Sociology Qualitative Methods in Sociological Research
by
Jeff Sallaz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0043

Introduction

Qualitative research methods have a long and distinguished history within sociology. They trace their roots back to Max Weber’s call for an interpretive understanding of action. Today, qualitative sociology encompasses a variety of specific procedures for collecting data, ranging from life history interviews to direct observation of social interaction to embedded participant observation. In all of these cases, the social scientist directly interacts with those whom he or she is studying. The social scientist attempts to see the world from their perspective and to interpret their practices in a meaningful way. In fact, scholars such as Howard Becker and Clifford Geertz have argued that the ultimate test of the validity of a qualitative research study is whether it produces an account of social action that would make sense to the actors themselves. As this would imply, the foundational logic underlying qualitative studies differs from that of variable-oriented quantitative research. The latter measures particular properties of social phenomena and then uses statistical models to determine patterns of association among these properties, or variables. Because these models require a larger number of cases to establish statistically significant associations, quantitative researchers necessarily must sacrifice depth for breadth. Qualitative researchers, in contrast, are comfortable working with a small number of cases, or even a single case. They have at their disposal a variety of assumptions, theories, and methods to produce rich accounts of social life. In addition, qualitative research can offer unique insight into the relationship between microsocial and macrosocial worlds and even global forces.

Background and Context

The following texts offer the interested reader a general introduction to basic principles and debates associated with qualitative research methods. Ross 1992 and Abbott 1999 situate these methods in historical context. During the first half of the 20th century, ethnographic field research was the gold standard for sociology—especially at the famed Chicago school. The same was true in much of Europe, as Masson 2008 describes in the case of France. Katz 1997, Burawoy 1998, and Steinmetz 2005, in turn, defend ethnography against recent critiques that it does not represent a legitimate mode of inquiry according to the standards of positivist science. That such debates are intertwined with larger moral concerns is demonstrated by Smith 2005 and Van Manen 1990, both of which argue that qualitative methods are uniquely suited to study the lives of oppressed and subaltern groups.

  • Abbott, Andrew. 1999. Department and discipline: Chicago sociology at one hundred. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Robert Park, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in the early 20th century, ordered his students to “Go get the seat of your pants dirty.” Abbott offers a balanced insider account of the famed Chicago School of ethnographic field research.

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    • Burawoy, Michael. 1998. The extended case method. Sociological Theory 16.1: 5–33.

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      Argues that qualitative methods should not be held to the standards of “positive science.” Rather, they represent an equally valid mode of analysis grounded in a “reflexive science.”

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      • Katz, Jack. 1997. Ethnography’s warrants. Sociological Methods and Research 25.4: 391–423.

        DOI: 10.1177/0049124197025004002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Addresses the question how qualitative researchers can justify, or warrant, their case studies in relation to potentially hostile audiences who adhere to a mainstream quantitative view.

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        • Masson, Philippe. 2008. Faire de la sociologie: Les grandes enquêtes françaises depuis 1945. Grands repères. Guides. Paris: La Découverte.

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          Currently available only in French, this book covers the history of qualitative field methods in French sociology, especially the diffusion of ideas from the United States.

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          • Ross, Dorothy. 1992. The origins of American social science. Ideas in Context. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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            A comprehensive study of the history of sociology in America, this book argues that the legitimacy of qualitative research has been tied to the preeminence of various universities, departments, and faculties.

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            • Smith, Dorothy. 2005. Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Gender Lens series. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

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              Argues persuasively that ethnographers have a responsibility to impart in their research subjects an understanding of the powerful external forces shaping their everyday life worlds. Very much in the spirit of what C. Wright Mills referred to as the sociological imagination: the capacity to understand personal issues in the context of larger public problems.

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              • Steinmetz, George, ed. 2005. The politics of method in the human sciences: Positivism and its epistemological others. Politics, History and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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                Collection of essays examining how positivism (i.e., an epistemology valorizing empirical observations and the application of the scientific method) came to dominate many human sciences, including sociology. Qualitative researchers often have to deal with the critique that their methods do not meet the standards of positivism.

