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Qualitative Research Methods

Analysis of Professional Literature
Class 7: Qualitative Research 2
(Observations & Comparison of 2 Qual. Methods in 2 Studies)

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Jul 2006

Summary from previous class


Optional exam task: A mini-qualitative study (observation)

Recommended reading

Further reading

Summary from Previous Class


There are two basic research paradigms we focused on:

  • positivism (quantitative, scientific approach)

  • interpretivism

We brainstormed lots of other words we associate with these two dimensions of approach to questions, e.g., quantitative-qualitative, hard-soft, numbers-words, objective-subjective, generalizable-specific, etc., and discussed some of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.  But, really, I believe, ultimately the method should be driven by the question itself.  Early on in investigation about the question an approach is likely to more qualitative, whereas on, when we're trying to come up with precise answers to specific questions we tend to be more quantitative.  We also need to read to realise that these paradigms are not at war; they are at peace, and can be blended together in the one study (mixed methods).


The main types of qualitative research are:

  • Case study

  • Grounded theory

  • Phenomenology

  • Ethnography

  • Historical

The main types of data collection are:

  • Interactive interviewing

  • Written descriptions by participants

  • Observation


  • Rather than relying solely on people's self-reports of events, or physiological or institutional data, many researchers prefer to make their own observations.

  • Observations can be made for both qualitative and quantitative research.

  • In observation, we are generally interested in individual behavior, social behavior, and the material environment.

  • Naturalistic observation - Sechrest (1979) suggested that social attitudes like prejudice are best studied through observation in natural, real-life situations (e.g., observe seating patterns of black and white students in college classes)

  • What % of time do teachers talk in class vs. students talking in class?

  • Observation is time-consuming, especially if using multiple observers (for inter-observer reliability)

Data collection methods:

  • observation

  • nonreactive observation

  • content analysis

Optional Exam Task:
A Mini-Qualitative Observational Study


We will complete an observation and note-taking exercise in class, based on watching two videos of experiential education programs:

  • Willing & Able (Outward Bound Australia), 10 minutes

  • Play for Peace, 12 minutes.

You are required to record your observations and notes.  Remember, we are making qualitative observations, so you may:

  • include your own feelings and experiences as observations, e.g, Evans field notes from Evans and Eder's (1993) observational study about the processes of social isolation in middle school:

"I was utterly and completely disgusted.  I guess part of my problem was that I was disillusioned too - I thought Janice and Patty were above it.  I didn't initiate conversation with Jenny because it would have targeted here more and I didn't reprimand the girls in my group because it would possibly have been more embarrassing to Jenny and I might as well witness what there is to witness, even if its grossly unpleasant."

  • at any point in the process, you are free to shift the focus of your observation to new phenomena as new research questions emerge

  • try to look at behavior and its environmental setting from a holistic perspective

  • make notes about examples and evidence for or against emerging theories or meanings of interest

Points of discussion:

  • What kind of qualitative study are we conducting?

  • Role of rich introduction, narrative, and contextualizing

  • What research question(s) are we asking?

  • What kind of data are you going to collect?

  • What questions would you like to ask me?

When the movies are over, we will share our notes (and how your observational note-taking could be improved) and discuss how the data could be analyzed and written.


You may write up this mini-qualitative study and submit it instead of one of the three Qualitative Exam tasks.

Recommended Reading

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., Gall, J. P. (2003).  Educational research: An introduction. (7th Edition). White Plains, New York: Longman. Recommended: Skim read:

  • Chapter 9: Collecting Data through Observation and Content Analysis (pp. 253-285)

Further Reading

Merriam, S. (1988). Being a careful observer.  In S. Merriam. Case study research in education: A qualitative approach (pp. 87-103).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.