Cover Page



CHAPTER 1 Developing contextual research that matters

Overview and introduction

Three core qualitative concepts: self-reflexivity, context, and thick description

A phronetic approach: doing qualitative research that matters

Foci of qualitative research

Moving from ideas to sites, settings, and participants

EXERCISE 1.1 Field/site brainstorm

CONSIDER THIS 1.1 Sources of research ideas

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 1.1 Feasibility challenges with hidden populations

TIPS AND TOOLS 1.1 Factoring the ease of fieldwork

Moving toward a research question

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 1.2 Published examples of research questions


In summary

EXERCISE 1.2 Three potential field sites

CHAPTER 2 Entering the conversation of qualitative research

The nature of qualitative research

CONSIDER THIS 2.1 Why am I standing in line?

EXERCISE 2.1 Action vs. structure

Key characteristics of the qualitative research process

Key definitions and territories of qualitative research

Historical matters

In summary

EXERCISE 2.2 Research problems and questions

CHAPTER 3 Paradigmatic reflections and theoretical foundations

CONSIDER THIS 3.1 A paradigm parable


EXERCISE 3.1 Verstehen/understanding

CONSIDER THIS 3.2 Whose stylistic rules?

Paradigmatic complexities and intersections

EXERCISE 3.2 Paradigmatic approaches

Theoretical approaches that commonly use qualitative methods

CONSIDER THIS 3.3 How do i know myself?

In summary

CHAPTER 4 Fieldwork and fieldplay

A participant observation primer

Knock, knock, knocking on participants’ doors: negotiating access

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 4.1 Contact information log

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 4.2 Sample access proposal

Abandoning the ego, engaging embodiment, embracing liminality

EXERCISE 4.1 Self-identity audit

Navigating those first few visits

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 4.3 Initial reactions speak volumes

TIPS AND TOOLS 4.1 Participant observation tips

Exploratory methods

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 4.4 Participant information table

EXERCISE 4.2 Map and narrative tour

In summary

CHAPTER 5 Proposal writing

Getting started with institutional review

The IRB proposal: rationale, instruments, informed consent, and confidentiality

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 5.1 Participant consent letter

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 5.2 Gatekeeper permission letter

Different levels of IRB review

The quirks of IRB

Creating the scholarly research proposal

TIPS AND TOOLS 5.1 Research proposal components

TIPS AND TOOLS 5.2 What belongs in a qualitative methods section?

TIPS AND TOOLS 5.3 What to include in a qualitative project budget

In summary

CHAPTER 6 Field roles, fieldnotes, and field focus

Field roles and standpoints of participant observation

CONSIDER THIS 6.1 Why “playing” = learning

CONSIDER THIS 6.2 When playing is uncomfortable

Writing fieldnotes

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 6.1 Fieldnote header

CONSIDER THIS 6.3 Noticing the data as evidence

TIPS AND TOOLS 6.1 Fieldnote writing tips

Focusing the data and using heuristic devices


EXERCISE 6.1 Fieldnotes

In summary

CHAPTER 7 Interview planning and design

CONSIDER THIS 7.1 Yin and yang: taijitu

The value of interviews

EXERCISE 7.1 Self-reflexive interviewing

Who, what, where, how, and when: developing a sampling plan

TIPS AND TOOLS 7.1 Sampling plans

Interview structure, type, and stance

TIPS AND TOOLS 7.2 Interview structure, types and stances

Creating the interview guide

EXERCISE 7.2 Strategizing interviews

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 7.1 Research questions versus interview questions

TIPS AND TOOLS 7.3 Interview question types

EXERCISE 7.3 Interview guide

In summary

CHAPTER 8 Interview practice

Negotiating access for interviews

Conducting face-to-face interviews

Technologically mediated approaches to interviewing

TIPS AND TOOLS 8.1 Mediated interviews: advantages and disadvantages

The focus-group interview

TIPS AND TOOLS 8.2 Planning a focus group

Overcoming common focus group and interviewing challenges

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 8.1 Remedial–pedagogical interviews

EXERCISE 8.1 Role-playing interview challenges in a fishbowl


TIPS AND TOOLS 8.3 Common transcribing symbols

In summary

CHAPTER 9 Data analysis basics

Organizing and preparing the data

Analysis logistics: colors, cutting or computers?