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                • Van Manen, Max. 1990. Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. SUNY Series in Philosophy of Education. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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                  A short but powerful book offering an accessible introduction to hermeneutic and phenomenological methods. It focuses on the applied aspects of qualitative methods for simultaneously teaching and learning from our subjects.

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                  Journals

                  Many forms of qualitative research, especially participant observation, entail prolonged periods of immersion into the lives of others. For this reason, ethnographies are often thought to be most amenable to the book format. However, quite a few top-notch journals specialize in publishing qualitative findings. Qualitative Sociology and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regularly feature both empirical articles and methodological essays. Ethnography and the American Anthropologist publish papers from multidisciplinary and international perspectives. Theory and Society and Poetics are not devoted to ethnography exclusively, but rather to issues of culture and meaning that are of interest to qualitative researchers.

                  Research Manuals

                  For quite some time, a veil of mystique shrouded the actual doing of qualitative research. The ethnographer was assumed to depart to a distant land with but a notebook in hand, and to return with a manuscript describing in full the practices of some exotic people. Fortunately, aspirant researchers now have at their disposal a range of excellent sources for learning each step in the process of designing and conducting qualitative studies. Lofland, et al. 2006 and Becker 2007 offer comprehensive research guides that have become standard texts in many qualitative method courses. The other readings listed here address different steps of a typical qualitative research project. In a posthumously published interview transcript, Goffman 1989 offers practical advice for finding a site to study and negotiating entrée to it. Van Maanen 1988 and Emerson, et al. 1995 provide step-by-step guides to writing ethnography, from initial jottings to formal fieldnotes to final manuscripts. The specific issue of how to analyze and code field data is covered nicely by Saldaña 2009 and Krippendorf and Bock 2009. SAGE Publications on the whole provides a nice selection of manuals and textbooks covering very specific aspects of qualitative research.

                  • Becker, Howard S. 2007. Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. 2d ed. Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                    Becker, a noted qualitative sociologist, offers practical advice for accomplishing a major research project. The central message is to make writing a part of your everyday work routine. For qualitative researchers who work almost exclusively with textual accounts, the advice is well worth heeding.

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                    • Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. 1995. Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                      A comprehensive overview of the inscription, or writing, process within qualitative methods. Initial observations are recorded as informal jottings in a notebook, which later become structured fieldnotes. From these come memos, papers, and books. This volume is helpful because the authors include many examples from their own work and the work of their students.

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                      • Goffman, Erving. 1989. On fieldwork. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 18:123–132.

                        DOI: 10.1177/089124189018002001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        This short excerpt from an informal research seminar delivered by Erving Goffman presents a realist approach to “getting in” to a field site, as well as then navigating the microsocial world of that site.

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                        • Krippendorff, Klaus, and Mary Angela Bock, ed. 2009. The content analysis reader. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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                          This is not a textbook but a valuable compendium of well-known essays discussing the issue of how to discern patterns and meaning within large bodies of qualitative data. The editors provide an introduction to the subject as a whole and have organized the essays into coherent traditions.

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                          • Lofland, John, David A. Snow, Leon Anderson, and Lyn H. Lofland. 2006. Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis. 4th ed. Florence, KY: Cengage.

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                            This textbook would be a good start for those new to qualitative research, as it offers a comprehensive “lay of the land.” It discusses the stages of a qualitative project and encourages the reader to think systematically about how evidence will be gathered, analyzed, and interpreted. It is regularly updated to reflect new debates.

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                            • SAGE Publications.

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                              SAGE offers a wide range of titles relevant to qualitative methods, many of which discuss very specific techniques of qualitative data collection.

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                              • Saldaña, Johnny. 2009. The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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                                This is a good resource for qualitative researchers as they begin to think about how they will analyze their field notes or interview transcripts. It provides an overview of each of twenty-nine approaches to analyzing and coding such data. These run the gamut from simple frequency counts to advanced cultural analysis.

