First things first: Developing a research question and project design

January 3, 2018


    I am currently writing the third edition of my book "Qualitative Data Analysis With ATLAS.ti". Before a new edition is commissioned, a few people are asked to evaluate the current issue. The feedback is very valuable as I learn how readers respond to the book and how it is used.


When writing the proposal for the first edition, some reviewers asked me to include a chapter on qualitative data analysis, which I did. After I had written the first edition, reviewers said that the chapter on qualitative method would not fit the rest of the book and that it were too superficial. So we took it out. The reviewers of the second edition, would like to have such a chapter included again. If I were to do so, I fear that it will suffer the same fate as in the first edition. It is simply impossible to cover qualitative method and analysis in one chapter.


There are many books on qualitative methods and qualitative data analysis. While it would be great if everything was covered in one book, I would like to refer readers of my ATLAS.ti book to all the other excellent books that cover the non-computerized part of qualitative data analysis.


Since I still have the original chapter for the first issue on my hard drive, I would like to share it with you. Here it is. 




In order for you not to feel like driving a bumper car when embarking on the journey working with ATLAS.ti, in this chapter I will outline the necessary requirements for successfully conducting a qualitative research project. If you are an experienced researcher, just new to qualitative methods, you can probably flick through the pages. The chapter is intended for those who are both new to empirical research and qualitative methods. When I wrote it, I had my students in mind reminding myself about the issues that they find troubling and that did not seem self-explanatory to them when they develop and conduct their first research project. Thus, if you are an old hand at doing research you are most likely familiar with the topics discussed in this chapter.


What is qualitative research?

I usually start my qualitative method courses by presenting the various philosophical positions ranging from positivism to constructivism. The aim is to get students to think about their own position as they have probably never thoroughly thought how  they see the world from a scientific perspective. Is there a real objective world out there that we can examine as researchers? Or can we only examine constructions of something that might be real, true and objective? Or is everything a construction? My reader contains excerpts of the seminal works by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend: The structure of scientific revolutions (Kuhn, (1962 /1996) and Against Methods (Feyerabend, 1975/2010). Kuhn shows that many of the great scientific discoveries were made by chance rather than by applying a rigid methodology. According to Kuhn, scientific knowledge is only true as long as we haven’t found a better truth. Thus, we can never be sure whether our knowledge is in fact objective or whether it is limited to what we are able to see at the moment. The limitations may be of technical or cognitive nature. Kuhn provides examples where scientists have not recognized obvious facts just because they did not believe that they could exist. When you are interested to find out more about the way science works, I recommend reading the book yourself. For all readers with German language proficiency, I suggest the book by Wallach (2009) on the philosophical basic of science. Feyerabend is another must-read if you are interested in the philosophy of science. He became known as revolutionary scientists and most readers are likely to have heard about his famous methodological conclusion: “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.” He called for methodological pluralism. A famous quote is: “Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth.” As I have my students read excerpts of these books, you may guess where I position myself and how I see the world.

I am a constructivist, not a radical one, but I think that there is no one “right” way of doing science; there are a number of ways of inquiring and gaining knowledge of this world. There is not just one “right” answer or one solution; multiple perspectives are possible and desirable. This also relates to working with ATLAS.ti. In this book I show you one alternative of working with the software. There are other ATLAS.ti teachers and consultants around the world who work and teach the software differently. None of us has the “best” answer. We just offer different options. Throughout the book I explain why I use the software in a certain way and why I recommend you to work like this as well. Then it is up to you to try it out, experience it and then take it from there: adopt it, adapt it or develop it further.


After having set the stage by clarifying my position and getting my students and you the reader to think about their own point of view, the next questions to consider is: What is qualitative research and how can we define it? In the handbook of qualitative research Denzin and Lincoln (2005) describe qualitative research as involving “… an interpretive naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (p. 3). Special consideration is given to the researcher as person. He or she is not the independent observer in a white coat – a picture that is often drawn when natural scientists are depicted. Rather, in qualitative research self-reflection about one’s own attitude and position and role in society is vital. As Denzin and Lincoln write: “Behind all research stands the biography of the gendered researcher, who speaks from a particular class, racial, cultural and ethnic community perspective“ (p. 21). We can only see what our class, culture, race, gender or other factors allows us to recognize. There are plenty of examples for this in our everyday life. For instance, in our university department the cables to connect a laptop to the beamer are “always” black. One day I needed a longer cable and asked the secretary whether the institute had such a cable. I had already looked through the cupboard where the cables are stored but did not find anything. The secretary then went together with me to the same cupboard and gave me a long transparent cable. I had looked for something black and therefore did not see it.


