The most common sources of data collection in qualitative research are interviews, observations, and review of documents (Creswell, 2009b; Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2010; Marshall & Rossman, 1999). The methodology is planned and pilot-tested before the study. Creswell (2003) places the data-collecting procedures into four categories: observations, interviews, documents, and audiovisual materials. He provides a concise table of the four methods, the options within each type, the advantages of each type, and the limitations of each.
We noted previously that the researcher typically has some type of framework (subpurposes perhaps) that determines and guides the nature of the data collection. For example, one phase of the research might pertain to the manner in which expert and nonexpert sport performers perceive various aspects of a game. This phase could involve having the athlete describe his or her perceptions of what is taking place in a specific scenario. A second phase of the study might focus on the interactive thought processes and decisions of the two groups of athletes while they are playing. The data for this phase could be obtained from filming them in action and then interviewing them while they are watching their performances on videotape. Still another aspect of the study could be directed at the knowledge structure of the participants, which could be determined by a researcher-constructed instrument.
You should not expect qualitative data collection to be quick. It is time intensive. Collecting good data takes time (Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2010), and quick interviews or short observations are unlikely to help you gain more understanding. If you are doing qualitative research, you must plan to be in the environment for enough time to collect good data and understand the nuance of what is occurring.
The interview is undoubtedly the most common source of data in qualitative studies. The person-to-person format is most prevalent, but occasionally group interviews and focus groups are conducted. Interviews range from the highly structured style, in which questions are determined before the interview, to the open-ended, conversational format. In qualitative research, the highly structured format is used primarily to gather sociodemographic information. For the most part, however, interviews are more open ended and less structured (Merriam, 2001). Frequently, the interviewer asks the same questions of all the participants, but the order of the questions, the exact wording, and the type of follow-up questions may vary considerably.
Being a good interviewer requires skill and experience. We emphasized earlier that the researcher must first establish rapport with the respondents. If the participants do not trust the researcher, they will not open up and describe their true feelings, thoughts, and intentions. Complete rapport is established over time as people get to know and trust one another. An important skill in interviewing is being able to ask questions in such a way that the respondent believes that he or she can talk freely.
Kirk and Miller (1986) described their field research in Peru, where they tried to learn how much urban, lower-middle-class people knew about coca, the organic source of cocaine. Coca is legal and widely available in Peru. In their initial attempts to get the people to tell them about coca, they received the same culturally approved answers from all the respondents. Only after they changed their style to asking less sensitive questions (e.g., “How did you find out you didn’t like coca?”) did the Peruvians open up and elaborate on their knowledge of (and sometimes their personal use of) coca. Kirk and Miller made a good point about asking the right questions and the value of using various approaches. Indeed, this is a basic argument for the validity of qualitative research.
Skillful interviewing takes practice. Ways to develop this skill include videotaping your own performance in conducting an interview, observing experienced interviewers, role playing, and critiquing peers. It is important that the interviewer appear nonjudgmental. This can be difficult in situations where the interviewee’s views are quite different from those of the interviewer. The interviewer must be alert to both verbal and nonverbal messages and be flexible in rephrasing and pursuing certain lines of questioning. The interviewer must use words that are clear and meaningful to the respondent and must be able to ask questions so that the participant understands what is being asked. Above all, the interviewer has to be a good listener.
The use of a digital recorder is undoubtedly the most common method of recording interview data because it has the obvious advantage of preserving the entire verbal part of the interview for later analysis. Although some respondents may be nervous to talk while being recorded, this uneasiness usually disappears in a short time. The main drawback with recording is the malfunctioning of equipment. This problem is vexing and frustrating when it happens during the interview, but it is devastating when it happens afterward when you are trying to replay and analyze the interview. Certainly, you should have fresh batteries and make sure that the recorder is working properly early in the interview. You should also stop and play back some of the interview to see whether the person is speaking into the microphone loudly and clearly enough and whether you are getting the data. Some participants (especially children) love to hear themselves speak, so playing back the recording for them can also serve as motivation. Remember, however, that machines can malfunction at any time.
Video recording seems to be the best method because you preserve not only what the person said but also his or her nonverbal behavior. The drawback to using video is that it can be awkward and intrusive. Therefore, it is used infrequently. Taking notes during the interview is another common method. Occasionally note taking is used in addition to recording, primarily when the interviewer wishes to note certain points of emphasis or make additional notations. Taking notes without recording prevents the interviewer from being able to record all that is said. It keeps the interviewer busy, interfering with her or his thoughts and observations while the respondent is talking. In highly structured interviews and when using some types of formal instrument, the interviewer can more easily take notes by checking off items and writing short responses.
The least preferred technique is trying to remember and write down afterward what was said in the interview. The drawbacks are many, and this method is seldom used.