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 9.1 Manual coding visual display

Data immersion and primary-cycle coding

Focusing the analysis and creating a codebook

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 9.2 Codebook excerpt

CONSIDER THIS 9.1 Focusing the data analysis

Secondary-cycle coding: second-level analytic and axial/hierarchical coding

Synthesizing and making meaning from codes

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 9.3 Analytic memos

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 9.4 Loose analysis outline


In summary

EXERCISE 9.1 Iterative analysis basics

CHAPTER 10 Advanced data analysis

Computer-aided qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS)

Advanced approaches for analyzing qualitative data

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 10.1 Table for organizing dissertation findings

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 10.2 Matrix display

TIPS AND TOOLS 10.1 Flowchart depicting iterative analysis process

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 10.3 Micro, meso, macro sources


In summary

EXERCISE 10.1 Advanced data analysis/interpretation

CHAPTER 11 Qualitative quality

The criteria controversy

TIPS AND TOOLS 11.1 Eight “big-tent” criteria for excellent qualitative research

Worthy topic

Rich rigor

EXERCISE 11.1 Gauging worth and rigor


RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 11.1 Sincerity word cloud


TIPS AND TOOLS 11.2 Inter-coder reliability


Significant contribution

EXERCISE 11.2 Gauging significance

Ethical research practice

CONSIDER THIS 11.1 Recruiting difficult populations

CONSIDER THIS 11.2 Situational and relational ethics

Meaningful coherence


CONSIDER THIS 11.3 The ten lies of ethnography

In summary

CHAPTER 12 Writing Part 1

Types of tales

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 12.1 Poetic inquiry

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 12.2 Dialogue as a powerful literary tactic

The archeology of a qualitative essay

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 12.3 Methods data display

EXERCISE 12.1 Which writing strategy?


In summary

CHAPTER 13 Writing Part 2

Writing to inquire

How to write qualitative evidence

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 13.1 Visual representation

Setting yourself up for success by considering the audience first

EXERCISE 13.1 Article format model

TIPS AND TOOLS 13.1 Journals that have published qualitative communication research

Submitting, revising, and resubmitting for journal publication

Git R done: overcoming common writing and submission challenges

TIPS AND TOOLS 13.2 Steps for writing an ethnography


In summary

CHAPTER 14 Qualitative methodology matters

Navigating exit from the scene

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 14.1 Thank you note

Ethically delivering the findings


Moving toward research representations with public impact

RESEARCHER’S NOTEPAD 14.2 Staged performance with impact

EXERCISE 14.1 Making an impact via public scholarship


In summary

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C



About the website

This text has a comprehensive companion website which features resources for instructors and students alike.



Please visit to access these materials.


I dedicate this book to all my past students, research participants, mentors, and colleagues
who have taught me that anything worth doing well is worth doing badly in the beginning.


Is this book for me?

As I’ve developed this book on qualitative methodology, I’ve consistently kept in mind Bud Goodall’s (2000) suggestion in Writing the New Ethnography that good writing engages the reader as a participative audience. A good read is dialogic and creates space for a conversation. The reader of this book will ultimately be its judge. But, before we begin, I want to share several ways this book and my experience may be of value in your own qualitative journey.

This book takes a “praxis”-centered approach. Stanley Deetz, my advisor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, first turned me on to the idea of problem-centered analyses as a method for doing research that matters (consider Deetz, 2009). Since then, I have written about problem-focused research, and colleagues at Arizona State University have further motivated me to value public scholarship that can improve or transform life for everyday people. Similarly, and as informed by the recent move toward positive scholarship, another poignant starting place comes through examining how positive issues like passion, energy, compassion, or resilience may be constructed and maintained.

This approach has laid the groundwork for my researching a variety of contexts and writing in a range of styles. My home field of speech communication, like many disciplines, is marked by paradigmatic arguments about whether the best and most valid research comes from counting or narrating. Even those who live squarely in the qualitative camp find other issues to debate – definitions of terminology, whether telling stories about ourselves is a valid way to do research, how we should best write or perform our research, and so on.