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                                • Van Maanen, John. 1988. Tales of the field: On writing ethnography. Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                  From a veteran organizational ethnographer, this book is less an instruction guide than a more general reflection on ethnographic writing as a literary process. Common narratives underlying qualitative writing include realist, confessional, and impressionistic modes of representation.

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                                  Data Analysis Software

                                  Today there are available a variety of software programs for the qualitative researcher to use at various stages of a project. Such software should not be thought of as a substitute for basic skills and techniques of data analysis. They can be of use to the research, however, by automating certain steps of the coding process, improving search processes, and visualizing connections among concepts. Atlas.ti and Nvivo are two of the better-known programs, and both offer discounts for student users. They require a Windows operating system. For the Mac user, similar functions are provided by the bundle of packages available from HyperRESEARCH. The process of transcribing interviews and other voice data can be made easier by the software from Dragon Naturally Speaking, which works on both Windows and Mac systems.

                                  Epistemological Debates

                                  Technical decisions regarding methodology take place within a broader understanding of epistemology. How do we generate valid knowledge about the social world? How do we defend these knowledge claims? What sort of knowledge assumptions do we make when we choose one method over another? Not surprisingly, such questions have generated a great deal of debate among qualitative researchers. Benton and Craib 2001 and Abbott 2004 provide introductions for those unfamiliar with the general terminology of epistemology. It should be clear from these books that many current methodological debates are but a slice of long-running controversies in philosophy and social theory. Becker and Ragin 1992 defends “Small-N” research from the critique that it cannot produce valid and generalizable knowledge. Moving beyond many of these old binaries (e.g., empiricism versus rationalism, quantitative versus qualitative) are the arguments made by Becker 1996 and Harding 2004. Both advocate new approaches to evaluating knowledge. In turn, Glaser and Strauss 2006 and Morse, et al. 2009 condense epistemology down to practical research. Specifically, they advocate a “grounded theory,” or radically inductive, approach to knowing the social world. The counterargument is made by Eliasoph and Lichterman 1999, which argues for a more deductive approach. All ethnographers will come to their field sites with implicit assumptions and theories; better to make them explicit and to use one’s findings to challenge and develop theory.

                                  • Abbott, Andrew. 2004. Methods of discovery: Heuristics for the social sciences. Contemporary Societies. New York: W. W. Norton.

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                                    Argues that underlying all research designs are a small number of heuristics, or problem- solving models. As a qualitative social scientist develops an empirical project, he or she should be able to discuss the findings from the points of view of each of these heuristics. Doing so legitimates the knowledge claims and broadens the appeal of the work.

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                                    • Becker, Howard S. 1996. The epistemology of qualitative research. In Ethnography and human development: Context and meaning in social inquiry. Edited by Richard Jessor, Anne Colby, and Richard Schweder, 53–71. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                      A provocative essay that challenges the very idea that there are distinct epistemologies distinguishing quantitative from qualitative research. Both seek to reduce the complexity of the “real world” to scientific concepts. Becker instead advocates for a more pragmatic approach to doing research and evaluating knowledge claims.

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                                      • Becker, Howard S., and Charles C. Ragin, eds. 1992. What is a case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                        Qualitative researchers often make arguments about a small number of cases or even a single case. But how to address the critique that one can’t say anything meaningful with an “N of one”? This volume, the outcome of a conference held at Northwestern University, is an elaboration of how case-based knowledge claims can be defended.

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                                        • Benton, Ted, and Ian Craib. 2001. Philosophy of social science: The philosophical foundations of social thought. Traditions in Social Theory. New York: Palgrave.

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                                          This book offers qualitative researchers a comprehensive introduction to the philosophy of social science. A distinction is made between positivism and empiricism as opposed ways of knowing the social world. Also covered are more recent debates and approaches to epistemology; for instance, critical realism, critical rationality, feminism, and postmodernism.

