Chapter 10. Introduction to Data Collection Techniques


Now that we have discussed various aspects of qualitative research, we can begin to collect data. This chapter serves as a bridge between the first half and second half of this textbook (and perhaps your course) by introducing techniques of data collection. You’ve already been introduced to some of this because qualitative research is often characterized by the form of data collection; for example, an ethnographic study is one that employs primarily observational data collection for the purpose of documenting and presenting a particular culture or ethnos. Thus, some of this chapter will operate as a review of material already covered, but we will be approaching it from the data-collection side rather than the tradition-of-inquiry side we explored in chapters 2 and 4.

Revisiting Approaches

There are four primary techniques of data collection used in qualitative research: interviews, focus groups, observations, and document review.[1] There are other available techniques, such as visual analysis (e.g., photo elicitation) and biography (e.g., autoethnography) that are sometimes used independently or supplementarily to one of the main forms. Not to confuse you unduly, but these various data collection techniques are employed differently by different qualitative research traditions so that sometimes the technique and the tradition become inextricably entwined. This is largely the case with observations and ethnography. The ethnographic tradition is fundamentally based on observational techniques. At the same time, traditions other than ethnography also employ observational techniques, so it is worthwhile thinking of “tradition” and “technique” separately (see figure 10.1).

TYPE As in... Approaches where you commonly see this technique... Guidelines
Interviews Interview-based studies Phenomenology; Ethnography (along with Observations); Mixed Methods; Grounded Theory; Narrative Inquiry; Feminist Approaches Semi-structured or unstructured interviews with one to 100 participants, depending on tradition
Focus Groups Evaluation studies; market research; participatory action research Case Study; Feminist Approaches; Mixed Methods; often used as a supplementary technique SIngle or comparative focused discussions with 5-12 persons
Observations Participant-observation studies; ethnographic studies Ethnography; Grounded Theory; Symbolic Interactionism; Case Study Multiple observations in "field," with written fieldnotes serving as the data
Document review Historical or archival research or content analysis Case Study; Content Analysis; Narrative Inquiry; Mixed Methods Systematic and rigorous analyses of documents employing coding techniques
Visual analysis Photo/drawing elicitations; photovoice Phenomenology; Grounded Theory; Ethnography Supplemental technique asking participants to draw/explain or view/explain visual material
Biographies Autoethnography; Oral Histories Narrative Inquiry; Case Study; Oral History Largely chronologically-structured collection of a person's life history; can be a single illustrative case

Figure 10.1. Data Collection Techniques

Each of these data collection techniques will be the subject of its own chapter in the second half of this textbook. This chapter serves as an orienting overview and as the bridge between the conceptual/design portion of qualitative research and the actual practice of conducting qualitative research.

Overview of the Four Primary Approaches

Interviews are at the heart of qualitative research. Returning to epistemological foundations, it is during the interview that the researcher truly opens herself to hearing what others have to say, encouraging her interview subjects to reflect deeply on the meanings and values they hold. Interviews are used in almost every qualitative tradition but are particularly salient in phenomenological studies, studies seeking to understand the meaning of people’s lived experiences.

Focus groups can be seen as a type of interview, one in which a group of persons (ideally between five and twelve) is asked a series of questions focused on a particular topic or subject. They are sometimes used as the primary form of data collection, especially outside academic research. For example, businesses often employ focus groups to determine if a particular product is likely to sell. Among qualitative researchers, it is often used in conjunction with any other primary data collection technique as a form of “triangulation,” or a way of increasing the reliability of the study by getting at the object of study from multiple directions.[2] Some traditions, such as feminist approaches, also see the focus group as an important “consciousness-raising” tool.

If interviews are at the heart of qualitative research, observations are its lifeblood. Researchers who are more interested in the practices and behaviors of people than what they think or who are trying to understand the parameters of an organizational culture rely on observations as their primary form of data collection. The notes they make “in the field” (either during observations or afterward) form the “data” that will be analyzed. Ethnographers, those seeking to describe a particular ethnos, or culture, believe that observations are more reliable guides to that culture than what people have to say about it. Observations are thus the primary form of data collection for ethnographers, albeit often supplemented with in-depth interviews.

