Qualitative Data Analysis Methods 101:

The “Big 6” Methods + Examples

By: Kerryn Warren (PhD) Expert Reviewed By: Eunice Rautenbach (D.Tech) | May 2020

Qualitative data analysis methods. Wow, that’s a mouthful. 

If you’re new to the world of research, qualitative data analysis can look rather intimidating. So much terminology, so many abstract, fluffy concepts. It can be a minefield!

Fear not – in this post, we’ll unpack the most popular analysis methods, one at a time, so that you can approach your analysis with confidence and competence – whether that’s for a dissertation, thesis or really any kind of research project!

Qualitative data analysis methods

What (exactly) is qualitative data analysis?

To understand qualitative data analysis, we need to first understand qualitative data – so let’s take a step back and ask the question, “what exactly is qualitative data?”.

Well, qualitative data refers to pretty much any data that’s “not numbers”. In other words, it’s not the stuff you measure using a fixed scale or complex statistics or mathematics.

So, if it’s not numbers, what is it?

Words, you guessed? Well… sometimes, yes. Qualitative data can, and often does, take the form of interview transcripts, documents and open-ended survey responses – but it can also involve the interpretation of images and videos. In other words, qualitative isn’t just limited to text-based data.

So, how’s that different from quantitative data, you ask?

Simply put, qualitative research focuses on words, descriptions, concepts or ideas – while quantitative research focuses on numbers and statistics. Qualitative research investigates the “softer side” of things to explore and describe, while quantitative research focuses on the “hard numbers”, to measure differences between variables and the relationships between them. If you’re keen to learn more about the differences between qual and quant, we’ve got a detailed post over here.

qualitative data analysis vs quantitative data analysis

So, qualitative analysis is easier than quantitative, right?

Well…. not quite. In many ways, qualitative data can be challenging and time-consuming to analyse and interpret. At the end of your data collection phase (which itself takes a lot of time), you’ll likely have many pages of text-based data or hours upon hours of audio to work through. You might have subtle nuances of interactions or discussions that have danced around in your mind, or that you scribbled down in messy field notes.

Making sense of all of this is no small task and you shouldn’t underestimate it. Long story short – qualitative analysis can be a lot of work!

Qualitative data can be challenging and time-consuming to analyse and interpret. You’ll likely extensive or audio-based data to work through.

In this post, we will explore qualitative data analysis by looking at the general methodological approaches used for dealing with qualitative data. We’re not going to cover every possible qualitative approach and we’re not going to go into heavy detail – we’re just going to give you the big picture. These approaches can be used on primary data (that’s data you’ve collected yourself) or secondary data (data that’s already been published by someone else).

Without further delay, let’s get into it.

The Qualitative Data Analysis Methods “Big 6”

There are many different types of qualitative data analysis (QDA for short), all of which serve different purposes and have unique strengths and weaknesses. We’ll start by outlining the analysis methods and then we’ll dive into the details for each one.

The 6 most popular QDA methods – or at least the ones we see at Grad Coach – are:

  1. Qualitative content analysis
  2. Narrative analysis
  3. Discourse analysis
  4. Thematic analysis
  5. Grounded theory (GT)
  6. Interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA)

Let’s take a look at them…

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QDA Method #1: Qualitative Content Analysis

Content analysis is possibly the most common and straightforward QDA method. At the simplest level, content analysis is used to evaluate patterns within a piece of content (for example, words, phrases or images) or across multiple pieces of content or sources of communication. For example, a collection of newspaper articles or political speeches.

With content analysis, you could, for instance, identify the frequency with which an idea is shared or spoken about – like the number of times a Kardashian is mentioned on Twitter. Or you could identify patterns of deeper underlying interpretations – for instance, by identifying phrases or words in tourist pamphlets that highlight India as an ancient country.

Because content analysis can be used in such a wide variety of ways, it’s important to go into your analysis with a very specific question and goal, or you’ll get lost in the fog. With content analysis, you’ll group large amounts of text into codes, summarise these into categories, and possibly even tabulate the data to calculate the frequency of certain concepts or variables. Because of this, content analysis provides a small splash of quantitative thinking within a qualitative method.

Naturally, while content analysis is widely useful, it’s not without its drawbacks. One of the main issues with content analysis is that it can be very time consuming, as it requires lots of reading and re-reading of the texts. Also, because of its multidimensional focus on both qualitative and quantitative aspects, it is sometimes accused of losing important nuances in communication.

Content analysis also tends to concentrate on a very specific timeline and doesn’t take into account what happened before or after that timeline. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though – just something to be aware of. So, keep these factors in mind if you’re considering content analysis. Every analysis method has its drawbacks, so don’t be put off by these – just be aware of them!

