Common research methods

Resources for research methods

Notes on major methods used in qualitative and quantitative research are available from pages on identifying-and-collecting-data as well as pages on qualitative data analysis.

The following  free resources cover a broad variety of methods and may be helpful in getting a good overview to help you decide which methods to use, as well as more in depth understanding of specific methods:


The section below provides brief details for some research methods. The section is still under development and at this stage includes diaries, focus groups, interviews, observation, conversation analysis, content analysis, discourse analysis, frame analysis, narrative analysis, thematic analysis.


Resources for using diaries  as a research method:

Corti, Louise (1993). Using diaries in social research,

Elliott, Heather (1997). The use of diaries in sociological research on health experience. Sociological Research Online,

 Kenten, Charlotte (2010), ‘Narrating Oneself: Reflections on the Use of Solicited Diaries with Diary Interviews’, FQS Forum: Qualitative Social Research  11/2, Art. 16 – May 2010.

Ida M., Shrout P., Laurenceau J.-Ph. and Bolger N. (2012). ‘Using diary methods in psychological research’ in Cooper, H. (2012) APA Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology pp 277 – 305

Nicholl H. (2010). ‘Diaries as a method of data collection in research’, Paediatr Nurs. 22/7:16-20. DOI:10.7748/paed2010.

Thomas,JA (2015) ‘Using unstructured diaries for primary data collection‘, Nurse Res. 22/5:25-9. doi: 10.7748/nr.22.5.25.e1322.


Focus groups

“A Focus Group can be any group discussion, as long as the researcher is actively encouraging of, and attentive to, the group interaction” (Kitzinger and Barbour 1999).

The dynamics of the group interaction is unique and can add richness and quality to data. Group processes can facilitate the exploration and sharing of views,  promote ‘opening up’ and raise issues not previously considered.

Focus group were developed as social research tool during WWII. After the war, despite its proven value, the method was not used for decades. Market researchers, political pollsters then started taking it on again to gauge  consumer opinions of advertising, people and products. By the 1980s, researchers, particularly in health, started adopting the method. Focus groups gained popularity particularly as qualitative research tool.

Focus groups allow a researcher to draw upon respondents’ attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences and reactions. Focus groups

  • Provide qualitative data
  • Group discussion data
  • Focus on process and on interaction

Focus group and other research methods

Focus groups are used as a research method for research project and can be combined with other methods such as individual interviews, participant observation, surveys. Focus groups can help explore or generate hypotheses, develop questions or concepts for questionnaires and interview guides (Gibbs, 1997)

  • Focus groups and interviews

Supplementary techniques can strengthen the total research project

Focus groups as starting point for constructing an interview schedule

Individual interviews can help construct focus groups

  • Focus groups and observation

A focus group interview can provide an initial exposure to the behaviours the researcher is about to observe (Saha, 2006)

  • Focus groups and surveys

A focus group interview can help generate the questions for a survey. Focus groups can also serve to explore aspects of the analysis of survey data (Saha, 2006)

Key challenges

• Deciding who will participate?

• Guiding the group and eventually developing questions that will provide answers needed

• Developing a rapport with participants (testing one’s interpersonal communication skills)

• Gaining the information from participants without excessively controlling the nature or the flow  information

• Ensuring everyone in the groups gets to speak equally

Choosing participants

  • How many participants in a focus group?

Gibbs (1997) recommends 6 to 10 participants, while Saha (2006) suggest 6-12 participants. Some conduct focus groups with as much as 15 participants, some with a little as 4 participants. These are not ideal figures.

  • Who should be selected?

A focus group is a planned sample of participants who are selected for who they are or their experience.

  • How do you find participants?

Finding participants can be time consuming. This can be done by word of mouth, through the use of key informants, by advertising, or through existing social networks. Incentives, whether gift vouchers, lunches or presents, movie passes may need to be offered to encourage participation. The possible longer term benefit to groups the participant belongs too, may in some cases be seen as an incentive in itself.