Some would say that these three—interviews, focus groups, and observations—are really the foundational techniques of data collection. They are far and away the three techniques most frequently used separately, in conjunction with one another, and even sometimes in mixed methods qualitative/quantitative studies. Document review, either as a form of content analysis or separately, however, is an important addition to the qualitative researcher’s toolkit and should not be overlooked (figure 10.1). Although it is rare for a qualitative researcher to make document review their primary or sole form of data collection, including documents in the research design can help expand the reach and the reliability of a study. Document review can take many forms, from historical and archival research, in which the researcher pieces together a narrative of the past by finding and analyzing a variety of “documents” and records (including photographs and physical artifacts), to analyses of contemporary media content, as in the case of compiling and coding blog posts or other online commentaries, and content analysis that identifies and describes communicative aspects of media or documents.

The Four Primary Techniques of Qualitative Data Analysis

In addition to these four major techniques, there are a host of emerging and incidental data collection techniques, from photo elicitation or photo voice, in which respondents are asked to comment upon a photograph or image (particularly useful as a supplement to interviews when the respondents are hesitant or unable to answer direct questions), to autoethnographies, in which the researcher uses his own position and life to increase our understanding about a phenomenon and its historical and social context.

Taken together, these techniques provide a wide range of practices and tools with which to discover the world. They are particularly suited to addressing the questions that qualitative researchers ask—questions about how things happen and why people act the way they do, given particular social contexts and shared meanings about the world (chapter 4).

Triangulation and Mixed Methods

Because the researcher plays such a large and nonneutral role in qualitative research, one that requires constant reflectivity and awareness (chapter 6), there is a constant need to reassure her audience that the results she finds are reliable. Quantitative researchers can point to any number of measures of statistical significance to reassure their audiences, but qualitative researchers do not have math to hide behind. And she will also want to reassure herself that what she is hearing in her interviews or observing in the field is a true reflection of what is going on (or as “true” as possible, given the problem that the world is as large and varied as the elephant; see chapter 3). For those reasons, it is common for researchers to employ more than one data collection technique or to include multiple and comparative populations, settings, and samples in the research design (chapter 2). A single set of interviews or initial comparison of focus groups might be conceived as a “pilot study” from which to launch the actual study. Undergraduate students working on a research project might be advised to think about their projects in this way as well. You are simply not going to have enough time or resources as an undergraduate to construct and complete a successful qualitative research project, but you may be able to tackle a pilot study. Graduate students also need to think about the amount of time and resources they have for completing a full study. Masters-level students, or students who have one year or less in which to complete a program, should probably consider their study as an initial exploratory pilot. PhD candidates might have the time and resources to devote to the type of triangulated, multifaceted research design called for by the research question.

We call the use of multiple qualitative methods of data collection and the inclusion of multiple and comparative populations and settings “triangulation.” Using different data collection methods allows us to check the consistency of our findings. For example, a study of the vaccine hesitant might include a set of interviews with vaccine-hesitant people and a focus group of the same and a content analysis of online comments about a vaccine mandate. By employing all three methods, we can be more confident of our interpretations from the interviews alone (especially if we are hearing the same thing throughout; if we are not, then this is a good sign that we need to push a little further to find out what is really going on).[3] Methodological triangulation is an important tool for increasing the reliability of our findings and the overall success of our research.

Methodological triangulation should not be confused with mixed methods techniques, which refer instead to the combining of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Mixed methods studies can increase reliability, but that is not their primary purpose. Mixed methods address multiple research questions, both the “how many” and “why” kind, or the causal and explanatory kind. Mixed methods will be discussed in more detail in chapter 15.


Let us return to the three examples of qualitative research described in chapter 1: Cory Abramson’s study of aging (The End Game), Jennifer Pierce’s study of lawyers and discrimination (Racing for Innocence), and my own study of liberal arts college students (Amplified Advantage). Each of these studies uses triangulation.

Abramson’s book is primarily based on three years of observations in four distinct neighborhoods. He chose the neighborhoods in such a way to maximize his ability to make comparisons: two were primarily middle class and two were primarily poor; further, within each set, one was predominantly White, while the other was either racially diverse or primarily African American. In each neighborhood, he was present in senior centers, doctors’ offices, public transportation, and other public spots where the elderly congregated.[4] The observations are the core of the book, and they are richly written and described in very moving passages. But it wasn’t enough for him to watch the seniors. He also engaged with them in casual conversation. That, too, is part of fieldwork. He sometimes even helped them make it to the doctor’s office or get around town. Going beyond these interactions, he also interviewed sixty seniors, an equal amount from each of the four neighborhoods. It was in the interviews that he could ask more detailed questions about their lives, what they thought about aging, what it meant to them to be considered old, and what their hopes and frustrations were. He could see that those living in the poor neighborhoods had a more difficult time accessing care and resources than those living in the more affluent neighborhoods, but he couldn’t know how the seniors understood these difficulties without interviewing them. Both forms of data collection supported each other and helped make the study richer and more insightful. Interviews alone would have failed to demonstrate the very real differences he observed (and that some seniors would not even have known about). This is the value of methodological triangulation.

