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Interpreting Qualitative Data



This is the perfect book for any student new to qualitative research. In this exciting and major updating of his bestselling, benchmark text, David Silverman walks the reader through the basics of gathering and analysing qualitative data. David Silverman offers beginners unrivalled hands-on guidance necessary to get the best out of a research methods course or an undergraduate research project. New to the fourth edition: - A new chapter on data analysis dealing with grounded theory, discourse analysis and narrative analysis - Further worked-through examples of different kinds of data and how to interpret them - A separate section on focus groups and interpreting focus group data - An expanded ethics chapter - More coverage of digital media and photographs as data - A companion website with additional case studies and examples, links to SAGE journals online, and links to useful websites, podcasts and Youtube videos. This fourth edition is also accompanied with its own group page on where users can give feedback and discuss research issues.Visit
Interpreting Qualitative Data
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David Silverman
Interpreting Qualitative Data
A Guide to the Principles of Qualitative Research
5th edition
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
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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
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
2.7 Conclusions
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
3.5 Conclusions
4 Credible Qualitative Research
4.1 Does credibility matter?
4.2 Reliability
4.3 Validity
4.4 Conclusions
5 Data Analysis
5.1 Some rules for data analysis
5.2 Content analysis
5.3 Grounded theory
5.4 Narrative analysis
5.5 Conclusion
6 Research Ethics
6.1 Ethical pitfalls
6.2 Ethical safeguards
6.3 Some ethical complications
7 Interviews
7.1 What is an ‘open-ended’ interview?
7.2 Why interview?
7.3 Implications: three versions of interview data
7.4 Positivism
7.5 Naturalism
7.6 Constructionism
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
7.12 Conclusion
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 Ethnography
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 Documents
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
10.5 Conclusion
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
11.7 Conclusion
12 Visual Images
12.1 Kinds of visual data
12.2 Research strategies
12.3 Content analysis
12.4 Semiotics
12.5 Workplace studies
12.6 Conclusion
13 Writing Your Report
13.1 Beginnings
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
14.4 Summary
14.5 Conclusion
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
Author index
Subject index
Companion Website
Be sure to visit the companion website to this book at 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
( 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.
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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
case-study research.
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
to follow.
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 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
science perspective].
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
comfortable orthodoxies.
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
this book.
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
... Given the lack of prior research on the application of brief family consultation with adults with EDs, inductive category development was used to code the open text participant responses [64]. ...
Full-text available
Background Eating disorders are associated with significant personal and family costs. Clinical guidelines recommend family members be involved and supported during care, but little has been reported regarding the preferences of adults around carer involvement in treatment. The necessary intensity of family work with adults is also unknown. A trial of a standardised brief family involvement method was conducted in an adult eating disorder service offering treatment-as-usual. Uptake and feasibility of implementing the approach as part of standard outpatient care and the preliminary impact on issues identified by adult patients and carers were evaluated. Methods Eligible referrals at an adult eating disorders outpatient clinic were offered as needed family consultation to address presenting interpersonal problems identified by patients and their family members, and outcomes were evaluated 4 weeks later. Pre and post intervention surveys identified participant self-reported change in (i) problem frequency, (ii) distress and disruption caused, and (iii) confidence regarding presenting problems. Open text responses provided an overview of patient and carer goals for family involvement and revealed how the novel method impacted these areas as well as overall experience of, and feedback regarding, the brief family intervention. Results Twenty-four female participants aged 18–53, and 22 carers participated in 31 consultations. Common concerns raised were eating disorder related interpersonal and communication issues. The focused sessions, offered on a one-at-a-time basis, showed preliminary effectiveness for reducing both patients and carer concerns. For example, adult patients reported that life interference from interpersonal problems was lower and confidence to deal with them was higher following family consultation. Carers also reported that frequency, level of worry, and life interference around presenting problems were lower after the structured family intervention. Conclusions Brief family consultation, with a single focus on issues identified by family members and adult patients, was a safe and feasible procedure with adults affected by eating disorders. Effective at meeting the needs of participants, the framework investigated in the current study may also be a useful direction for adult services to consider when looking to support families and meet recommendations for their routine involvement in the outpatient care. Trial registration: Australian Clinical Trials Register number: ACTRN12621000047897 (
Purpose This research was conducted to describe the clinical characteristics of children with a history of opioid exposure as perceived by the speech-language pathologists (SLPs) treating them. Method Three focus groups were conducted. Participants consisted of 20 SLPs working in the schools in West Virginia who had experienced working with children with a confirmed or suspected history of opioid exposure. A thematic, qualitative analysis was conducted, whereby focus group sessions were transcribed verbatim and information was coded, organized into themes, and interpreted. Results Themes of perceived clinical characteristics (speech, language, executive function, and other developmental delays) are reported to address the research question. Additionally, themes derived from the data regarding perceived significant differentiators (greater severity/needs, inconsistent performance, and atypical manifestation) and perceived confounding characteristics (safety and well-being, aspects of home environment, and effects on school environment) that are often reported in children with a history or suspected history of opioid exposure are presented. Conclusions Perceived clinical characteristics of this population, both intrinsic and situational, highlight the complex profile of this population and demonstrate the importance of considering each child from a multidimensional perspective. Additional research is needed to represent the profile of these children more completely and to identify successful supports that will improve their speech and language outcomes, educational achievement, and their overall quality of life.
