Anything that involves feedback which has no direct quantitative measure against a numeric scale is qualitative data. Qualitative data is categorical. It can be used to analyze language, and through this, to develop an understanding of subjective perception. Qualitative data describes characteristics. It is usually gathered from interviews, observations, surveys, or focus groups. It is used to categorize information based on specific attributes or properties which can be verified.

Qualitative or categorical data can be ordinal (ordered on degrees of, or ranked scales), or Nominal (for example gender or demographic information). The important thing is that the categories should be mutually exclusive and should not overlap.

Here are ten examples of qualitative data:

Observation Notes

Observation is an important method of qualitative data collection. Observation may be guided by a semi-structured assessment tool, guiding what is being observed, by asking key questions around what is taking place. It is important however, not to lead the observer, by defining what to look for.

Semi-structured interviews

Semi-structured interviews are qualitative data collection tools which allow researchers to ask informants questions around a series of predetermined themes but allowing for open-ended responses. These are useful tools in qualitative research, as they open the space for both inductive and deductive reasoning in evaluation. The structure of the questions allows the researcher to explore key themes pertaining to the underlying theory; The Theory of Change, or the Conceptual Framework of the project, while the open-ended nature of the questions created the space for explanations as to why the hypothesis might have been disproved, and what occurred instead.

Open-ended survey

Surveys are useful tools for measuring how preferences or perceptions change over time, or to gather information on key experiences of informants. Surveys may make use of ranked scales such as ‘always, sometimes, never’, or a ranked scale of from strongly agree to strongly disagree. These are useful tools for not only measuring perception, but behavioral change. Creating space for comments, or thoughts creates space for deeper reflection, and as in semi-structured interviews explored above, can allow for the research to uncover pathways for change which were not considered in the design of the programme logic, but which better explain what took place and why.

Participant diaries or journals

Using diaries or journals, one could either use concept maps (explored below) to map out themes arising consistently, or if the researcher already has a theory around relevant themes, one could conduct a thematic analysis in order to evaluate whether the described causation, or the flow from thoughts, through motivations to actions is as hypothesized. Particularly in small programmes, where the research is involved in the subjective experience of participants, asking them to keep a journal of their thoughts and experienced can help to build an understanding of what is taking place, and hoe informants can be supported through a process of changing negative outcomes.

Portfolios of evidence

Portfolios of evidence are a little more robust than journals and can be used to evaluate pieces of technical work, rather than just thoughts and feelings. It should be noted that where work is marked and assessed (there are right and wrong answers, and participants receive a score), this becomes quantitative data. However, when assessing creative projects, such as lesson plans in projects to improve pedagogy, or seasonal agricultural plans, or school improvement plans, these do not have clear write and wrong answers, but can be of carrying quality. These can be assessed as to whether they meet a set of key criteria, or whether they are workable in a given circumstance. These are useful records of personal-professional development.

Concept Maps

Concept Mapping provides a visual representation of how ideas held by informants link together. This is information formed from an analysis of data on these ideas as reported by informants. This is an example where deductive reasoning is used, where information gathered in analyzed for patterns, from which a tentative hypothesis is derived and tested, and from which theories can then be built. Concept Maps are frequently used in areas of action research, or participatory research.

Case Studies

Case studies involve detailed deep dive information, usually focuses on a single case, or a small number of cases. These are particularly relevant where the researcher aims to gather rich and detailed information. These are intensive studies which will focus on context and the depth of change. Case studies, if done systematically, can generate bodies of data which can, in turn, be used for qualitative comparative analysis to analyze causation using Boolean Algebra. Case studies can combine a range of data collection methods, and points to draw a really comprehensive picture

Focus Groups

Focus groups are usually conducted with 6-10 people, and involve group discussions which are moderated. Discussion around particularly themes in a discussion context can assist with gathering information which confirms, or disproves theories around a specific theme. Focus groups can also be used effectively in analyses of process or implementation to advise on implementation changes required to improve programme efficacy.

Video and recordings

Qualitative data, particularly that used for narrative or discourse analysis can be found in film records of events, recording of interview, or video diaries. Times when this form of data is most useful is either when the generation of it forms part of the programme activities by participants, or when it is easier to be present in the moment, than to be working with pen, paper, or screen. This allows researchers to revisit key themes, and in the case of video, to make other observations about surroundings, noise levels, environments, or body language.

Qualitative Audits

These are especially useful in scoping prior to project commencement, such as in conducting needs or gap analyses. By way of example, a researcher has conducted research into what an ideal learning environment contains, and aims to conduct an audit of treatment schools to ascertain what improvements should be built into the outcomes targets by school. Categorizing cleanliness, library access rules, or the size of a room could all be included in such an audit.


About Author

Angela Biden is a consulting strategist and M&E consultant. She has worked across a range of development, and business contexts. She holds a Masters in Economics and Philosophy, and has worked in the nexus of M&E and social impact; to help those doing good do more of it; for some 15 years. From policy board rooms, to Tech start-ups, to grass roots NGOs working in the face of the world’s most abject challenges; Angela is focused on conducting relevant and meaningful M&E: fit for purpose, realistic, and useful for stakeholders creating positive change.

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