Practice Question – Analyze the importance of qualitative method in social research. (10 marks – UPSC 2016)

Approach  – Introduction, list various types of qualitative method in social researches, analyse its relevance, give examples for such methods used by various thinkers for their studies, Criticism, Conclusion. 



Sociological knowledge has a strong empirical core, meaning that sociologists’ statements from research are based on data or evidence. Sociologists employ a variety of research methods that may follow the scientific method to evaluate formal hypotheses, or be more humanistic and focus on ways people themselves understand and describe their social worlds. Sociological research follows established ethical guidelines that protect participants and ensure integrity in research. Sociological research methods fall into broad categories of quantitative and qualitative approaches, but studies frequently use “mixed methods” incorporating both. Quantitative methods include measurement by sample surveys, statistical modeling, social networks, and demography. Qualitative methods include interviews, focus groups, observation, and textual analysis.



Survey methods are some of the core methods for collecting and analyzing data in sociology. While survey methods have been used since the early days of sociology, they became a core method after World War II: they have increasingly found use in a wide range of other disciplines and have become a key tool in business, government, marketing, and many other applied areas. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, survey research has become progressively more sophisticated and has benefited from developments in a wide range of disciplines including statistics, cognitive psychology, computer programming, and technological advances such as telephones and the Internet. 


Analytical Survey and Descriptive Survey

A descriptive survey attempts to present a picture or document the current conditions or attitudes that exist at a particular moment. For example, a descriptive survey on the working conditions of women in the unorganized sector, describes the problems faced by women in various areas such as their access to credit, safety, regular income and health concerns.

Analytical surveys attempt to explain why certain conditions exist. In this research approach, large amounts of data are collected to analyse two or more variables and their effect on a dependent variable. For example, the study of the lifestyles of women can be used to predict the sales of certain consumer goods like washing machines. Analytical surveys also study the
interrelationships between variables to draw conclusions for the study.


Process of Survey

Survey entails a systematic collection of information (data) regarding attitudes, beliefs, behaviour of the targeted population. There are three important concerns that have to be kept in mind while deciding to go for survey method of research. These are
• Purpose of Enquiry
• Targeted population
• Availability of Resources with the Researcher



1) Self administered, internet surveys are cost effective.
2) It can be administered in geographically distant and diverse locations.
3) Very large samples can be accommodated making the results statistically significant.
4) Different modes for administering a questionnaire is available with the researcher. Best suited option can be exercised.
5) Instruments of data collection are standardized implying more reliability and validity. 



1) Respondents may not recall answers to questions accurately or they may not understand questions which seem simple to researchers.
2) Some respondents may purposely give biased responses to impress the researcher.
3) Surveys depend on the careful framing of questions for collection of data. Researchers need to ensure that the questions are valid and reliable.
4) Surveys are increasingly using online methods and computer-assisted techniques which people might skip answering.



Interviewing is a method of qualitative research (used by sociologists and other social scientists) in which the researcher asks open-ended questions orally. This research method is useful for collecting data that reveal the values, perspectives, experiences and worldviews of the population under study. Interviewing is often paired with other research methods including survey research, focus groups, and ethnographic observation.


Structured and Unstructured Interview

During structured interview the interviewer asks the pre-drafted questions. Here, he/ she cannot change the questions, or their sequence. No freedom is given to add new questions or delete any question. The interviewer is strictly instructed to ask the pre decided questions in verbatim and also to record them. The interview scheduled is prepared in advance. It contains open ended as well as closed ended questions. The question schedule may be given to the interviewee in advance so that he/she can prepare the answers.

During the interview when the interviewer exercises autonomy in asking questions what ever comes to his/her mind on a particular research problem under investigation, is called unstructured interview. This type of interview can be conducted on one – to- one basis or with a group of interviewees. Unstructured interview may permit the interviewee to give responses freely or it may restrict free responses. Hence, the interviewer asks the respondents only such questions, which comes under the area of research problem. There are no set typed questions. One question leads to another and so on. The main aim of the interviewer is to get personal viewpoint of the respondents on a given topic The interviewer should keep interview guide/schedule with him/her at the time of the interview. It helps him/her to know the areas to be covered and it also provides guidelines for smooth conduct of interview session.