The same happens when you conduct research and simply do not consider that the thing you look for might be red or blue or even patterned instead of black and white. In my research on additive buying behavior, one respondent considered her credit cards to be her income. This sounds probably somewhat absurd when not considering the circumstances (Friese, 2000). I did not ask about income specifically and what might be considered to be income as it seemed obvious to me. Thereby I almost overlooked an important issue in terms of my research. There are numerous famous examples where major discoveries were delayed or where observations were ignored because they did not fit prevalent theory and thus inhibiting progress and knowledge generation. When you are interested, take a look at the already mentioned books by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.


I am not sure whether you, the reader, already have a clear position about how you see the world that you want to examine in your research project. But you should grasp by now that qualitative research is not desk research, we go out into whatever we consider the real world, observe and talk to people, interact with them aiming to understand what is important to them and how they perceive the world. Self-reflection is our constant companion and from the very beginning to the end of a research project it is important to consider who we are, how we are perceived by others and as what kind of person we enter the field. This also influences the type of research question we select and leads us to the next topic.


Looking for a research idea

In this section, I draw on the writings by John Dewey (2000 (1938]), another influential author. In his book “Logic, the Theory of Inquiry” he very clearly outlines the process of research. Very reassuring for beginning researchers, he states that research follows a uniform structure, which applies to our everyday life as well as to science. In other words, there are familiar elements in conducting research and we can draw on knowledge that we already have gained in our everyday life. Dewey describes the research process as follows: “The antecedent condition of inquiry that gets it all started is an indeterminate or uncertain situation. It is a situation that makes us fell disturbed, troubled, confused; it is ambiguous and contradictory. This leads us to formulate a problem statement and to determine a way to solve this problem. Dewey puts it very simply: “We inquire when we question; and we inquire when we seek for whatever will provide an answer to a question asked.” (p. 105). In consequence, research is and should be based on real life problems and should not contain fictitious elements. Often questions are derived from the personal biography or social context of the researcher. This is true when looking at my own research and also applies to the topics my students choose for their own research projects. I conducted my first qualitative research project as a Master student and I was free to choose any topic. I did not have an immediate idea, but one day I came home – I shared a house with two other female students at the time – and we chatted about what we did that day. One of my housemates told us that she had been looking for bridal gowns. I asked her with whom she went and he said: With my fiancé”. This was in 1992 and my housemate was rather conservative, sex before marriage was improper behavior. If this is so, I thought, then why on earth did she take her fiancé to look for a bridal gown? He is not supposed to see her in her gown until she walks down the aisle in church on the day of their wedding. This was it – the undetermined situation that sparked my research idea. I asked myself whether in postmodern times conservative couples also begin to twist the “rules”. If you are interested in how I proceeded in solving the problem, you can read the publications that resulted from it (Friese, 1997, 2001).


Other examples from student projects where the connection between social context and personal biography was obvious are the following:

  • being a boxing trainer himself, a student examined the function of boxing as a way to help adolescents with a criminal record to deal with aggression;

  • having provided voluntary work for elderly, a group looked at personal benefits and down sights of the honorary office;

  • the soccer world championship took place in Germany in 2006 and within this context some students looked at the new German nationalism, others at public viewing events as a new form of getting together.

  • based on the personal biography of a student who served as soldier in the KFOR-Mission in Kosovo, he and his grouped studied the individual consequences and effects on soldiers who take part in military operations in foreign countries.


After having come across an uncertain situation, the next step is to clearly identify and formulate the problem. This is very important as the problem statement is like a lens through which you look at reality, it reduces the complexity of reality and structures the research field. Further, you derive more detailed research questions and hypothesis from it and this can only work successfully when the point of departure, the stated problem, is comprehensible and unambiguously spelled out. See also the chapter on research design for computer-assisted analysis in di Gregorio and Davidson (2008).


Doing your homework (the literature review)

Once you have an idea what you want to study, you should spend a number of hours or days in the library. Maybe someone else has already solved your problem or there are existing studies that have looked at the same or similar issues you are interested in. This does not mean that you have to start all over again and think of a new topic for your research project. Maybe other researchers before you have looked at different aspects, or maybe the study was conducted a long time ago and repeating it would be fruitful. Or it can be the case that in previous studies a quantitative approach was chosen; you could add to it by approaching the topic from a qualitative perspective. In the main, it is essential to know on what kind of information you can build on and how you can contextualize your study. If you cannot find anything in your first search for literature, look for comparable topics. Others may not have exactly researched the issue you are interested in but something very similar, e.g. not boxing as prevention strategy for adolescents with a criminal record, but mountain biking, free climbing or karate. Look a bit to the left and to the right of the topic you are interested in when searching for key words in library catalogs.