  • Participants

It is important to bring together participants with a similar or common status, so they do not overpower each other. Whether they know each other beforehand or not does not really matter. Groups are usually homogenous – but if the group is too homogenous with regard to specific characteristics, diverse opinions and experiences may not be revealed.

Sometimes differentiate by gender, religion etc..

Ideally they should not know each other too well

Not in any kind of power relationship, participants need to feel comfortable with each other

  • How often do they meet and for how long?

Some studies only have one meeting with each group, other meet a group more than once

Focus group sessions usually last from one to two hours.

  • How many groups

The general rule is that you set up sufficient number of groups to reach ‘saturation’. How many are organised may be determined as the research progresses and trends are identified. For most projects this means 3 to 5 groups.

Settings for a focus group

Focus group meetings can be held in a variety of places, for example, people’s homes, rented facilities, meeting rooms. Try to choose a neutral location to avoid either negative or positive associations with a particular site or building (Powell & Single 1996 cited in Gibbs 1997).

  • Choose a venue free from distraction
  • Participants should be facing each other
  • Ensure the atmosphere is relaxed, eventually offer refreshments
  • Focus groups tend to last between 1 to 2 hours – when inviting people it is best to indicate will take longer than anticipated

The focus groups moderator/facilitator

  • Must have training practice
  • Must provide clear explanations of the purpose of the group
  • Must ensure participation is voluntary
  • Must set out ground rules for discussion
  • Must explain how long the discussion will last
  • Must explain how and why members were chosen
  • Must explain how the discussion will be recorded
  • May give summary at the end
  • Keeps the group focussed on the topic
  • Must be prepared to adjust style to fit group
  • Must not dominate the group
  • Helps people feel at ease
  • Ensures everyone participates
  • Avoids giving personal opinions
  • Moves things forward when the conversation is drifting

You may want to involve more than one moderator, but be clear as to who does what. It can be very useful to have someone taking notes and check the recording


  • Open ended (never yes or no questions)
  • No leading questions (to avoid bias)
  • Carefully sequenced questions (less sensitive questions first)
  • Encourage discussion/interaction between participants
  • If necessary challenge participants
  • If necessary probe for details

Recording the focus group

  • Record seating arrangements
  • Video
  • Tape
  • Manual

Advantages of focus groups

  • Multiple methods
  • Provides wide range of information on short time
  • Can explore unanticipated topics
  • Does not require complex sample
  • May benefit participants can be an opportunity to be involved in decision making processes
  • Participants express their own definitive individual view, in a specific context, within a specific culture. This has to be taken into account by researcher

Disadvantages/limitations of focus groups

  • Focus groups can be difficult to assemble
  • Some people may find it hard to trust groups with sensitive or personal information/not fully anonymous
  • Neither random nor representative
  • The quality of data depends a lot on the moderator

Analysis of focus group data

Focus is on group discussion or interaction, so the process of arriving at consensus or lack of consensus is important

  • Identify themes in discussion
  • Identify categories
  • Select speech marks
  • Use multiple sequential quotes rather than isolated quotes
  • Interpretation: what is the deviant case – and logical analysis


Gibbs, Anita (1997), ‘Focus Groups’, Social Research Update, Issue 19 Winter 1997, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, England. Available at

Krueger, Richard A. (1994). Focus groups: a practical guide for applied research (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Morgan, David L. (1988). Focus groups as qualitative research. Newbury Park, Calif. : Sage Publications, c1988.

Morgan, David L. (1983). Successful focus groups: advancing the state of art. Newberry Park: Sage publications.

Saha, Larry (2006), Focus groups: interviewing and data analysis, Notes from a workshop provided on 31 January 2006 at part of the Inter-University Research Workshop Program (UC)

Stewart David W, Prem N. Shamdasani and Dennis W. Rook (2007), Focus groups: theory and practice, Thousand Oaks : SAGE Publications .