Some students may not know or care to know about these controversies. However, others view their choice of research method as a decision laden with political ramifications. The book covers paradigmatic debates. However, in what may be of greater interest and value, my advice comes from the standpoint of someone who has practiced a variety of approaches. I will spend more time focusing on what methods will impact the issue at hand than discussing whether one methodological brand is inherently better than another. Indeed, I think researchers can successfully practice a variety of approaches to qualitative methods. My research includes journal articles in traditional deductive form, but also creative nonfictions and performance scripts for the stage. I have fruitfully worked with colleagues who specialize in autoethno­graphic performance texts as well as with those who use qualitative methods as a complement to their grant-funded quantitative research.

Good qualitative scholarship is rigorous, interesting, practical, aesthetic, and ethical. Of course, sometimes not all the aims can be equally achieved in the same piece. The aspects of research that should be most highlighted may largely depend on the audience – whether that is a group of scholars, of employees, or of artists. Here I provide a big-tent approach to evaluating qualitative quality, one that can help students strive for high-quality qualitative methods despite their paradigmatic approach. Further, I provide a detailed step-by-step explanation of qualitative data gathering, writing, and analysis.

Indeed, another aim of the book is to fill a gap in terms of data analysis. This book provides a ­step-by-step explanation of analysis in commonsense terms, understandable both to newcomers and to those well versed in the practice. My focus on data analysis has developed through discussions I have had with a variety of qualitative methods experts over the years – people including Bud Goodall, Robin Clair, Amira DeLaGarza, Carolyn Ellis, Larry Frey, Patricia Geist Martin, Bob Krizek, Bryan Taylor, and Nick Trujillo. We have discussed a number of joys and challenges associated with teaching qualitative research in the communication discipline. We have also agreed that our students have a wealth of available pedagogical resources on how best to design qualitative research, gather qualitative data through interviews, focus groups, and fieldnotes, and write up the research report. However, as a community, qualitative researchers could better communicate and teach the qualitative data analysis process. Indeed students often complain that they need more instruction on what happens in between the time they collect the data and the time they write it into a polished research report. In other words, little explicit instruction exists that clearly delineates a variety of systematic data analysis practices.

The book is designed to be accessible to advanced undergraduate students, yet provide enough metho­dological detail to be helpful to graduate students and advanced scholars. I try to convey methodological information in an easy to understand and engaging manner. People are more attracted to reading something that has a plot line, and they best retain information in the form of narratives. Hence, in the course of discussing the building blocks of qualitative research methods, I share my own joys and frustrations. By sharing these stories – marked as they are by twists and turns, celebrations and disappointments – I aim to make the research process poignant, interesting, real, and occasionally humorous.

This book is appropriate for a variety of disciplines and classes. My examples rely heavily on interdisciplinary communication scholarship, but the qualitative methods described here also apply to students and scholars in numerous other fields, such as management, sociology, psychology, education, social work, justice studies, and ethnic and gender studies. The book is appropriate for college courses that appear under course names such as research methods, qualitative research methods, ethnography, ethnographic methods, critical research methods, interpretive research, grounded approaches to research, naturalistic inquiry, autoethnography, performance studies, narrative research methods, and field methods. And, although this book is designed primarily for an academic audience, practitioners wishing to engage in qualitative research to solve organizational and societal dilemmas may also find good advice within these pages.

I should note that, although this book presents unique aspects, its format is similar to that of some of the most popular qualitative books on the market. Therefore it should be fairly easy to adopt and transition into. The book is an all-inclusive treatment that leads readers through a qualitative research project from beginning to end. It can be adapted both to one-semester/quarter and to two-semester/quarter classes. Furthermore, although the book includes a story of myself as researcher (and therefore it differs from a “manual”), it need not be read from cover to cover in order to be useful. A summary of the chapters is as follows:

Along the way, I include recurring text boxes. These highlight activities and assignments labeled “Exercise,” examples and narratives stored under “Consider this,” practical “Tips and tools,” and data excerpts or experiences called “Researcher’s notepad.” Some of these boxes are written in the words of other scholars and students – words in which they talk about their particular experiences. The text boxes provide a break and encourage reader engagement and activity along the way.