Another issue is type of literature. Often my students come back from a first visit to the library and tell me that they found a few books but two out of the three are loaned for the next three months. Books are okay to look at, but for other reasons than finding up-to-date research results. The first places where new findings are disseminated are at conferences. The resulting papers are often published in conference proceedings. The next steps are journal publication, followed by chapters in edited volumes and possibly single authored books. As in the case of my wedding dress study, I first presented the results at a local meeting in 1993, then at conferences in 1994 and 1995. The journal publication followed in 1997 and a book chapter in 2001.


Look at books for classical research studies, for gaining an overview of the research field, the major theoretical frameworks used and for definition of established terms. Words used in everyday language like stress, motivation, violence, emotions, employment, unemployment, nationalism and so on, may have specific meanings in a scientific context different from everyday practice. In order to formulate good research questions, you need to define your major terms. Rather than inventing your own definitions, it is better to look at the various alternatives offered in the existing literature. Then make an informed decision.


After a while, you will know the major journals in your field and it becomes much easier to find relevant articles. Besides, the authors of such articles have done a literature search themselves. Once you have found a handful of good articles, begin to read.  Most likely, you find interesting articles referenced in these papers and thus the bibliographies put together by other authors are another good source when looking for relevant literature.


Formulating a qualitative research question

With this background knowledge you are ready to formulate your research question(s). Qualitative research questions are the why and wherefores rather than asking “how often” something occurs and how widespread it is.  The title of the German version of Sesame Street sums it up nicely: Wer, wie, was, wieso, weshalb, warum? These are all words starting with the letter “W” in German. This translates to English: Who, how, what, why so, wherefore and how come? We may ask who is doing or involved in something, how is it done, for what kind of reasons? What is done, what kind of steps are followed in what kind of order, what kind of strategies are used, what are the consequences of doing or not doing something, why is this so, wherefore is it done and why? Below you find a selection of qualitative research question based on my teaching practice that present good and not so good examples:


Example 1: How do elderly people living in a retirement home perceive their situation and how are they dealing with it? – This question can be approached using a qualitative approach as you can talk with the elderly about it. A questionnaire is not appropriate as you can probably not come up with all the possible answer categories.


Example 2: How does the image of the ideal man influences the male population between the ages 20 and 35? – The question, as formulated above, is probably difficult to answer in either a single qualitative or quantitative study. One first needs to know what the image of the ideal man is. Maybe there is not just one but a number of ideal images. This question could be followed up on in a qualitative study. For finding out how this influences a particular segment of the male population, however, a representative survey would need to be conducted.


Example 3: What are the special challenges that students who are born in Germany and have an immigrant background face? – Generally, this question can serve as basis for a qualitative study but it needs some further clarification. In Germany, we have immigrants from lots of different backgrounds: people from Turkey, Russia and the successor states of the former Soviet Union, Poland, successor states of the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, etc. Some are Muslims, some are Catholics and others are atheists. And they came for different reasons: work, war, breakdown of communism or having German ancestors. Hence, it is to expect that each group faces different challenges. It is thinkable to design a study where all groups are included, but this would be very large and extensive qualitative research project. The advice here is to narrow the question to one particular group of immigrants.


Example 4: What kind of emotions and attitudes motivate individuals to take part in mass events? – This question also requires some modification. On the one hand it needs to be more specific with regard to the kind of individuals and the kind of mass event(s) to be studied. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to extend the question by including individual background, life situation and the like. The focus on emotions and attitudes most probably is too narrow.


Example 5: Did the role models of marriage and motherhood as perceived by 20 to 30 years old women in our society change; and if so, how did they change? –As in example 2, results from a qualitative study cannot be used to generalize to larger portions of the society, i.e. all 20 to 30 years old women from Germany think like that or perceive the role model to be such and such. Thus, one could examine what kind of role models are perceived by a specific group of 20 to 30 years old women and compare those with previous role models described in the literature.


