Examples of qualitative data
Updated: Sep 1
Qualitative data comes in all shapes and sizes.
While quantitative data usually just comes as numbers, qualitative data can be in many more formats, so it's useful to see some examples of what qualitative data can look like, and to use for practice while you learn analysis and before you collect your own data. It's sometime hard to find examples of qualitative data (often due to confidentiality issues) so we've put together some of our favourite resources to help, both textual and multi-media:
This is by far the most used form of qualitative data. Even when text is based on interviews and focus groups, having text helps with multiple close readings of the data, and creating codes and structure:
Transcripts The most common types of qualitative data are probably transcripts, usually from semi-structured interviews or focus groups. Even though these are usually recorded, giving audio or video data, most researchers create transcripts of these as they are quicker to read and skim read, and can be useful when using quotes to write up research later. If you want some transcripts to practice on, we have several example projects to work with. There is a very quick project on what people eat for breakfast, which gives you a quick introduction to short transcripts with example coded data sets. Then there is a new project interviewing academics about their careers in qualitative research. These are based on real transcripts from semi-structured interviews, so are a great example of what real qualitative data looks (and sounds) like.
It is interesting to see that not all transcripts are alike. For example, compare the transcript from an interview with the Rt. Hon. Lord Home of the Hirsel, with the transcript from Mrs Duckers. You can see the pauses and changes of direction that Mrs Duckers (who is defined in the project as Middle to Upper-class) takes, compared with the apparent flow of speech from the elite peer, Lord Home. Is this really how he spoke, or has the transcript been cleaned for ease of reading? These kinds of examples are great for practising discourse analysis.
Anna Einarsdottir et al's work to understand how employee LGBT+ networks run, shows transcripts from focus groups and organised meetings, along with video and observations.
Transcript summaries / interview notes and themed highlights Completely transcribing qualitative data is very time consuming, and depending on the project, not always necessary. Many people just write short notes from interviews or focus-groups, summaries of major points, or even just partial transcriptions. We will have some examples of these in our qualitative research academic project.
Paul Thompson's Pioneers of Social Research (1996-2018) was an extensive longitudinal project with transcribed interviews available from 25 influential qualitative researchers. He also produced Principle investigator's thematic highlights for each life story interview in the project. These are edited transcripts, but are still recognisably transcripts with minimal edit. You can compare it with the full transcript to see how it has been thematised.
Documents Analysing documents can be an important part of qualitative research, these might be policy analysis, or exploring the internal documents of organisations, such as meeting notes or strategy documents. For public records, examples are easy to come by - you could use the Hansard records for everything ever said in British Parliament or the House of Lords, and all UK policy documents here. The USA National Archives can be a wealth of official documents, all available to explore and contrast.
Secondary Data There are several public archives of qualitative data, and this can be an amazing resource for not just practising qualitative analysis of different data types, but also looking to see if you really need to collect more primary data, or add to existing data sets.
In the UK, QualiBank (part of the UK Data Service) has many projects, although you might need to apply for permission to access some of the more confidential data sets. In the USA, the Qualitative Data Repository hosted by Syracuse University is not quite as large at the moment, but is growing.
Diaries and scrapbooks Getting participants to keep diaries for research can be useful to collect both longitudinal, and in-depth accounts of people's lives. The Covid Realities project sought to document life on a low income during the pandemic, using online diaries and weekly video responses to questions posed by the research.
Social Media Studying opinions, trends and events through the lens of publicly posted comments in social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be a very revealing way to investigate social phenomenon. Although the data is qualitative in nature, it can be used quantitatively and qualitatively, and for social network analysis. It's easy to find examples of this kind of research, and collect data for yourself (either using a dedicated 'scraping' tool, or just copy-and-paste). However, these tend to be very short utterances, so don't discount the utility of looking at other ways of communicating on the internet, like message boards. Some really interesting findings have come out of research into the popular parenting board 'Mumsnet' for example.
The Covid Realities project also used Twitter to collect responses to weekly questions and participants diaries in their participatory research project.
