Abductive reasoning:

An “interpretivist” form of reasoning in which “most likely” conclusions are drawn, based on inference.  This approach is often used by qualitative researchers who stress the recursive nature of qualitative data analysis.  Compare with deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning.


The means of gaining entry to a research site or research population.

Action research:

Research carried out at a particular organizational or community site with the intention of affecting change; often involves research subjects as participants of the study.  See also participatory action research.

Affective coding:

A form of first-cycle coding in which codes are developed to “investigate subjective qualities of human experience (e.g., emotions, values, conflicts, judgments) by directly acknowledging and naming those experiences” (Saldaña 2021:159).  See also emotions coding and values coding.

Analytic memos:

Reflective summaries of findings that emerge during analysis of qualitative data; they can include reminders to oneself for future analyses or considerations, reinterpretations or generations of codes, or brainstorms and concept mapping.


A condition in which the identity of individual subjects is not known to researchers; although this is not often truly possible, researchers can nevertheless take steps to ensure that the presentation of the data to a general audience remains anonymous through the use of pseudonyms and other forms of identity masking.

Anonymized data:

Data from which all personal identifiers have been removed, as where pseudonyms have replaced all names in an interview transcript and where there is no remaining link or code between the transcript and identifying records.  Given the requirements of signed written consent forms, this is not often possible in qualitative research.  See also de-identified data.

Applied research:

Research that contributes knowledge that will help people to understand the nature of a problem in order to intervene, thereby allowing human beings to more effectively control their environment.


A place or collection containing records, documents, or other materials of historical interest; most universities have an archive of material related to the university’s history, as well as other “special collections” that may be of interest to members of the community.

Audit trail:

A method of ensuring trustworthiness; researcher-constructed documentary evidence of how data was collected and managed, transparently “accounting for all data and all design decisions made in the field so that anyone can see the data as evidence and trace the logic leading to the representation and interpretation of findings” (Marshall and Rossman 2016:230).


A form of research and a methodological tradition of inquiry in which the researcher uses self-reflection and writing to explore personal experiences and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.  “Autoethnography is a research method that uses a researcher's personal experience to describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences” (Adams, Jones, and Ellis 2015).

Axial coding:

A later stage coding process used in Grounded Theory in which data is reassembled around a category, or axis.


A branch of philosophy that studies judgments about values; ethical questions in research (as when one decides to design a participatory action research study for the purpose of engaging the community and offering a more socially just outcome).

Basic research:

Research that is interested in generating and testing hypotheses about how the world works.

Belmont Report, the

The report of the US National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, first published in 1974.  It identified the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of research involving human subjects and developed guidelines to ensure that such research is conducted in accordance with those principles.

Beneficence principle:

One of the three principles identified in the Belmont Report: the risks of harm should be minimized and the potential benefits (e.g., knowledge production, increased understanding) should be maximized.  In other words, the benefits of the study should outweigh any harm (including discomfort to the participants).  Just because one is able to conduct a study does not mean one should or that the study is worth pursuing


Computer-assisted qualitative data-analysis software.  These are software packages that can serve as a repository for qualitative data and that enable coding, memoing, and other tools of data analysis.  See chapter 17 for particular recommendations.

Case study:

A methodological tradition of inquiry and research design that focuses on an individual case (e.g., setting, institution, or sometimes an individual) in order to explore its complexity, history, and interactive parts.  As an approach, it is particularly useful for obtaining a deep appreciation of an issue, event, or phenomenon of interest in its particular context.

Cherry picking:

The purposeful selection of some data to prove a preexisting expectation or desired point of the researcher where other data exists that would contradict the interpretation offered.  Note that it is not cherry picking to select a quote that typifies the main finding of a study, although it would be cherry picking to select a quote that is atypical of a body of interviews and then present it as if it is typical.

Closed coding:

The final stages of coding after the refinement of codes has created a complete list or codebook in which all the data is coded using this refined list or codebook.  Compare to open coding.

Code landscaping:

A technique of second-cycle coding that “integrates textual and visual methods to see both the forest and trees" (Saldaña 2021:285).

Code mapping:

A technique of second-cycle coding in which codes developed in the first rounds of coding are restructured into an increasingly simplified hierarchical organization, thereby allowing the general patterns and underlying structure of the field data to emerge more clearly.


A word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and/or evocative attribute for a portion of language-based or visual data (Saldaña 2021:5).


A set of codes, definitions, and examples used as a guide to help analyze interview data.  Codebooks are particularly helpful and necessary when research analysis is shared among members of a research team, as codebooks allow for standardization of shared meanings and code attributions.

Coding frame:

The scheme of data organization employed, featuring various broad headings and more specific sub-headings and the explicit links between all levels.  See coding.


The process of labeling and organizing qualitative data to identify different themes and the relationships between them; a way of simplifying data to allow better management and retrieval of key themes and illustrative passages.  See coding frame and codebook.

Common Rule, the

The section of US federal regulations that establishes the core procedures for human research subject protections, which include informed consent and review by an institutional review board (IRB).  The Common Rule was substantially revised in 2017.  See chapter 8 for more details.