Interviewing as research method

Interviewing is a widely used to collect qualitative data. They can involve listening to individual participants separately or groups of people. Note that group interviews are different to focus groups as in focus groups participants largely decide where the conversation is going. Group interviews are led by the interviewer

Interviews can also be classified by medium used

  • Face to face
  • Anonymous
  • Telephone
  • Group interview
  • Focus-group interview

Interviews can also be classified according to the way the interview is organised

  • Structured interview
  • Unstructured interview
  • Focused interview
  • In-depth interview

Interviews can go from being formal to informal – some interviews are in between categories:
Formal ——————————————————- Informal
(structured)                  (semi-structured)                                      (unstructured)

  • Formal or structured interviews tend to use pre-set questionnaires, with questions in fixed order. Generally these lead to close-ended responses. Advantages: interviewer controls the topic, answers are more consistent and can easily be summarised. Fixed responses and categories may help respondents BUT respondents may not have to opportunity to say what they really think as they are restricted in their responses..
  • Semi-structured interviews follow an interview guide. They are organised around areas of specific interest and are flexible. More informal interviews have the major advantage of being more flexible. Questions can be asked in any order and follow the answers of the respondents. New or supplementary questions can asked.
  • Informal or unstructured interviews can be held as simple conversations, story telling. Responses are open-ended. They are more like natural conversations. They are not led by preconceived ideas or organisation.The answers tend to be more authentic and trustworthy as respondent can express their own meaning. BUT answers may be so different making coding labour intensive and the analysis harder .

Interviews do not always fit neatly in one of these. Sometimes the interview process may also need to be adjusted, as an informal opening can changed to a more directed interview to focus on particular topics.

Conducting good interviews requires being open and ready to deal with the un-anticipated. It is important to balance flexibility and consistency. Flexibility allows discovering new areas. Consistency allows for comparison of data, useful to draw conclusions.

Interviews as social encounters

Interviews are social encounters and a good interview is based on good social and communication skills. Developing a rapport with participants (interpersonal communication skills) is important. Contact with the person interviewed, capacity for listening, for making eye contact, for using body language are important. Pay attention to

  • Appearance and demeanor
  • Creation of a friendly atmosphere
  • Your ability to probe
  • Familiarity with interview schedule
  • Accuracy of recording responses

How to conduct the interview?

  • Gaining the information from participants without excessively controlling the nature or the flow of that information (open ended / closed questions, learning approach, field / colleague testing), avoiding systematic bias.
  • Coping with the unanticipated.

Interviews follow a certain order

  • Opening – break the ice, establish a relationship (but avoid leading people on – avoid saying what you think as this may change what people tell you)
  • Orientation state the purpose and any other details
  • Sequence of the questions funnel, inverted funnel, diamond, stirring of facts
  • Close the interview: leave the interviewee positive and satisfied

Re-interviewing can be useful to increase recall, ask more details about certain issues

The aim of an interview is to generate information

  • Information that does not already exist, e.g. on behaviour, and for which we cannot even start to formulate a hypothesis, as there is not enough information to do so
  • Information that explains a situation – to find out if a hypothesis applies (hypothesis testing)
Face to face interviews  
Advantages Disadvantages
·         The interview helps the respondent be motivated to participate

·         Higher response rates

·         Fewer ‘don’t knows’ or ‘no answer’

·         The interviewer can observe the respondent

·         The interviewer controls the data

·         Cost is generally not high

·         Labour intensive and therefore requires time

·         Requires high level of interaction skills

·         Requires an efficient and effective recording method

Telephone interviews  
Advantages Disadvantages
·         higher response rate than mail questionnaires

·         takes less time

·         not a face-face encounter

·         more personal safety

·         can use computer assisted data recording methods

·        not all households have phones and many people have silent numbers

·         inability to use visual aids

Ethical considerations

The well-being of researcher and participants is paramount. You have to ensure participation is entirely voluntary, anonymity and confidentiality maintained, o harm is done to participants

Who should you interview?

