Data Collection in Qualitative Research

Designing And Preparing The Research Instrument

In qualitative research & qualitative studies, the main instrument is the researcher him or herself. The researcher observes, takes notes, talks to people, etc. All of these are skills that need to be learned.  As Delamont (2004) wrote: “The biggest problem novices find when preparing for ethnographic field work is that the methods books are not explicit enough about what to observe, how to observe and what to write down” (p. 225). The same applies to carrying out interviews. Just the fact that we talk to people in our everyday life, listen, ask questions and communicate does not make us naturally a good interviewer. According to Helfferich (2009), a good interviewer needs the following skills: Technical competence, Interactive competence: attention and steering, competencies in communication theory and knowing how to deal with previous knowledge and personal bias.

Technical competence is needed in organizing interviews. You need to find participants, make arrangements for the interview, explain matters of confidentiality, prepare consent forms, make your interview participant feel comfortable, and find the right words to open the interview situation.

Interactive competence refers to paying attention to your interview partner and steering the interview into the desired direction. Your job is to open up the stage so that the interviewee feels comfortable talking. The roles need to be clarified: you ask a few questions, but mostly, you listen and the interviewee talks. This violates the rules of everyday talk as the balance shifts. You need to be an active listener, showing interest and encourage the interviewee to speak. You need to find the right moment to ask the next question, to find the right way and form in asking it and you need to keep the conversation going. This entails dealing with silence, reading non-verbal signals and sending appropriate signals. You need to be self-reflexive all the time, controlling your reactions and showing the right level of empathy. This requires some practice, but we all need to start somewhere. When you have the chance, take part in interview training. A good way to check how good or bad you were as an interviewer is when you transcribe the data.

Knowledge about communication theory helps you in recognizing certain dialog signals and strategies of talk. Further, it will help you in mediating roles to generate the right power balance and level of cooperation in the interview. Within the communication literature, you will also find some advice on how to deal with difficult interview situations and participants.

In dealing with previous knowledge and personal bias resulting from it, you need to train holding back or working with your own thoughts, feelings, convictions and expectations. A prerequisite is that you are aware of your biases and that you can explicit them. This is a requirement for overcoming selective attention. During the process of conducting the study, you need to be prepared for the effects that this may have on you. You need to be prepared for having to revise your previous knowledge.

Understanding your research participant is another issue. Based on your personal bias, you may not understand what he or she is talking about or do not find it logical or meaningful. Within seconds during the interview, you have to decide whether it is ok to ask a clarifying question or leaving it to the interpretation phase to gain a better comprehension. The following is a quote from an interview with a person addicted to shopping:

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Interviewer: How would you feel if you were to go out without any money?

“I just cannot get out of the door. I can’t get out of the door. I’ve tried it. I had my purse, I lost my purse or I had it stolen I don’t remember and I reported my credit cards missing. This is probably one of the worst things I can remember. And it would take some time to have them replaced, the credit cards. So this particular three days I had no income, no money at all. And, erm, I thought I’ll just stay in for the three days and every time I came to the front door to go to pick my daughter up or take her to school, I couldn’t do it and for the three days.”

I did not interrupt to clarify what she meant by equating credit cards with income. It may also sound puzzling that it is impossible for someone to leave the house because the purse was lost. I continued to listen and let her tell me her story.

In planning an interview study, the first consideration should be what type of interview to conduct. There are a number of different forms and they yield different kinds of data (see for example Helfferich, 2009).

The interview form should fit your research goals. A dialogue produces other forms of data than a monologue. Depending on your subject of research, you may want to find out about subjective concepts or unconscious motives; or you may be interested in biographical self-description or simply in information from an expert. Interviews differ in the degree of steering and structure; you may go into an interview knowing already a lot about the subject matter or you go into it as a stranger; the interview may take place as part of an everyday activity as in an ethnographic setting or in a more artificial context. The focus may be on listening to a long narrative or on working towards mutual understanding and everything in between.
Examples of various interview forms that can be arranged on a continuum of the above mentioned dimensions are ethnographic interviews, narrative interviews, guided interviews, biographic interviews, problem-centered interviews, episodic interviews, in-depth interviews, semi-structured open ended interviews, group interview or focus groups.  In recent years, online interviews have also become a possibility. In order to conduct such interviews, you need to be comfortable with the technical requirements. You may only hear but not see the person. Thus, non-verbal signals are lost and important context information may be missing. Advantages are that it is easier to overcome space, location and time constraints. When you have a small budget, you cannot travel all over the place, but you may be able to reach the persons you want to talk with online.

