Lecture 8: Qualitative Field Research and In-Depth Interviews

The World as Quantities Versus the World as Qualia

This lecture for social science research methods at the University of Maine at Augusta presents resources on qualitative research to augment Chapter 9 of the textbook The Process of Social Research.  You may note that later in the semester, we’ll touch on qualitative methods again — in regard to analysis, the process of making sense out of data that’s been gathered.  This week, we’re focusing on the process of gathering qualitative data in the first place.

It’s tempting to define qualitative research methods according to what they are not.  Quantitative research methods involve the measurement of the world through quantities, that is as numbers, either as counts of objects or counts of units for a particular object.  We could say that qualitative research is simply research that is not quantitative, that does not measure the world in terms of numbers.  We could say that, but such a declaration would be unfair to both qualitative and quantitative research methodology.

It’s not fair to say that qualitative methods is simply research involving non-numerical information because quantitative methods actually can be used to represent non-numerical ideas.  If we imagine interviews with five individuals about their favorite baseball teams, we could imagine that Lucy favors the Boston Red Sox, Linda admires the Kansas City Royals, David is a fan of the Chicago Cubs, Ignacio roots for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Marcia goes all-out for the Chicago Cubs.  The above sentence contains two kinds of non-numerical information, on name and favored team. A quantitative researcher would typically handle this non-numerical information by converting it into a numerical form.  Unique names may have numerical identification numbers associated with them, and different teams of which people may be fans may be reconceptualized as a series of categories:

Name Person ID Red Sox fan Royals fan Cubs fan Blue Jays fan
Lucy 1 1 0 0 0
Linda 2 0 1 0 0
David 3 0 0 1 0
Ignacio 4 0 0 0 1
Marcia 5 0 0 1 0

It’s also not fair to qualitative methods to simply characterize them in the left-over category of methods that don’t work with numbers.  Qualitative methods are more than what quantitative methods are not.  Indeed, just as the word “quantitative” has its roots in the word “quantity,” the word qualitative has its roots in the classical philosophical idea of “qualia.”  Qualia are the properties of internal experience that we have as conscious people.  The experience of pain, the feeling of love, the sense of self are all qualia.  To say you are interested in understanding qualia as a social science researcher, this to say you are seeking to understand the way people experience the social world around them.

This is a very different methodological vantage point from the quantitative.  While quantitative approaches seek to find a way to make measurements that are reliable based on criteria that are visible outside the individual, qualitative approaches draw on observations of the experience of individuals from inside themselves.  Quantitative approaches are typically nomothetic and deductive, meaning that they develop general theories of how the world works, state predictions based on theories as hypotheses, then test hypotheses with observation of a limited set of variables.  In contrast, qualitative approaches are more often idiographic and inductive, probing deep to understand what makes a particular social situation distinct and different from others, not general or the same.  In qualitative study, meaning lies within the situation being studied, and it is the role of the qualitative researcher to pay attention and listen to the accounts of those who live in that situation.  While for quantitative social scientists reality is like a machine in which certain inputs lead to certain outputs, for qualitative social scientists reality is like a text with a meaning to be decoded.  If quantitative researchers ask questions, they tend to be directed toward the collection of specific variables.  Qualitative researchers ask open questions that may describe a subject but leave it up to a participant to decide how best to think about the question and how best to go about answering it.


The Fundamentals of Qualitative Research Methods

If you are developing a research proposal or participating in a group research project that is fundamentally qualitative, it is important to know how to frame your research questions, how to develop a strategy for interviewing or observing others, and how to turn your collected observations into a coherent set of findings.

As a quantitative researcher myself, it would be inappropriate of me to portray myself in video or text as an expert on qualitative research — but Dr. Leslie Curry of the Yale School of Public Health is such an expert.  Dr. Curry has created a brief yet encyclopedic set of videos to walk newcomers to qualitative research through that process, and for this week I would like you to consider her a special guest lecturer.  An editorial note, however: it appears that the video’s quote “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” should be attributed to sociologist William Bruce Cameron, not physicist Albert Einstein.

DIY Activity #6: Observation, Inference and the Field

This week’s DIY Activity is drawn from Dixon et al.’s The Process of Social Research exercises for Chapter 9 (p. 287).

