The Most Efficient Qualitative Data Collection Methods

Male doctoral student reviewing records for dissertation research

At some point in their careers, many professionals consider going back to school. Regardless of your specific reason for thinking about returning to school, earning a doctoral degree will elevate your professional prestige, expand your capabilities and qualify you to pursue high-level positions.

As you research your doctoral degree options, you’ll notice that some of them are designated as qualitative research degrees, while others are quantitative research degrees. The differences between these are significant. If you’re learning more toward a qualitative research degree, it will be important to understand all the different qualitative data collection methods you can use while earning your degree.

When Should You Choose Qualitative Research for Your Dissertation?

This is a decision you should make after consulting your academic advisor and reflecting on the scope and focus of your dissertation topic. It isn’t a question of whether qualitative or quantitative research is inherently superior, but rather which will work best with your topic.

In general, qualitative research is ideal when you want to gather in-depth insights about an issue or to develop a new theory or conceptual model. This research is most often used in the humanities and social science fields.

Here are some examples of dissertation topics and questions that would benefit from qualitative research: 

  • How do employees decide when it’s time to transition to a new career? 
  • How does social media usage affect the mental health of teenagers? 
  • What are the classroom experiences of special education students with anxiety? 
  • How is the subject of the American Revolutionary War taught in schools in the United Kingdom?

As you can see, these topics would be difficult to express using numeric values. Thus, they would benefit from qualitative research.

Understanding the Types of Qualitative Data

Before you can develop your qualitative data collection methods, it’s helpful to understand the two basic types of qualitative data: nominal and ordinal. In statistics, these types of data are classified as categorical in nature, meaning they lack numerical values like interval and ratio data.

Nominal data is “named” data, such as a list of countries, and encompasses any data that can be used to name or label a variable that lacks a quantitative value. Note that there is no specific order required for these data.

Ordinal data refers to categorical data that does have a specified order. Numbers may be used to indicate the order of the variables. However, the numbers do not assign a numeric value to the data. For example, a list of hamburger preferences ordered from most done to least done: “well done,” “medium well,” etc.

Qualitative Data Collection Methods

Now that you understand the types of qualitative data you may be working with, it’s time to take a look at your qualitative data collection methods. The primary data collection methods used by dissertation researchers are as follows: 

  • Surveys/questionnaires 
  • Interviews 
  • Focus groups 
  • Observations 
  • Records/archival review

Most of these data collection methods allow you to gather primary data. Primary (or “raw”) data is gathered directly from the primary source. For example, if you distribute a questionnaire or interview a person, you are collecting primary data.

The only secondary data collection method listed here is a records or archival review. With this method, you are reviewing data that was already collected by someone else. For instance, you might review census records or salary data collected by a job posting website.

Developing Qualitative Surveys or Questionnaires

This option is among the most popular for grad students conducting dissertation research, whether qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative research demands open-ended questions, whereas quantitative requires closed-ended questions.

But before you can get to work on developing your questions, you need to define your target audience and consider whether there will be any exclusionary criteria. For example, if your dissertation topic concerns ESL (English as a second language) learners, do you want to survey only ESL learners who are over age 40, those who hail from a certain country, or those who speak a specific native language? The first few questions of your survey should be exclusionary in nature to ensure accuracy in your results.

For example, let’s say you want to survey ESL learners from South America who are aged 25 to 35 and currently live in the U.S. Your first few survey questions would look like this: 

  • A multiple-choice question requesting the respondent’s age with various age ranges as possible answers 
  • A multiple-choice question requesting the respondent’s place of birth with various continents as answers 
  • A fill-in-the-blank question that requests the respondent’s current country of residency

Note that qualitative surveys do not typically use multiple-choice questions, instead preferring closed-ended questions, but multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions are acceptable for the purpose of acquiring exclusionary data. If you’re conducting a digital survey, you can arrange it so that the person is thanked for their time but eliminated from the survey if they indicate that they do not meet your eligibility criteria.