Furthermore, I intermittently include sections called “Following, Forgetting, and Improvising.” Practicing any interpretive art requires learning the “rules” first, and only then playing with them and improvising. I suggest ways in which researchers might fruitfully improvise with qualitative best practices, or in some cases forget them altogether. Like in all dialectics, the paradox of “following, then forgetting” qualitative best practices is not something that can be solved or resolved. But, by discussing the tension, we can manage it rather than being trapped by it. There’s no easy way out; but there are better ways of navigating than others. I hope this book can serve as a guide.

Finally, an accompanying website with teaching manual materials is available with the book. Materials include:

These materials will help those who are new to teaching qualitative research methods: they’ll be up and running in no time. For experienced instructors, they may serve as a supplement and launching pad for new pedagogical options.


Let me close by offering some acknowledgments. I am blessed to have worked with a host of good ­mentors and colleagues. You’ll see me repeat some of their advice verbatim; and, where I do not, remnants and iterations of their wisdom are indelibly stamped upon the guidance offered here. I am indebted to Bryan Taylor, my ethnography ­instructor at University of Colorado-Boulder and co-author of Qualitative Communication Research Methods – his coauthored book on qualitative methods, now in its third edition (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011). Hopefully, the book in your hand can serve as a ­complement and extension to the pearls of wisdom I first read years ago and have since used in my teaching so many times.

I also am thankful to other mentors at University of Colorado-Boulder. Stanley Deetz offered me ­invaluable insight on examining the larger structures that liberate and constrain everyday practices and talk. Karen Tracy trained me in close discourse ­analysis and helped me forge an entrée to my first field project with 911 call-takers. Margaret Eisenhart, in the School of Education, ­provided a cross-­disciplinary examination of ethnography and ­introduced me to the multiple ways in which cultures can be envisaged, approached, and studied. Bob Craig introduced me to grounded ­practical theory, and this informs my phronetic problem-based approach to ­qualitative methodology (Tracy, 2002a). Furthermore, Brenda Allen, George Cheney, Sally Planalp, and Phil Tompkins have served as ­wonderful friends and life-long mentors.

Colleagues in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and throughout Arizona State University have also contributed to the development of this book. Jennifer Scarduzio and Elizabeth Eger have been instrumental in editing, developing teacher manual materials, creating the ­glossary of terms, and reference checking. Additionally, Shawna Malvini Redden, Kendra Rivera, Lisi Willner, Scott Parr, Desiree Rowe, Karen Stewart, Timothy Huffman, Deborah Way, Amy Pearson, Ragan Fox, Kurt Lindemann, Miriam Sobre-Denton, Amy Way, and Emily Cripe – among many former COM 609 students – have provided excellent input.

I feel thankful to Patricia Geist-Martin and her students, who “test ran” the book. Bud Goodall ­provided extensive internal reviews, Kory Floyd book-writing advice, Larry Frey an invaluable ­qualitative reference list, and Angela Trethewey buoyed the project. Furthermore, local colleagues Amira De La Garza, Johnny Saldaña, and Michael Shafer have provided support along the way.

Additionally, I feel indebted to Wiley-Blackwell acquisitions editor Elizabeth Swayze. Over coffee at multiple scholarly conventions, and numerous emails, Elizabeth ­persuaded me that this would be a good project. Along the way, she and her Wiley-Blackwell team – and especially Amanda Banner, Ginny Graham, Simon Eckley, Julia Kirk, and Deirdre Ilkson – have provided support, patience, and promotion. I am also so appreciative of Kitty Bocking at Pixlink who found the perfect photos and Manuela Tecusan (and Hazel Harris, the project manager) for providing such timely, ­supportive, and expert copy-editing of the project. This book is a team effort and I am eternally grateful for your help with it.