Pierce’s book relies on two separate forms of data collection—interviews with lawyers at a firm that has experienced a history of racial discrimination and content analyses of news stories and popular films that screened during the same years of the alleged racial discrimination. I’ve used this book when teaching methods and have often found students struggle with understanding why these two forms of data collection were used. I think this is because we don’t teach students to appreciate or recognize “popular films” as a legitimate form of data. But what Pierce does is interesting and insightful in the best tradition of qualitative research. Here is a description of the content analyses from a review of her book:

In the chapter on the news media, Professor Pierce uses content analysis to argue that the media not only helped shape the meaning of affirmative action, but also helped create white males as a class of victims. The overall narrative that emerged from these media accounts was one of white male innocence and victimization. She also maintains that this narrative was used to support “neoconservative and neoliberal political agendas” (p. 21). The focus of these articles tended to be that affirmative action hurt white working-class and middle-class men particularly during the recession in the 1980s (despite statistical evidence that people of color were hurt far more than white males by the recession). In these stories fairness and innocence were seen in purely individual terms. Although there were stories that supported affirmative action and developed a broader understanding of fairness, the total number of stories slanted against affirmative action from 1990 to 1999. During that time period negative stories always outnumbered those supporting the policy, usually by a ratio of 3:1 or 3:2. Headlines, the presentation of polling data, and an emphasis in stories on racial division, Pierce argues, reinforced the story of white male victimization. Interestingly, the news media did very few stories on gender and affirmative action.

The chapter on the film industry from 1989 to 1999 reinforces Pierce’s argument and adds another layer to her interpretation of affirmative action during this time period. She sampled almost 60 Hollywood films with receipts ranging from four million to 184 million dollars. In this chapter she argues that the dominant theme of these films was racial progress and the redemption of white Americans from past racism. These movies usually portrayed white, elite, and male experiences. People of color were background figures who supported the protagonist and “anointed” him as a savior (p. 45). Over the course of the film the protagonists move from “innocence to consciousness” concerning racism. The antagonists in these films most often were racist working-class white men. A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, Amistad, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Long Walk Home, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Dances with Wolves receive particular analysis in this chapter, and her examination of them leads Pierce to conclude that they infused a myth of racial progress into America’s cultural memory. White experiences of race are the focus and contemporary forms of racism are underplayed or omitted. Further, these films stereotype both working-class and elite white males, and underscore the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. (Hrezo 2012)

With that context in place, Pierce then turned to interviews with attorneys. She finds that White male attorneys often misremembered facts about the period in which the law firm was accused of racial discrimination and that they often portrayed their firms as having made substantial racial progress. This was in contrast to many of the lawyers of color and female lawyers who remembered the history differently and who saw continuing examples of racial (and gender) discrimination at the law firm. In most of the interviews, people talked about individuals, not structure (and these are attorneys, who really should know better!). By including both content analyses and interviews in her study, Pierce is better able to situate the attorney narratives and explain the larger context for the shared meanings of individual innocence and racial progress. Had this been a study only of films during this period, we would not know how actual people who lived during this period understood the decisions they made; had we had only the interviews, we would have missed the historical context and seen a lot of these interviewees as, well, not very nice people at all. Together, we have a study that is original, inventive, and insightful.

