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Section 15. Qualitative Methods to Assess Community Issues

Learn how to use qualitative methods, such as focus groups and interviews, to support and strengthen your community assessment.


  • What are qualitative methods of assessment?

  • Why use qualitative methods of assessment?

  • When would you use qualitative methods of assessment?

  • How do you use qualitative methods of assessment?

Using qualitative assessment methods rather than purely data-based information is crucial to understanding many community issues and needs. Numbers work well to show comparisons, progress, an statistics of community efforts, but they cannot express motives, opinions, feelings, or relationships. This section discusses how to use qualitative assessment methods and when to implement them into communtiy planning.

What are qualitative methods of assessment?

Qualitative methods of assessment are ways of gathering information that yield results that can’t easily be measured by or translated into numbers. They are often used when you need the subtleties behind the numbers – the feelings, small actions, or pieces of community history that affect the current situation. They acknowledge the fact that experience is subjective – that it is filtered through the perceptions and world views of the people undergoing it – and that it’s important to understand those perceptions and world views.

There are two major scientific ways of gathering information: quantitative methods and qualitative methods. Quantitative methods are those that express their results in numbers. They tend to answer questions like “How many?” or “How much?” or “How often?” When they’re used to compare things – the results of community programs, the effects of an economic development effort, or attitudes about a community issue – they do it by subjecting all of the things or people they’re comparing to exactly the same tests or to the same questions whose answers can be translated into numbers. That way, they can compare apples to apples – everything or everyone is measured by the same standard. Quantitative measures are often demanded by policy makers; they are considered trustworthy because their results can be measured against one another, and because they leave less room for bias.

Qualitative methods don’t yield numerical results in themselves. They may involve asking people for “essay” answers about often-complex issues, or observing interactions in complex situations. When you ask a lot of people for their reactions to or explanations of a community issue, you’re likely to get a lot of different answers. When you observe a complex situation, you may see a number of different aspects of it, and a number of ways in which it could be interpreted. You’re not only not comparing apples to apples, you may be comparing apples to bulldozers or waterfalls. As a result, researchers and policymakers sometimes see qualitative methods as less accurate and less legitimate than quantitative ones. That can be true, but, as we’ll see, if qualitative methods are used with care, they can also yield reliable information.

Qualitative and quantitative methods are, in fact, complementary. Each has strengths and weaknesses that the other doesn’t, and together, they can present a clearer picture of the situation than either would alone. Often, the most accurate information is obtained when several varieties of each method are used. That’s not always possible, but when it is, it can yield the best results.

There are a number of qualitative methods that can be used in assessment of issues or community needs. We’ll list the major ones here, and look at them in more detail later in the section.

They include:

  • Individual interviews. These may be structured interviews, where the questions are determined beforehand, or unstructured conversations that are allowed to range wherever the interviewee wants to go in relation to the general topic. Even in structured interviews, there may be room for both interviewers and interviewees to pursue topics that don’t relate directly to answering the original questions. The difference, however, is that in a structured interview, all those questions are formally asked, and the interviewer does her best to make sure they’re answered.
  • Group interviews. These are similar to individual interviews, but involve two or more interviewees at a time, rather than one. (Sometimes, these are unexpected – the interviewee’s mother and sister are present, and insist on being part of the conversation.) Group interviews have some advantages, in that interviewees can act as a check on one another (I remember that happening in a different way…), and stimulate one another’s thinking. At the same time, the interviewer has to be somewhat of a facilitator, making sure that no one person dominates, and that everyone gets a reasonable chance to speak.

A special case of group interviewing is a focus group. This is a group of about 6-10 people, led by a trained facilitator, assembled to answer a specific question or questions. An effort is sometimes made to make sure that group members don’t know one another, so that social pressures won’t influence them. If trained facilitators are available, focus groups can be a good way to get accurate information about an issue.

