Qualitative Data Collection and Analysis Methods

Qualitative Data Collection Methods in Each Design or Approach

The Department of Counseling approves five approaches or designs within qualitative methodology.  Each of these designs uses its own kind of data sources.  Table 1 outlines the main primary and secondary sources of data in each design.

Table 1. The Fit of the Method and the Type of Data

Chosen Method

Likely Data Sources


Primary: participant observation, field notes, unstructured or structured interviews (sometimes audiotaped or videotaped).

Secondary: documents, records, photographs, videotapes, maps, genograms, sociograms, focus groups.

Case Study

Primary: interviews (audiotapes), participant and nonparticipant observations, documents and records, detailed descriptions of context and setting, chronological data, conversations recorded in dairies and field notes.

Secondary: audiovisual data.

Grounded Theory

Primary: interviews (audiotapes), participant and nonparticipant observations, conversations recorded in dairies and field notes.

Secondary: documents and records.


Primary: audiotapes of in-depth conversational interviews or dialogue.

Secondary: journals, poetry, novels, biographies, literature, art, films.

Generic Qualitative Inquiry

Primary: Structured and unstructured interviews (usually audiotaped), open-ended qualitative surveys, participant observations, field notes.

Secondary: documents, journals.

Data Collection in Ethnography

Typically, ethnographers collect data while in the field. Their data collection methods can include:

It is worth remembering that the time-world of cultural groups is longer than it is for individual persons, and so:

However, for both of these reasons—the longer time-world of the culture or group and the occasional need to change data collection methods to meet challenges in the field—Institutional Review Board (IRB) complications can be introduced and must be addressed, further lengthening the time of the ethnographic study.

Data Collection in Case Studies

Case studies always include multiple sources of information because the case includes multiple kinds of issues. For example, a case study of a training program would obtain and analyze information about:

In addition to multiple information sources, every case study provides an in-depth description of the contexts of the case:

The setting and context are an intrinsic part of the case.

Consequently, because cases contain many kinds of information and contexts, case studies use many different methods of data collection. These can include the full range of qualitative methods such as: 

A well-designed case study does not rely on a single method and source of data because any true case (bounded system) will have many characteristics and it is not known ahead of time which characteristics are important. Determining that is the work of the case study.

Data Collection in Grounded Theory

The dominant methods of data collection in grounded theory research are:

The participants in a grounded theory study often will be interviewed more than once and asked to reflect on and refine the preliminary conclusions drawn by the researcher.

The methods of doing these forms of data collection do not differ markedly from similar methods across all qualitative approaches. However, grounded theorists sometimes avoid too much study of the extant literature on their topic before going into the field, in hopes that they will not be biased by previous conjectures and data about the topic. It is their aim to allow the data to teach them and guide their analyses into rich explanations.

Data Collection in Phenomenology

There are two descriptive levels of the empirical phenomenological model that arise from the data collected:

  1. Level 1: The original data are comprised of naïve descriptions obtained from participants through open-ended questions and dialogue. Naïve means simply, “in their own words, without reflection.”
  2. Level 2: The researcher describes the structures of the experiences based on reflective analysis and interpretation of the research participant’s account or story.

To collect data for these levels of analysis, the primary tool is the in-depth personal interview:

Because the objective is to collect data that are profoundly descriptive (rich in detail) and introspective, these interviews often can be lengthy, sometimes lasting as long as an hour or more.

Sometimes other sources of data are used in phenomenological studies, when those sources are equivalent in some way to the in-depth interview. For example:

Although other less personal data sources (such as letters, official documents, and news accounts) are seldom used as direct information about the lived experience, the researcher may find in a particular case that these are useful either in illuminating the participant's story itself or in creating a rich and textured background description of the contexts and settings in which the participant experienced the phenomenon.

Data Collection in Generic Qualitative Inquiry

Data collection in this approach typically uses data collection methods that elicit people’s verbal reports on their ideas about things that are outside themselves. However, its focus on real events and issues means it seldom uses unstructured data collection methods (such as open-ended conversational interviewing from phenomenology, participant and nonparticipant field observation from ethnography, and the like).

Instead, generic qualitative inquiry requires:

The core focus is external and real-world as opposed to internal, psychological, and subjective. (The attitudes and opinions in opinion polling, for example, are valued for their reflection on the external issues.)  Here are some characteristics of generic qualitative data collection:

Most generic qualitative studies rely on the following data collection methods:

This concludes the discussion of qualitative data collection methods.  Please review the Presentation on “Quantitative Data Analysis Methods” in Unit 4, if you have not done so already.

(For a more thorough discussion of data collection, see the guide Qualitative Research Approaches in Psychology and Human Services.)

Consider this quotation from Charmaz (2006), “Simply thinking through how to word open-ended questions averts forcing responses into narrow categories” (p. 18).


Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. ISBN: 9780761973522.

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