Someone who

  • has the information you need
  • is available to be interviewed
  • will agree to be interviewed
  • can freely and accurately provide information

Designing interview questions

Questions need to have the capacity to generate the answers needed.

  • Questions about facts
  • Questions about attitudes
  • Questions about behaviour

Wording of questions

A good question

    • uses simple language
    • is relevant
    • must be at the verbal and information level of the respondent, in other words easy to understand – do not use academic language if it is likely the respondent will have problems understanding or even relating to such a language
    • must be in an appropriate context. Avoid constraints, such as noisy rooms, or places with strong emotional ties. Interview settings are important and have to be carefully considered.

Good questions are questions that respondents can understand and that allow them to tell their story or give their opinions.

The test of good questions:

1) how easily can the respondent answer the questions and

2) the quality of the answers. If the respondent has difficulty in answering the questions or the reply is not useful, you will need to adapt or adjust the questions.

Questions to avoid

  • Leading questions, e.g. wouldn’t you agree that…
  • Loaded questions, e.g. Is she still as boring as she was 10 years ago?
  • Tags to questions, e.g. You agree, right? Never show what you think.
  • Multiple or double barrelled questions, e.g. tell me your three favourite books, and tell me why you like them? OR How and why did you choose to pursue this career?


  • Silence
  • Nudging: I see, Go on, Tell me more.
  • Clearinghouse probes: Is that all?
  • Depth probes: Ask for more information.
  • Clarity probes: I am not sure I understand
  • Probes about feelings: what were you feeling at the time.

Recording the interview

Interviews need to be recorded for

  • Accuracy  – allowing an audit trail.
  • Providing a precise description of the interview procedures (needed for rigour)
  • Managing the large volume of information generated.

Today most interviews are recorded electronically. But you probably will also need to take notes.

Taking notes

Notes can be taken during an interview, either by the interviewer or a second person acting as a recorder.This allows each person to give full attention to the speaker and to recording. The recorder can also ask questions, especially to clarify things. Notes taken by a second person tend to be more accurate and detailed.  But it is not always possible to have a second person.

If you are taking notes while interviewing, you will need to develop the skill of listening and writing, while giving good attention to the speaker. Keeping eye contact and sympathetic body language are important.

Writing things down after the conversation means that you will lose some information. If you have a reasonably good memory and write things down as soon as possible afterwards, you will get most of the main points down. Notes can be ‘filled out’ or expanded after the interview.

In group interviews, when writing things down, it is important to note who is making a point and if it is the view of one person or most of the group. It often is helpful to draw a quick diagram of where people are sitting and their names.

You may also want top take note of what people do. Sometime what people do is in contradiction to what they say.

Coding interviews manually

Interviews are different from questionnaires. In questionnaires the range of questions and answers is usually fixed and analysed quantitatively. Interview data needs to analysed qualitatively. This means labelling/coding the data using an analysis column. The label/code describes what a particular sentence or paragraph is about. Then all the information under a particular label is pulled together and analysed.

Points about recording information

  • You will only be able to analyse information that is remembered and written down either during or after the conversation.
  • Stories are often easier to remember than interviews. The information from casual and informal conversations can be written down in any order you remember it by.
  • Always ask permission to write things down during the interview. Some people may not like people writing down what they are saying. Others may not tell you what they really think. But many people are glad that to see their ideas being properly recorded.
  • When you take note, you don’t have to write down every word – just the key words and main points. Leave space to fill in the details later.
  • To make analysis of the information easier, use A4 notebooks with pages that can be easily torn out and filed separately.
  • Draw a right hand margin about 1.5-2 inches wide. Keep this column clear for labelling the topics later during analysis.
  • If you are talking with more than one person, use the left hand margin to note who was talking.
  • At the top of the page, write down the name or initials of the person, age, sex, where from and when interviewed.