Focussed Interview, Non-directive Interview, Clinical Interview, Telephonic Interview

Focussed interview is conducted basically to get focussed, in depth information on any given issue from the respondent. It is one of the types of unstructured interview. The main task of the researcher in such type of interview is to involve the respondent in discussion on specific topic so that the researcher gets desired information. Here the interviewer has the freedom to decide the questions and their sequence. Kothari  is of the opinion that such interviews are helpful in the development of hypothesis.

Interviewer in Non-directive interview acts like a catalyst. He/She prompts the respondents to give information on the topic under investigation. Like in focussed interview here questioning is very less. But the area(s) to be covered remains under the control of the interviewer. He/She is supposed to give free environment to the respondents so that they can express their views freely and to the point; the interviewer simply supports the views expressed by the respondent instead of approving of disapproving them.

Clinical type of interview also comes under the category of unstructured interview. Adams and Schvaneveldt reported that this type of interview has been used in social care work, counselling and prison setting, and is also called personal history interview. This type covers basically the feelings, life experiences, of the respondents. The interviewer has the freedom to interact freely with the respondents to elicit the information on the given topic. This type of interview is flexible and it includes introductory questions as well. Here the respondent can also give new information on related factors and elaborate on them.

As the name suggests telephonic type of interview is conducted on phone. You need a telephone connection and an instrument, a phone directory and a set of questions to be asked. It
is best suited for market type of survey, poll, etc. The main advantage of this type of method is to get data very fast without wasting time on visiting the respondents. Non-response percentage is very low in telephone interview. On the other hand, long distance calls, number of calls, length of call time adds to its cost. There is a possibility of many respondents not having a connection. The voice quality or the connectivity may also pose problems. For short conversation it may be ideal but lengthy conversation may not be liked by the respondents. 



• Through questioning in depth information can be obtained from the respondent.
• In personal interaction clarifications and explanations can be made.
• This is a very flexible method. Questions can be restructured to eliminate ambiguity.
• Through personal interaction complete responses can be obtained from the respondents.
• Personal information, as well as complex and sensitive information can be generated.
• Non- response percentage is very less. As compared to questionnaire method here participant rate is high.
• The interviewer may come across information, which is most spontaneous.
• Interviewer can remould the questions, change the language according to knowledge, educational background of the respondent.
• Many people do not want to answer questionnaires due to time constraints but at the same time they may very willingly face the interview session. It takes less effort and time of the respondent.
• Quarterly data can be retrieved from interview session.
• Through personal interaction the interviewer can observe the respondent’s reactions, body language, facial expressions vis-à-vis a particular question. These expressions help the researcher/interviewer to reword or remould the questions spontaneously. Some of these reactions, if observed carefully, may prove useful at the time of analysis.
• Face –to –face or group interaction gives respondent the feeling of direct participation in the research process.
• Conducting interview is an art. A properly trained interviewer can make the respondent answer even sensitive, emotional and sometimes complex questions with ease. Information gathered from this method can be supplemented to the original findings of the research.



• It is a very time consuming as well as very expensive method especially when the target population is big in number and widely spread over a geographical area.
• There is a possibility of biased analysis, interpretations from the side of researcher or interviewee. Biased reactions can also be received from the interviewee. Age, class, race, gender, social status, etc. can play crucial role in generating biased opinions from both the sides. Biased reactions, analysis and interpretation can hamper proper research results.
• If the interviewer/ researcher is not skilled, trained in the art, he/she may not able to conduct successful interview session with proper control.
• There is a possibility if majority of the target population consists high and top-level management groups, executives, therefore this method may not prove approachable to such clientele. Getting information from such people is not under the control of interviewer.
• Proper training, selection and supervision of the interviewer are very essential to this method.
• Getting free, frank responses from the target population is not a easy task. Establishing proper rapport with the target group is very difficult requirement.
• Information received from this method is difficult to analyse. Same set of questions may receive diverse responses.
• Interview method may call for some errors, which are difficult to eliminate.
• The use of computers in data collection has its own set of limitations. Infrastructures, connectivity, knowledge to operate such system are some of the essential requirements. Without them the system may not run.


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