This week, I’d like you to engage in covert, unobtrusive observation of social behavior in a public setting. Select a public setting in which an individual taking notes in a notebook would not be considered out of place.  A cafe or cafeteria, coffee shop, library or university lounge would qualify as possible spots for observation.  Your task is to describe how people use the space. Before you visit the public setting, you should plan how you will make observations and of what behaviors you will observe.  What are the conceptual dimensions of behavior to which you plan to pay attention?  What role will be played by space, time, action and relation?  What kind of notes do you plan to take?  What will you need to do in order to fit in?  If someone asks you what you are doing, how will you respond? Spend at least one hour in the location gathering observations.  The work you turn in should involve a vivid description of the setting and your observations within the setting, as well as your prior plans. Exercise some reflexivity by including description of your own experience engaging in this research. Finally, what preliminary trends have you noticed in this initial visit to a social setting? Turn in a word processing file to “DIY Activity #6: Observation, Inference and the Field” on Blackboard that documents all aspects of this work.

Problem Set #7

The seventh problem set in the Research Methods course is due at the end of this week.  As with the other problem sets, it is presented in the form of a test, but problem sets may be completed on an “open-book” basis: this means that you may refer to our textbook or course lecture when finding answers.  However, the answers you produce must be your own; no copying from sources outside of lectures or texts is permitted.  You may not directly or indirectly share your answers with other students.  Each problem set grade will be measured as the percentage of answers that are correct. You may make multiple attempts to complete this problem set, correcting your answers as you go.  My goal is for you to use this problem set to guide your learning rather than as a tool to take away points.  Diligence will be rewarded! 

Class Research Project, Step 2

This part of the class research project is due by the end of the day on November 5.

To complete this project, consider the variables listed below.  Each variable regards campaign signs, and each was suggested by at least one member of this class in Part I of the Class Research Project.  Drawing from the variables listed below, name three distinct research hypotheses regarding campaign signs.  Upload your hypotheses in the area of our course Blackboard page entitled “Class Research Project,” particularly in the area entitled “Class Research Project Part II.”

Variable Level of Measurement
Predominant Color Nominal
Ratio of width to height of sign Ratio
Variety of text most visible on sign Nominal
Is the office being run for visible on the sign? Nominal
Is the name of a town or district visible? Nominal
Is a candidate website indicated on the sign? Nominal
Sign background color Nominal
Presence of picture/graphic Nominal
Presence of text other than required text and name Nominal
Number of colors on the sign Ratio
Number of words on sign Ratio
Sign size (height and width measured in inches) Ratio
Font size Ratio
Font thickness (“bold,” “thick,” “thin”) Nominal
Number of different fonts on the sign Ratio
Material of sign Nominal
Number of images Ratio
Serif or non-serif font? Nominal
Size of candidate’s name Ratio
Are first and second name of candidate the same size? Nominal
Placement of sign Nominal
Presence of stars and stripes Nominal
Political party of candidate Nominal
Is candidate running for House or Senate? Nominal
Is the district rural or urban? Nominal
Is the candidate a legislative leader? Nominal
Gender of candidate Nominal

Extra Credit Opportunity

The midterm exams for this Research Methods class are still coming to me, and I look forward to grading them as soon as possible.  But how would you like to earn some extra credit on your exam, even before you know what your exam score might be?  Here’s how:

  1. Look at the list of Maine Legislative candidates below.
  2. For five points of extra credit, find me a picture of five of these candidates’ lawn signs.  Send me the picture as an image file via e-mail by November 8 (no late images accepted).  Indicate the specific source of the picture of the lawn sign. If you took the picture yourself, tell me so.
  3. For ten points of extra credit, find me a picture of ten of these candidates’ lawn signs.  Send me the picture as an image file via e-mail by November 8 (no late images accepted).  Indicate the specific source of the picture of the lawn sign. If you took the picture yourself, tell me so.
State Senate (SS) or House (SR) Candidate? District Political Party Last Name First Name
SS 1 Republican Guerrette Timothy
SS 1 Democratic Jackson Troy
SS 2 Democratic Carpenter Michael
SS 2 Republican Long Ricky
SS 4 Republican Davis Paul
SS 5 Republican Baber Brett
SS 5 Democratic Dill James
SS 6 Democratic Alley Rock
SS 7 Republican Langley Brian
SS 8 Republican Rosen Kimberley
SS 9 Democratic Gratwick Geoffrey
SS 10 Republican Cushing Andre
SS 11 Republican Thibodeau Michael
SS 12 Democratic Miramant David
SS 13 Democratic Johnson Christopher
SS 14 Republican Cutchen Bryan
SS 15 Democratic Dilts Henry
SS 15 Republican Katz Roger
SS 17 Republican Saviello Thomas
SS 18 Democratic Patrick John
SS 19 Democratic Chisari Joseph
SS 19 Republican Hamper James
SS 21 Democratic Libby Nathan
SS 22 Democratic Fochtmann Richard
SS 22 Republican Mason Garrett
SS 25 Republican Ladd C.
SS 26 Democratic Diamond G.
SS 26 Republican McDonald Ryan
SS 27 Green Independent Baker Seth
SS 27 Republican Pontius Adam
SS 28 Democratic Dion Mark
SS 28 Republican Usher Karen
SS 29 Independent MacAuslan Martha
SS 31 Republican Sevigny Timothy
SS 32 Republican Stone Matthew
SS 34 Republican Collins Ronald
SS 35 Democratic Hill Dawn
SR 1 Republican Pulchlopek Ronald
SR 3 Democratic Blume Lydia
SR 3 Republican Mantell Peter
SR 4 Republican Moulton Bradley
SR 5 Republican O’Connor Beth
SR 5 Democratic Plante Joshua
SR 6 Republican Gove Manley
SR 7 Democratic Howard Joachim
SR 8 Democratic Babbidge Christopher
SR 9 Republican Seavey H.
SR 10 Democratic Ingwersen Emily
SR 10 Republican Parry Wayne
SR 11 Democratic Fecteau Ryan
SR 13 Democratic Hogan George
SR 14 Republican Christenbury Jeffrey
SR 14 Independent Johnston Jacob
SR 15 Democratic O’Neil Margaret
SR 16 Republican Marean Donald
SR 16 Democratic Payne River
SR 17 Democratic Gibson Gerry
SR 17 Republican Prescott Dwayne
SR 18 Republican Frohloff Gordon
SR 18 Democratic Mastraccio Anne-Marie
SR 20 Democratic Lauzon Daniel
SR 21 Republican Sampson Heidi
SR 22 Democratic Fitzgerald Richard
SR 22 Republican Kinney Jonathan
SR 23 Republican Ordway Lester
SR 26 Republican Mattingly Matthew
SR 26 Democratic Terry Maureen
SR 27 Democratic McLean Andrew
SR 28 Democratic Caiazzo Christopher
SR 28 Republican Sirocki Heather
SR 29 Republican Vachon Karen
SR 30 Democratic Monaghan Kimberly
SR 31 Democratic Reckitt Lois
SR 32 Democratic Hamann Scott
SR 33 Republican Battle Kevin
SR 33 Democratic Fox Brad
SR 34 Democratic Gattine Andrew
SR 35 Democratic Bates Dillon
SR 36 Democratic Harlow Denise
SR 37 Democratic Farnsworth Richard
SR 38 Republican Loring Thomas
SR 38 Democratic Moonen Matthew
SR 39 Republican Doyle Peter
SR 39 Democratic Sylvester Michael
SR 40 Democratic Ross Rachel
SR 40 Republican Taylor Carol
SR 41 Republican Azzola James
SR 42 Republican Abercrombie Susan
SR 42 Democratic Collings Benjamin
SR 43 Republican Langholtz Jeffrey
SR 44 Republican Diamond Kimberly
SR 44 Democratic Pierce Teresa