Concept mapping:

A tool for identifying relationships among ideas by visually representing them on paper.  Most concept maps depict ideas as boxes or circles (also called nodes), which are structured hierarchically and connected with lines or arrows (also called arcs). These lines are labeled with linking words and phrases to help explain the connections between concepts.  Also known as mind mapping.

Concurrent triangulation:

A mixed-methods design that conceives of both quantitative and qualitative elements happening concurrently.  In practice, one may still happen before the other, but one does not follow the other.  The data then converge and from that convergence interpretations are made.  Compare sequential exploratory design and sequential explanatory design.


A condition in which the researcher knows the identity of a research subject but takes steps to protect that identity from being discovered by others; this may require limiting presentation of sensitive data.  While the connection between the participants and the results are known, the terms of the confidentiality agreement between the researcher and the participants limit those who will know of this connection.  Compare to anonymity.


Epistemological perspective in which people construct meaning from facts, events, and the reality “out there.”  In contrast to objectivism, which embraces the belief that a human can come to know external reality (the reality that exists beyond one's own mind), constructivism holds that the only reality we can know is that which is represented by human thought.  In other words, although reality is independent of human thought, meaning or knowledge about that reality is always a human construction.  See also social constructionism.

Content analysis:

A method of both data collection and data analysis in which a given content (textual, visual, graphic) is examined systematically and rigorously to identify meanings, themes, patterns and assumptions.  Qualitative content analysis (QCA) is concerned with gathering and interpreting an existing body of material.    

Convenience sample:

The selection of research participants or other data sources based on availability or accessibility, in contrast to purposive sampling.

Convergence focus group:

A form of focus group construction in which people with similar perspectives and experiences are included.  These are particularly helpful for identifying shared patterns and group consensus.  Contrast with a diversity focus group.

Conversation analysis:

A methodological tradition of inquiry concerned with illuminating how speakers accomplish a variety of tasks (e.g., jockeying for position, building friendships, constructing reality) through speech.  As an analytical approach, it relies on detailed transcripts of spoken exchanges utilizing an agreed-upon set of conventions for coding these exchanges.

Covert methods:

Any variety of data-collection techniques in which the researcher does not disclose the full extent of the research study to participants or those inhabiting a setting or site in which data is collected.  Although covert methods would appear to violate the requirement of informed consent, there are many situations in which the potential benefit of a study that includes covert methods outweighs any likely or possible harm, as in the case where an ethnographer observes social interactions in a public setting and records no information that would identify any particular person.

Critical realism:

A philosophical approach pioneered by Roy Bhaskar that attempts to resolve the tension between objectivism and constructivism.  According to this approach, epistemology (how we know) and ontology (what exists) are separate; something previous approaches confused.  Reality cannot be observed and exists outside of and independent of any human perceptions or “constructions.”  According to critical realists, unobservable structures cause observable events and the social world can be understood only if people understand the structures that generate events.  In practical terms, critical realism stands apart from both positivist and interpretivist approaches to social science.

Data visualization:

The visual presentation of data or information through graphics such as charts, graphs, plots, infographics, maps, and animation.  Recall the best documentary you ever viewed, and there were probably excellent examples of good data visualization there (for me, this was An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s film about climate change).  Good data visualization allows more effective communication of findings of research, particularly in public presentations (e.g., slideshows).

De-identified data:

Data in which personal identifiers have been removed or obscured such that the remaining information does not identify an individual and there is no reasonable basis to believe that the information can be used to identify an individual.  Unlike truly anonymized data, a link connecting the de-identified data and personal identifiers may exist, as in the case of a password-protected separate file linking de-identified transcripts with signed informed consent forms.

Deductive reasoning:

A form of reasoning which employs a “top-down” approach to drawing conclusions: it begins with a premise or hypothesis and seeks to verify it (or disconfirm it) with newly collected data.  Inferences are made based on widely accepted facts or premises.  Deduction is idea-first, followed by observations and a conclusion.  This form of reasoning is often used in quantitative research and less often in qualitative research.  Compare to inductive reasoning.  See also abductive reasoning.

Descriptive coding:

A first-cycle coding process in which short words or phrases are used to describe a particular passage, especially useful for identifying the general topic of the passage.  In the latter case, sometimes referred to as “topic coding.”

Deviant case:

A form of case selection or purposeful sampling in which cases that are unusual or special in some way are chosen to highlight processes or to illuminate gaps in our knowledge of a phenomenon.   See also extreme case.

Disconfirming case:

A form of case selection focusing on examples that do not fit the emerging patterns. This allows the researcher to evaluate rival explanations or to define the limitations of their research findings. While disconfirming cases are found (not sought out), researchers should expand their analysis or rethink their theories to include/explain them.

Discourse analysis:

A methodological tradition of inquiry often associated with Michel Foucault, in which close attention is paid to the structure of talk and the use of various conversational strategies and specific vocabularies for particular effects and considering the influence of power dynamics and the enactment of power through speech.

Diversity focus group:

A form of focus group construction in which people with diverse perspectives and experiences are chosen for inclusion.  This helps the researcher identify commonalities across this diversity and/or note interactions across differences.  Contrast with a convergence focus group

Documentary analysis:

The analysis of pre-existing documents (e.g., archival documents, official records, blogposts, media reports).  Often used as a form of triangulation.