  • Observation. Here, someone actually goes and looks at a place or event, watches situations or interactions, or takes part in the life of the community or a population while recording what he finds as a result.
  • Community or other large meetings. These meetings allow a range of people a chance to express their opinions and react to others’. They can draw on a large pool of opinions and knowledge at one time, and uncover disagreements or differences that can then be discussed.
  • Interpretation of records, transcripts, etc. This can range from qualitative analysis of quantitative data (like the assumption of the researcher in the introduction to this section that people who are doing well won’t be interested in an adult education program), to using quantitative data as a jumping-off point for qualitative assessment, to case studies (detailed examinations of individual cases). The last are not always useful in assessing community issues or needs, but they can be very effective in convincing policymakers or funders of the importance of those issues and needs.

Many types of qualitative information are turned into numerical results, although not always accurately. The transformation may miss important details, or the information may simply be too complex to fit easily into numerical constraints, unless you can create a computer model or similar number-based framework that has the capacity to take in an enormous amount of variety. There are many software programs – NVivo and Atlas.ti are fairly well-known, but there are many others, including some freeware – that are intended expressly for analyzing qualitative data.

Since qualitative methods give you results that are not always easy to compare, or even to check for accuracy, people who want hard and fast evidence often see them as suspect. In fact, both quantitative and qualitative measures are important and necessary, depending on the situation. When you’re assessing community issues, as we’ve discussed, you’ll often get closest to the complete picture by using both. The problem is convincing those who need to be convinced – policymakers, funders, etc. – that your qualitative measures are reliable.

There is a debate in the research community about how to judge qualitative methods. Some say they should be evaluated by the same standards as quantitative methods. Others maintain that, because they are intrinsically different from quantitative methods, qualitative methods need a set of standards that take into account their philosophical base and the kind of information they yield.

The British government, for instance, has developed a framework for demonstrating qualitative reliability, which includes a set of 18 questions that a qualitative assessment or study should be subjected to (see Tool #1).

Guidelines that can help you argue for the reliability of your qualitative assessment include:

  • Report accurately and completely. Whether you’re interviewing, observing, or engaging in some other technique, you should faithfully record such details as the time and place of your activity, who was involved, what the situation was, etc. In that way, you can see similarities and differences, and make comparisons where they’re appropriate. The recording of interviews, observations, and other information should be as accurate and nearly complete as possible (e.g., word-for-word for interviews).
  • Frame the right questions, and direct them appropriately. Occasionally, it works to go fishing for information, i.e. to start without any idea of what you want to find out In most instances, however, you should know what the important questions are, and where you need to look for answers. The clearer you can be – and the clearer it is that the questions you’re asking will lead to real understanding and effective action – the more credibility your inquiry will have.
  • Use qualitative methods specifically to gain information you can’t easily get from quantitative methods. You can quantify how many members of a specific minority live in a particular neighborhood. It’s much harder to quantify a clear understanding of how well they get along with their neighbors, and why.
  • Use the method(s) that can best help you answer the questions you’re asking. If you want to know the state of vacant lots in a city, you’re less likely to determine it by asking people than you are by going and looking at the lots themselves. On the other hand, you usually can gain more information about people’s opinions through talking to them than you can from observation.
  • Sort out your own and others’ subjective feelings and comments from objective reality, and try to make sure that your findings are objective. It’s easy to get caught up in the passion of interviewees’ opinions, or in your own response to particular conditions. If you want your findings to be reliable, you have to screen out as much of the subjective as possible from what you find and record. (One way to approach this issue is to have more than one person record and analyze each interview or observation, and then to check on how well they agree, both in their recording of the data and in their interpretation.)

Something that’s objective – an observation, statement, opinion, research finding, etc. – is based on reality as it actually is. Scientists, for instance, aim to be objective, and to understand the way things really are, rather than the way the scientists or others want them to be, or think they might be. A subjective observation, statement, opinion, or research finding, on the other hand, is based on the thoughts and assumptions of the person issuing it. A researcher may be so appalled by the conditions in neighborhoods where violence is rampant that she may begin to feel that violence is in fact the only rational response, and slant her research in that direction.

