Interpreting Qualitative Data
SAGE has been part of the global academic community since 1965, supporting high quality research and
learning that transforms society and our understanding of individuals, groups, and cultures. SAGE is the
independent, innovative, natural home for authors, editors and societies who share our commitment and
passion for the social sciences.
Find out more at: www.sagepublications.com
Interpreting Qualitative Data
A Guide to the Principles of Qualitative Research
Los Angeles | London | New Delhi | Singapore | Washington DC
© David Silverman 1993, 2001, 2006, 2011
First edition published 1993
Second edition published 2001. Reprinted 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006
Third edition published 2006. Reprinted 2007, 2008 (twice), 2009 and 2010 (twice)
Fourth edition published 2011
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, as permitted
under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, this publication may be reproduced, stored or
transmitted in any form, or by any means, only with the prior permission in writing of the publishers, or in
the case of reprographic reproduction, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright
Licensing Agency. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.
SAGE Publications Ltd
1 Oliver’s Yard
55 City Road
London EC1Y 1SP
SAGE Publications Inc.
2455 Teller Road
Thousand Oaks, California 91320
SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd
B 1/I 1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area
New Delhi 110 044
SAGE Publications Asia-Pacific Pte Ltd
33 Pekin Street #02-01
Far East Square
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011921527
British Library Cataloguing in Publication data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978-0-85702-421-3 (pbk)
Typeset by C&M Digitals (P) Ltd, Chennai, India
Printed and bound in Great Britain by TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall
Printed on paper from sustainable resources
For my friends at the Nursery End in the hope (but not the expectation) that Middlesex will finally achieve
success in English cricket’s county championship.
Companion Website xi
About the Author xii
Preface to Fifth Edition xiii
Part One: THEORY AND METHOD IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
Part One: THEORY AND METHOD IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH 1
1 What Is Qualitative Research? 3
1.1 A simple definition
1.2 Some complications
1.3 Loaded evaluations of research methods
1.4 Methods should fit your research question
1.5 The good sense of quantitative research
1.6 The nonsense of quantitative research
1.7 The good sense of qualitative research
1.8 The nonsense of qualitative research
1.9 Qualitative research models
2 Designing a Research Project
2.1 Selecting a topic
2.2 Formulating a researchable question
2.3 Fit your research question into an appropriate theory
2.4 Choose an effective research design
2.5 An effective literature review
2.6 Basic terms in research design
3 Generalizing from Case Study Research
3.1 Purposive sampling
3.2 Theoretical sampling
3.3 What is a ‘case’?
3.4 Misunderstandings about case studies
4 Credible Qualitative Research
4.1 Does credibility matter?
5 Data Analysis
5.1 Some rules for data analysis
5.2 Content analysis
5.3 Grounded theory
5.4 Narrative analysis
6 Research Ethics
6.1 Ethical pitfalls
6.2 Ethical safeguards
6.3 Some ethical complications
Part Two: METHODS
7.1 What is an ‘open-ended’ interview?
7.2 Why interview?
7.3 Implications: three versions of interview data
7.7 Adolescent cultures: combining ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions
7.8 Moral tales of parenthood
7.9 The three models: a summary
7.10 Summary: basic issues
7.11 Three practical questions – and answers
8 Focus groups
8.1 What are focus groups?
8.2 Analysing focus group data in social science
8.3 Form or substance?
8.4 Concluding comments
9.1 The ethnographic focus
9.2 Methodological issues
9.3 The theoretical character of ethnographic observations
9.4 Conclusion: the unity of the ethnographic project
10.1 Four ways of analysing documents
10.2 Comparative keyword analysis (CKA)
10.3 Organizational documents
10.4 Documents of everyday life
10.4 Ethnomethodology: membership categorisation analysis
11 Naturally Occurring Talk
11.1 Discourse analysis
11.2 Why work with tapes?
11.3 Transcribing audiotapes
11.4 Why talk matters
11.5 Conversation analysis
11.6 Conversation analysis and discourse analysis compared
12 Visual Images
12.1 Kinds of visual data
12.2 Research strategies
12.3 Content analysis
12.5 Workplace studies
Part Three: IMPLICATIONS
13 Writing Your Report
13.2 Your literature review
13.3 Your methodology section
13.4 Writing up your data
13.5 Your final section
13.6 A short note on plagiarism
13.7 Self-expression or argument?
14 The Relevance of Qualitative Research
14.1 Whose side are we on?
14.2 The audiences for qualitative research
14.3 The contribution of qualitative social science
15 The Potential of Qualitative Research: Eight Reminders
15.1 Take advantage of naturally occurring data
15.2 Avoid treating the actor’s point of view as an explanation
15.3 Study the interrelationships between elements
15.4 Attempt theoretically fertile research
15.5 Address wider audiences
15.6 Begin with ‘how’ questions; then ask ‘why?’
15.7 Study ‘hyphenated’ phenomena
15.8 Treat qualitative research as different from journalism
15.9 Concluding remarks
Appendix: Simplified Transcription Symbols
Be sure to visit the companion website to this book at www.sagepub.co.uk/silvermaniqd to find a range of
teaching and learning materials for both lecturers and students, including the following:
Methodspace page: Link to a Methodspace group for the book
(www.methodspace.com/group/silverman) where readers can give feedback, discuss issues and pose
questions about their research directly to the author.