In summary, a qualitative research question mainly focuses on “W” questions; distributions across or within large populations are of lesser importance and often cannot be examined due to the nature of qualitative research itself. The question should not be too broad, but also not too narrow. And you should be able to examine it at all. A prerequisite is that you can gain access to the field. You may have formulated a perfect qualitative research question, if putting it into practice requires talking to all ministers in your country and you do not have the right connections, your project cannot be realized. Before you continue to invest a lot of time and effort in a research idea, check out whether you can find participants. Talking to pupils in schools often takes a long process of getting permissions from the school board; you cannot just go to a schoolyard and talk to kids there. Military institutions are another case, where you need to adhere to specific procedures to be allowed access. Recently some students wanted to interview people that have converted to Islam, but were not able to find individuals that were willing to participate. Others were interested in people that are addicted to sports; they ended up changing their topic as they did not manage to get contact with such persons. In qualitative research terms, they could not access the field. Thus, there are not only institutional hurdles to overcome. It is probably easiest to find participants for your research, when the research question is based on your personal background or related to your social context. In other cases it is not impossible, but more difficult.


Designing and preparing the research instrument

In qualitative studies, the main instrument is the researcher him or herself. The researcher observes, takes notes, talks to people, etc. All of these are skills that need to be learned.  As Delamont (2004) wrote: “The biggest problem novices find when preparing for ethnographic field work is that the methods books are not explicit enough about what to observe, how to observe and what to write down” (p. 225). The same applies to carrying out interviews. Just the fact that we talk to people in our everyday life, listen, ask questions and communicate does not make us naturally a good interviewer. According to Helfferich (2009), a good interviewer needs the following skills: Technical competence, Interactive competence: attention and steering, competencies in communication theory and knowing how to deal with previous knowledge and personal bias.


Technical competence is needed in organizing interviews. You need to find participants, make arrangements for the interview, explain matters of confidentiality, prepare consent forms, make your interview participant feel comfortable, and find the right words to open the interview situation.


Interactive competence refers to paying attention to your interview partner and steering the interview into the desired direction. Your job is to open up the stage so that the interviewee feels comfortable talking. The roles need to be clarified: you ask a few questions, but mostly, you listen and the interviewee talks. This violates the rules of everyday talk as the balance shifts. You need to be an active listener, showing interest and encourage the interviewee to speak. You need to find the right moment to ask the next question, to find the right way and form in asking it and you need to keep the conversation going. This entails dealing with silence, reading non-verbal signals and sending appropriate signals. You need to be self-reflexive all the time, controlling your reactions and showing the right level of empathy. This requires some practice, but we all need to start somewhere. When you have the chance, take part in interview training. A good way to check how good or bad you were as an interviewer is when you transcribe the data.


Knowledge about communication theory helps you in recognizing certain dialog signals and strategies of talk. Further, it will help you in mediating roles to generate the right power balance and level of cooperation in the interview. Within the communication literature, you will also find some advice on how to deal with difficult interview situations and participants.


In dealing with resulting from it, you need to train holding back or working with your own thoughts, feelings, convictions and expectations. A prerequisite is that you are aware of your biases and that you can explicit them. This is a requirement for overcoming selective attention as exemplified above when I told you about the Beamer cables that in my mind always were black. During the process of conducting the study, you need to be prepared for the effects that this may have on you. You need to be prepared for having to revise your previous knowledge.


Understanding your research participant is another issue. Based on your personal bias, you may not understand what he or she is talking about or do not find it logical or meanigful. Within seconds during the interview, you have to decide whether it is ok to ask a clarifying question or leaving it to the interpretation phase to gain a better comprehension. The following is a quote from an interview with an addicted shopper that I already referred to earlier:


Interviewer: How would you feel if you were to go out without any money?


Respondent: I just cannot get out of the door. I can't get out of the door. I've tried it. I had my purse, I lost my purse or I had it stolen I don't remember and I reported my credit cards missing. This is probably one of the worst things I can remember. And it would take some time to have them replaced, the credit cards. So this particular three days I had no income, no money at all. And, erm, I thought I'll just stay in for the three days and every time I came to the front door to go to pick my daughter up or take her to school, I couldn't do it and for the three days.


I did not interrupt to clarify what she meant by equating credit cards with income. It may also sound puzzling that it is impossible for someone to leave the house because the purse was lost. I continued to listen and let her tell me her story.


In planning an interview study, the first consideration should be what type of interview to conduct. There are a number of different forms and they yield different kinds of data (see for example Helfferich, 2009).  The interview form should fit your research goals. A dialogue produces other forms of data than a monologue. Depending on your subject of research, you may want to find out about subjective concepts or unconscious motives; or you may be interested in biographical self-description or simply in information from an expert. Interviews differ in the degree of steering and structure; you may go into an interview knowing already a lot about the subject matter or you go into it as a stranger; the interview may take place as part of an everyday activity as in an ethnographic setting or in a more artificial context.