Especially in community assessment, objectivity is vitally important. Objectivity in looking at the community will help you understand how to most effectively address issues, maximize and use assets, and solve problems. Understanding your own subjective reactions – to difficult conditions, to particular individuals, to cultural practices – will help you to screen them out, thereby increasing the reliability of your findings.

Why use qualitative methods of assessment?

The basic reason to use qualitative methods is that there are some kinds of questions and some dimensions of community assessment that can be better addressed by them than by quantitative methods. The methods you use should be determined by the questions you’re asking. Since it may be hard to convince policymakers and others that qualitative methods are useful, however, why bother to use them at all? Some of the major reasons:

  • They answer some questions that quantitative measures can’t. Quantitative methods may tell you how many people do a certain thing, but they’re unlikely to tell you how or why they do it. Qualitative methods can better answer the how and why questions, and also provide other information in the process.
  • They connect directly with the population and the community with which you’re concerned. In assessment, the best sources of information are those closest to what’s being assessed: they experience it more than anyone else. Qualitative methods generally go directly to those sources with more complex questions than quantitative methods.
  • They can get at certain underlying realities of the situation. Once again, quantitative methods often don’t answer “why?” questions, while qualitative methods can tell you about the history of the community or issue, who the significant supporters and opponents of various ideas are, whom people in the community listen to, etc. In an assessment situation, these can be crucial pieces of information.
  • They can involve the population of interest, or the community at large, in helping to assess the issues and needs of the community. This participation fosters a sense of ownership and support for the efforts.
  • They often allow for a deeper examination of the situation or the community than quantitative methods do. Quantitative methods, although helpful, can tend to put people or events in specific categories, ask for yes-no or multiple-choice answers, often eliminating complexity. Qualitative methods allow for following promising directions (“Why do you say that?”), and can lead to the discovery of important information that quantitative results wouldn’t have touched on.
  • They allow for the human factor. While the information obtained through qualitative methods is often subjective, it is also often identified as such, and can be analyzed accordingly.

When would you use qualitative methods of assessment?

Clearly, there are times when quantitative research will give you the information you need. So when do you use qualitative methods? It depends to a great extent on the question you’re asking. (The first four situations below are based on a USAID guide to using rapid appraisal methods, Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Tips.)

  • When what you need is qualitative, descriptive information. Particularly in an assessment situation, what you’re often looking for is descriptive or analytical information that has little to do with quantitative measures. The type of information provided by qualitative methods is often exactly what you’re looking for in community assessment to decide on next steps.
  • When you’re trying to understand the reasons and motivations for people’s behavior, or how they operate in particular situations. Why don’t people take advantage of human service programs for which they’re eligible? What are the differences in the ways people of different cultural backgrounds respond to services? These are the kinds of questions you’re likely to want to answer in a community assessment, and they often can’t be answered quantitatively.
  • When you’re analyzing quantitative data. As mentioned above, much quantitative data can be analyzed using qualitative methods.

An odd set of numbers – a community that’s decidedly low-income, but where a vast majority of people own their own homes, for instance – might be the springboard for a qualitative examination of why this is so. A number of reasons are possible:

  • The community is largely elderly, and people are living in long-since-paid-for houses they bought 40 or more years ago, when their income was higher and housing was less expensive.
  • One or more local banks have made it a priority to help people buy houses, and provide low-interest mortgages and other subsidy programs to further that goal.
  • While they may be low-income, the members of the community nonetheless scrimp on everything else in order to put away money for a house. This is often the case among immigrants from certain cultures, where people are willing to live very simply for many years in order to save for property and education.
  • The community has been “written off” because of its substandard housing, dangerous streets, and lack of services, and houses as a result are ridiculously cheap.
  • A combination of factors, some of which may not be listed here.

By and large, quantitative methods won’t easily tell you the reasons for this unusual situation, but qualitative methods will.