Additional case studies and examples: Engaging and relevant case studies to help illustrate
the main concepts in each chapter.
Full-text journal articles: Full access to selected SAGE journal articles related to each
chapter, providing students with a deeper understanding of key topics.
Links to useful websites, podcasts and Youtube videos: An assortment of direct links to
relevant websites for each chapter.
Student exercises: Thought-provoking questions for each chapter that are intended to help
students think critically about their own research.
Model answers: to exercises found in this book.
Helpful tips: Valuable considerations for students doing their own research.
Recommended reading: Suggestions for further reading.
About the Author
David Silverman trained as a sociologist at the London School of Economics and the University of
California, Los Angeles. He taught for 32 years at Goldsmiths, University of London where he is now
Emeritus Professor in the Sociology Department. He is interested in conversation and discourse analysis and
he has researched medical consultations and HIV-test counselling.
He is the author of Interpreting Qualitative Data (Fourth Edition, 2012), Doing Qualitative Research (Third
Edition, 2010) and A Very Short, Fairly Interesting, Reasonably Cheap Book about Qualitative Research
(2007). He is the editor of Qualitative Research (Third Edition, 2011) and the Sage series Introducing
Qualitative Methods. In recent years, he has offered short, hands-on workshops in qualitative research for
universities in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. He is a Visiting Professor in the Business School,
University of Technology,Sydney.
Now retired from full-time work, he aims to watch 100 days of cricket a year. He also enjoys voluntary work
in an old people’s home where he sings with residents with dementia and strokes.
Preface to Fifth Edition
This new edition has been substantially rewritten. Drawing upon comments from readers of the fourth
edition, I have made the following changes:
A new chapter on generalizing from case-study research which addresses the perennial issue of ‘how
many cases do you need?’.
The organization of the book is simplified: there are now only three sections and discussion of how
to make qualitative research credible is moved to an earlier position, immediately after the chapter on
Throughout the book, a consistent use is made of two qualitative research models: Naturalism and
Constructionism. This is in line with current usage and, I believe, makes the book easier for students
Many more recent case study examples drawn from a broad range of disciplines including business,
education, social work and geography as well as health studies.
Greater attention to research based on internet data including ‘netnography’ (Kozinets,2010).
Chapter One has a new introduction outlining the meaning of ‘research’.
Chapter Two now includes a discussion of mixed methods.
Chapter Six has an expanded discussion of the ethics of internet research and Chapter Nine a new
section on netnography.
Chapter Ten has new sections on organizational documents (including a discussion of corporate
social responsibility) and on documents of everyday life (e.g. blogs and diaries).
Chapter Thirteen now makes it clear that writing a research report should not be a linear process.
Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen are illustrated with case examples from a wider range of disciplines.
Where the number of an exercise appears in red, the book’s website includes a model answer.
For ease of access, all links provided in this book, now appear in the website. All links listed in this
book were checked in early 2014.
My aim has been to develop the book further as an undergraduate introductory qualitative methods text
which complements the postgraduate focus of Doing Qualitative Research. Rather than attempting to turn
this volume into simply an undergraduate research project book, my focus is on introducing first-degree
students to the theory, methods and practice of qualitative research. In this way, I have tried to make this
book suitable for both taught courses and research projects at the undergraduate level.
Like the Fourth Edition, this volume offers a Companion Website with additional case studies provided by
links to Sage journals. It also provides links to useful websites, podcasts and YouTube videos. This Fifth
Edition is also accompanied with its own group page on www.methodspace.com where users can give
feedback and discuss research-related topics.
Like earlier editions of this book, I aim to demonstrate that qualitative research is not simply a set of
techniques to be slotted into any given research problem. That is why this book concentrates on data analysis
rather than simply data gathering. Indeed, at the very start of qualitative research, analytic issues should be
to the fore.
Contrary to the common tendency simply to select any given social problem as one’s focus, I try to
demonstrate that research problems, at any level, need to be analytically defined. Indeed, in qualitative
research, it often makes sense to begin without a clearly defined problem and to gradually work towards a
topic by confronting data with the simple question: ‘what is going on here?’ Here, as elsewhere, my position
derives from a constructionist stance in which my preference is to gather naturalistic data in order to study
how people put their world together in everyday situations. This involves:
Studying what people do [i.e. their behaviour] rather than focusing upon their thoughts and
A concern with what is taken for granted in everyday life, finding extraordinary features in
apparently ordinary activities and noting the ordinary organization of apparently extraordinary events
[see Silverman,2013a and Chapter 1]
A preference for naturalistic data [e.g. observations, documents, audios and videos]
A concern with the sequences in which behaviour is embedded
An attention to context and a refusal to triangulate data gathered in different ways
Contributing to practice often by revealing the potential of unnoticed participant skills.
