Over time, I’ve gotten a few requests for qualitative research assistance. I am by no means an expert! What I don’t know could probably fill an entire book (and, fortunately, there are textbooks out there). Regardless, I thought I’d collect my thoughts together in one place, just for reference and anyone who’s interested.
When I was first beginning qualitative research, I found this video series to be a useful overview: Yale Public Health’s YouTube.
There are many qualitative research methods. For example, there are traditional methods of qualitative analyses (such as interviewing and observing in the field), computer-assisted text analysis (for example, using programs to help mine and parse words), and quantitative and econometric analyses (which can be algorithmic and even more computer-based). Ultimately, the approach you use should always be driven by your research question.
The rest of this post will assume that you are personally trying to extract themes/coding from text data.
For most applications, I would recommend beginning with content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005), which has a very practical implementation style. The thematic analysis approach (Braun & Clarke, 2012) is also one that we’ve used in previous studies.
Most people are familiar with grounded theory when they first begin looking into qualitative research (review by Heath & Cowley here). While grounded theory is very powerful for understanding and developing theories, it is usually “overkill” for the types of projects I encounter. There are now different camps on grounded theory (e.g., Strauss and Corbin vs. Glaser) and it can be a more nuanced, abstract and time-intensive process than other methods.
No matter your approach, I would advise a few things:
- If you are an academic, review several qualitative articles in your target journals to see how methods and findings are reported. Standards and norms vary between fields.
- There are many ways to cut the cake, so to speak. The most important thing is to clearly identify, and intentionally apply, the exact approach you choose. Document carefully the steps that you are following in your process.
In the past, I have conducted analyses by hand and used spreadsheets to help (don’t underestimate the power of Excel!). However, most days now I use qualitative data analysis software. While not necessary, they can be very powerful. I know researchers who have used nVivo and other programs, but I’ve always used Atlas.TI. This was not a conscious preference; I just “grew up” on it and still like it. Atlas.TI offers student pricing for those who can send in proof of enrollment. They have different packages available to clients based on industry, including education.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2012). Thematic analysis. American Psychological Association.
Heath, H., & Cowley, S. (2004). Developing a grounded theory approach: a comparison of Glaser and Strauss. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 41(2), 141-150.
Hsieh, H. F., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative health research, 15(9), 1277-1288.