Finally, I feel appreciative of my friends, ­colleagues, and family who provided encouragement, advice, and feedback. A special thanks to my family – Boyd, Malinda, Judi, Merl, Van, Julia, Zander and Lydia. My “mastermind sisters” Isa and Amy listened and helped me make sense of my ­misgivings and ­triumphs. Other friends – Belle, Dan, Alec, Catherine, Karen, Lori, Jess, and my entire Facebook family – encouraged me ­throughout the long journey. Most ­especially, thank you to Brad for being my patient cheerleader, for believing in me, and for providing much laughter, even as I spent way too many weekends writing in the casita. All of these people made the whole book-writing process not nearly as lonely as it would have been ­otherwise – which is important for a qualitative researcher who likes to spend time in the field playing with ­others, and not just behind the computer. May their joy and hope infuse these pages and motivate others as much as they ­motivated me.


Developing contextual research that matters

Overview and introduction
Three core qualitative concepts: self-reflexivity, context, and thick description
A phronetic approach: doing qualitative research that matters
Foci of qualitative research
Moving from ideas to sites, settings, and participants
Moving toward a research question
In summary

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words, “research methods?”

Many people never think explicitly about this question, and if they do, they think that research methods are difficult to learn and painstaking to conduct. However, you might be surprised to discover that you engage in research every day – and these methods not only provide important resources for understanding the world, but are actually a common and enjoyable way to spend our time.

We ask questions, listen to stories, watch others, participate in meetings, check our text messages, gossip, and engage in dialogue. In doing so, we gather qualitative data about social phenomena. Through talking to others we learn about their quirks, interests, pet peeves, and sense of humor. We learn about their culture. We think about these experiences, make patterns of meanings, and absorb the scene.

Simultaneously, share our own understandings in conversations, blog entries, and emails. In telling these stories we call out the most important players and evaluate their behavior. We do this to pass the time, interact, and have fun. But we also do it to understand the world and our place within it. We make sense through our talk, and our meaning making helps us know what to expect at future events. So, at a basic level, we all engage in research everyday. The focused study of research methods takes these everyday actions one step further: to a systematic analysis that may lead to better understandings – not only for us, but for others.

Overview and introduction

This book guides readers step by step through the qualitative methods process – research design, data collection, analysis, and creating a representation that can be shared with others, be that a class paper, a publication, a performance, a service portfolio, a website entry, or a letter to the editor. I will impart aspects of ­qualitative research I have found most methodologically sound, helpful, beautiful, fun, and interesting. I will also pause to discuss concepts that I have not practiced myself, but that are common in the field. This book offers guidance no matter whether you are a graduate student learning the basics of qualitative methods, an undergraduate completing a service project, a critical performance artist wishing to interrogate power relations, a rhetorician interested in ­complementing textual analysis, or a quantitative researcher hoping to augment statistical findings through qualitative insights.

Chapter 1 opens by introducing three central concepts that can jumpstart a qualitative project: self-reflexivity, ­context, and thick description. Next, I overview the unique, praxis-based, contextual approach of the book and how qualitative research is well poised for researching a number of disciplinary areas. Finally, I discuss the first steps in conducting a research project, including choosing a context and developing research questions.

Three core qualitative concepts: self-reflexivity, context, and thick description


Self-reflexivity refers to the careful consideration of the ways in which researchers’ past experiences, points of view, and roles impact these same researchers’ interactions with, and interpretations of, the research scene. Let’s examine this definition in more detail.

Every researcher has a point a view, an opinion, or a way of seeing the world. Some people call this “baggage”; others call it wisdom. Rather than deny our way of seeing and being in the world, qualitative researchers acknowledge, and even celebrate it. A person’s demographic information provides the basic ingredients of a researcher’s perspective. For example, I am female, white, heterosexual, forty-something, partnered, and an aunt. My work roles have included professor, public relations coordinator, and cruise ship activities director. I raced an “Ironman” triathlon, and I drive a Mini Cooper Clubman. I believe that success rewards virtuous action and that good research provides opportunities for transformation.

This background shapes my approach toward various topics and research in general. Likewise, your own background, values, and beliefs fundamentally shape the way you approach and conduct research. The mind and body of a qualitative researcher literally serve as research instruments – absorbing, sifting through, and interpreting the world through observation, participation, and interviewing. These are the analytical resources of our own “subjectivity.” Of course, our bodies and minds also live in a context.