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                                          • Eliasoph, Nina, and Paul Lichterman. 1999. “We begin with our favorite theory . . . .”: Reconstructing the extended case method. Sociological Theory 17.2: 228–234.

                                            DOI: 10.1111/0735-2751.00076Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            Poses an opposite argument to the grounded theory approach. Eliasoph and Lichterman draw on Michael Burawoy’s extended case method to argue that qualitative researchers always begin with some theory in mind. It is better to be explicit and reflexive about our own theoretical lenses.

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                                            • Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm Strauss. 2006. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

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                                              The classic statement from an inductive, or grounded-theory, epistemology of qualitative research. This book argues that qualitative researchers should try to begin their field studies with as blank a cognitive slate as possible. This will prevent them from being blind to emergent phenomena that become evident during research. Originally published 1967.

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                                              • Harding, Sandra, ed. 2004. The feminist standpoint theory reader: Intellectual and political controversies. New York: Routledge.

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                                                A concise overview of standpoint epistemology. By studying the social world as an object, the qualitative researcher adopts the position of a disinterested scientist. But science, as a discipline arising in a Western male-dominated world, implicitly validates certain forms of knowledge (technical, rational, controlling) over others (expressive, emotional, and cooperative).

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                                                • Morse, Janice, Phyllis Stern, Juliet Corbin, Barbara Bowers, Kathy Charmaz, and Adele Clarke. 2009. Developing grounded theory: The second generation. Developing Qualitative Inquiry 3. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

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                                                  Summarizes recent developments in the grounded theory approach originally stated in Glaser and Strauss 2006. The authors, as practicing researchers, advocate that field researchers use sensitizing concepts to initially make sense of the social worlds they study. But these concepts should be stepping stones to inductively produced knowledge.

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                                                  Culture and Meaning

                                                  Qualitative research is an approach attuned to meaning. It seeks to know how people come to know their worlds and how such interpretations shape their actions. All together, such interpretations and meanings can be said to constitute a group’s culture. But how to study such cultural systems? There exists a long-standing debate between those who argue we should study culture as a formal structure of symbols, and those who maintain that culture is a more informal and flexible set of schemata that actors use strategically in practice. Anthropological structuralism and sociological structural-functionalism, both predominant in the early 20th century, advocated the former perspective—culture as system. Most current approaches advocate the latter—culture as practice—or at least some synthesis between the two. Geertz 1973, though authored by an anthropologist, is widely read among sociologists as an exemplar of the “thick description” of practices as culturally meaningful. This was the argument adopted by many researchers associated with the University of Chicago’s department of sociology during the 1950s and 1960s. Illustrative works include Blumer 1986 and the writings on Howard Becker’s website. In France, this dialectic of culture versus practice was addressed by Bourdieu 1990. In an influential article, Swidler 1986 introduced several of Bourdieu’s key ideas to US sociologists. Breiger 2000 recasts the debate as an issue of duality and puts forth several novel methodological “tools” for studying it. In the same vein, Polletta 2006 emphasizes how culture is activated through narratives and stories told in local contexts.

                                                  • Blumer, Herbert. 1986. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                    Written by a seminal figure of the Chicago School of sociology, this book introduces symbolic interactionism. It argues that meanings are the outcome of informal negotiations among members of small groups. To the extent that this is true, methods of qualitative research are ideally suited to uncover them.

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                                                    • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The logic of practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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                                                      A groundbreaking study in the sociology of culture and power. The French sociologist Bourdieu argues that meaning resides less in abstract symbols than in our embodied dispositions of honor and shame. The abstract arguments are grounded in ethnographic fieldwork that Bourdieu performed in colonial Algeria.

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                                                      • Breiger, Ronald L. 2000. A toolkit for practice theory. Poetics 27:91–115.