Full-text available
As post-apartheid South Africa seeks to forge an identity as a modern, industrialising nation with a constitution that embodies the most progressive and enlightened principles of liberal democracy, muthi killings are often presented as a wayward throwback to a dark and savage past. The South African media continues to highlight stories of witchcraft as experienced by many communities, both urban and rural. Nearly all the stories reported in the media describe events where children were killed and their bodies mutilated for the purpose of producing muthi. This paper aims to uncover some of the reasons why murderers who collect human body parts for witchdoctors mostly target young boys and girls. A qualitative research approach was adopted. A systematic review of relevant literature was conducted with the main focus on muthi murders. The findings fill the current lacuna in the body of literature on traditional medicines and healing practices. Overall, the findings suggest that all human body parts are considered powerful. However, the body parts (especially the genitalia) of young boys and girls are regarded as particularly potent, reportedly as the screaming of a child while his or her body parts are being sliced off and removed is believed to awaken magical powers in the person who consumes or uses the potion that contains these parts.
Full-text available
Individuals from conflict-affected countries, such as Iraq, face formidable challenges when they resettle in the United States. Drawing from intersectionality theory, we explore the lived experiences of adolescent boys and girls from Iraq who have resettled in Texas and Virginia. In this qualitative study, we focus on the school as an institution that is positioned to enforce, or to combat, systemic and interpersonal inequalities among young refugees, especially in terms of gender and race. Our thematic analysis identifies the ways their interactions with teachers, peers, and family in the school context have shaped the socialization of these adolescent boys and girls from Iraq. The study findings reflect the importance of understanding how education settings can affect the intersectional experiences of conflict-affected youth who have resettled in the United States.
Given the limited studies in the literature to understand entrepreneurial well-being, in this study, we aimed to answer the questions “what kind of resources does an entrepreneur need to experience a high level of well-being?” and “what would be the possible consequences of an entrepreneur’s well-being?” To elaborate the entrepreneurial well-being concept further, we conducted in-depth interviews with 20 male, married, and opportunity-driven entrepreneurs operating technology enterprises in Turkey. Based on the thematic analysis of the interviews, we ended up with six resources for their well-being (i.e., individual factors, family life, entrepreneurial success, network, the team, and investment) and five areas on which their well-being is impactful (i.e., individual, family, societal, employees, and business). Despite its limitations, our study contributes significantly to entrepreneurial well-being literature and paves the way for further research.
Quadratics provide a foundational context for making sense of many important algebraic concepts, such as variables and parameters, nonlinear rates of change, and views of function. Yet researchers have highlighted students’ difficulties in connecting such concepts. This in-depth qualitative study with two pairs of Year 10 (15 or 16-year-old) students investigated the potential of figural pattern generalisation—a context not traditionally used for teaching quadratics—to stimulate students’ coordination of visual and algebraic reasoning and attention to quadratic function concepts. Theorisations of embodied visualisation, algebraic thinking, and student noticing were drawn on to analyse the pairs responding to 19 quadratic figural pattern generalisation tasks interspersed throughout their class topic on quadratic equations. It was found that students became adept at connecting the generality of different types of structural aspects of figures (square, rectangular, linear, constant/invariant) to their symbolic expression in quadratic equations. Students’ construction of numeric instantiations of figural aspects was found to support pairs in moving towards symbolic generalisation. Task prompts to find different (but equivalent) algebraic equations for the same pattern evidenced pairs beginning to distinguish among general, factorised and standard forms of quadratic equations. One pair’s attention to first and second differences (between total quantities of figures in a sequence) highlighted both the difficulty of and potential for connecting quadratic rate-of-change concepts and parameters visually. Implications for including figural pattern generalisation when teaching quadratics and suggestions for further research are shared.
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