Qualitative research is about immersing oneself in a scene and trying to make sense of it – whether at a company meeting, in a community festival, or during an interview. Qualitative researchers purposefully examine and make note of small cues in order to decide how to behave, as well as to make sense of the context and build larger knowledge claims about the culture.

Clifford Geertz, sometimes referred to as the father of interpretive anthropology, focused specifically on context, preferring to examine the field’s rich specificity. As Geertz (1973) famously put it: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (p. 5). Ethnographers construct meaning through immersion in a context comparable to that of scientific research – say, an experimental laboratory study – that isolates variables and controls circumstances, so that findings can be replicated.

Indeed qualitative researchers believe that the empirical and theoretical resources needed to comprehend a particular idea, or to predict its future trajectory, are themselves interwoven with, and throughout, the context. Social theories are based in the ever-changing, biased, and contextualized social conditions of their production. So, for example, we can read detailed analyses of inner-city poverty and glean emergent theories of social justice from these rich evocations.

Thick description

Directly related to context is the idea of thick description, according to which researchers immerse themselves in a culture, investigate the particular circumstances present in that scene, and only then move toward grander statements and theories. Meaning cannot be divorced from this thick contextual description. For instance, without a context, a person’s winking could mean any number of things, including that the person is flirting, is trying to communicate secretly, has an uncontrollable facial twitch, or is imitating someone else’s twitch (Geertz, 1973). The meaning of the wink comes precisely from the complex specificity and the circumstances that inform interpretations of intention; “The aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics” (p. 28).

By describing the background and context of action, researchers can decipher a twitch and tell it apart from a wink and from a parody of a wink – and they may interpret the meaning(s) of all these gestures and help predict whether we are likely to see the behavior again. This process of interpretation is dependent upon the scene’s particulars. This being the case, context provides a central role for qualitative research, while a priori theory takes a back seat. Given the focus on context, the driving force of much qualitative research is practical in nature.

A phronetic approach: doing qualitative research that matters

I take a praxis-based or “phronetic” approach to research (Tracy, 2007). This approach suggests that qualitative data can be systematically gathered, organized, interpreted, analyzed, and communicated so as to address real world concerns. I suggest that researchers begin their research process by identifying a particular issue, problem, or dilemma in the world and then proceed to systematically interpret the data in order to provide an analysis that sheds light on the issue and/or opens a path for possible social transformation. Doing “use-inspired” (Stokes, 1997) contextual research is especially well suited for service learning, socially embedded research, public intellectualism, funded projects, and community partnerships.

What is phronetic research? The ancient Greek noun phronēsis is generally translated as ‘prudence’ or ‘practical wisdom’ (Aristotle, 2004). Phronēsis is concerned with contextual knowledge that is interactively constructed, action oriented and imbued with certain values (Cairns & Śliwa, 2008). Research conducted under its guidance serves “to clarify and deliberate about the problems and risks we face and to outline how things may be done differently, in full knowledge that we cannot find ultimate answers to these questions or even a single version of what the questions are” (Flyvbjerg, 2001, p. 140). This approach assumes that perception comes from a specific (self-reflexive) subject position and that the social and historical roots of an issue precede individual motivations and actions. It also assumes that communication produces identity for the researchers as well as for those researched, and that it generates knowledge that benefits some more than others. Qualitative methods are especially suited for examining phronetic questions about morality and values. Social action is always changing; therefore contextual explanations and situated meanings are integral to ongoing sensemaking.

Strengths of qualitative research

Through a phronetic approach that focuses on self-reflexivity, context, and thick description, qualitative research has a number of advantages as a research method. First, many researchers – especially young scholars who do not have the luxury of comfy offices or high-tech laboratories – are all too happy to escape their shared apartments and cramped graduate school offices and venture into the field. This may be why so many excellent ethnographies are conducted by people under the age of 30. As Goffman (1989) said about naturalistic field research: “You’re going to be an ass… And that’s one reason why you have to be young to do fieldwork. It’s harder to be an ass when you are old” (p. 128).

Second, qualitative research is excellent for studying contexts you are personally curious about but have never before had a “valid” reason for entering. Third, in addition to personal interest or disciplined voyeurism, qualitative data provide insight into cultural activities that might otherwise be missed in structured surveys or experiments.