You should be aware that this is a minority position within the qualitative research community. Most
qualitative research is based on what I call a naturalistic model [see Chapter 1]. This involves :
Studying what people think or feel [i.e. their ‘experiences’]
A preference for interviews and other kinds of manufactured data
Using methods of analysis which pay little attention to sequential organization [e.g. content analysis
or thematic analysis]
A willingness to triangulate data from different contexts
In brief, for me, this majority position has many faults:
Its focus on ‘experience’ more or less replicates the predominant focus of contemporary Western
cultures [i.e. it is the arena of talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey rather than a specifically social
Its assumption that subjective factors like beliefs, perceptions and motives shape behaviour is over-
rationalistic. Most of the time we just get on with things and only worry about what they ‘mean’ if
something out of the ordinary occurs.
Its lack of attention to how people attend to the sequencing or positioning of actions tends to define
people as ‘dopes’.
Its use of triangulation can be a form of crude positivism. Ironically, positivists are often in a better
position to study ‘meanings’ than naturalists [e.g. they can study large numbers of people, use
reliable measures and come up with reliable correlations].
None of this means that the reader should expect to find that this book contains a polemic [a polemical
treatment is offered in Silverman (2013a)]. My central aim here is to show the value of a range of
methodologies in social research and to equip the reader with some of the skills necessary to apply these
methodologies. I recognize that many qualitative researchers follow this majority position and so this book
shows how to make intelligent use of interview and focus group data.
Writing a book, like most things we do, is related to our own biography. I say ‘related to’ because it is both
inappropriate and foolish to reduce a piece of writing to the personal experiences of its author. Indeed,
nothing makes me cringe more than those endless chat shows where the topic is always someone’s
‘personality’ rather than their work. Here, as elsewhere, then, one should trust the tale and not the teller,
although my biographical background is sketched out in Chapter 15.
It is the craft of social research that this book sets to convey rather than the passive ability to regurgitate
appropriate answers in methodology examinations. I believe that knowledge has little to do with rote
learning about the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches or methods. To this end, my
discussion is illustrated by many detailed examples of qualitative research studies. Technical terms are
highlighted and included in the Glossary.
To be effective, a textbook should offer an active learning experience. In ancient Greece, Socrates
encouraged understanding by asking his students pointed questions. Much more recently, another
philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, filled his book Philosophical Investigations with hundreds of provocative
questions. Interestingly enough, a period of teaching in an elementary school had shown him how real
learning often comes by working through particular examples.
Learning through doing is a wonderful way of appropriating knowledge and turning it into useful skills. The
point has not been lost in distance-learning programmes (like those at the Open University in the UK). Thus,
I provide many exercises, linked to the surrounding text.
These exercises often involve the reader in gathering and/or analysing data. My aim is that the users of this
book will learn some basic skills in generating researchable problems and analysing qualitative data. As I
have confirmed through using these materials for assessment on an undergraduate course, the exercises also
give students an ability to show the skills of their craft in a way that is not usually possible in the confines of
a normal examination method.
I believe that the most challenging of these skills arises in defining research problems and in analysing data.
So this present book is not a ‘cookbook’: it does not discuss in detail many of the practical issues involved in
the research process (e.g. how to obtain access, how to present oneself to research subjects). Some of these
matters can only be settled by practical experience. Others involve concealed analytic issues (e.g. about the
character of observation) which are discussed in this book.
I envisage this reshaped text as a companion volume to the Fourth Edition of my recent book Doing
Qualitative Research (2013). That book is a guide to the business of conducting a research project at the
graduate level. This book is more introductory and, together with its accompanying volume of key readings
(Silverman, 2011), seeks to offer the background undergraduate students need for a methods course or when
contemplating their own small-scale qualitative research study.
For my sense of this ‘background’, I will use the words of Wittgenstein who, in closing his Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus, tells us:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me
eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up
beyond them (he must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it). He
must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. (1971: 6.54)
It is my hope that this book may serve as something like Wittgenstein’s ladder, providing an initial footing
for students then to go off to do their own research – charting new territories rather than restating
A number of friends have contributed to this Third Edition. I am very grateful for the comments I have
received from Marie Buscatto, Kathy Charmaz, Jay Gubrium, Jonathan Potter, Tim Rapley, Cathy Riessman
and Sue Wilkinson. I thank Christian Heath, Paul Luff and Cambridge University Press for allowing me to
reproduce in Chapter 10 passages from Heath and Luff’s book Technology in Action (2000). I am also
grateful to Clive Seale for giving me permission to mention certain Internet links recommended in his edited
textbook (Seale, 2004b) and to Sara Cordell for keeping my back in good enough shape to be able to finish
My editor at Sage, Katie Metzler, has been a constant source of help. Katie did a very useful survey of
responses to the previous edition of this book and made many helpful suggestions about how this present
volume could be adapted. Naturally, I alone am responsible for any errors or omissions contained in this