Qualitative Data – Strengths and Limitations

A summary of the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and weaknesses of qualitative data sources such as unstructured interviews, participant observation and documents.

Examples of Qualitative Data

  • Open question questionnaires
  • Unstructured interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Public and private documents such as newspapers and letters.

Theoretical strengths

  • Better validity than for quantitative data
  • More insight (Verstehen)
  • More in-depth data
  • More respondent-led, avoids the imposition problem.
  • Good for exploring issues the researcher knows little about.
  • Preferred by Interpretivists

Practical strengths

  • A useful way of accessing groups who don’t like formal methods/ authority

Ethical strengths

  • Useful for sensitive topics
  • Allows respondents to ‘speak for themselves’
  • Treats respondents as equals

Theoretical limitations

  • Difficult to make comparisons
  • No useful for finding trends, finding correlations.
  • Typically small samples, low representativeness
  • Low reliability as difficult to repeat the exact context of research.
  • Subjective bias of researcher may influence data (interviewer bias)
  • Disliked by Positivists

Practical limitations

  • Time consuming
  • Expensive per person researched compared to qualitative data
  • Difficult to gain access (PO)
  • Analyzing data can be difficult

Ethical limitations

  • Close contact means more potential for harm
  • Close contact means more difficult to guarantee anonymity and confidentiality
  • Informed consent can be an issue with PO.

Nature of Topic – When would you use it, when would you avoid using it?

  • Useful for complex topics you know little about
  • Not necessary for simple topics.

Signposting

This post has been written as a revision summary for students revising the research methods aspect of A-level sociology.

More in-depth versions of qualitative data topics can be found below…

Covert and Covert Participant Observation  

The strengths and limitations of covert participant observation 

Interviews in Social Research 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology 

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