The focus may be on listening to a long narrative or on working towards mutual understanding and everything in between. Examples of various interviews forms that can be arranged on a continuum of the above mentioned dimensions are ethnographic interviews, narrative interviews, guided interviews, biographic interviews, problem-centered interviews, episodic interviews, in-depth interviews, semi-structured open ended interviews, group interview or focus groups.  In recent years, online interviews have also become a possibility. In order to conduct such interviews, you need to be comfortable with the technical requirements. You may only hear but not see the person. Thus, non-verbal signals are lost and important context information may be missing. Advantages are that it is easier to overcome space, location and time constraints. When you have a small budget, you cannot travel all over the place, but you may be able to reach the persons you want to talk with online.


In sum, there are a large number of options to choose from. Your task is to make an informed decision and to be able to explain your choice in methodology chapter of your report. You find a list of interview forms including references at the end of this chapter for further information.


When considering observation as your mode of data collection, similar issues need to be considered. What is the best form of observation in relation to your research question? Do you want to be an external, a passive, a balanced, an active or a total participant? There are advantages and limitations for each of these observation types (see for example Creswell, 2009). As mentioned above, writing field notes is also a skill that needs to be learned.

Other forms of data to be considered for a qualitative research project include printed documents, online documents, web pages, images, audio and video materials or geographic data. This also needs to be taken into account when designing your research project.


Finding study participants (qualitative sampling)

Let’s assume, you have chosen a topic where gaining access to the field is possible. If so, a number of selecting strategies are available.  You can go for maximal variation in your data or look at a homogeneous group. Another option is to focus on specific cases like typical, extreme, deviant, positive or negative cases. Based on previous research, you may find suggestions in the literature as well. I call this theory based sampling. This needs to be distinguished from the idea of theoretical sampling as propagated by grounded theory. Corbin and Straus define theoretical sampling as  “…a method of data collection based on concepts/themes derived from data” (2008, p. 143). Theoretical sampling is not something you can determine up front before you begin to collect data. It rather refers to the dialectic process of data collection and data analysis. The purpose of a grounded theory analysis is to build theory and while you are working on creating the building blocks of your theory, you may find that some of your categories are rather “thin” and that you need to collect more data on a particular issue. Or you formulate some hypotheses based on your data, and need some more data material to test these hypotheses. Then it is also time for collecting some more data. Theoretical sampling thus is not suggested by existing literature or theory but by your own data.


You may also select your participants based on criteria, e.g. you want to talk to three ethnic groups with both males and females from two generations. When planning for three interviews in each category, this means 3 x (3 x 2 x 2) = 36 interviews. If it is only important that the person knows something about the question you want to study, then convenience sampling or snow balling may be sufficient. For a convenience sample you just talk to everyone that comes your way and can tell you something about the issues you are interested in. When using snow balling, you start with only a few people that you select yourself and then ask them whether they know of someone that might be interested in taking part in the research, i.e. throwing the ball to the next person.


In summary, here is a list of the various sampling strategies. A combination of two of them like combining typical and deviant cases is also possible. References are provided at the end of this chapter.

  • Maximal variation

  • Homogenous group

  • Positive / negative cases

  • Typical cases

  • Extreme or deviant cases

  • Criteria based

  • Convenience

  • snowballing

Collecting Data

Very often, data collecting takes place in a defined time period and analysis is viewed as a next step in the research process after all data have been collected and transcribed. Researchers forego many opportunities and miss out on some of the great advantages of qualitative research - flexibility and adaptation - when they handle their project like this. Sometimes there is no way around it as organizational matters or cooperation within a team won’t allow for a process where data collection and analysis go hand in hand. But when you are free to plan your project and your time frame is sufficient; then I recommend the grounded theory method of data collection. This does not mean that you conduct a grounded theory study; you just take advantage of one of the general procedures of research that they and others before them have described (see for example Blumer, 1969). Strauss (2004) writes about the triad of the research process: data collection followed by coding and memo writing. Both, codes and memos guide the search for new data and can lead to more coding and more memo writing. In later phases of the research project, it is not unusual that the researcher goes back to already analyzed data, revises coding and refines memos. Coding and memo writing continues until the end. When the researcher has the feeling that the achieved level of data integration is not sufficient and there are gaps in the data, new data may even be collected in the process of report writing.


Transcribing and analyzing data early has the advantage of being able to adjust interview questions, asking about new and different aspects that first have come up in the interviews; questions that are truly grounded in the field and not based on your desktop research. Especially novices learn a lot when first transcribing data. Then they realize what went well in the interview and what didn’t work out. They get a better picture of themselves as interviewer and can also improve their own interview skills. Taking it a step further beginning with coding, discovering first preliminary linkages in the data adds further information that supports and helps you in the continuing data collection process.

