Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography

Qualitative research is the collection of information about human behaviour and perception. It is about focusing in depth to find out why and how certain activities and events occur.

In research we aim to be rigorous in the scientific processes, which means aiming to be thorough, exhaustive and accurate. This requires ensuring that a study is replicable, by being transparent about the steps that were taken to obtain the findings that are presented. It also means being able to justify why you took each step in your research. Triangulation is a technique used to instill rigour. Triangulation is the use of multiple research methods for data collection to reveal insight about a specific topic.

Read more about methodological rigour in Baxter and Eyles 1997 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0020-2754.1997.00505.x/abstract

Key Considerations

Positionality: Who you are, where you are, and how you ask your questions will influence the responses you elicit from participants in your study.

Reflexivity: This is a process of considering your own positionality and the effects that your positionality will have on your research. It entails throughly considering the benefits and drawbacks of your positionality, and how this in turn can benefit or hinder your research.

Read more about positionality and reflexivity in Rose 1997, http://phg.sagepub.com/content/21/3/305.short

Sample: A sample is a set of data. In the case of qualitative data methods covered in this section, your sample is composed of those who are taking part in your study. The number of people who participate will be your sample size. When you reach a point of saturation, it means that you are starting to collect the same ideas over and over from your sample.


Interview: An interview is a method of inquiry in which you ask your participants a set of questions.  It can be semi-structured or and structured and can use different mediums (e.g., phone, email, in-person). A semi-structured interview is one in which you have an idea about the types of questions you ask but the order and way you ask the question may vary.  A structured interview is a specified set of questions that is asked in the same order using the same words during each interview.

Focus group: This is a method in which you have a heterogeneous population come together in one room to discuss a certain topic of interest. Typically a facilitator organizes the focus group and will guide the conversation to keep the topic of conversation on track. The strength of this method is the opportunity for free flow of conversation; comments tend to stimulate new ideas and discussion topics. The challenge associated with this method is that it is possible for a few assertive people to dominate the conversation.

Participant observation: This refers to when a researcher embeds him- or herself in the research context by becoming an active participant.

Survey: This method uses a set of written questions that the participants then answer directly on paper or online.

Oral history: This is the process of gathering and listening to people tell their stories and share knowledge. Traditionally oral histories were passed down through generations, building the knowledge bases of communities. Oral histories are often recorded so that both the information, as well as the voices and character of the story telling, can be preserved.

For more information on oral history see http://www.canoha.ca

Participatory mapping: Sometimes called sketch mapping, this is asking a set of questions and having the participants draw how they view the world in a map form. It is typically done using a piece of paper, but could be done using digital free drawing applications.

Journaling: When a researcher or a participant documents his or her thoughts feelings or ideas on a topic on a regular basis, it is referred to as journaling. Journaling is a free-flow writing exercise.

Content analysis: This method collects content in multimedia formats from the media, policy documents and other outlets and then codes the material for common themes and ideas.

Qualitative data analysis: Qualitative data is collected via the methods described above and then is often transcribed and thematically coded. This means a researcher will read the transcript to identify common themes. There are multiple strategies to code qualitative data, either by formulating codes prior to collection it and reading transcripts, or by the researcher identifying common themes that emerge from the data.

Obtaining informed consent: Ethically, researchers are required to inform the participants of what data they are collecting, why, and how the data will be used and shared. Depending on the study, researchers may wish to maintain anonymity of the participants; however, in some studies they may wish to have their real names be used.

Further resources

  • Iain Hay (2000) Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography


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British Columbia in a Global Context Copyright © 2014 by Geography Open Textbook Collective is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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