Emotions coding:

A first-cycle coding process in which emotions and emotionally salient passages are tagged.

Empathetic neutrality:

Although all researchers strive to be professionally neutral (not manipulating data, for example), qualitative researchers often stress the necessity of being empathetically neutral, truly open to understanding the opinions, values, beliefs, and actions of others and the meanings that people bring to them.  This requires some self-reflectivity and awareness of potential obstacles, such as inherent biases based on one’s current social location or past experiences.  Empathetically neutral researchers recognize the impossibility and undesirability of full detachment from those they study.


A crucial component and desired outcome for much qualitative research, empathy is the ability to identify with or understand another's situation or feelings.  This is also associated with the sociologist Max Weber’s notion of verstehen, a key methodological practice of interpretivist social research, in which the researcher enters the frame of mind of another as part of the full comprehension of social behavior.  “The tradition of Verstehen places emphasis on the human capacity to know and understand others through empathic introspection and reflection based on direct observation of and interaction with people” (Patton 2002:52).


An epistemological perspective that posits the existence of reality through sensory experience.  The world is what we see it as.  Historically, empiricists stressed the ability and desirability to conduct research about the world rather than claiming knowledge innately or divinely.  Empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries championed the controlled experiment for advancing science.  In more recent years, empiricism has sometimes been represented exclusively as quantitative research that centers on causality and prediction in contrast to more interpretivist forms of research.   In actuality, most qualitative researchers also adhere to empiricism.  Compare positivism.


The branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge.  For researchers, it is important to recognize and adopt one of the many distinguishing epistemological perspectives as part of our understanding of what questions research can address or fully answer.  See, e.g., constructivism, subjectivism, and objectivism.


The science and practice of right conduct; in research, it is also the delineation of moral obligations towards research participants, communities to which we belong, and communities in which we conduct our research.


One of the primary methodological traditions of inquiry in qualitative research, ethnography is the study of a group or group culture, largely through observational fieldwork supplemented by interviews. It is a form of fieldwork that may include participant-observation data collection. See chapter 14 for a discussion of deep ethnography. 


A methodological tradition of inquiry that focuses on how people use social interaction to maintain an ongoing sense of reality in a situation. Ethnomethodologists employ conversation analysis and a rigorous set of techniques for systematically observing and recording what happens when people interact in natural settings.

Evaluation research:

Research that is designed to evaluate or test the effectiveness of specific solutions and programs addressing specific social problems.  There are two kinds: summative and formative.

Exempt review (IRB):

A specific subset of research involving human subjects that does not require ongoing IRB oversight.  Research can qualify for an exemption if it is no more than minimal risk and all of the research procedures fit within one or more of the exemption categories in the federal IRB regulations.

Expedited review (IRB):

A specific subset of research involving human subjects that is no more than “minimal risk” and fits in one of the federally designated expedited review categories. Expedited reviews do not require a convened committee meeting.  All expedited studies must adhere to the requirements for informed consent or its waiver or alteration.  Expedited studies may or may not be required to undergo annual review.

Extreme case:

A form of case selection or purposeful sampling in which cases that are extreme examples of critical phenomena are chosen to highlight processes or to illuminate gaps in our knowledge of a phenomenon.   See also deviant case.


The primary form of data for fieldwork, participant observation, and ethnography.  These notes, taken by the researcher either during the course of fieldwork or at day’s end, should include as many details as possible on what was observed and what was said.  They should include clear identifiers of date, time, setting, and names (or identifying characteristics) of participants.


Data collection that takes place in real-world settings, referred to as “the field;” a key component of much Grounded Theory and ethnographic research.  Patton (2002) calls fieldwork “the central activity of qualitative inquiry” where “‘going into the field’ means having direct and personal contact with people under study in their own environments – getting close to people and situations being studied to personally understand the realities of minutiae of daily life” (48).

Focus group:

A focus group interview is an interview with a small group of people on a specific topic.  “The power of focus groups resides in their being focused” (Patton 2002:388).  These are sometimes framed as “discussions” rather than interviews, with a discussion “moderator.”  Alternatively, the focus group is “a form of data collection whereby the researcher convenes a small group of people having similar attributes, experiences, or ‘focus’ and leads the group in a nondirective manner.  The objective is to surface the perspectives of the people in the group with as minimal influence by the researcher as possible” (Yin 2016:336).  See also diversity focus group and convergence focus group.

Focused coding:

A later stage coding process used in Grounded Theory that pulls out the most frequent or significant codes from initial coding.

Formative evaluation research:

Research designed to improve a program or policy (to help “form” or shape its effectiveness); relies heavily on qualitative research methods.  Contrast summative evaluation research

Full review (IRB):

A specific subset of research involving human subjects that is deemed more than “minimal risk” or involves one of the definitions of vulnerable population and thus requires review by a formally convened committee (board) meeting.  All full-board studies must adhere to the requirements for informed consent or its waiver or alteration.  Full-board studies must undergo annual review.