Above I mentioned the time frame. When you only have three months to complete your research project from start to finish, it may be difficult to implement the dialectic process of data collection and analysis. But you could at least try to fit in the transcription during the phase of data collection. Analysis begins while you transcribe and this is at least something you can take as input with you into the next interview.


A few words about technology: Digital recorders are wonderful and the quality of the recording is much better than in the earlier days when we only had analogue recorders. But still you need to figure out how to handle them. Run a few trial recordings before your first “real” interview. Test the batteries and just in case take along a new set of batteries. Pay attention to the kinds of buttons you press on your recorder. The recorded interview is a data file and if you press the wrong button, it is deleted in less than a second. As soon as you are at home, transfer the file(s) to your computer and create a backup copy. It may also be a good idea to change the name of the files. The file name that the recorder produces is something like this: WS320122.WMA. This is not very useful for analytical purposes. 


After the interview: Plan for having a bit of time after each interview session for writing notes. Then the interview is still fresh in your mind and you can write down your first impressions.  It is also a good time for checking your recording. If something went wrong for whatever reason, you can write down what you remember from the interview. This is not as good as having the original wording, but the best you can do when the recording failed. You can still use the interview in your analysis, but need to indicate this in your method section. In most cases, it is possible to clarify some issue that you do not remember correctly via email or by calling the person you interviewed. The notes on the interview - also referred to as interview protocol or postscript (Helfferich, 2009; Cicourel, 1974; Witzel, 2000) - may cover the following issues:

  • How did the interviewee appear to me?

  • Atmosphere / location

  • Disposition to talk / motivation to take part on the interview

  • Gestures, non-verbal signals, eye contact

  • Interaction during the interview

  • Difficult phases

  • Duration of the interview

  • Specifics of the interview or the interview situation

  • The (three) main points that you remember from the interview


It is best to prepare an outline beforehand that fill in after conducting each interview so that you can later compare the notes across all interviewees (see example below).


                                                        Figure 1: Example Interview Protocol


Another issue you need to take into consideration is research ethics. Depending on which country you live in, you research proposal must pass a human subject board. In other countries this is not necessary; nonetheless, there probably are data protection laws to observe. When you conduct interviews, it is mandatory that there is informed consent between you and your interviewee. This can be an oral agreement or in form of a signed document. You need to explain the purpose of your research, what you intent do with the data, who has access to the data and how long the data will be stored, and in which form the results are used and presented. A common procedure is to anonymize the data, i.e. to replace all identifying information like names or persons, location and places, professional status, etc. with pseudonyms or abstract characters like A001, A002 and so on. In preparing a written consent form, pay attention to the respective data protection laws and include the legal regulation and consequences in the formulation of your text. You find examples of such forms online and also in some method books (e.g., Helfferich, 2009).


What to do with your data (Transcription and Analysis)

My best guess is that all qualitative method teachers have experienced the following situation: A student comes to you and tells you that now all 12 interviews have been conducted, maybe they have been transcribed already and asks you: What should I do next? Steinard Kvale (1996) has devoted an article and later a book chapter to this with the title: “The 1,000 pages question.” When students ask this question, it is basically already too late, he writes. It is important to “…think about how the interviews are to be analyzed before they are conducted. The method of analysis decided on – or at least considered – will then direct the preparation of the interview guide, the interview process, and the transcription of the interviews.” (p. 178)


Here I only want to point out that there are different ways of transcribing your data and you need to be aware them to make a choice. You can opt to transcribe verbatim, word by word as it was spoken including all repetitions, half sentences, erm, mmh, pauses, etc. or to polish it turning the spoken language into grammatically correct sentences. When you first transcribe data, you will find out that we (you included) do not talk printed language. At first it feels awful. Is it really me, you may think, that asks the questions in such a way? Do I really talk like that?

A verbatim transcript has the advantage of best capturing the original interview situation. Often when we speak, we think about what we want to say next - while we talk. We need breaks to reflect on questions. Sometimes we have no answer yet and need to clarify our thoughts - even as we talk. The results are sentences that remain unfinished, sentences that flow into each other or overlap. This is important data and helps the analyst to interpret the content of what was said. When you however are only interested in facts and information, transferring spoken language into grammatically correct sentences may be an appropriate option as well. You need to take this decision in the context of your research question. Whether you need to transcribe all mmhs and aahs also depends on the intent of your research. There are very fine grained transcription systems like GAT (see below); you may also derive your own transcription notation from existing systems. What is important is that you do not just transcribe your data, but have thought about what level of detail is necessary for the type of analysis you want to carry out. Below you I provide a number of examples how data can be transcribed: 


Transcription system developed by Kallmeyer and Schütze (1976)


short pause


medium pause


long pause       


filling pauses, reception signal


falling pitch or intonation


suspending voice


raising pitch or intonation      


question intonation


inhibition / hemming and hamming


non-vocal characteristic

(leaves the room)          

description of actions


Indicates that the enclosed speech was delivered more rapidly than usual for the speaker.