SR 45 Republican Timmons Michael
SR 46 Republican Chace Paul
SR 47 Democratic Cooper Janice
SR 48 Democratic Gideon Sara
SR 48 Republican Schulz Paul
SR 49 Democratic Daughtry Matthea
SR 49 Republican Stevens Michael
SR 50 Democratic Tucker Ralph
SR 53 Republican Pierce Jeffrey
SR 54 Republican Lyons Ruth
SR 57 Democratic Gayton Nicholas
SR 57 Republican Wood Stephen
SR 58 Democratic Handy James
SR 58 Republican Roy Matthew
SR 59 Republican Chicoine Elliot
SR 60 Democratic Golden Jared
SR 60 Republican Padham Jeffery
SR 61 Republican Miller Stephen
SR 62 Republican Dickey Brandon
SR 62 Democratic Melaragno Gina
SR 67 Republican Austin Susan
SR 68 Republican Cebra Richard
SR 68 Democratic Powers Christine
SR 69 Republican Ginzler Phyllis
SR 71 Democratic Twitchell Michael
SR 71 Republican Winsor Tom
SR 72 Republican Dillingham Kathleen
SR 73 Democratic Coffman Cheryl
SR 73 Republican Herrick Lloyd
SR 74 Republican Cornelio Keith
SR 75 Democratic Buzzell James
SR 75 Republican Timberlake Jeffrey
SR 78 Democratic Nadeau Catherine
SR 79 Democratic Glowa John
SR 79 Republican Theriault Timothy
SR 80 Republican Bradstreet Richard
SR 81 Republican Hadley Milton
SR 81 Democratic Hickman Craig
SR 82 Republican Greenwood Randall
SR 83 Democratic Grant Gay
SR 84 Democratic Warren Charlotte
SR 85 Democratic Doore Donna
SR 86 Republican Pouliot Matthew
SR 87 Republican Hanley Jeffery
SR 88 Republican Sanderson Deborah
SR 89 Independent Wolf Wendy
SR 90 Democratic Devin Michael
SR 91 Republican Simmons Abden
SR 93 Republican Robishaw Donald
SR 96 Democratic Zeigler Stanley
SR 97 Democratic Herbig Erin
SR 98 Democratic Cuddy Scott
SR 98 Republican Gillway James
SR 99 Republican Kinney MaryAnne
SR 100 Republican Fredette Kenneth
SR 101 Democratic Davitt James
SR 102 Democratic Hammill Kimberly
SR 103 Republican Reed Roger
SR 103 Democratic Thomas Richard
SR 104 Democratic Pearson David
SR 104 Republican Wallace Raymond
SR 105 Democratic Hartford Joshua
SR 106 Democratic Short Stanley
SR 106 Republican Strom Scott
SR 107 Independent Pelletier Michael
SR 108 Republican Picchiotti John
SR 109 Democratic Longstaff Thomas
SR 110 Republican Andre Mark
SR 110 Democratic Madigan Colleen
SR 113 Democratic Landry H.
SR 114 Republican Black Russell
SR 114 Democratic Iverson Guy
SR 115 Democratic Madigan John
SR 116 Republican Pickett Richard
SR 118 Democratic Estabrook Philip
SR 118 Republican Grignon Chad
SR 120 Democratic Evans Richard
SR 120 Republican Higgins Norman
SR 122 Democratic Dunphy Michelle
SR 122 Republican Paradis Edward
SR 123 Republican Brann Ryan
SR 123 Democratic Tipping-Spitz Ryan
SR 124 Democratic Frey Aaron
SR 124 Republican LaPointe Daniel
SR 125 Unenrolled Independent Turcotte Michael
SR 126 Democratic Schneck John
SR 127 Republican Veilleux John
SR 128 Republican Craig Garrel
SR 128 Democratic Verow Arthur
SR 130 Republican Campbell Richard
SR 131 Democratic Caldwell Dorothy
SR 133 Democratic Chapman Ralph
SR 134 Democratic Kumiega Walter
SR 135 Democratic Hubbell Brian
SR 135 Republican Marshall Maurice
SR 137 Democratic Fogelman Laurie
SR 138 Democratic Alley Robert
SR 138 Republican Doak Peter
SR 139 Democratic Morton Colleen
SR 140 Democratic Perry Anne
SR 141 Democratic Griffin Robert
SR 141 Republican Turner Beth
SR 142 Democratic Betz Lee Ann
SR 142 Republican Hanington Sheldon
SR 143 Republican Perkins Debbi
SR 143 Democratic Stanley Stephen
SR 144 Republican Sherman Roger
SR 145 Democratic Hines Glenn
SR 145 Non-Party Rockwell Randy
SR 147 Democratic Saucier Robert
SR 151 Democratic Martin John

Ready? Set? Go!

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