unique attributes

Contextual Analysis: A Fundamental Attribute of Qualitative Research

Contextual analysis-A unique attribute of qualitative research

One of the 10 unique or distinctive attributes of qualitative research is contextual, multilayered analysis. This is a fundamental aspect of qualitative research and, in fact, plays a central role in the unique attributes associated with data generation, i.e., the importance of context, the importance of meaning, the participant-researcher relationship, and researcher as instrument

“…the interconnections, inconsistencies, and sometimes seemingly illogical input reaped in qualitative research demand that researchers embrace the tangles of their data from many sources. There is no single source of analysis in qualitative research because any one research event consists of multiple variables that need consideration in the analysis phase. The analyzable data from an in-depth interview, for example, are more than just what was said in the interview; they also include a variety of other considerations, such as the context in which certain information was revealed and the interviewee–interviewer relationship.” (Roller & Lavrakas, pp. 7-8)

The ability — the opportunity — to contextually analyze qualitative data is also associated with basic components of research design, such as sample size and the risk of relying on saturation which “misguides the researcher towards prioritizing manifest content over the pursuit of contextual understanding derived from latent, less obvious data.” And the defining differentiator between a qualitative and quantitative approach, such as qualitative content analysis in which it is “the inductive strategy in search of latent content, the use of context, the back-and-forth flexibility throughout the analytical process, and the continual questioning of preliminary interpretations that set qualitative content analysis apart from the quantitative method.”

There are many ways that context is integrated into the qualitative data analysis process to ensure quality analytical outcomes and interpretations. Various articles in Research Design Review have discussed contextually grounded aspects of the process, such as the following (each header links to the corresponding RDR article).

Unit of Analysis

“Although there is no perfect prescription for every study, it is generally understood that researchers should strive for a unit of analysis that retains the context necessary to derive meaning from the data. For this reason, and if all other things are equal, the qualitative researcher should probably err on the side of using a broader, more contextually based unit of analysis rather than a narrowly focused level of analysis (e.g., sentences).”

Meaning of Words

“How we use our words provides the context that shapes what the receiver hears and the perceptions others associate with our words. Context pertains to apparent as well as unapparent influences that take the meaning of our words beyond their proximity to other words [or] their use in recognized terms or phrases…”

Categorical Buckets

“No one said that qualitative data analysis is simple or straightforward. A reason for this lies in the fact that an important ingredient to the process is maintaining participants’ context and potential multiple meanings of the data. By identifying and analyzing categorical buckets, the researcher respects this multi-faceted reality and ultimately reaps the reward of useful interpretations of the data.”

Use of Transcripts

“Although serving a utilitarian purpose, transcripts effectively convert the all-too-human research experience that defines qualitative inquiry to the relatively emotionless drab confines of black-on-white text. Gone is the profound mood swing that descended over the participant when the interviewer asked about his elderly mother. Yes, there is text in the transcript that conveys some aspect of this mood but only to the extent that the participant is able to articulate it.”

Use of Recordings

“Unlike the transcript, the recording reminds the researcher of how and when the atmosphere in the [focus] group environment shifted from being open and friendly to quiet and inhibited; and how the particular seating arrangement, coupled with incompatible personality types, inflamed the atmosphere and seriously colored participants’ words, engagement, and way of thinking.”



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






Built-in Quality in Qualitative Research: Flexibility of Design

QR: Flexibility of Design

Many of the unique attributes associated with qualitative research have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, e.g., “Achieving Accuracy in the Absence of ‘Truth'” and “Mitigating Researcher-as-instrument Effects.” One of these 10 unique attributes of qualitative research is the flexibility of the research design. Accepting that flexibility is a central and important component that strengthens the qualitative research process will greatly benefit the researcher embarking on a qualitative approach.