  • When you’re trying to develop suggestions and recommendations. Again, this is often the primary purpose of community assessment. How should you design a program or initiative to accomplish a major community goal or deal with an issue? What will people respond to? Qualitative data may give the best information here, or may be used in addition to qualitative information to provide a complete picture on which to base your strategy.
  • When you want to involve the community in assessment as directly as possible. Involving community members directly leads to ownership and support of initiatives, and is also likely to generate the best and most effective solutions. Qualitative assessment methods, for the most part, collect information directly from community members themselves, and allow them to fill in the details as much as they can. By and large, being interviewed is more likely to leave someone feeling like part of the process than filling out a survey.
  • When you’re doing community-based participatory research (i.e., involving the community directly in planning and implementing assessment). Community-based participatory research often relies greatly on qualitative assessment methods.
  • When quantitative data are unavailable or unobtainable.
  • When you don’t have the capacity to use quantitative methods. You may not have the proper training, the software or hardware that will make quantitative assessment useful for you, or the time to use quantitative methods properly.

How do you use qualitative methods of assessment?

Now that you’re convinced of the importance of using qualitative methods of assessment, how are you going to do it? There’s seldom one right way to do anything, but we’ll offer some steps to take in using qualitative methods, including some guidelines for doing interviews and observations, the two most common methods. (Most of these guidelines hold equally for using quantitative methods as well.)

Start by deciding what it is you want to know.

You may remember that this is also one of the guidelines for qualitative reliability. It may seem elementary, but it doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as it ought to. The importance of deciding what you want to know is that it determines the character of your assessment – what kinds of questions you ask, whom you ask them of, how you’ll go about it, etc. Without that minimal amount of structure, you’re likely to wind up with a confused and unorganized mass of information.

There are many ways to approach a community assessment, and, consequently, many questions you might choose to start your assessment with. You might even use more than one, but it’s important to be clear about exactly what you’re looking for.

Some possibilities:

  • What is the most serious issue – either general or specific – the community faces (i.e., what should we turn our attention to?
  • What services are most needed in the community? Who most needs them?
  • Are people taking advantage of services that currently exist?
  • What are the community’s significant assets? How can they be strengthened?
  • Are there forces working against the good of the community that should be opposed? (You probably wouldn’t be asking this question unless you thought there were, and had some idea who or what they might be.)
  • Who ought to be involved in a prospective coalition or initiative?

Choose the method best suited to finding the information you’re looking for.

If you want to learn about people’s public behavior, you would probably use direct observation. Observing mothers and children in a clinic waiting room, for example, might give you information about the mothers’ anxiety levels or child-rearing practices.

If you want to know people’s opinions or how they feel about issues, some type of interview would be appropriate.

Once you’ve chosen the right method, it’s important to carry it out properly. Be aware of what you can do with the resources you have. You can’t conduct thousands of interviews in a large city, for instance, without considerable money. If you’re a cash-strapped nonprofit, you might look for a grant to fund your interviews, or you might confine your assessment to one neighborhood. Perhaps you’d mobilize volunteers to conduct interviews, or interview groups rather than individuals. It’s better to do a limited community assessment well than a large one badly.

In choosing your method, be aware also that, in some cases, quantitative methods may be more appropriate and more likely to tell you what you want to know.

Choose the people who will gather the information, and, if necessary, train them.

With qualitative methods, where contact is often personal, the question of who carries them out can be very important. Academics or others who are perceived by community members as “the other,” whether because of their behavior, their speech, or simply because they’re outsiders, may find it hard to gather accurate and complete information from a population that’s very conscious of class or cultural differences. Often, it makes more sense to train members of the population or others who are known and trusted by – or at least familiar to, in their behavior, dress, and speech –those who are being asked to contribute their opinions and observations.

Data collectors should be fluent in the language and culture of those they are interviewing. If you’re assessing commercial activity in a Hispanic neighborhood, you’ll miss most of what’s really happening unless you understand both the Spanish language and the normal ways in which Hispanic (or Dominican or Mexican or Puerto Rican) customers and merchants relate to one another.