                                                        DOI: 10.1016/S0304-422X(99)00026-1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        Describes a variety of novel techniques for analyzing qualitative data in line with the precepts of practice theory. The key is to consider the dual constitution of meanings and practice: meanings exist only insofar as they are crystallized in practices, while practices become significant only when they reference particular meanings.

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                                                        • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. In The interpretation of cultures. By Clifford Geertz, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

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                                                          The anthropologist Geertz argues that the ultimate goal of ethnographic research is to be able to interpret any given social practice in relation to the group’s larger web of cultural meanings. To do so is to describe practice and culture as jointly constituted.

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                                                          • Howie’s Home Page.

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                                                            Howard Becker studied many groups from the perspective of symbolic interactionism; for instance, marijuana smokers, medical students, and jazz musicians. “Howie” maintains a website with links to many of his papers and informal writings.

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                                                            • Polletta, Francesca. 2006. It was like a fever: Storytelling in protest and politics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                                              Rather than viewing culture as an abstract and static entity, Polletta uses a variety of qualitative data to show how political actors rely on storytelling to create meaning and mobilize others. The emphasis is on how culture emerges in interaction and in relation to pragmatic purposes.

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                                                              • Swidler, Ann. 1986. Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review 51.2: 273–286.

                                                                DOI: 10.2307/2095521Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                This article can be said to have introduced many of Bourdieu’s ideas to American sociology. Rather than view culture as a system of values that individuals internalize and follow like rules, the argument is that culture operates as a “tool kit” of meaningful practices that actors use as the situation dictates.

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                                                                Studying Lives Through Interviewing

                                                                The scholarly literature on interviewing isn’t as extensive as that on participant observation. There is obviously overlap between the two methods. Field ethnographers will typically ask repeated questions of their “key informants.” And qualitative interviewers frequently spend some time among interviewees in the latter’s natural setting. But the two methods fundamentally differ in that interviewing entails spending a relatively short (measured in minutes or hours, not months or years) period of time with research subjects. But this can also be an advantage, as it allows for conversations with a greater number of people so as to ask them specific questions. Concise introductions to the issue of how to conduct qualitative interviews can be found in Briggs 1986 and Weiss 1995. Lamont 2000 and Auyero 2003 use novel research designs to uncover the moral worldviews of interviewees. Moreover, interviews need not be a one-on-one affair. The issue then is how to analyze the data obtained through the interview. Mills 1940 and Tilly 2006 both argued that narratives tell us little about what people actually did but more about their cultural understandings of what sort of reasons or motives should be guiding action. Rapley 2001 draws attention to how interviewers actively “co-construct” accounts during the interview encounter.

                                                                • Auyero, Javier. 2003. Contentious lives: Two Argentine women, two protests, and the quest for recognition. Latin America Otherwise. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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                                                                  Uses case studies of two Argentinean women to examine changing forces of globalization and neoliberalism. Life history interviews illuminate their biographies and the way in which early political experiences shaped their lives.

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                                                                  • Briggs, Charles L. 1986. Learning how to ask: A sociolinguistic appraisal of the role of the interview in social science research. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 1. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                                    A critical reflection on the nature of interviewing, with a focus on situations where class and ethnic differences exist between the interviewer and interviewee. Briggs encourages the researcher to think about how qualitative data are generated by revisiting his own work with Spanish speakers in the southwestern United States.

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                                                                    • Lamont, Michèle. 2000. The dignity of working men: Morality and the boundaries of race, class and immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                                                                      An empirical study based on interviews with working-class men in the United States and France. It describes how they make sense of their worlds through moral judgments and distinctions. Included are methodological discussions of how to create a sample of interviewees and an interview schedule attuned to cultural meanings.

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                                                                      • Mills, C. Wright. 1940. Situated actions and vocabularies of motives. American Sociological Review 5:904–913.

                                                                        DOI: 10.2307/2084524Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                        This essay deals with how we are to understand the accounts offered by others. In telling stories, actors make assumptions about the proper motives of others and themselves. For the researcher, interviews are less about “what happened” in an objective sense than about the subjective beliefs of respondents.

