Qualitative Analysis: ‘Thick Meaning’ by Preserving Each Lived Experience

My approach to qualitative data analysis has nothing to do with Post-it Notes, clipping excerpts from transcripts (digitally or with scissors), or otherwise breaking participants’ input (“data”) into bite-size pieces. My approach Thick meaningis the opposite of that. My goal is to gain an enriched understanding of each participant’s lived experience associated with the research questions and objectives and, from there, develop an informed contextually nuanced interpretation across participants. By way of deriving “thick meaning” within and across participants, I hope to provide the sponsor of the research with consequential and actionable outcomes.

I begin the analysis process immediately after completing the first in-depth interview (IDI) or focus group discussion by writing down (typically, in a spreadsheet) what I think I learned from each participant or group discussion pertaining to the key research questions and objectives as well as any new, unexpected yet relevant topic areas. I do this by referring to my in-session notes (for IDIs) and the IDI or group discussion audio recording. I then give thoughtful study and internalize each participant’s lived experience associated with the research questions and objectives which enables me to gain an understanding of the complexities of any one thought or idea while also respectfully preserving the integrity of the individual or group of individuals. “Preserving the integrity of the individual or group of individuals” is an important component of this approach which is grounded in the belief that researchers have a moral obligation to make a concerted effort to uphold each participant’s individuality to the extent possible in the analytical process.

At the completion of the final IDI or focus group discussion, I begin reflecting more heavily on what I learned from each participant Read Full Text

Gathering Quality Ethnographic Data: 3 Key Considerations

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 204-206).

Data Gathering is one of two broad areas of the Total Quality Framework Credibility component that affects all qualitative research, incEthnography peacockluding ethnographic research. There are three primary aspects concerning the gathering of data in ethnography that require serious consideration by the researcher in the development of the study design. To optimize the measurement of ethnographic data, and hence the quality of the outcomes, researchers need to pay attention to:

  • How well the observers have identified and recorded all the information (e.g., verbal and nonverbal behavior, attitudes, context, sensory cues) pertinent to the research objectives and constructs of interest. A well-developed observation guide and observation grid can assist greatly in this effort. Not unlike the development of an in-depth interview or discussion guide, the ethnographer seeks to identify those observable events—including the specific individuals (or types of individuals), the verbal and nonverbal behaviors, attitudes, sensory and other environmental cues—that will further the researcher’s understanding of the issues. During the design development phase, the researcher might isolate the observations of interest by:
    • Looking at earlier ethnographic research on the subject matter and/or with similar study populations.
    • Interviewing the clients or those who have requested the research to learn everything they know about the topic and   their past work in the area.
    • Consulting the literature or other experts concerning the behaviors and other occurrences associated with particular constructs.
    • “Shagging around” (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982) the observation site(s) to casually assess the environment and begin to learn about the participants.


  • Observer effects, specifically—
    • Observer bias, that is, behavioral and other characteristics (e.g., personal attitudes, values, traits) of the observer that may alter the observed event or bias their observations. For example, an observer as a complete participant would bias the observational data if there was an attempt to “educate” participants on a subject matter for which the observer had personal expertise or knowledge.
    • Observer inconsistency, that is, an inconsistent manner in which the observer conducts the observations that creates unwarranted and unrepresentative variation in the data. For example, an on-site nonparticipant observer conducting in-home observations of the use of media and technology would be introducing inaccuracies in the data by observing and recording the use of television and gaming in some households but not in others where television and gaming activities took place.


  • Participant effects, specifically, the extent to which observed participants alter a naturally occurring event, leading to biased outcomes. This is often called the Hawthorne effect, whereby the people being observed, either consciously or unconsciously, change what is being measured in the observation because they are aware of the observer. For example, an ethnographer conducting an overt, on-site passive observation of teaching practices in a school district would come away with misleading data if one or more school teachers deviated from their usual teaching styles during the observations in order to more closely conform with district policies.


LeCompte, M. D., & Goetz, J. P. (1982). Ethnographic data collection in evaluation research. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 4(3), 387–400.

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

Ethnography: Number of Observations

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 199-201), a qualitative methods text covering in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography, qualitative content analysis, case study, and narrative research.

An important decision that ethnographic researchers need to make is the ethnographynumber of observations to conduct, or, more accurately, the number of:

  • Sites to observe.
  • People within sites to observe.
  • Observational events (e.g., how often to revisit a particular site).

Addressing this question can be complex—a process of both art and science—or fairly straightforward. In the simplest case, the number of sites to observe and observation events will be dictated by the (1) breadth and depth of the research objectives, (2) breadth and depth of the target population, and/or (3) practical realities of the research (e.g., the accessibility of the target participants, financial resources, and time available to complete the study). If, for example, the research objective is to examine the implementation of new procedures at a county free clinic, the number of sites to observe is just one (the clinic) and the frequency of observations will be determined by such factors as the fluctuation in the patient load (i.e., the slow- and high-volume hours in the clinic) and level of procedural details the observer wants to capture.

A more complex situation arises when the focus of the research is on a broad target population such as consumers. For instance, ethnographic research to study how consumers shop for vitamins would most likely require many observations of the same or different individuals within a variety of retail environments (e.g., supermarkets, drug stores, and superstores such as Read Full Text