The accuracy with which results or findings can be transferred to situations or people other than those originally studied.  Qualitative studies generally are unable to use (and are uninterested in) statistical generalizability where the sample population is said to be able to predict or stand in for a larger population of interest.  Instead, qualitative researchers often discuss “theoretical generalizability,” in which the findings of a particular study can shed light on processes and mechanisms that may be at play in other settings.  See also statistical generalization and theoretical generalization.

Grounded theory:

A methodological tradition of inquiry and approach to analyzing qualitative data in which theories emerge from a rigorous and systematic process of induction.  This approach was pioneered by the sociologists Glaser and Strauss (1967).  The elements of theory generated from comparative analysis of data are, first, conceptual categories and their properties and, second, hypotheses or generalized relations among the categories and their properties – “The constant comparing of many groups draws the [researcher’s] attention to their many similarities and differences.  Considering these leads [the researcher] to generate abstract categories and their properties, which, since they emerge from the data, will clearly be important to a theory explaining the kind of behavior under observation.” (36).


Both the theory and the method of interpretation; originally associated with the close reading of texts (e.g., “a hermeneutic study of the Bible” would take a deep look at particular passages and make comparisons and inferences based on those passages).  The term can be more widely applied to qualitative interpretivist data analyses in general.

Human Subjects Research:

Research, according to US federal guidelines, that involves “a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research:  (1) Obtains information or biospecimens through intervention or interaction with the individual, and uses, studies, or analyzes the information or biospecimens; or  (2) Obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens.”


A proposed explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation.  The positing of a hypothesis is often the first step in quantitative research but not in qualitative research.  Even when qualitative researchers offer possible explanations in advance of conducting research, they will tend to not use the word “hypothesis” as it conjures up the kind of positivist research they are not conducting.

Idiographic research:

An approach to research that eschews several hallmarks of the scientific method (e.g., experimentation, generalizability, the identification of “laws” ) in favor of focus on sui generis data.  Here, the individual particulars of a case or person or research focus are considered so great that any attempts to generalize from that data or make causal predictions based on a particular case or series of events are considered impossible.  Most social science research is rather nomothetic, although some qualitative researchers do fall into the ideographic paradigm.

In vivo coding:

A first-cycle coding process in which terms or phrases used by the participants become the code applied to a particular passage.  It is also known as “verbatim coding,” “indigenous coding,” “natural coding,” “emic coding,” and “inductive coding,” depending on the tradition of inquiry of the researcher.  It is common in Grounded Theory approaches and has even given its name to one of the primary CAQDAS programs (“NVivo”).

In-depth interview:

A form of interview that generally follows a standard guide of questions asked, although the order of the questions may change to match the particular needs of each individual interview subject, and probing “follow-up” questions are often added during the course of the interview.  Also known as a semi-structured interview.  Compare to unstructured interview.

Inductive reasoning:

A form of reasoning that employs a “bottom-up” approach to drawing conclusions: it begins with the collection of data relevant to a particular question and then seeks to build an argument or theory based on an analysis of that data.  Induction is observation first, followed by an idea that could explain what has been observed.  This form of reasoning is often used in qualitative research and seldom used in qualitative research.  Compare to deductive reasoning.  See also abductive reasoning.


A person who introduces the researcher to a field site’s culture and population.  Also referred to as guides.  Used in ethnography.

Informed consent form (IRB):

A requirement for research involving human participants; the documentation of informed consent.  In some cases, oral consent or assent may be sufficient, but the default standard is a single-page easy-to-understand form that both the researcher and the participant sign and date.   Under federal guidelines, all researchers "shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence. The information that is given to the subject or the representative shall be in language understandable to the subject or the representative.  No informed consent, whether oral or written, may include any exculpatory language through which the subject or the representative is made to waive or appear to waive any of the subject's rights or releases or appears to release the investigator, the sponsor, the institution, or its agents from liability for negligence" (21 CFR 50.20).  Your IRB office will be able to provide a template for use in your study.

Informed consent:

An ethical and legal requirement for research involving human participants; the process whereby a participant is informed about all aspects of the research so they can make an informed decision to participate.  The concept of informed consent is embedded in the principles of the Belmont Report.  Obtaining consent involves informing the subject about his or her rights, the purpose of the study, procedures to be undertaken, potential risks and benefits of participation, expected duration of study, and the extent of confidentiality of personal identification and demographic data.

Initial coding:

The term for first-cycle open coding used by grounded theorists.

Insider research:

Research conducted by researchers who have some privileged connection to the research site or people being studied.  Common in ethnographic research, the insider would belong to the community (ethnos) being studied.  In reality, most researchers fall somewhere on a continuum between being a complete insider and complete outsider.  Contrast outsider research.

Institutional ethnography:

A particular qualitative ethnographic approach developed by Dorothy E Smith, where the ethnographic lens is directed toward institutionalized interactions so as to better understand social organization at the macro-level.  Originally developed by Smith as a critical way of understanding how work processes and social organizations affected women in particular and people without power in general

Institutional Review Board (IRB):

An administrative body established to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted under the auspices of the institution with which it is affiliated. The IRB is charged with the responsibility of reviewing all research involving human participants. The IRB is concerned with protecting the welfare, rights, and privacy of human subjects. The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove, monitor, and require modifications in all research activities that fall within its jurisdiction as specified by both the federal regulations and institutional policy.