There are a variety of ways that qualitative researchers demonstrate flexibility in their designs, data generation, and analysis and thereby strengthen their research. Here are a few:

  • Modifying and adapting the questions that are asked or the direction to take during fieldwork. For example,
    • A moderator may modify the focus group discussion guide after hearing unexpected-yet-relevant discussion points in the first of many scheduled focus groups.
    • In a case study, the researcher may decide to substitute cases or change methods, e.g., switching to in-depth interviews (IDIs) when experiencing unanticipated delays in scheduling focus group discussions.
    • An ethnographer may decide to switch observer roles as they consider new observation and participation strategies.
  • Use of the semi-structured and unstructured interview approach in IDIs and narrative research. This allows for
    • Flexibility in how, what, and when relevant content in the guide is discussed in the interview.
    • Back-and-forth dialogue and encourages each participant’s “voice” to be heard.
  • Asynchronous online modes give participants the flexibility to respond at a time and place of their choosing, making the asynchronous online approach participants’ preferred mode and raising the rate of participant cooperation. For example,
    • Gibson (2010) found that 55 out of 70 research participants opted for an email IDI rather than an in-person IDI, and Beck (2005) extended an email IDI study for 18 months which allowed the researcher to incorporate some complexity and “richness” into the interview.
    • Tates et al. (2009) conducted asynchronous online focus group discussions with pediatric cancer patients, parents, and survivors and found that participants “highly valued the flexibility and convenience of logging in at their own time and place to join the discussion” (p. 1).
  • Location of in-person IDIs can be flexible, allowing the participant to choose a convenient and comfortable location, which has a positive effect on the level of participant cooperation and interviewer-participant rapport.
    • For example, flexibility of location is critical to achieving quality outcomes when conducting an IDI study with building contractors who are constantly moving between projects or busy on construction sites. Depending on contractors’ preferences, the researcher may agree to conducting the interview at a construction site or a nearby coffee shop.
  • Qualitative research analysis is a back-and-forth process whereby the researcher is always questioning assumptions and interpretations of the data as they develop.
    • Verification is an important step in the qualitative data analysis process.

Gibson, L. (2010). Using email interviews (No. 09). Retrieved from http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1303/1/09-toolkit-email-interviews.pdf

Tates, K., Zwaanswijk, M., Otten, R., van Dulmen, S., Hoogerbrugge, P. M., Kamps, W. A., & Bensing, J. M. (2009). Online focus groups as a tool to collect data in hard-to-include populations: Examples from paediatric oncology. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 9(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-9-15

The Issues & Questions Uniquely Suited For Qualitative Research

QR Unique Attributes: Type of Issues & Questions

There are many instances when a qualitative research design is the only option. This is because qualitative research is uniquely suited to address research issues or questions that might be difficult, if not impossible, to investigate under more structured, less flexible quantitative research designs. Qualitative inquiry effectively tackles sensitive or personal issues such as domestic violence (e.g., Beaulaurier et al., 2005), racism (e.g., Harper et al., 2011), physical disabilities (e.g., Kroll et al., 2007), pregnancy among teenagers (e.g., Luttrell, 2003), drug addiction (e.g., Jodlowski et al., 2007), and infertility (e.g., Culley et al., 2007); multifaceted, intricate topics such as personal life histories (Elliott, 2005) and corporate leadership (e.g., Schilling, 2006); nebulous questions such as those pertaining to “quality of life” (e.g., Ferrell et al., 1997; Wainwright et al., 2018) and “Feelings & Sensations: Where Survey Designs Fair Badly.”; and contextual issues such as in-the-moment decision making, for example, in-store observations of shopping patterns (e.g., West, 2012).

By the same token, qualitative research is often the only option to gaining in-depth, meaningful information from hard-to-reach, underserved, or hidden populations, such as children (e.g., Christensen, et al., 2011), same-sex partners (e.g., Frost, 2013); subcultures such as motorcycle bikers (e.g., Schouten & McAlexander, 1995); psychiatric facilities (e.g., Lyall & Bartlett, 2010); deviant groups such as heavy drug users and convicted murderers (e.g., Small et al., 2006); individuals afflicted with an uncommon physical condition such as acromegaly (e.g., Sibeoni et al., 2019); and minority parents of school-age children (e.g., Auerbach, 2002). Although qualitative inquiry is just as appropriate in the investigation of the “average” consumer, teenager, senior citizen, educator, corporate employee, community volunteer, cancer patient, and the like, it is the ability to obtain insight from the less obvious, smaller niche segments of the population that gives special distinction to the qualitative approach.

