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Collecting the data we need

The research question dictates the data collection methods you’ll need and the participants you’ll recruit. Let’s explore further.
Worman recording an interview with a mobile device
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The research question dictates the data collection methods you’ll need and the participants you’ll recruit. Let’s explore further.

The question at the heart of qualitative research is ‘what does this mean?’ Because your goal is to achieve deeper understanding of a theory, idea, experience or meaning, you’re going to need what’s referred to as ‘thick’, ‘rich’ data. Without it, you won’t be able to delve deep enough to answer the ‘why’ part of your qualitative research.

What does ‘thick’ and ‘rich’ data look like?

Although it may draw from a much smaller number of participants, qualitative data is more complex in nature, compared to the numerical information collected in quantitative research. It’s called ‘thick’, because it digs deep and ‘rich’, because it’s so detailed and illuminating. It takes the form of observation notes, in-depth interview and focus group transcripts, documents, artifacts, pictures, photographs, videos, and other data sources that are descriptive in nature.

Depending on the nature of your study, sometimes the data you need already exists. For example, your research may be answering a question in relation to fine art, literature, history or politics. In other instances, you will need to collect the data yourself.

Your influence on the data collection process

Last week we touched on the concept of the researcher as the instrument or tool by which data is collected. For example, as the researcher, you will be the one to:

  • listen to the participant’s story
  • put participants at ease
  • possibly enter the world of the participants as an observer or an actual participant yourself
  • use your experience to understand the participants.

In Week 1 we also explored some of the biases and personal characteristics we bring to the research process. For each of the following methods, think about your role in the process and the potential for you to inadvertently impact the integrity of the data you collect.


What we see, hear and notice in the participant’s environment can be highly revealing. For example, you may have the opportunity to work or volunteer in an environment that relates to your research. Observation can be conducted in a ‘hands-off’ way, from an outside perspective or ‘hands-on’ during interaction with the research participants. Notes, diaries, cameras and video recordings are typically the best tools for capturing observations.


Interviews can be conducted face to face in a neutral space, on location in the research setting, and by phone or Skype. You may have a set of predetermined questions which you adhere to or you may open up the conversation to see where your participant’s dialogue naturally leads. Your job will be to encourage participants to discuss issues and experiences relevant to your question. Interviews are a key qualitative data collection method and we will take some time later to examine some strategies you can use to conduct these well. Interviews may be audio/visually captured, if your participant agrees, and then transcribed for analysis at a later date.

Focus groups

The idea of focus groups first originated in the 1920’s, when they were initially used for market research. Whereas interviews explore individual stories, focus groups generate qualitative data through group dynamics and discussions. Focus groups are conducted with small groups of people (usually 4-12) and gather their thoughts, beliefs and feelings on a particular phenomena. They can be an efficient method for gathering qualitative data, because you’re working with a number of participants at the same time and they usually enjoy the process. They are less labor intensive than individual interviews and more cost effective, however they are limited in the number of questions that can be asked and require some skill to facilitate.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.


Questionnaires can be used both quantitatively and qualitatively. Although they can be difficult to design, they have the potential to gather data quickly and cost effectively from participants. As the researcher isn’t observing or otherwise being influenced by the participant during the process, questionnaires are sometimes considered to be a more unbiased source of information. As a qualitative research tool, they are more limited in what data they can draw, compared to face-to-face methods, such as interviews and focus groups. If you’re using a questionnaire as one of your tools, you’ll need to ensure your wording is precise. We also strongly encourage you to pre-test it with a smaller sample group before circulating.

To decide on data collection methods, first consider what type of data will help answer your research question.

Your task

Select the comments link below and share your thoughts on the data collection methods that will gather the evidence you need.

Briefly justify your choices and share any concerns that come to mind.

© Deakin University and Griffith University
This article is from the free online

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

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