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                                                                        • Rapley, Timothy John. 2001. The art(fullness) of open-ended interviewing: Some considerations on analysing interviews. Qualitative Research 1.3: 303–323.

                                                                          DOI: 10.1177/146879410100100303Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                          An essay analyzing how interviews themselves are social processes co-constituted by interviewer and interviewee. A detailed study of a single interview reveals the local context of data production.

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                                                                          • Tilly, Charles. 2006. Why? What happens when people give reasons . . . and why. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                                                                            Builds on Mills’s approach to vocabularies of motive. Tilly proposes four types of schemas through which people explain action: conventions, stories, codes, and technical accounts. The emphasis is on the social situations in which people are called on to produce such accounts—situations such as the social scientific interview.

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                                                                            • Weiss, Robert S. 1995. Learning from strangers: The art and method of qualitative interview studies. New York: Free Press.

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                                                                              This is closer to a standard-methods textbook in that it deals with aspects of sample selection and the development of interview schedules. A useful guide for deciding how structured or open-ended one’s interviews should be, given the larger research questions.

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                                                                              Reflection and the Self

                                                                              Qualitative researchers are sometimes criticized for spending too much time talking about themselves. Such “autoethnography,” critics claim, is mere navel-gazing. But there are solid methodological reasons why ethnographers and interviewers engage in self-reflection. In quantitative research, the relationship between the scientist and the subject is mediated through some sort of data collection instrument, such as a survey form or a census checklist. In qualitative studies, the researcher herself is the instrument. It is thus necessary to make clear (both to yourself and to readers) how you perceived and were perceived by your research subjects. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992 calls this principle a “reflexive sociology.” Rosaldo 1993 and Duneier 2000 demonstrate through empirical studies how such self-reflection leads to empathetic understanding and thus scientific advancement. Wacquant 2006 emphasizes the corporal nature of such self-immersion.

                                                                              • Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                                                                An accessible introduction to Bourdieu’s call for a self-reflexive sociology. It emerged from a series of seminars that Bourdieu gave at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s. A key lesson is that researchers always experience practice differently than do participants themselves—the logic of logic is not the logic of practice, in a phrase.

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                                                                                • Duneier, Mitch. 2000. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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                                                                                  The methodological appendix of this urban ethnography of street life in New York City contains several lessons for managing the self in qualitative research. The author, a white male academic, had to gain acceptance among poor African American street vendors by becoming a street vendor himself.

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                                                                                  • Rosaldo, Renato. 1993. Grief and a headhunter’s rage: On the cultural force of emotions. In Culture and truth: The remaking of social analysis. By Renato Rosaldo, 1–24. Boston: Beacon.

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                                                                                    Demonstrates how difficult but also necessary it is for the qualitative researcher to empathize. The author was conducting research on an old custom among the Ilongot people of the Philippines whereby men mourned the loss of a loved one by killing an innocent victim. It was only after his own wife accidentally died that Rosaldo could understand this custom. Originally published 1989.

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                                                                                    • Wacquant, Loïc. 2006. Body and soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                                      An excellent example of what makes ethnography unique as a method: it inserts the researcher’s entire physical being into the research process. Here Wacquant studies a Chicago ghetto by joining a boxing gym and subjecting his own body to the physical tribulations of training and fighting.