Example of an interview record

John Sale, M. 45 yrs. Gwuonafiu. 13/3/2005 Analysis column
Q. -Can you tell me about the centre?

-What improvements have you made in the centre?

-Other ideas for improving the centre




New building

Extra courses

RTC graduates returning


 Watch out for!

  • Trying to save time by not not carrying out a pilot – interview questions need to be tried out
  • Bad questions
  • Bad interviewing techniques. Listen to a first interview, so you can reflect on your practice and get better
  • Bad sample
  • Wrong data processing

If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.

Turkish Proverb 

Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.

Epictetus, Greek philosopher

Resources and references for interviews

Englander, M. (2012). The interview: Data collection in descriptive phenomenological human scientific research. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 43(1), 13-35.

Judd, C.M., Smith, E.R., & Kiddler, L.H. (1991). Questionnaires and interviews: Asking questions effectively. In Research methods in social relations (6th ed., pp. 228-265). Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Creative interviewing

To understand what creative interviewing is and how to do it, check out


Observation as research method

Participant and Direct Observation

Participant observation is appropriate for collecting data on naturally occurring behaviours in their usual contexts.

Direct observation is different as the observer does not become a participant in the context, but strives to remain as invisible as possible, to avoid introducing a bias to what is being observed. Direct observation may be a more detached perspective, as the observer is an outsider watching. Direct observation may also focus on certain moments or people, thereby sampling situations rather than a whole context.

Non-participant observation

Analysing data

Main steps of data analysis:

  • Managing and organising data
  • Immersion in data
  • Coding: different methods code differently  – make sure you know why you do what you do
  • Generating categories and themes
  • Interpretation
  • Reflection – search for other possible understandings
  • Reporting back

To learn more about coding watch

watch video icon


Thematic coding

What can codes be about?

What is coding for?

Code list and code hierarchy

Conversation Analysis (CA)

Conversation analysis (CA) studies all kinds of conversations. It is based on the idea that talk makes things happen and that the conversation analyst has something to say about how (Antaki, 2002). CA focuses on what participants see and hear. CA analysis does not attempt to include what is hidden, what cannot be known (e.g. emotions)

Conversation analysis generally uses video or audio recordings, which are transcribed and analysed.

Resources for CA

AIEMCA ( Australian Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis) website :

Antaki Charles (1988) (ed). Analysing everyday explanation : a casebook of methods.London : Newbury Park [Calif.] : Sage Publication. UC Library HM258.A72 1988

Antaki Charles (1994). Explaining and arguing: the social organization of accounts. London ; Thousand Oaks Calif. : Sage Publications. UC library P302.8.A58 1994

Antaki Charles (2002) An introductory tutorial in Conversation Analysis. Online at <>. Accessed on  27 April 2011.

Antaki, Charles (2009). ‘An introduction to Conversation Analysis’ in Pertti Alasuutari, Leonard Bickman, Julia Brannen (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods.

Hutchby, Ian (2008). Conversation analysis. Cambridge : Polity, 2008. UC Library P95.45.H88 2008

Hutchby, Ian and Wooffitt, Robin (2008). Conversation Analysis (2nd ed). Cambridge: Polity Press. UC Library P95.45.H88 2008

Sacks, H (1992). Lectures on Conversation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. UC Library P95.45.H37 1992

Sidnell, Jack (2009). Conversation analysis : comparative perspectives. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.  UC Library P95.45.C66 2009

Sidnell, Jack (2010). Conversation Analysis: An introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Schegloff, E A (1988). ‘Goffman and the analysis of conversation’. In Drew P. and Wootton A. (eds)  Erving Goffman: Exploring the Interaction Order. Cambridge Polity Press.

ten Have, P (1999). Doing Conversation Analysis. London: Sage Publications

ten Have online site available at

Wooffitt,  Robin (2005) Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis : a Comparative and Critical Introduction. London: Sage. UC Library P95.45.W66 2005

Content analysis

Analyses ‘texts’ (written, drawn, audio, visual). Tends to be quantitative, when it involves quantifying contents, but can be qualitative when the coding of data is interpretative.