Intercoder reliability:

A method of ensuring trustworthiness in which two or more researchers code a passage or document or data set using a pre-established coding schema (e.g., codebook) and then compare (and sometimes measure) concordance.  If multiple coders are applying the same codes to the same data, we have established intercoder reliability.  Measured intercoder reliability is often a feature of quantitative coding processes.  In qualitative research, the process is a bit looser and works best as part of the process of identification and clarification of codes (rather than a statistical test of reliability).


An approach that refutes the possibility of neutrality in social science research.  All research is “guided by a set of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied” (Denzin and Lincoln 2005: 13).  In contrast to positivism, interpretivism recognizes the social constructedness of reality, and researchers adopting this approach focus on capturing interpretations and understandings people have about the world rather than “the world” as it is (which is a chimera).

Interview guide:

A document listing key questions and question areas for use during an interview.  It is used most often for semi-structured interviews.  A good interview guide may have no more than ten primary questions for two hours of interviewing, but these ten questions will be supplemented by probes and relevant follow-ups throughout the interview.  Most IRBs require the inclusion of the interview guide in applications for review.  See also interview and semi-structured interview.


A method of data collection in which the researcher asks the participant questions; the answers to these questions are often recorded and transcribed verbatim. There are many different kinds of interviews - see also semistructured interview, structured interview, and unstructured interview.

Justice principle:

One of the three principles identified in the Belmont Report: the human subjects involved in the research should be equitably chosen (i.e., not excluding a group out of bias or mere convenience), and the researcher should avoid exploiting vulnerable populations or populations of convenience.

Life history:

An interview variant in which a person’s life story is elicited in a narrative form.  Turning points and key themes are established by the researcher and used as data points for further analysis.

Literature review:

The process of systematically searching through pre-existing studies (“literature”) on the subject of research; also, the section of a presentation in which the pre-existing literature is discussed.

Member checking:

A method of ensuring trustworthiness where the researcher shares aspects of written analysis (codes, summaries, drafts) with participants before the final write-up of the study to elicit reactions and/or corrections.   Note that the researcher has the final authority on the interpretation of the data collected; this is not a way of substituting the researcher’s analytical responsibilities.  See also peer debriefing


The philosophical framework in which research is conducted; the approach to “research” (what practices this entails, etc.).  Inevitably, one’s epistemological perspective will also guide one’s methodological choices, as in the case of a constructivist who employs a Grounded Theory approach to observations and interviews, or an objectivist who surveys key figures in an organization to find out how that organization is run.  One of the key methodological distinctions in social science research is that between quantitative and qualitative research.


In contrast to methodology, methods are more simply the practices and tools used to collect and analyze data.  Examples of common methods in qualitative research are interviews, observations, and documentary analysis.  One’s methodology should connect to one’s choice of methods, of course, but they are distinguishable terms.  See also methodology.

Mixed methods:

A research design that employs both quantitative and qualitative methods, as in the case of a survey supplemented by interviews.

Narrative inquiry:

An approach that focuses attention on the potential of stories to give meaning to people’s lives and that treats data as stories.  In practice, this often means eliciting life stories or lived experiences from participants in semi-structured interview sessions.  There has been a tendency to use this approach to bring in marginalized voices.

Nested design:

A form of mixed-methods design in which a subsample of an original randomized sample is used for further interviews or observation.


The position taken by any researcher regarding the object of study, not to prove a particular perspective or manipulate data to arrive at a desirable conclusion.  Among qualitative researchers, neutrality does not mean detachment.  See also empathetic neutrality.

Nomothetic research:

A form of social science research that generally follows the scientific method as established in the natural sciences.  In contrast to idiographic research, the nomothetic researcher looks for general patterns and “laws” of human behavior and social relationships.  Once discovered, these patterns and laws will be expected to be widely applicable.  Quantitative social science research is nomothetic because it seeks to generalize findings from samples to larger populations.  Most qualitative social science research is also nomothetic, although generalizability is here understood to be theoretical in nature rather than statistical.  Some qualitative researchers, however, espouse the idiographic research paradigm instead.


An epistemological perspective where meaning and reality exist independently (outside) of any particular consciousness.  It is similar to positivism and empiricism.  In all three approaches, the researcher is detached from the object of knowledge; they are a “neutral” observer outside the object of study.  Objectivism is the default epistemological perspective of most quantitative research.  Contrast subjectivism and constructivism

Observational methods:

The cluster of data-collection tools and techniques that involve observing interactions between people, the behaviors, and practices of individuals (sometimes in contrast to what they say about how they act and behave), and cultures in context.  Observational methods are the key tools employed by ethnographers and Grounded Theory.


The branch of philosophy that explores and seeks to understand being, existence, and reality itself rather than how one knows that reality (which is the subject of epistemology).