Content analysis is used to evaluate patterns within a piece of content or across multiple pieces of content or sources of communication

QDA Method #2: Narrative Analysis 

As the name suggests, narrative analysis is all about listening to people telling stories and analysing what that means. Since stories serve a functional purpose of helping us make sense of the world, we can gain insights into the ways that people deal with and make sense of reality by analysing their stories and the ways they’re told.

You could, for example, use narrative analysis to explore whether how something is being said is important. For instance, the narrative of a prisoner trying to justify their crime could provide insight into their view of the world and the justice system. Similarly, analysing the ways entrepreneurs talk about the struggles in their careers or cancer patients telling stories of hope could provide powerful insights into their mindsets and perspectives. In other words, narrative analysis is about paying attention to the stories that people tell – and more importantly, the way they tell them.

Of course, the narrative approach has its weaknesses, just like all analysis methods. Sample sizes are generally quite small due to the time-consuming process of capturing narratives. Because of this, along with the multitude of social and lifestyle factors which can influence a subject, narrative analysis can be quite difficult to reproduce in subsequent research. This means that it’s difficult to test the findings of some of this research.

Similarly, researcher bias can have a strong influence on the results here, so you need to be particularly careful about the potential biases you can bring into your analysis when using this method. Nevertheless, narrative analysis is still a very useful qualitative method – just keep these limitations in mind and be careful not to draw broad conclusions.

Narrative analysis is all about listening to people telling stories to gain insights into the ways that people deal with and make sense of reality.

QDA Method #3: Discourse Analysis 

Discourse is simply a fancy word for written or spoken language or debate. So, discourse analysis is all about analysing language within its social context. In other words, analysing language – such as a conversation, a speech, etc – within the culture and society it takes place in. For example, you could analyse how a janitor speaks to a CEO, or how politicians speak about terrorism.

To truly understand these conversations or speeches, the culture and history of those involved in the communication is important. For example, a janitor might speak more casually with a CEO in a company that emphasises equality among workers. Similarly, a politician might speak more about terrorism if there was a recent terrorist incident in the country.

So, as you can see, by using discourse analysis, you can identify how culture, history or power dynamics (to name a few) have an effect on the way concepts are spoken about. So, if your research aims and objectives involve understanding culture or power dynamics, discourse analysis can be a powerful method.

Because there are many social influences in how we speak to each other, the potential use of discourse analysis is vast. Of course, this also means it’s important to have a very specific research question (or questions) in mind when analysing your data and looking for patterns and themes, or you might land up going down a winding rabbit hole.

Discourse analysis can also be very time consuming as you need to sample the data to the point of saturation – in other words, until no new information and insights emerge. But this is, of course, part of what makes discourse analysis such a powerful technique. So, keep these factors in mind when considering this QDA method.

Discourse analysis is all about analysing language such as a conversation or a speech, within the culture and society it takes place in.

QDA Method #4: Thematic Analysis

Thematic analysis looks at patterns of meaning in a data set – for example, a set of interviews or focus group transcripts. But what exactly does that… mean? Well, a thematic analysis takes bodies of data (which are often quite large) and groups them according to similarities – in other words, themes. These themes help us make sense of the content and derive meaning from it.

Let’s take a look at an example.

With thematic analysis, you could analyse 100 reviews of a popular sushi restaurant to find out what patrons think about the place. By reviewing the data, you would then identify the themes that crop up repeatedly within the data – for example, “fresh ingredients” or “friendly wait staff”.

So, as you can see, thematic analysis can be pretty useful for finding out about people’s experiences, views, and opinions. Therefore, if your research aims and objectives involve understanding people’s experience or view of something, thematic analysis can be a great choice.

Since thematic analysis is a bit of an exploratory process, it’s not unusual for your research questions to develop, or even change as you progress through the analysis. While this is somewhat natural in exploratory research, it can also be seen as a disadvantage as it means that data needs to be re-reviewed each time a research question is adjusted. In other words, thematic analysis can be quite time-consuming – but for a good reason. So, keep this in mind if you choose to use thematic analysis for your project and budget extra time for unexpected adjustments.

Thematic analysis takes bodies of data and groups them according to similarities (themes), which help us make sense of the content.

QDA Method #5: Grounded theory (GT) 

Grounded Theory is powerful qualitative analysis method where the intention is to create a new theory (or theories) using the data at hand, through a series of “tests” and “revisions.” For example, you could try to develop a theory about what factors influence students to read watch a YouTube video about qualitative analysis… The important thing with grounded theory is that you go into the analysis with an open mind and let the data speak for itself – rather than dragging existing hypotheses or theories into your analysis.  In other words, your analysis must develop from the ground up (hence the name)…

In Grounded Theory, you start with a general overarching question about a given population – for example, graduate students. Then you begin to analyse a small sample – for example, five graduate students in a department at a university. Ideally, this sample should be reasonably representative of the broader population. You’d then interview these students to identify what factors lead them to watch the video.