(..), (...)

Not understandable   


Not understandable, best guess


Simultaneous speech


Jeffersonian transcript notation (Jefferson, 1984)


INT:        uh::


INT:        >is it good<?                                                   (addressed to person setting up video camera)


PER:       yep                                                                  (set-up person leaves room)


INT:        okay


INT:        so em::


INT:        so you’ve


INT:        got


INT:        >the majority of the information anyway [I mean]< the ↑priority the most important thing really is that em

STU:                                                                                      [yea]


INT:        obviously you can withdraw at any


INT:        [time] (.) from this today

STU:       [yea]


INT:        apa::rt from when it goes (.) on to the


INT:        [internet]

STU:       [then it’s [too lat]e then yea]  ha ha if your [in trouble you change your mind then ha ha]

INT:                        [yes]                                              [ha-ha-ha exactly]


The same text transcribed verbatim looks like this:


INT:        Ok, so erm, so you’ve got the majority of the information anyway, I mean primarily the most important thing really is that erm obviously you can withdraw at any time from the study, apart from when it goes on to the internet.

STU:       It’s too late then yeah.

INT:        Yes.

STU:       You’re in trouble if you change your mind then [laughs].

INT:        Exactly [laughs].



01   S1:   ja:; (.) die VIERziger generation so;=

02         =das=s: !WA:HN!sinnig viele die sich da ham [SCHEIden

03   S2:   [ja;

04   S1:   lasse[n.=

05   S2:   [hm,

06   S1:   =oder scheiden lassen ÜBERhaupt.

07   S2:   hm,

08         (--)

09   S1:   heute noch-

10         (2.1)

11         s=is der UMbruch.

12   S2:   n besonders GUtes beispiel das warn mal unsere NACHbarn.

13         (1.0)

14         ähm (1.0)

15         DREISsig jahre verheiratet, (--)

16         das letzte kind (.) endlich aus m HAUS,

17         zum stuDIERN, (--)


The choice is yours, but you need to make one and this should also be explained in the methodology chapter of your research report. The same applies to the selection of the analysis procedures. It would go beyond the scope of this book to even briefly describe the various analysis choices you have.  To get some ideas about the options available, take a look at Bernard and Ryan (2010). They describe a broad range of approaches like cultural domain analysis, KWIC analysis, semantic network analysis, discourse analysis, narrative analysis, grounded theory, content analysis, schema analysis, analytic induction, qualitative comparative analysis, and ethnographic decision models. The point I want to make here is that you need to think about transcription and analysis – thus, about what you want to do with your data - early on in the research process and not after all data are collected.


Project Timing

It is always difficult to keep to a predefined time table, but you need to be aware that a qualitative analysis phase takes up (or should take up) a large proportion of the project time. My students often think that the majority of the work is done when the interviews are conducted and transcribed. I do provide them with a time table and strongly advise them to keep to it and explain why. I do tell them that they need to reserve sufficient time for data analysis and that proportionally the tasks in a qualitative project are differently distributed than in survey research. But experience is often the better teacher. They do realize in the end that two weeks for analyzing the data and finishing up writing the research report is a bit too short. I do grant them an extension when they come to me and tell me about their dilemma as I prefer reading good rather than half-finished and botched reports. My aim for them is to learn qualitative methods and that is best achieved by doing it. I could tell them a lot about formulating research questions, about accessing the field, about coding, we can run a few exercises, I could show them ATLAS.ti and how it works. This will not stay in their minds. They need to do it and probably learn most from mistakes like the issue of timing or neglecting the importance of literature or my words about data management in ATLAS.ti.


Thus, also your first project is not likely to be perfect nor does it have to be. You probably need to come to appreciate the issues you read about in qualitative research method books by gaining your own experiences. This applies also to the work with ATLAS.ti. Every new project will add a bit more to your understanding. The second time around you probably have a much better feeling on how to code and on how to set-up your coding system in order to best utilize it later when asking questions about the data. But as with all things, we need to start somewhere. Let’s do this in the next chapter by looking at the ATLAS.ti interface and by learning the first terms that will become your daily companions when working with ATLAS.ti.