Open coding:

A preliminary stage of coding in which the researcher notes particular aspects of interest in the data set and begins creating codes.  Later stages of coding refine these preliminary codes.  Note: in Grounded Theory, open coding has a more specific meaning and is often called initial coding: data are broken down into substantive codes in a line-by-line manner, and incidents are compared with one another for similarities and differences until the core category is found.  See also closed coding.

Oral history:

A field of study (in history) and a method of gathering, preserving, and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events:  “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives” (Ritchie 2003). The aims and purposes of oral history research are often distinct from more social science-focused interviewing, but oral histories themselves can be an important (and overlooked) source of data for qualitative analyses.

Original research:

Research based on data collected and analyzed by the research (in contrast to secondary “library” research).

Outsider research:

Research conducted by researchers who are strangers to the field site or persons being studied.  Common in ethnographic research, the outsider would be deemed a true stranger to the community.   In reality, most researchers fall somewhere on a continuum between being a complete insider and being a complete outsider.  Contrast insider research.

Participant observation:

A method of observational data collection taking place in a natural setting; a form of fieldwork.  The term encompasses a continuum of relative participation by the researcher (from full participant to “fly-on-the-wall” observer).  This is also sometimes referred to as ethnography, although the latter is characterized by a greater focus on the culture under observation.


The people who are the subjects of a qualitative study.  In interview-based studies, they may be the respondents to the interviewer; for purposes of IRBs, they are often referred to as the human subjects of the research.

Participatory action research (PAR):

Research in which both researchers and participants work together to understand a problematic situation and change it for the better.

Peer debriefing:

A method of ensuring trustworthiness where the researcher shares her codes, analytic memos, and other analytical data with colleagues who weigh in on any inconsistencies, things missing, or things not quite right.  Compare to member checking.


A methodological tradition of inquiry that focuses on the meanings held by individuals and/or groups about a particular phenomenon (e.g., a “phenomenology of whiteness” or a “phenomenology of first-generation college students”).  Sometimes this is referred to as understanding “the lived experience” of a particular group or culture.  Interviews form the primary tool of data collection for phenomenological studies.  Derived from the German philosophy of phenomenology (Husserl 1913; 2017).


The large group of interest to the researcher.  Although it will likely be impossible to design a study that incorporates or reaches all members of the population of interest, this should be clearly defined at the outset of a study so that a reasonable sample of the population can be taken.  For example, if one is studying working-class college students, the sample may include twenty such students attending a particular college, while the population is “working-class college students.”  In quantitative research, clearly defining the general population of interest is a necessary step in generalizing results from a sample.  In qualitative research, defining the population is conceptually important for clarity.

Positionality statement:

A statement created by the researcher declaring their own social position (often in terms of race, class, gender) and social location (e.g., junior scholar or tenured professor) vis-à-vis the research subjects or focus of study, with the goal of explaining and thereby limiting any potential biases or impacts of such position on data analyses, findings, or other research results.  See also reflexivity.


An epistemological perspective that posits the existence of reality through sensory experience similar to empiricism but goes further in denying any non-sensory basis of thought or consciousness.  In the social sciences, the term has roots in the proto-sociologist August Comte, who believed he could discern “laws” of society similar to the laws of natural science (e.g., gravity).  The term has come to mean the kinds of measurable and verifiable science conducted by quantitative researchers and is thus used pejoratively by some qualitative researchers interested in interpretation, consciousness, and human understanding.  Calling someone a “positivist” is often intended as an insult.  See also empiricism and objectivism.


Here, an approach to social science research that allows for the use of mixed methods or any methods of data collection and analysis that are best suited to address the research question(s).  Qualitative researchers are often pragmatic in that they can pull out a host of techniques and tools from their methodological toolkit to use as necessary.

Presentation devices:

The general term for the often creative ways that qualitative research is presented to particular audiences so that the inherent qualities and rich value of the findings can be properly communicated.  This might include visual displays, the use of well-considered pseudonyms, the inclusion of direct quotes from interviews and fieldnotes, and even story-telling, poetry, and various forms of visual artwork.

Probability sampling:

A sampling strategy in which the sample is chosen to represent (numerically) the larger population from which it is drawn by random selection.  Each person in the population has an equal chance of making it into the sample.  This is often done through a lottery or other chance mechanisms (e.g., a random selection of every twelfth name on an alphabetical list of voters).  Also known as random sampling.

Process coding:

A first-cycle coding process in which gerunds are used to identify conceptual actions, often for the purpose of tracing change and development over time.  Widely used in the Grounded Theory approach.


Follow-up questions used in a semi-structured interview to elicit further elaboration.  Suggested prompts can be included in the interview guide to be used/deployed depending on how the initial question was answered or if the topic of the prompt does not emerge spontaneously.

Protocol (IRB):

A detailed description of any proposed research that involves human subjects for review by IRB.  The protocol serves as the recipe for the conduct of the research activity.  It includes the scientific rationale to justify the conduct of the study, the information necessary to conduct the study, the plan for managing and analyzing the data, and a discussion of the research ethical issues relevant to the research.  Protocols for qualitative research often include interview guides, all documents related to recruitment, informed consent forms, very clear guidelines on the safekeeping of materials collected, and plans for de-identifying transcripts or other data that include personal identifying information.