Next, it’s time to develop the questions you’ll use to acquire your qualitative data. Your questions will be shaped by the focus of your research, and they should all be open-ended. Be careful to avoid any inadvertent biases in your questions. Consider the difference between these two prompts: 

  • Biased – Discuss how helpful immersive language-learning experiences are for your progress 
  • Neutral – Discuss the impact of immersive language-learning experiences on your progress

After developing your survey, you’ll need to distribute it via mail or digitally. Some researchers incentivize participation in their surveys to encourage recipients to complete them. For instance, you might enter each study participant into a raffle to win a gift card.

Conducting Interviews to Collect Qualitative Data

Another qualitative data collection method is one-on-one interviews, which may be conducted online or in person. Compared to surveys, interviews offer a more personal way to collect data, which is why many qualitative researchers prefer interviews. However, because interviews tend to be more time-intensive than surveys, they aren’t the most efficient of all qualitative data collection methods.

A qualitative data-driven interview can be unstructured and informal, in contrast to the necessary structure and formality of a quantitative interview. The qualitative researcher may deviate at times from the interview script, asking follow-up questions as they occur and pursuing any topics of interest that arise during the conversation.

Depending on your research topic, you may also customize preparations prior to each interview and develop unique questions. Be sure to keep your questions open-ended and, as with the survey questions, avoid inadvertent biases that may induce the interview subject to answer in a particular way.

If you conduct your interviews virtually, you can use the record function on your teleconferencing app. Interviews conducted in person can be recorded with a simple tape recorder, or with computer software if you’ll be bringing your laptop. If your intention is to record the subject’s behaviors as well as their words, you’ll want an audiovisual record rather than simply an audio recording.

Holding a Focus Group for Your Dissertation Research

Focus groups are only rarely used for quantitative research because they are more conducive to gathering qualitative data. Note that in a focus group, participants’ answers may be influenced by the responses of other participants, or even by their mere presence.

For example, suppose you are researching alcohol addiction among white-collar professionals such as lawyers, accountants and nurses. If one individual is able to open up and be honest about their experiences, then it may be more likely that others will as well. If the first few people you question about their experiences are reluctant to share their story, then the rest of the participants may follow suit.

Conducting a focus group is relatively simple. Limit the participants in each group to no more than six to ten. Lay some ground rules ahead of time, such as no interrupting or judgmental comments about other participants.

You will serve as the discussion moderator. Write down some questions in advance, although spontaneous follow-up questions may occur to you during the session. Remember to record your focus group sessions for later analysis.

Collecting Qualitative Data via Observations

Observations are a useful method of collecting qualitative data, particularly when it’s necessary to observe study participants in their natural environment. To use the earlier example of a study of adult ESL learners, you might go to an ESL classroom to observe the behaviors of the students.

Some observational studies are overt, which means the study participants are fully aware that you are there to observe them. Others are covert, which means you will need to blend in with your surroundings and subtly make observations that go unnoticed by the study participants. For instance, you might pose as a fellow ESL student or as an ESL teacher-in-training who assists with the lesson plan.

Reviewing Records or Archives for Your Dissertation Research

A records review is a form of secondary research, meaning that you are sifting through data already collected by someone else. Suppose you need to determine common occupations among adults in Catskill, NY, in 1850. The census records will allow you to determine this.

However, a records or archival review isn’t necessarily limited to documents. You may also need to comb through archives of images, videos or audio recordings. Many — although certainly not all — archival collections have now been digitized.

If you need to visit an archive in person, be sure to check the organization’s website in advance. The archive may have strict rules in place, such as banning the use of pens in the collections room or requiring that all individuals who handle certain documents wear gloves.

Grand Canyon University offers a variety of qualitative doctoral degree programs through the College of Doctoral Studies, such as the Doctor of Education in Teaching: Adult Learning (Qualitative Research) degree and the Doctor of Business Administration: Marketing (Qualitative Research) program. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about taking the next step in your academic career.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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