My own study of how class background affects the experiences and outcomes of students at small liberal arts colleges relies on mixed methods and triangulation. At the core of the book is an original survey of college students across the US. From analyses of this survey, I can present findings on “how many” questions and descriptive statistics comparing students of different social class backgrounds. For example, I know and can demonstrate that working-class college students are less likely to go to graduate school after college than upper-class college students are. I can even give you some estimates of the class gap. But what I can’t tell you from the survey is exactly why this is so or how it came to be so. For that, I employ interviews, focus groups, document reviews, and observations. Basically, I threw the kitchen sink at the “problem” of class reproduction and higher education (i.e., Does college reduce class inequalities or make them worse?). A review of historical documents provides a picture of the place of the small liberal arts college in the broader social and historical context. Who had access to these colleges and for what purpose have always been in contest, with some groups attempting to exclude others from opportunities for advancement. What it means to choose a small liberal arts college in the early twenty-first century is thus different for those whose parents are college professors, for those whose parents have a great deal of money, and for those who are the first in their family to attend college. I was able to get at these different understandings through interviews and focus groups and to further delineate the culture of these colleges by careful observation (and my own participation in them, as both former student and current professor). Putting together individual meanings, student dispositions, organizational culture, and historical context allowed me to present a story of how exactly colleges can both help advance first-generation, low-income, working-class college students and simultaneously amplify the preexisting advantages of their peers. Mixed methods addressed multiple research questions, while triangulation allowed for this deeper, more complex story to emerge.


In the next few chapters, we will explore each of the primary data collection techniques in much more detail. As we do so, think about how these techniques may be productively joined for more reliable and deeper studies of the social world.

Advanced Reading: Triangulation

Denzin (1978) identified four basic types of triangulation: data, investigator, theory, and methodological. Properly speaking, if we use the Denzin typology, the use of multiple methods of data collection and analysis to strengthen one’s study is really a form of methodological triangulation. It may be helpful to understand how this differs from the other types.

Data triangulation occurs when the researcher uses a variety of sources in a single study. Perhaps they are interviewing multiple samples of college students. Obviously, this overlaps with sample selection (see chapter 5). It is helpful for the researcher to understand that these multiple data sources add strength and reliability to the study. After all, it is not just “these students here” but also “those students over there” that are experiencing this phenomenon in a particular way.

Investigator triangulation occurs when different researchers or evaluators are part of the research team. Intercoding reliability is a form of investigator triangulation (or at least a way of leveraging the power of multiple researchers to raise the reliability of the study).

Theory triangulation is the use of multiple perspectives to interpret a single set of data, as in the case of competing theoretical paradigms (e.g., a human capital approach vs. a Bourdieusian multiple capital approach).

Methodological triangulation, as explained in this chapter, is the use of multiple methods to study a single phenomenon, issue, or problem.

Further Readings

Carter, Nancy, Denise Bryant-Lukosius, Alba DiCenso, Jennifer Blythe, Alan J. Neville. 2014. “The Use of Triangulation in Qualitative Research.” Oncology Nursing Forum 41(5):545–547. Discusses the four types of triangulation identified by Denzin with an example of the use of focus groups and in-depth individuals.

Mathison, Sandra. 1988. “Why Triangulate?” Educational Researcher 17(2):13–17. Presents three particular ways of assessing validity through the use of triangulated data collection: convergence, inconsistency, and contradiction.

Tracy, Sarah J. 2010. “Qualitative Quality: Eight ‘Big-Tent’ Criteria for Excellent Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 16(10):837–851. Focuses on triangulation as a criterion for conducting valid qualitative research.



  1. Marshall and Rossman (2016) state this slightly differently. They list four primary methods for gathering information: (1) participating in the setting, (2) observing directly, (3) interviewing in depth, and (4) analyzing documents and material culture (141). An astute reader will note that I have collapsed participation into observation and that I have distinguished focus groups from interviews. I suspect that this distinction marks me as more of an interview-based researcher, while Marshall and Rossman prioritize ethnographic approaches. The main point of this footnote is to show you, the reader, that there is no single agreed-upon number of approaches to collecting qualitative data.
  2. See “Advanced Reading: Triangulation” at end of this chapter.
  3. We can also think about triangulating the sources, as when we include comparison groups in our sample (e.g., if we include those receiving vaccines, we might find out a bit more about where the real differences lie between them and the vaccine hesitant); triangulating the analysts (building a research team so that your interpretations can be checked against those of others on the team); and even triangulating the theoretical perspective (as when we “try on,” say, different conceptualizations of social capital in our analyses).
  4. We can also think about triangulating the sources, as when we include comparison groups in our sample (e.g., if we include those receiving vaccines, we might find out a bit more about where the real differences lie between them and the vaccine hesitant); triangulating the analysts (building a research team so that your interpretations can be checked against those of others on the team); and even triangulating the theoretical perspective (as when we “try on,” say, different conceptualizations of social capital in our analyses).


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