Fourth, qualitative research can uncover salient issues that can later be studied using more structured methods. Indeed field research may lead to close and trusting relationships that encourage a level of disclosure unparalleled in self-reports or snapshot examinations of a scene. Such work has the potential to provide insight about marginalized, stereotyped, or unknown populations – a peek into regularly guarded worlds, and an opportunity to tell a story that few know about. Such was the case with Lindemann’s (2007) work with homeless street vendors who sell newspapers in San Francisco to survive.

Fifth, qualitative research is especially well suited for accessing tacit, taken-for-granted, intuitive understandings of a culture. Rather than merely asking about what people say they do, researching in context provides an opportunity to see and hear what people actually do. Rather than relying on participants’ espoused values, we come to understand participants’ values-in-use (Schein, 2004) and how they live out these values on a daily basis. The more researchers become immersed in the scene, the more they can make second-order interpretations – meaning that researchers construct explanations for the participants’ explanations.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, good qualitative research helps people to understand the world, their society, and its institutions. Qualitative methodology can provide knowledge that targets societal issues, questions, or problems and therefore serves humankind. In summary, qualitative research:

In short, qualitative methods are appropriate and helpful for achieving a variety of research goals – either on their own or in a complementary relationship with other research methods.

Foci of qualitative research

Qualitative research can be found in a range of disciplines and topic areas. The annual Congress for Qualitative Inquiry held at the University of Illinois regularly boasts representation from over 40 disciplines and 55 nations. This involvement serves as a testament to the global reach and cross-disciplinary popularity of qualitative methods.

Understanding the self

Critical self-examination offers one important context for qualitative research. Autoethnography is an autobiographical genre of writing that connects the analysis of one’s own identity, culture, feelings, and values to larger societal issues. Jago (2002), for instance, undertakes a powerful examination of mental illness and academic life in critically examining her own “academic depression.” Goodall (2006) takes readers along on his own journey of understanding the secrets of his family life and of his father’s cloaked career in the Central Intelligence Agency. Ellis (2008) chronicles personal life loss and trauma by constructing “narrative snapshots” and compiling them together, in a manner akin to that of a video or text in motion.

Qualitative researchers frequently consider their own personal stories or experiences as spaces for further exploration, examination, and representation. A particular joy, tragedy, or experience is especially fruitful for study if it is rare or understudied, if it connects up with larger social narratives, or if current research on the topic is lacking in personal standpoint. Focusing on the micro-events of one’s own life can also provide important lessons about larger societal structures and problems. Through a vivid focus on power and justice, autoethnography can improve social conditions and unpack the personal implications of difficult issues – such as abortion (Minge, 2006) or eating disorders (Tillmann-Healy, 1996).

Understanding relationships

Qualitative research can also provide important insight into interpersonal relation­ships. Through interviews and participant observation, researchers examine romantic partnerships, friendships, customer-service encounters, superior–subordinate and doctor–patient relationships (Real, Bramson, & Poole, 2009), learning why people engage in such relationships, the way their interactions emerge and change, and how they evidence their feelings for each other. For example, Vande Berg and Trujillo (2008) bravely told their final love story in Cancer and death: A love story in two voices. Erbert and Alemán (2008) interviewed grandparents about the tensions of surrogate parenting. Qualitative studies can also illuminate the “dark side” of relationships, including conflict, emotional abuse, and deviance (Olson, Daggs, Ellevold, & Rogers, 2007).

Much qualitative research is itself relational, in that data are gathered by using one-to-one interactions between researcher and participants. For example, Ellis (2010) interviewed holocaust survivors and their children and in doing so explored what happens when the interviewer and the interviewee jointly construct the meaning of an historical event. Such methods provide an opportunity for learning “what it feels like” to be in one of these relationships.

Understanding groups and organizations

Families, work groups, sports teams, clubs, support circles, or volunteers are often the topics of qualitative research. For example, Adelman and Frey (1997) volunteered at the Bonaventure House facility for people living with AIDS and studied how communication practices mediate the tension between individual clients’ needs and the groups’ need for a community. Other qualitative research on groups covers topics such as the shared ideology espoused in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (Right, 1997), the communication dialectics in a community theater troupe (Kramer, 2004) and coping processes in post-divorce families (Afifi, Hutchinson, & Krouse, 2006).