After analysing the interview data, a general hypothesis or pattern could emerge. For example, you might notice that graduate students are more likely to read a post about qualitative methods if they are just starting on their dissertation journey, or if they have an upcoming test about research methods.

From here, you’ll look for another small sample – for example, five more graduate students in a different department – and see whether this pattern or this hypothesis holds true for them. If not, you’ll look for commonalities and adapt your theory accordingly. As this process continues, the theory develops. What’s important with grounded theory is that the theory develops from the data – not from some preconceived idea. You need to let the data speak for itself.

So, what are the drawbacks of grounded theory? Well, some argue that there’s a tricky circularity to Grounded Theory. For it to work, in principle, you should know as little as possible regarding the research question and population, so that you reduce the bias in your interpretation. However, in many circumstances, it’s also thought to be unwise to approach a research question without knowledge of the current literature. In other words, it’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” situation.

Regardless, grounded theory remains a popular (and powerful) option. Naturally, it’s a very useful method when you’re researching a topic that is completely new or has very little existing research about it, as it allows you to start from scratch and work your way from the ground up.

Grounded theory is used to create a new theory (or theories) by using the data at hand, as opposed to existing theories and frameworks.

QDA Method #6:  

Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)

Interpretive. Phenomenological. Analysis. IPA.

Try saying that three times fast… Let’s just stick with IPA, okay?

IPA is designed to help you understand the personal experiences of a subject (for example, a person or group of people) concerning a major life event, an experience or a situation. This event or experience is the “phenomenon” or phenomena that makes up the “P” in IPA. These phenomena may range from relatively common events – such as motherhood, or being involved in a car accident – to those which are extremely rare – for example, someone’s personal experience in a refugee camp. So, IPA is a great choice if your research involves analysing people’s personal experiences of something that happened to them.

It’s important to remember that IPA is subjectcentred. In other words, it’s focused on the experiencer. This means that, while you’ll likely use a coding system to identify commonalities, it’s important not to lose the depth of experience or meaning by trying to reduce everything to codes. Also, keep in mind that since your sample size will generally be very small with IPA, you often won’t be able to draw broad conclusions about the generalisability of your findings. But that’s okay as long as it aligns with your research aims and objectives.

Another thing to be aware of with IPA is personal bias. While researcher bias can creep into all forms of research, self-awareness is critically important with IPA, as it can have a major impact on the results.

For example, a researcher who was a victim of a crime himself could insert his own feelings of frustration and anger into the way he interprets the experience of someone who was kidnapped. So, if you’re going to undertake IPA, you need to be very self-aware or you could muddy the analysis.

Keep these limitations and pitfalls in mind though, and you’ll have a powerful analysis tool in your arsenal!

IPA can help you understand the personal experiences of a person or group concerning a major life event, an experience or a situation.

How to choose the right analysis method

Now, you’re probably asking yourself the question, “how do you choose the right one?”

Well, selecting the right qualitative analysis method largely depends on your research aims, objectives and questions. In other words, the best tool for the job depends on what you’re trying to build. For example:

  1. Perhaps your research aims to analyse the use of words and what they reveal about the intention of the storyteller and the cultural context of the time.
  2. Perhaps your research aims to develop an understanding of the unique personal experiences of people that have experienced a certain event.
  3. Or perhaps your research aims to develop insight regarding the influence of a certain culture on its members.

As you can see, all these research aims are distinctly different, and therefore different analysis methods would be suitable for each one. Also, remember that each method has its own strengths, weaknesses and general limitations. No single analysis method is perfect. Therefore, it often makes sense to adopt more than one method (this is called triangulation), but this is, of course, quite time-consuming.

As we’ve seen, these approaches all make use of coding and theme-generating techniques, but the intent and approach of each analysis method differ quite substantially. So, it’s really important to come into your research with a clear intention before you start thinking about which analysis method (or methods) to use.

Start by reviewing your research aims, objectives and research questions to assess what exactly you’re trying to find out – then select a method that fits. Never pick a method just because you like it or have experience using it – your analysis method (or methods) must align with your broader research aims and objectives.

No single analysis method is perfect, so it can often make sense to adopt more than one  method (this is called triangulation).

Let’s recap on QDA methods…

In this post, we looked at the six most popular qualitative data analysis methods, namely:

  1. Firstly, we looked at content analysis, a straightforward method that blends a little bit of quant into a primarily qualitative analysis.
  2. Then we looked at narrative analysis, which is about analysing how stories are told.
  3. Next up was discourse analysis – which is about analysing conversations and interactions.
  4. Then we moved on to thematic analysis – which is about identifying themes and patterns.
  5. From there, we went south with grounded theory – which is about starting from scratch with a specific question and using the data alone to build a theory in response to that question.
  6. And finally, we looked at IPA – which is about understanding people’s unique experiences of a phenomenon.

Of course, these aren’t the only approaches to qualitative data analysis, but they’re a great starting point if you’re just dipping your toes into qualitative research for the first time.

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

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