Generally content analysis involves counting and coding (emergent or a priori ) defined units of analysis (e.g. letters or words, paragraphs…). Holsti (1969, p 14) defines content analysis as, “any technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying specified characteristics of messages” . Content analysis is widely used to analyse media as it can be very useful to systematically go through large data sets .  It has been used to discover and describe the focus of individual, group, institutional, or social attention (Weber, 1990). Holsti (1969) sees three basic categories of use to content analysis

  • make inferences about the antecedents of a communication (e.g. infer who the author of a text is)
  • describe and make inferences about characteristics of a communication
  • make inferences about the effects of a communication.

Content analysis has been criticised for not capturing the context of a text, though more recently practitioners do take context into account e.g. Krippendorf


Berelson, B. (1952). Content analysis in communication research. Glencoe: Free Press. UC Library P93.B4 1971.

Holsti, Ole R. (1969). Content analysis for the social sciences and humanities . Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley Pub. Co. Uc Library P93.H65 1969.

Krippendorff, Klaus (1980). Content analysis: an introduction to its methodology. Beverly Hills : Sage Publications. UC Library P93.K74 1980.

Krippendorff Klaus & Bock Mary Angela (eds0 (2009). The content analysis reader. Thousand Oaks : Sage Publications. UC Library P93.C65 2009.

Manning, Peter K. & Cullum-Swan, Betsy (1994). ‘Narrative, content and semiotic analysis’, in Denzin & Lincoln (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Neuendorf, Kimberly A.: The Content Analysis Guidebook Online (2002):

Stemler, Steve (2001). An Overview of Content Analysis

Weber, Robert Philip (1990) (2nd ed). Basic content analysis. Beverly Hills : Sage Publications. UC Library H61.W422 1985.

Discourse analysis

Refers to a set of methods and theories for investigating language in use and language in social contexts. Discourse analysis focuses on the implied meaning of a text, rather than on its explicit content (Denscombe, 2010, p 287). It is based on the idea that words and images do not just depict reality, but create and sustain reality

Analysis involves deconstructing data, to expose what it is generating.


Fairclough N. (2003). Analysing discourse: textual analysis for social research. New Yourk: Routledge.

Phillips, N. & Hardy, C. (2002). Discourse analysis: investigating processes of social construction. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage publications.

Frame analysis

The concept is generally attributed to the work of Erving Goffman (1974). It is based on the idea that the way we react, perceive things depends on the way they are framed. Frames thus organise ideas, make sense of events for the reader, tell what is relevant and what is an issue is and by doing so make the world presented look natural, self evident.

Frame analysis aims to unpack this process by examining the major cognitive schemata used to interpret the world and communicate about it (or frames). Frames are ‘constructed from and embodied in the keywords, metaphors, concepts, symbols, and visual images’ (Entman, 1991).

References and resources

Goffman, Erving (1974), Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. New York: Harper & Row. UC Library HM291.G583 1974

Introduction to frame analysis, see

Menashe, C. L., & Siegel, M. (1998). ‘The Power of a frame: An Analysis of newspaper Coverage of Tobacco Issues – United States, 1985-1996’. Journal of Health Communication, Volume 3, Issue 4, 307-325.

Winett, L. (1995). Advocate’s guide to developing framing memos. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Media Studies Group.

Narrative analysis

Relates to a story. The data is analysed to show how stories construct the social world or a personal world


Labov, W. & Waltezky, J. (1997/1967). ‘Narrative analysis: oral versions pf personal experience’. Journal of narrative and life history, 7 (1-4), 3-38.

Thematic analysis

Self standing technique – but can also be done in combination of other methods. For more information guiding thematic analysis read Bazeley, Pat (2009) Analysing Qualitative Data: More Than ‘Identifying Themes’,  Malaysian Journal of Qualitative Research, 2009, 2, 6-22.

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