Qualitative Methods

Methods in Social Sciences: Qualitative

Course Description: This part of the course focuses on qualitative research theory, practice, and ethics. It is designed to provide students with a basic working knowledge of qualitative research, from a consideration of philosophical assumptions and epistemological groundings underpinning qualitative inquiry, to practical techniques in developing a research agenda and capturing data from the field.

Course Objectives:

  • Identify, explain, and apply general theoretical principles related to qualitative social research including the major types of methods, ethical concerns, and general research design.
  • Identify the functions and techniques for the major components of qualitative research: literature/theory review, ethnographic fieldwork, and representation
  • Identify and respond to ethical dilemmas or challenges pertaining to the research process, including research design, fieldwork interactions, and communication of research.
  • Construct a research proposal, a qualitative interview schedule, a synthesis of field notes, and a critical written analysis of fieldwork data.

Key texts

  • Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods 5th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Chapters 4, 6, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24)
  • Emerson, Robert; Fretz, Rachel and Shaw Linda. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes 2nd Edition. University of Chicago Press. (Chapters 2, 3)
  • Weiss, Robert S. 1994. Learning from Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. (Chapters 5, 6)


Syllabus by Week

Building Qualitative Research Question: Theory, Practice and Ethics

In this class, students are introduced to the basics of qualitative research and how it is distinguished from the quantitative tradition of methodological design. We will also discuss why it is important to consider ethics and power when doing qualitative research, with reference to the Yale-NUS Ethical Code and Conduct for researching with human subjects. The class ends with a fieldwork studio session that provides students with a practical workshop on research proposal writing. At the end of the class, students should:

  • Be able to articulate the inquiry nature, process, and aims of qualitative research
  • Understand the significance of ethics and power in qualitative research
  • Be able to design a qualitative research proposal (literature review, aim and questions, field context, methodology, timelime, key references)

‘Entering the Field’: Access, Observation/Participation, and Reflexivity

In this class, we explore issues that researchers encounter – and will continue to face throughout – as they transition into their fieldwork locations across the ‘outsider’/’insider’ boundary. We discuss techniques for negotiating access, considerations around observation and participation, as well as reflexivity as method to navigate the research field. At the end of the class, students should:

  • Be familiar with techniques and concerns around access, observation and participation
  • Understand research/fieldwork as an ongoing process, and reflexivity as criteria in qualitative research
  • Recognize the vital connection between research question, subject, and fieldwork location in the overall methodological design

From Jottings to Field Notes

This class focuses on the writing process that happens within and outside the field site. During fieldwork, researchers busily jot down bits and pieces of information based on observation and conversation. When they return to the ‘desk’, researchers combine these scattered data to generate field notes. We discuss some techniques, tips, and concerns in relation to this process. At the end of the class, students should:

  • Be equipped with a working knowledge of different techniques to write down notes during fieldwork
  • Be able to describe implications of note-taking and creating field notes for research data and knowledge production
  • Appreciate the politics of description and the concept of intersubjectivity

Techniques and Issues in Interviewing

In this class, we explore the art and method of qualitative interviewing. Students are introduced to theoretical underpinnings of this method, the various types of interviews, the kinds of questions typically asked by researchers, and the professional code of conduct related to interviewing. At the end of the class, students should:

  • Be equipped with a working knowledge of different techniques to prepare and conduct an interview
  • Be able to describe implications of interviewing for research data and knowledge production
  • Appreciate the politics of speaking, listening, and the role of empathy

Innovative and Sensory Methods

This week’s class introduces students to some more ways of doing qualitative social research through innovative and sensory methods. These methods can be considered “innovative” because they depart from conventional modes of ethnographic data collection, i.e. observation and interview. There is also a greater emphasis on using “bodily senses” as a way of doing research and producing knowledge. We explore three specific methods: walking, photo-images, and sound. At the end of the class, students should:

  • Understand the viability of innovative and sensory methods as well as their contribution to research and knowledge production
  • Know how different methods can be used in a complementary manner to more fully understand a research topic
  • Know how to apply some innovative and sensory methods

Analyzing and Representing Qualitative Data

This class emphasizes the analysis of ethnographic and other forms of qualitative data in qualitative social research. Students are introduced to various analytic approaches and techniques, as well as their use and limitations. We discuss the role of social theory in framing how we imagine and interpret our research materials. The issue of representation – how do we re-present our respondents’ words and actions – will also be explored. At the end of the class, students should:

  • Describe various styles of interpretation of qualitative data
  • Articulate the relative appropriateness of different analysis approaches for a particular qualitative study
  • Know how to apply one or more analytic approaches to data they have collected