If you recruit members of the community or of a specific population to do qualitative information gathering – because they relate to the population better, because they speak the language, because you’re engaged in a participatory effort, or simply because you think they’ll be good at it – you should provide them with training to make sure that the results they come up with are reliable. Depending on what kinds of methods they’ll be using, some of the elements of a training might be:

  • What to record and how: It may not be obvious how important it is to record the time, place, details, and circumstances of an interview, observation, focus group, or larger meeting It may also be necessary, depending on a trainee’s experience, to learn to use a recorder or video camera, and/or to learn how to take efficient notes without losing the thread of the conversation or missing important points in an observation.
  • Interview techniques, as well as exactly what purpose an interview serves, and how it fits into the larger assessment picture. The more clearly an interviewer understands not just what to do and how, but why she’s doing it, the better she’s likely to be at drawing out the information she’s seeking.
  • Observation techniques: As with an interview, an observation will be far more useful if the observer understands not just what to do and how to do it, but exactly why he’s doing it, and how it will be used.
  • Training in other methods: Focus groups, for instance, require specific skills and techniques.
  • Training in how to think of themselves as researchers: Like those engaged in community-based participatory research, information gatherers should understand how researchers operate. Objectivity, attention to detail, curiosity, and the continuous processing of information in order to generate the next question or observation are all part of the investigative mindset, which they should be encouraged to develop.

Determine from whom or from where you need to gather information.

It may be that you want to hear from all sectors of the community, but some issues or circumstances demand more specific informants. Some possible interview subjects may be public officials, members of a specific population or cultural group, people from a particular geographic area, or people with certain characteristics (parents of young children, individuals with disabilities, males 18-24, people with high blood pressure).

Knowing whom you need to ask extends to any method in which you talk directly to people – focus groups, large community meetings, etc. Focus groups used by marketers are chosen extremely carefully, for example, with age, gender, income, place of residence, and even such factors as favored leisure activities considered.

Observation may or may not involve people. If it does, the question may not be whom you want to observe, but rather what activity or situation you want to observe. If it’s general – what kinds of street activity take place in various neighborhoods, how people use a public park – it’s not necessary to focus on a particular population, but rather on the place. If it’s more specific – back to commercial activity in that Hispanic neighborhood – you’ll need to be in the right place at the right time.

Gather the information.

Now it’s time for you or the people you’ve chosen to go out and collect the qualitative information you need.


As mentioned above, interviews can be structured or unstructured. In a strictly structured interview, the same questions in the same order are asked of everyone, with relatively little room for wandering off the specific topic. Semi-structured interviews may also be based on a list of specific questions, but – while trying to make sure that the interviewee answers all of them – the interviewer may pursue interesting avenues, or encourage the interviewee to talk about other related issues. An unstructured interview is likely to be more relaxed – more like a conversation than a formal interview.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. A structured interview may make the interviewee focus in on the questions and the interview process, take it more seriously, and thus provide excellent information. Because everyone is interviewed in the same way, a structured interview may be – or at least may look – reliable. It may also make an interviewee nervous, emphasize the differences between him and the interviewer, and lead to incomplete or less-than-truthful answers.

A semi- or unstructured interview may allow the interviewee to be more relaxed, and thus more forthcoming. It also leaves room for pursuing a topic that’s not directly related to the formal list of questions, but that might be important or even crucial. At the same time, because it can be far-ranging, a semi- or unstructured interview – particularly one that doesn’t start with a list of questions – is, or appears, less reliable than a structured one. It also, in the hands of an inexperienced or indecisive interviewer, may allow an interviewee to get sidetracked and never get back to the original questions.

What kind of interview you use depends on the nature of the information you’re looking for, the needs of the people you’re interviewing (e.g., whether comfort is more important than structure), and your own comfort. The author has conducted all three types of interviews, and has found that semi-structured interviews – having clear questions and goals for the interview, but conducting it in an informal way, with room for pursuing tangents and some simple friendly conversation – is generally productive. The following guidelines for interviewing reflect that view.