In sum, there are a large number of options to choose from. Your task is to make an informed decision and to be able to explain your choice in research methodology chapter of your report. You find a list of interview forms including references at the end of this chapter for further information.

When considering observation as your mode of data collection, similar issues need to be considered. What is the best form of observation in relation to your research question? Do you want to be an external, a passive, a balanced, an active or a total participant? There are advantages and limitations for each of these observation types (see for example Creswell, 2009). As mentioned above, writing field notes is also a skill that needs to be learned.

Other forms of data to be considered for a qualitative research project include printed documents, online documents, web pages, images, audio and video materials or geographic data. This also needs to be taken into account when designing your research project.


Creswell, John W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches.  London: Sage. Second edition available online:

Delamont, Sara (2004). Ethnography and participant observation, in: Seale, Clive; Gobo, Giampietro; Gubrium,  Jaber F. and Silvermann, David (eds). Qualitative Research Pratice. London: Sage.

Helfferich, Cornelia (2009, 3rded). Die QualitätqualitativerDaten. Manual für die Durchführung qualitative Interviews. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Further readings – types of interviews

Ethnographic interview: Spradley, J.P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Narrative Interview: Lucius-Hoene, Gabriele &Deppermann, Arnulf (2002). Rekonstruktion narrativer Identität. Ein Arbeitsbuch zur Analyse narrativer Interviews. Opladen:  Leske + Budrich.

Biographic interview: Rosenthal, Gabriele (2004). Bibliographic research. In Seale, Clive; Gobo, Giampietro; Gubrium,  Jaber F. and Silvermann, David (eds). Qualitative Research Practice. London: Sage.

Episodic interview: Flick, Uwe (2006, 3rd ed / 2007). An Introduction to Qualitative Research.London: Sage. Chapter 13. /  Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rowohlt. Kapitel 13.

Focused interviews: Merton, R.K. & Kendall, P.L. (1956).The Focused Interview.Glencoe, Ill.  / Merton, R.K. & Kendall, P.L. (1975). Das fokussierte Interview. In Hopf, Christel & Weingarten, E. (eds). Qualitative Sozialforschung. Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, pp. 171-204.

In-depth Interview: Kvale, Steinar (1996). An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing.Thousand Oak, CA: Sage. / Lamnek, Siegfried (2005, 4. ed). Qualitative Sozialforschung: Lehrbuch. Weinheim,Basel: Beltz Verlag. Chapter 8.

Group Interviews:  Flick, Uwe (2006, 3rd ed / 2007). An Introduction to Qualitative Research.London: Sage. Chapter 15. / Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, chapter 15.

Focus groups: Morgan, David L. (1988). Focus Groups as Qualitative Research.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. / Morgan, David L. and Krueger, R.A. (1998). The Focus Group Kit.TousandOask, CA: Sage.

Qualitative online interviews: Mann and Stewart (2005) Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online London: Sage. / Rezabek, Roger (2000, January). Online focus groups: Electronic discussions for research [67 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-line Journal], 1(1).

Commented Example of an interview protocol

Another issue you need to take into consideration is research ethics. Depending on which country you live in, your research proposal must pass a human subject board. In other countries this is not necessary; nonetheless, there probably are data protection laws to observe. When you conduct interviews, it is mandatory that there is informed consent between you and your interviewee. This can be an oral agreement or in form of a signed document. You need to explain the purpose of your research, what you intent do with the data, who has access to the data and how long the data will be stored, and in which form the results are used and presented.
A common procedure is to make the data anonymous, i.e. to replace all identifying information like names or persons, location and places, professional status, etc. with pseudonyms or abstract characters like A001, A002 and so on. In preparing a written consent form, pay attention to the respective data protection laws and include the legal regulation and consequences in the formulation of your text. You find examples of such forms online and also in some method books (e.g., Helfferich, 2009).

Blumer, Herbert (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Methods. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. (Introduction)

Cicourel, Aron V. (1974). Theory and method in a study of Argentine fertility. New York: Wiley

Helfferich, Cornelia (2009, 3rd ed). Die QualitätqualitativerDaten. Manual für die Durchführung qualitative Interviews. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Strauss, Anselm L. (1987). Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (dt. 1991, Grundlagen qualitativer Sozialforschung. München: Fink).

Witzel, Andreas (2000). Das problemzentrierte Interview [25 Absätze]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(1), Art. 22,

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