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                                                                                      Ethical Issues

                                                                                      All social scientists have to deal with ethical issues. At a most basic level, the question boils down to whether the potential benefits to accrue from a study outweigh that study’s potential risks to subjects. Qualitative researchers, because they are regularly in close contact with their subjects, have additional ethical concerns to address. Institutional review boards at colleges and research universities are increasingly sensitive to this fact and require that qualitative researchers adequately address ethical issues in their proposals. Some of the common issues that must be addressed are discussed in the following texts. Thorne 1980 asks how to obtain informed consent from subjects given the author’s prolonged prolonged periods of immersion among them. Venkatesh 2008 raises the question of what one’s responsibilities are should one witness a crime while conducting fieldwork. While working in conditions of extreme poverty, Nancy Scheper-Hughes (see Scheper-Hughes 1993) was forced to confront the question of how one bears witness to the social suffering of others. Even after a research project is completed and published, authors face dilemmas concerning how the data are mobilized for various political ends, as discussed by Steinmetz 2004. Possible political engagements of the qualitative researcher are exemplified by the life of Pierre Bourdieu, as illustrated in the documentary film Carles 2001. In sum, ethical issues must be addressed at all phases of the research project.

                                                                                      • Carles, Pierre. 2001. Sociology is a martial art: (La sociologie est un sport de combat). DVD. Brooklyn, NY: Icarus Films.

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                                                                                        Director Carles followed the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as he navigated the academic and social worlds of Paris. As a well-known researcher, Bourdieu frequently was asked to lend his voice and expertise to various political causes. He in turn argued that sociological knowledge can be used as a defense by the vulnerable and impoverished.

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                                                                                        • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1993. Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                                          Raises the question of the appropriate response to hardship and suffering. The author, an anthropologist, conducted fieldwork among poor families in Brazil where children frequently died of hunger. Eventually Scheper-Hughes abandoned the notion that she could save these children. All she could do was bear witness to and document their suffering.

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                                                                                          • Steinmetz, George. 2004. The uncontrollable afterlives of ethnography: Lessons from “salvage colonialism” in the German overseas empire. Ethnography 5.3: 251–288.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1177/1466138104045657Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            Uses a case study of German Samoa to illustrate the ways in which the existing ethnographies can be adopted and used by political actors for their own ends. Steinmetz furthermore offers suggestions for qualitative researchers who wish to make sure that their studies are not misused by others for ulterior motives.

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                                                                                            • Thorne, Barrie. 1980. “You still takin’ notes?” Fieldwork and problems of informed consent. Social Problems 27.3: 284–297.

                                                                                              DOI: 10.1525/sp.1980.27.3.03a00040Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                              A critical take on the assumption that the model of “legally effective informed consent” is appropriate for doing ethnographic fieldwork. Thorne discusses her own experience of studying children, as well as class ethnographic studies in sociology. Informed consent, she concludes, is better suited to clinical and medical research than it is to qualitative research.

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                                                                                              • Venkatesh, Sudhir. 2008. Gang leader for a day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets. New York: Penguin.

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                                                                                                While doing research embedded in a Chicago street gang, the author witnessed violent crimes and pondered whether he had a responsibility to prevent them or inform the authorities. Though not all qualitative researchers will face such extreme circumstances, the underlying questions of confidentiality and responsibility arise repeatedly during fieldwork.

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                                                                                                Comparisons and Revisits

                                                                                                Not all qualitative research projects can be said to have an “N of 1.” On one hand, many ethnographic and interview projects feature internal comparisons. An ethnographic study of routinized work practices by Leidner 1993, for instance, compared fast food restaurant employees with insurance salesman (as well as gender differences within each occupation). On the other hand, many qualitative projects endeavor to study changes over time at a particular site or among a particular small group. Newman 1999, for instance, followed the life trajectories of a single cohort of inner-city service workers over a period of several years. Several qualitative scholars have attempted to systematize the principles for conducting comparative field research. Writing from an anthropological background, Marcus 1995 describes the method of multisited ethnography. Burawoy 2003 proposes the method of the “revisit” to analyze change over time at a single fieldsite. The revisit procedure is extended by Sallaz 2008 to apply to all types of comparative ethnography. In fact, possibilities for doing revisits are facilitated by the work of scholars such as Randy Hodson (Hodson 2008), who collect and make publicly available all existing ethnographies on a given topic.

                                                                                                • Burawoy, Michael. 2003. Revisits: An outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography. American Sociological Review 68.5: 645–679.