  • Ask the interviewee to choose the space. You might give him a range of suggestions – his home or workplace, the office of a human service agency, a neutral space, such as a café or a park – and go with his choice. The more comfortable he is, the better and more informative the interview is likely to be.
  • Choose your clothes for the comfort of the interviewee. In general, your clothes and hers should be similar: if she’s in jeans and a t-shirt, you shouldn’t be in a suit; if you’re interviewing a business executive at her office, you should be wearing a suit. Clothes send powerful messages, and the message you should be sending here is “We’re from the same planet; you can talk to me.”
  • Talk beforehand with the interviewee if you’re planning to record or photograph the interview. Get permission before you show up with equipment It’s common courtesy, and it’s less likely to start the interview off awkwardly.

If the results of the interview are likely to be published, even if the interviewee will be anonymous, you might want to get a signed “informed consent” form, indicating that the interviewee understands the purpose of the interview, and gives permission for the material to be published or used in other ways.

  • Record carefully the time, place, circumstances, and details of the interview. This includes a description of the location (the neighborhood as well as the space, if you’re interviewing a community member), other people present, any distractions (kids, pets, TV), other factors influencing the interview or the situation. Include a general description of the interviewee (married Hispanic woman, age 25, three children aged 6, 4, and 1).
  • Think out and frame your questions carefully, and ask directly for the information you’re seeking. Memorize your basic questions (not necessarily word-for-word, but know what they are), so that you refer to notes as little as possible. Make your questions clear and unambiguous, so that questions aren’t vague or difficult to understand.
  • Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that require an "essay" answer, rather than a yes-no response. For example, instead of asking "Did you enjoy being in the program?" you might ask "What was participating in the program like?" Try to give people the chance to answer as fully and thoughtfully as possible.
  • Probe. Ask follow-up questions to get at what people are really saying, or to keep them talking about a topic. ("Why did you like it when the teacher asked your opinion?") Don't be afraid to pursue what may seem to be a sidetrack. Sometimes the best or most important information lies off the beaten path.

Some interviewees can manage one-word answers to nearly any question. They might answer "What was participating in the program like?" with “Good.” Don’t be afraid to probe these answers. “What does that mean?” or “How was it good?” might get you a flood of information. If it gets you another one-word answer, keep probing, unless you sense that the person is getting angry or frustrated. Then it’s probably time to move on to the next question, and hope that there’ll be an opportunity to return to this one for a fuller explanation. But be aware that some people are simply quieter – or less reflective – than others. You may never get much more than one-word answers from them.

  • Don't cut people off too quickly. Their stories, or what you can read between the lines, may give you information as important as what they tell you directly.

At the same time, be aware when they’ve strayed too far from the topic. There’s a Mark Twain story that consists of the voice of a man telling an anecdote about a three-legged dog. Every other word reminds him of something else – another story – and he gets continually sidetracked, never finishing the story of the dog, or any of the others, either. Beware the Curse of the Three-Legged Dog: gently but firmly direct people back to the topic if they get too far afield.

  • Confirm what you're told by checking with others to the extent that you can. Remember that you're getting people's perceptions, which aren't always the same as objective reality. In Rashomon, a film by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, an incident is described from the perspectives of four participants, each of whom sees it totally differently. In fact, the phenomenon of Rashomon lurks everywhere; get everyone's side of the story.

Group interviews are both similar to and different from individual ones. The basic guidelines – being clear what you’re asking, open-ended questions, probing, etc. – still hold, but the group brings its own dynamic to the situation. The interview becomes more of a group discussion, and the interviewer’s concerns must extend to making sure that everyone gets heard, reining in individuals who dominate the discussion, and keeping the focus on ideas and information, rather than personalities.

As with other methods, group interviews have advantages and disadvantages. The former include using the energy of the group to generate more information than might otherwise be forthcoming. Members may stimulate one another to come up with more and more useful material, as their thinking is prodded by the memories and conclusions of others. They can also act as a check on the accuracy of the information provided. In addition, the presence of other, often familiar, interviewees may help to break down shyness or nervousness, and create a relaxed atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable talking. (The skills of the interviewer at making people comfortable – at least partially by being comfortable herself – are important here.)