All 10 unique attributes of qualitative research are discussed in this RDR article.

Auerbach, S. (2002). “Why do they give the good classes to some and not to others?” Latino parent narratives of struggle in a college access program. Teachers College Record, 104(7), 1369–1392. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9620.00207

Beaulaurier, R. L., Seff, L. R., Newman, F. L., & Dunlop, B. (2005). Internal barriers to help seeking for middle-aged and older women who experience intimate partner violence. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 17(3), 2005. https://doi.org/10.1300/J084v17n03_04

Christensen, P., Mikkelsen, M. R., Nielsen, T. A. S., & Harder, H. (2011). Children, mobility, and space: Using GPS and mobile phone technologies in ethnographic research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 5(3), 227–246. https://doi.org/10.1177/1558689811406121

Culley, L., Hudson, N., & Rapport, F. (2007). Using focus groups with minority ethnic communities: Researching infertility in British South Asian communities. Qualitative Health Research, 17(1), 102–112. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732306296506

Elliott, J. (2005). Using narrative in social research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. London: Sage Publications.

Ferrell, B. R., Grant, M. M., Funk, B., Otis-Green, S., & Garcia, N. (1997). Quality of life in breast cancer survivors as identified by focus groups. Psycho-Oncology, 6(1), 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1611(199703)6:1<13::AID-PON231>3.0.CO;2-S

Frost, D. M. (2013). Stigma and intimacy in same-sex relationships: A narrative approach. Qualitative Psychology, 1(S), 49–61. https://doi.org/10.1037/2326-3598.1.S.49

Harper, S. R., Davis, R. J., Jones, D. E., McGowan, B. L., Ingram, T. N., & Platt, C. S. (2011). Race and racism in the experiences of Black male resident assistants at predominantly White universities. Journal of College Student Development, 52(2), 180–200. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2011.0025

Jodlowski, D., Sharf, B. F., Nguyen, L. C., Haidet, P., & Woodard, L. D. (2007). “Screwed for life”: Examining identification and division in addiction narratives. Communication & Medicine, 4(1), 15–26. https://doi.org/10.1515/CAM.2007.003

Kroll, T., Barbour, R., & Harris, J. (2007). Using focus groups in disability research. Qualitative Health Research, 17(5), 690–698. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732307301488

Luttrell, W. (2003). Pregnant bodies, fertile minds: Gender, race and the schooling of pregnant teens. New York: Routledge.

Lyall, M., & Bartlett, A. (2010). Decision making in medium security: Can he have leave? Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(6), 887–901. https://doi.org/10.1080/14789949.2010.500740

Schilling, J. (2006). On the pragmatics of qualitative assessment. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 22(1), 28–37. https://doi.org/10.1027/1015-5759.22.1.28

Schouten, J. W., & McAlexander, J. H. (1995). Subcultures of consumption: An ethnography of the new bikers. Journal of Consumer Research, 22, 43–61.

Sibeoni, J., Manolios, E., Verneuil, L., Chanson, P., & Revah-Levy, A. (2019). Patients’ perspectives on acromegaly diagnostic delay: a qualitative study. https://doi.org/10.1530/EJE-18-0925

Small, W., Kerr, T., Charette, J., Schechter, M. T., & Spittal, P. M. (2006). Impacts of intensified police activity on injection drug users: Evidence from an ethnographic investigation. International Journal of Drug Policy, 17(2), 85–95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2005.12.005

Wainwright, B., Waring, M. J., Julich, S., Yeung, P., & Green, J. K. (2018). Quality of life of living with a transplanted liver: The issue of returning to normalcy. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30(1), 7–19.

West, R. (2012). Lather, rinse, repeat: Getting into the shower & other private places with mobile qualitative. MRMW North America Conference.