Qualitative multi-media data
Audio Many qualitative projects will have talking and speaking, at least initially, represented by audio as the most important component. Actually hearing a participants voice (as compared with reading transcribed quotes) can convey rich detail beyond words, such as emotions, confidence, and much subtext that can otherwise be lost. It's sometimes hard to find real qualitative examples of semi-structured interviews and focus groups, but this audio record of an interview of a Mrs King, recorded in 1971 on a large reel-to-reel tape recorder, sounds just like it was recorded yesterday. It's an excerpt but still more than 2 hours long. Compare this with this YouTube video of an interview with Harry Goulbourne on 'Colour and Class in Jamaica, which is part of a series of audio records, (with a single image of Harry, rather than a video), each only a couple of minutes long.
It's not just spoken word; of course there is a long tradition of gathering songs and music in ethnomusicology, through music notation and audio records. And Ilona Krawczyk's, PhD thesis aims to provide a performer with tools empowering them to navigate their psychophysical process of embodying voice on stage. The data therefore consists of videos and sound files, with voice, music, soundscapes and physical performance.
Pictures / photo Pictures and photo have been used to illustrate examples of what is being described by researchers and observers well before the common use of cameras. They captured examples of dress, housing, and everyday life, or evidence of exceptional circumstance - just as we might collect now. Photos may be contemporaneous to the narrative, as in Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson's 1942, examination of cock-fighting in Balanese Character: a photographic analysis (Plummer, 2001), or historical artefacts examined with a contemporary gaze, such as Helen Dampier and Liz Stanley's 2008, examination of photographs of Boer women's wartime testimonies . Photographs and pictures as primary data will usually be collected alongside other forms of data, if only the field notes of the researcher, whether they be text or audio.
https://doc.ukdataservice.ac.uk/doc/4867/mrdoc/pdf/4867uguide.pdf Pahl's and and Lummis' user guides both include photo data.
The Blue Town High Street page, which is part of the Living and Working on Sheppey project, shows original photographs, drawings of buildings; the video shows how they have been used as data to develop a model for use as a layered interaction of people and place, in the project outputs.
Video Examples of qualitative video data are probably even harder to come by, however archives still have good sources. In this video Sylvia Yanagisako, interviews Sarah Pink, an early proponent of visual ethnography. Sometimes the video data is never designed to be an public output, or will be edited, but you can see raw video data in Ilona Krawczyk's project files. However, increasingly videos are produced by participants themselves, in the absence of the researcher, for example in video diary booths provided by the researcher, or posted directly online.
Focus groups are a very common qualitative data collection method, but difficult to understand the nuance of conducting and analysing them before you've done it yourself. And for qualitative research in academia, we are not talking about the sometimes very heavily moderated product feedback group sessions from marketing (parodied in Silicon Valley here). They are usually much more open-ended, with a lighter facilitator role, and more participant-to-participant discussion. These can increasingly be done over video chat, like this Zoom example here. Examples of this are difficult to find, but you can probably find one on a hobby or interest you love. For example I love this round table discussion with Oscar winning movie directors: there's a lot to observe, the egos, the complements, everyone has their own agenda and things they want to say, but sometimes they all agree - like when they agree the best action sequence in movie history is the one in Wallace and Gromit.
Helen Dampier and Liz Stanley (2008) Parallel Narratives? Photographs in Boer Women’s Wartime Testimonies. In: Narrative and Fiction: an Interdisciplinary Approach. University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, pp. 9-23. http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/4820/ [accessed Jan 26 2022]
Einarsdottir, Anna and Mumford, Karen and Birks, Yvonne and Lockyer, Bridget and Sayli, Melisa and Jeep, Sudthasiri (2021). LGBT+ Networks, 2017-2020. [Data Collection]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service. 10.5255/UKDA-SN-855322
Krawczyk, Ilona (2021). Embodying Voice in Training and Performance: A Process-Oriented Approach, 2016-2019. [Data Collection]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service. 10.5255/UKDA-SN-855330
Lummis, T., Thompson, P. (2009). Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973. [data collection]. 7th Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 2000, DOI: 10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1
Pahl, R. E. (2012). School Leavers Study, 1978. [data collection]. 2nd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 4867, DOI: 10.5255/UKDA-SN-4867-1
Ken Plummer (2001) Documents of life 2: an invitation to critical humanism. Sage. London.
Thompson, P. (2017). Pioneers of Social Research, 1996-2012. [data collection]. 3rd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 6226, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-6226-4
Living and working on Sheppey http://www.livingandworkingonsheppey.co.uk/ [Accessed 31 January 2022]
All UK Data Service links here are published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
This article first appeared on the blog for Quirkos.com 15 Feb 2022. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Daniel Turner. Director of Quirkos.