A fictional name assigned to give anonymity to a person, group, or place.  Pseudonyms are important ways of protecting the identity of research participants while still providing a “human element” in the presentation of qualitative data.  There are ethical considerations to be made in selecting pseudonyms; some researchers allow research participants to choose their own.


The controlling force in research; can be understood as lying on a continuum from basic research (knowledge production) to action research (effecting change).

Purposive sample:

A sample in which a certain number of participants are included based on particular characteristics and attributes that are the subject of study.  It is not probability based (randomly drawn).

Qualitative research:

An approach to research that is “multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter.  This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.  Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives." (Denzin and Lincoln 2005:2). Contrast with quantitative research.

Quantitative research:

An approach to research that collects and analyzes numerical data for the purpose of finding patterns and averages, making predictions, testing causal relationships, and generalizing results to wider populations.  Contrast with qualitative research.

Random sample:

The result of probability sampling, in which a sample is chosen to represent (numerically) the larger population from which it is drawn by random selection.  Each person in the population has an equal chance of making it into the random sample.  This is often done through a lottery or other chance mechanisms (e.g., the random selection of every twelfth name on an alphabetical list of voters).  This is typically not required in qualitative research but rather essential for the generalizability of quantitative research.

Recruitment material:

A term used by IRBs to denote all materials aimed at recruiting participants into a research study (including printed advertisements, scripts, audio or video tapes, or websites).  Copies of this material are required in research protocols submitted to IRB.


The practice of being conscious of and reflective upon one’s own social location and presence when conducting research.  Because qualitative research often requires interaction with live humans, failing to take into account how one’s presence and prior expectations and social location affect the data collected and how analyzed may limit the reliability of the findings.  This remains true even when dealing with historical archives and other content.  Who we are matters when asking questions about how people experience the world because we, too, are a part of that world.


Reliability is most often explained as consistency and stability in a research instrument, as in a weight scale, deemed reliable if predictable and accurate (e.g., when you put a five-pound bag of rice on the scale on Tuesday, it shows the same weight as when you put the same unopened bag on the scale Wednesday).  Qualitative researchers don’t measure things in the same way, but we still must ensure that our research is reliable, meaning that if others were to conduct the same interview using our interview guide, they would get similar answers.  This is one reason that reflexivity is so important to the reliability of qualitative research – we have to take steps to ensure that our own presence does not “tip the scales” in one direction or another or that, when it does, we can recognize that and make corrections.  Qualitative researchers use a variety of tools to help ensure reliability, from intercoder reliability to triangulation to reflexivity.

Research ethics board:

The term used in Canada for entities reviewing human subjects research, parallel to IRB in the US.

Research question:

The foundational question to be addressed by the research study.  This will form the anchor of the research design, collection, and analysis.  Note that in qualitative research, the research question may, and probably will, alter or develop during the course of the research.

Respect for Persons principle:

One of the key principles found in the Belmont Report and a foundational ethical requirement for all research involving human subjects. “Respect for persons incorporates at least two ethical convictions: first, that individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection.  The principle of respect for persons thus divides into two separate moral requirements: the requirement to acknowledge autonomy and the requirement to protect those with diminished autonomy”- Belmont Report.


The people who are the subjects of an interview-based qualitative study. In general, they are also known as the participants, and for purposes of IRBs they are often referred to as the human subjects of the research.

Sample size:

The number of individuals (or units) included in your sample


The specific group of individuals that you will collect data from.  Contrast population.

Sampling frame:

The actual list of individuals that the sample will be drawn from. Ideally, it should include the entire target population (and nobody who is not part of that population).  Sampling frames can differ from the larger population when specific exclusions are inherent, as in the case of pulling names randomly from voter registration rolls where not everyone is a registered voter.  This difference in frame and population can undercut the generalizability of quantitative results.


The process of selecting people or other units of analysis to represent a larger population. In quantitative research, this representation is taken quite literally, as statistically representative.  In qualitative research, in contrast, sample selection is often made based on potential to generate insight about a particular topic or phenomenon.


The point at which you can conclude data collection because every person you are interviewing, the interaction you are observing, or content you are analyzing merely confirms what you have already noted.  Achieving saturation is often used as the justification for the final sample size.

Semistructured interview:

A form of interview that follows a standard guide of questions asked, although the order of the questions may change to match the particular needs of each individual interview subject, and probing “follow-up” questions are often added during the course of the interview.  The semi-structured interview is the primary form of interviewing used by qualitative researchers in the social sciences.  It is sometimes referred to as an “in-depth” interview.  See also interview and interview guide.

Sensitizing concepts:

Key ideas that inform a research study; sometimes these organically emerge in the first stages of data analysis and are then used as the foundation for further coding and theorization.  They have a special use in Grounded Theory, studies, in which there is a continual interplay between data collection and analysis. Sensitizing concepts can also be used to frame research questions or to create interview guides, derived in those cases from previous literature or theory.

Sequential explanatory design:

A mixed-methods design that begins with quantitative data collection followed by qualitative data collection, which helps “explain” the initial quantitative findings.  Compare sequential exploratory design and concurrent triangulation.