With these potential positives come the possible negatives of conflict, antagonism, or dislike among group members, as well as other negative feelings or history that can disrupt or twist discussion and make an interview all but useless. There are also problems that can arise from members of the group being too friendly: they may spend too much time in chit-chat, and have trouble focusing on the questions at hand.

Group interviews may be useful when resources – and, as a result, interviewers – are limited, or when there are a large number of people who should be, or would like to be, interviewed. Groups probably shouldn’t be much larger than five or six, and interviewers should have, or be trained in, basic group facilitation skills.


What do we mean by “observation?” For our purposes, there are essentially two kinds: direct and participant observation.

Direct observation is the practice of examining or watching places, people, or activity without interfering or taking part in what’s going on. The observer is the proverbial fly on the wall, often unidentified, who does nothing but watch and record what she sees and/or hears. A direct observation to see how people use a public park, for instance, might consist of one or more observers simply sitting in one place or walking around the park for several hours, or even several days. Observers might come back at different times of day, on different days, or at different times of year, in order to understand as much as possible of what goes on in the park. They might occasionally ask questions of people using the park, but in as low-key and unobtrusive a way as possible, not identifying themselves as researchers.

Some kinds of direct observation – those where people are observed in situations they think are private – have the potential of violating privacy. In these instances, ethics generally demands that the observer obtain the permission of those being observed.

In laboratory schools, for instance, where teachers are trained and new educational ideas tested, classes are often observed from behind one-way mirrors. In such cases, both the teachers and the parents of the students are generally informed that such observation may happen, and are asked to sign consent forms. They don’t know exactly when observation is taking place, but they understand that it’s part of the laboratory school environment, and are willing to allow it in order both to improve individual teachers’ skills and to foster the development of better educational methods.

Participant observation involves becoming to some extent part of the life of the people you’re observing – learning and taking part in their culture, their celebrations and rituals, and their everyday activities. A participant observer in the park above might introduce himself into the activities he observes – a regular volleyball game, winter cross-country skiing, dog walking, in-line skating – and get to know well the people who engage in those activities. He would also monitor his own feelings and reactions to using the park, in order to better understand how its users feel about it. He would probably ask lots of questions, and might well identify himself as a researcher.

An effective participant observer may take a long time (in some cases, years) to establish himself in this way. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Some marketing firms and corporations employ trend-spotters as participant observers. Young, hip, and stylish themselves, these observers are able to identify and mingle with adolescent and young adult trend-setters in brief interactions, and determine what products, styles, and behaviors are likely to catch on soon with young people in general. You may able to do something similar, but it helps greatly if you’re already part of the group that you’re interested in observing, or if the group, like public park users, can include anyone.

Both direct and participant observation can be useful in community assessment. A participant observer in that situation is likely to be a member of the group being observed, because of the length of time it can take to establish an outsider as a participant observer. Direct observation is probably more common as an assessment tool.

Regardless of its type, your observation should be conducted so as to be reliable.

Some guidelines for reaching that goal:

  • Think carefully about the questions you want your observation to answer. You may be looking at people’s behavior or interactions in a given place or situation, or the nature of social, physical, or environmental conditions in a particular place or circumstance. If you’re clear about what you want to find out, you can structure your observation to get the best information.
  • Where and whom should you observe to answer these questions? You wouldn’t normally look for evidence of homelessness in the wealthiest neighborhood in town, nor would you observe the residents of an Asian neighborhood to find out something about the Hispanic population.
  • When and for how long should observation take place? Observing commercial activity downtown on Sunday morning won’t get you a very accurate picture of what it’s actually like. You’d need to observe at both busy and slow times, and over a period of time, to get a real idea of the amount, intensity, and character of commercial activity.