                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2307/1519757Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                  Provides a coherent framework for evaluating how and why a given fieldsite has changed over time. The focus is on cases where the current researcher is revisiting a site studied by someone else in the past. Findings of change may be attributed to objective transformations in the larger environment or to different theories used by the researchers.

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                                                                                                  • Hodson, Randy. 2008. Workplace Ethnography Project.

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                                                                                                    An online collection of hundreds of work ethnographies that is available to the public. The research team has also coded the studies and published papers summarizing the results. These papers are available on the site as well.

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                                                                                                    • Leidner, Robin. 1993. Fast food, fast talk: Service work and the routinization of everyday life. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                                                      An illustration of the explanatory power of comparative ethnography. Leidner worked as both a McDonald’s employee and an insurance salesperson. Though these appear to be vastly different industries, both must control the actions of workers and consumers.

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                                                                                                      • Marcus, George E. 1995. Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:95–117.

                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1146/annurev.an.24.100195.000523Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                        Argues that the sorts of phenomena that increasingly constitute the modern world are difficult to study at just one field site. The cutting edge qualitative researcher strategically chooses several sites to study her topic from multiple angles. In this global age, this may entail making short field visits to several international contexts.

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                                                                                                        • Newman, Katherine S. 1999. No shame in my game: The working poor in the inner city. New York: Vintage.

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                                                                                                          Professor Newman and a team of research assistants interviewed dozens of inner-city working youth. Rather than focus on a single site at one point in time, this study tracks subjects’ lives over time.

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                                                                                                          • Sallaz, Jeffrey J. 2008. Deep plays: A comparative ethnography of gambling contests in two post-colonies. Ethnography 9.1: 5–33.

                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1177/1466138108088947Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                            A revisit to Clifford Geertz’s study of cockfighting in Bali. However, the comparison is made with card games in contemporary South Africa (like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony). The argument is that the revisit method can be applied to field sites separated in space as well as time.

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                                                                                                            Canonical Qualitative Studies

                                                                                                            Existing empirical studies provide qualitative researchers with models to study and perhaps emulate. Studies that are widely assigned in methodology courses can be said to constitute a canon of qualitative works. While canons are always a matter of dispute, several works can be designated as benchmarks of ethnographic and field research. Whyte 1993, a study of an Italian-American neighborhood, is an example, as is Roy 1959–1960, an ethnography of a factory work group by. Also qualifying are Hochschild 1983, a study of emotional labor among flight attendants, and Willis 1981, a study of working-class British youth.

                                                                                                            • Hochschild, Arlie. 1983. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                                                              Influential study of “emotional labor.” By observing and conducting interviews with airline flight attendants, Hochschild is able to uncover the strategies of emotional acting that individuals do in their private lives and that companies increasingly demand of their workers. Very much in the tradition of symbolic interactionists such as Goffman.

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                                                                                                              • Roy, Donald. 1959–1960. Banana time: Job satisfaction and informal interaction. Human Organization 18.4: 158–168.

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                                                                                                                Classic qualitative study in the sociology of work. Roy’s participant observation study of a small group of workers in the back room of a factory revealed how they fought boredom by creating various games and fun “times.” It also presents a natural experiment that occurred during the course of research in which workers’ games were temporarily suspended.

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                                                                                                                • Whyte, William Foote. 1993. Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. 4th ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                                                                                                  A pioneering work in qualitative sociology and urban community studies. Whyte lived for three-plus years in a poor Italian-American neighborhood, documenting the lives of young men. The appendix discusses how Whyte developed a “key informant,” Doc, as well as more general methodological lessons. Originally published 1943.

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                                                                                                                  • Willis, Paul. 1981. Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                    Written in the neo-Marxist tradition, this ethnographic study of the British education system goes deep into the lives of working-class students. As opposed to structural theories, Willis shows that students actively resist the messages of meritocracy propagated by teachers. In doing so, they reproduce their class positions.

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