Sequential exploratory design:

A mixed-methods design that begins with qualitative data collection followed by quantitative data collection.  In this case, the qualitative data suggests factors and variables to include in the quantitative design.  Compare sequential explanatory design and concurrent triangulation.

Snowball sample:

A sample generated non-randomly by asking participants to help recruit more participants the idea being that a person who fits your sampling criteria probably knows other people with similar criteria.

Social constructionism:

A variation of the epistemological perspective of constructivism: a theory of knowledge developed by sociologists that considers how meanings and understandings about reality develop in particular social contexts.  Can be traced back to Berger and Luckmann (1966), in which they argue that all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common-sense knowledge of everyday reality is derived from and maintained by social interactions.


Standpoint theory:

A feminist theoretical perspective that argues that knowledge stems from social position.  The perspective denies that traditional science is objective and suggests that research and theory have ignored and marginalized women and feminist ways of thinking.  Note that this is an epistemological perspective.

Statistical generalization:

The ability to extend the results of the sample to the population of interest as a whole.  Given the nature of qualitative research questions as well as the small sample sizes involved, qualitative research does not attempt statistical generalization.  But see theoretical generalization.

Structured interview:

A form of interview that follows a strict set of questions, asked in a particular order, for all interview subjects.  The questions are also the kind that elicits short answers, and the data is more “informative” than probing.  This is often used in mixed-methods studies, accompanying a survey instrument.  Because there is no room for nuance or the exploration of meaning in structured interviews, qualitative researchers tend to employ semi-structured interviews instead.  See also interview.


Epistemological perspective where there is no meaning or knowable reality independent of the meaning or reality constructed by particular consciousnesses.

Summative evaluation research:

Research in which an overall judgment about the effectiveness of a program or policy is made, often for the purpose of generalizing to other cases or programs.  Generally uses qualitative research as a supplement to primary quantitative data analyses.  Contrast formative evaluation research.

Symbolic interactionism:

Methodological tradition of inquiry that holds the view that all social interaction is dependent on shared views of the world and each other, characterized through people’s use of language and non-verbal communication.   Through interactions, society comes to be.  The goal of the researcher in this tradition is to trace that construction, as in the case of documenting how gender is “done” or performed, demonstrating the fluidity of the concept (and how it is constantly being made and remade through daily interactions).


Broad codes that are assigned to the main issues emerging in the data; identifying themes is often part of initial coding

Theoretical coding:

A later stage-coding process used in Grounded Theory in which key words or key phrases capture the emergent theory.


In its most basic sense, a theory is a story we tell about how the world works that can be tested with empirical evidence.  In qualitative research, we use the term in a variety of ways, many of which are different from how they are used by quantitative researchers.  Although some qualitative research can be described as “testing theory,” it is more common to “build theory” from the data using inductive reasoning, as done in Grounded Theory.  There are so-called “grand theories” that seek to integrate a whole series of findings and stories into an overarching paradigm about how the world works, and much smaller theories or concepts about particular processes and relationships.  Theory can even be used to explain particular methodological perspectives or approaches, as in Institutional Ethnography, which is both a way of doing research and a theory about how the world works.

Thick description:

Used primarily in ethnography, as in the goal of fieldnotes is to produce a thick description of what is both observed directly (actions, actors, setting, etc.) and the meanings and interpretations being made by those actors at the time.  In this way, the observed cultural and social relationships are contextualized for future interpretation.  The opposite of a thick description is a thin description, in which observations are recorded without any social context or cues to help explain them.  The term was coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (see chapter 14).


Usually a verbatim written record of an interview or focus group discussion.


The process of strengthening a study by employing multiple methods (most often, used in combining various qualitative methods of data collection and analysis).  This is sometimes referred to as data triangulation or methodological triangulation (in contrast to investigator triangulation or theory triangulation).  Contrast mixed methods.

Unit of analysis:

The level of the focus of analysis (e.g., individual people, organizations, programs, neighborhoods).

Unstructured interview:

A data-collection method that relies on casual, conversational, and informal interviewing.  Despite its apparent conversational nature, the researcher usually has a set of particular questions or question areas in mind but allows the interview to unfold spontaneously.  This is a common data-collection technique among ethnographers.  Compare to the semi-structured or in-depth interview.


In mostly quantitative research, validity refers to “the extent to which an empirical measure adequately reflects the real meaning of the concept under consideration” (Babbie 1990). For qualitative research purposes, practically speaking, a study or finding is valid when we are measuring or addressing what we think we are measuring or addressing.  We want our representations to be accurate, as they really are, and not an artifact of our imaginations or a result of unreflected bias in our thinking.

Values coding:

A first-cycle coding process in which attitudes, beliefs, and values are expressed in a simple word or phrase.

Vulnerable populations:

A discrete set of population groups for which heightened (IRB) review is triggered when included as participants of human subjects research.  These typically include children, pregnant persons, and prisoners but may also include ethnic or racial minorities, non-English speakers, the economically disadvantaged, and adults with diminished capacity.  According to the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), “Vulnerable persons are those who are relatively (or absolutely) incapable of protecting their own interests. More formally, they may have insufficient power, intelligence, education, resources, strength, or other needed attributes to protect their own interests.”


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.