What should you observe and record? That depends on the questions you’re trying to answer, but some basics include:

  • The physical characteristics of the setting(s), including weather, if outdoors.
  • The time of day, week, and year.
  • A description (age, race/ethnicity, gender, clothing style, etc.) of any people involved.

    Clothing reflects the way people choose to present themselves to the world. A mohawk haircut, piercings, and black clothes represent an attitude and, to some extent, a world view, not just a fashion statement. The same is true for an expensive suit, or for an outfit of jeans, wool shirt, and hiking boots. Paying attention to such details can increase both your understanding and the reliability of your observation.

  • The activities, events, and/or places or circumstances observed, and a description of each.
  • The nature of interactions among people.
  • People’s apparent attitudes toward a place, situation, activity, or event – positive or negative, happy, confused, angry, disappointed, etc.
  • The physical and social (unobserved, detached, participant, etc.) position of the observer.

    At a neighborhood festival, for instance, an observer could be watching from a window high above the street, from a position just at the edge of the crowd, from within the crowd and the festival goings-on, as a participant in a festival activity, or even as a festival volunteer or organizer. What she would see and hear, what she would experience, and the information she would obtain would be different from each of these viewpoints.

  • The observer’s own responses and attitudes, including the physical and psychological comfort of the observation. This should be separate from the recording of the observation itself, and, in the ideal, should not influence the objective recording of what was observed.

How do you record observations? That depends on the nature of the observation and on your resources. Video recording, unless it’s done from a concealed spot, or in a situation where such recording is expected (a tourist site, or that street festival, for example), can change people’s behavior or put the observer under some suspicion. Audio recording is much less obvious, but also provides less information, unless it’s specifically sound information that you’re seeking. In most cases, recording would be done with a notebook and pencil or with a laptop computer. If recording during the observation would be disruptive or out of place, you’d probably wait till after you had left the situation – but as soon after as possible, so as not to forget or confuse details.

Analyze the information.

Once you’ve gathered information by whatever qualitative method, you have to figure out what it tells you. Some of that will be obvious: if you’ve been interested in who uses that public park we were talking about earlier, and your observation tells you that it’s mostly young people, you have an answer to your initial question. Your next questions may be why other groups don’t use the park as much, and whether the fact that it’s largely used by young people keeps others away. When you’ve answered those questions, you may have generated others, or you may have a basis for planning a campaign to get more people using the park.

Make and carry out a plan to address the issue or problem you’ve identified or were concerned with.

The final step here is to use the information and analysis that came from your use of qualitative methods to change the community for the better. All the assessment in the world is useless if it doesn’t lead to some action that’s meant to create positive change.

In Summary

Qualitative methods of gathering information – methods such as interviews, observation, focus groups, and community meetings that don’t always yield results that can be reduced to numbers, or that are used to capture a level of information difficult to get with quantitative methods – are often extremely useful in community assessment, especially when used together with quantitative methods, which do give numerical results. Qualitative methods can get at the things that numbers don’t, such as the reasons for people’s actions, or community history. They can help to identify community issues and needs, and provide a basis for planning community efforts that lead to long-term change.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

The Action Catalogue is an online decision support tool that is intended to enable researchers, policy-makers and others wanting to conduct inclusive research, to find the method best suited for their specific project needs.

Chapter 6: Research Methods in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" describes the ecological lens in community research, the role of ethics, the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, and mixed methods research.

Harnessing Qualitative Data to Advance Health Equity is a presentation on how data has the potential to both paint an accurate picture of what sexual and intimate partner violence prevention practitioners and advocates know is happening on the ground and convey that reality to policymakers.

Qualitative assessment of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services goals provides a summary of the results of focus groups conducted to explore the public's perception of relevant issues. This is a summary, but you can also download a PDF of the full report.

Qualitative Methods provides brief descriptions of four standard qualitative research methods: participant observation, direct observation, unstructured interviews, and case studies.

Qualitative Research Methods is a compendium of sites with papers, links, etc. to qualitative research methods.

Print Resources

Berg, B. (2007), Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences (6th edn.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Berkowitz, W. (1982). Community impact. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.