Organizational studies are replete with qualitative accounts of a wide variety of topics: gender, power, leadership, followership, socialization – and more. These come in the form of the famous Harvard Business School Case Studies – detailed narratives of business situations describing typical management dilemmas and no obvious right answers – as well as in a myriad of other examinations of organizational culture (Tracy & Geist-Martin, in press).

Some qualitative researchers become full participants in the organization – as employees, interns, or volunteers (Murphy, 1998). Other researchers gain enough access to attend meetings and generally to hang out (Ashcraft, 2001). Meanwhile, others conduct qualitative research that speaks to hot-button issues like sexual harassment – and they do it by interviewing stakeholders (Scarduzio & Geist-Martin, 2008) or by textually examining emails, training materials, or news articles (Lyon & Mirivel, 2011).

Contexts of organizational qualitative study may include profit-making organizations (Nike, Disneyland), governmental institutions (prisons, institutions in a military context), nonprofit organizations (Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross), educational contexts, hospitals, or churches. Qualitative studies provide an insider’s view on organizing – through examining meetings, power lunches, water-cooler chat, and after-hours parties.

Understanding cultures

Qualitative research is useful for understanding a range of societal issues that arise from particular cultural contexts (Drew, 2001; Covarrubias, 2002; LaFever, 2007). For example, in order to better understand tourist (mis)behavior, Schneider-Bean (2008) coupled the qualitative analysis of promotional material related to tourism with the on-site study of exotic vacation spots.

The qualitative analysis of today’s stories and yesterday’s historical documents is integral to understanding significant societal events such as social movements (Pompper, Lee, & Lerner, 2009). For instance, Haskins (2007) examined how people across the globe catalogued and wrote their own views of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and by the same move uncovered how cultural members narrate their own history.

Furthermore, issues such as ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation can be understood, critiqued, and transformed through contextual studies that examine how demographic categories are ever-changing and communicatively constituted (Trethewey, 2001). For instance, Lindemann and Cherney (2008) coupled a field study of quadriplegic rugby players with an analysis of the movie “Murderball,” providing a fascinating examination of masculinity and disability.

Understanding mediated and virtual contexts

Finally, qualitative research is increasingly being used to study virtual and mediated contexts. Romantic relationships and the “hook-up” culture can be analyzed through websites such as Match.Com, E-Harmony, Facebook, and MySpace. Forums and chat-rooms open a window into marginalized cultures – such as those of drugs, or those of extreme thinness (Murguía, Tackett-Gibson, & Lessem, 2007). The best way to gather data from students and to learn about their communication tactics may be through text-messaging. Personalized blogs and podcasts can give insight into a number of contemporary issues, for instance teenager self-presentation (Bortree, 2005). Online data may also provide access to illegal, blasphemous, or stigmatized activities that may otherwise be unavailable.

In short, although qualitative analysis is linked to some disciplinary areas more than to others, it is a research method that is increasingly being used by a variety of researchers across topical areas. As reviewed above, qualitative research is salient for the understanding of personal, relational, group, organizational, cultural, and virtual contexts in a range of different ways.

Moving from ideas to sites, settings, and participants

Some researchers choose a particular research site that fascinates them without knowing what to expect. For instance, researchers interested in medicine may hang out in a hospital’s waiting room, unsure of what exactly they will end up studying. Potential foci may include the flow of patients in the waiting room, or the frequency of buzzers, beeps, or announcements broadcast across the loudspeakers. This open-ended approach is particularly worthwhile for brand new researchers who are perfectly content studying “whatever happens.” Other researchers begin by studying a specific phenomenon, defined in advance by some grant priority or by the desire to advance a particular line of research. In such cases, first they determine what they want to focus on, and only then do they find a scene.

A middle option is an iterative approach (Miles & Huberman, 1994), in which the researcher alternates between considering existing theories and research interests on the one hand, emergent qualitative data on the other (see Figure 1.1