed consent from those being observed.
  • Participant observation is attractive to ‘action’ approaches in sociology because it allows the researcher to see things through the eyes of the group on a small‐scale.
  • Three advantages of using over rather than covert observations are: the researcher can behave normally, not having to put up an act and they can take notes openly and don’t have to rely on memory, the researcher can also opt out of participating in any dangerous or illegal activities.
  • Secondary sources usually present fewer ethical issues to the researcher than other methods due to them not being involved in initial collection.
  • Content analysis refers to a method used to investigate the way material is presented by the media, involving the classification of material into different categories.

When Scott referred to the ‘credibility’ of documents, he was talking about the believability of the documents contents.