Further Readings
Philosophy of science

Chalmers, Alan F. (1999). What is thing think called science. Mcgraw-Hill Higher Education. / Feyerabend. Against methods.  (2010). Verso Books, 4th edition. First published in 1975. / Kuhn, Thomas (1996). The structure of scientific revolution. University of Chicago Press. First published in 1962. / Walach, Harald (2009, 2. ed). Psychologie: Wissenschaftstheorie, philosophische Grundlagen und Geschichte. Ein Lehrbuch. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.


Formulating qualitative research questions

Flick, Uwe (2006, 3rd ed / 2007). An Introduction to Qualitative Research. London: Sage. Chapter 9. Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rowohlt. Kapitel 9. / Marschall, Chaterine & Rossmann, Gretchen B. (1995). Designing qualitative reserach. London: Sage. Chapter 2. / Silvermann, David (2000). Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook. London: Sage. Chapter 5.


Types of interviews

Ethnographic interview: Spradley, J.P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


Narrative interview: Schütze, Fritz (1976) Zur Hervorlockung und Analyse von Erzählungen thematisch relevanter Geschichten im Rahmen soziologischer Feldforschung. In AG Bielefelder Soziologen (eds) Kommunikative Sozialforschung. München: Fink, pp. 159 – 260. / Lucius-Hoene, Gabriele & Deppermann, Arnulf (2002). Rekonstruktion narrativer Identität. Ein Arbeitsbuch zur Analyse narrativer Interviews. Opladen:  Leske + Budrich. / Rosenthal, Gabriele (2008, 2ed ed) Interpretative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Weinheim.  / Schütze, Fritz (1983): Biographieforschung und narratives Interview, in: Neue Praxis, 13(3), 283-293. / Atkison, R. (1998). The Life Story interview. Sage  University Papers Series in Qualitative Research Methods, Vol. 44. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage.


Guided / semi-structured interviews: Hopf, Christel (2004). Qualitative Interviews - Ein Überblick. In Flick, Uwe, V. Kardoff, Ernst & Steinke, Ines (eds) Qualitative Forschung: Ein Handbuch. Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt. Chapter 5, pp. 349 – 359.


Biographic interview: Fuchs-Heinritz,Werner (2000, 2. ed). Biographische Forschung. Eine Einführung in Praxis und Methoden. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag. / Rosenthal, Gabriele (2004). Bibliographic research. In Seale, Clive; Gobo, Giampietro; Gubrium,  Jaber F. and Silvermann, David (eds). Qualitative Research Pratice. London: Sage.

Problem-centered interview: Witzel, Andreas (2000). Das problemzentrierte Interview [25 Absätze]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(1), Art. 22,


Episodic interview: Flick, Uwe (2006, 3rd ed / 2007). An Introduction to Qualitative Research. London: Sage. Chapter 13. /  Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rowohlt. Kapitel 13.

Focused interviews: Merton, R.K. & Kendall, P.L. (1956). The Focused Interview. Glencoe, Ill.  / Merton, R.K. & Kendall, P.L. (1975). Das fokussierte Interview. In Hopf, Christel & Weingarten, E. (eds). Qualitative Sozialforschung. Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, pp. 171-204.


In-depth interview: Kvale, Steinar (1996). An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage. / Lamnek, Siegfried (2005, 4. ed). Qualitative Sozialforschung: Lehrbuch. Weinheim,Basel: Beltz Verlag. Chapter 8.


Group interviews:  Flick, Uwe (2006, 3rd ed / 2007). An Introduction to Qualitative Research. London: Sage. Chapter 15. / Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rowohlt. Kapitel 15.

Focus groups: Morgan, David L. (1988). Focus Groups as Qualitative Research.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. / Morgan, David L. and Krueger, R.A. (1998). The Focus Group Kit. Tousand Oask, CA: Sage.


Qualitative online interviews: Mann and Stewart (2005) Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online London: Sage. / Rezabek, Roger (2000, January). Online focus groups: Electronic discussions for research [67 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-line Journal], 1(1). (



Flick, Uwe (2006, 3rd ed / 2007). An Introduction to Qualitative Research. London: Sage. Chapter 11. / Qualitative Sozialforschung: Eine Einführung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rowohlt. Kapitel 11. / Helfferich, Cornelia (2009, 3rd ed). Die Qualität Qualitativer Daten: Manual für die Durchführung von qualitativen Interviews. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag. Chapter 5.2. / Silvermann, David (2000). Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook. London: Sage. Chapter 8. / Patton, M.W. (1990, 2ed ed). Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. London: Sage. (pp. 100 – 175).


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