Sociology Qualitative Methods in Sociological Research
Jeff Sallaz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0043


Qualitative research methods have a long and distinguished history within sociology. They trace their roots back to Max Weber’s call for an interpretive understanding of action. Today, qualitative sociology encompasses a variety of specific procedures for collecting data, ranging from life history interviews to direct observation of social interaction to embedded participant observation. In all of these cases, the social scientist directly interacts with those whom he or she is studying. The social scientist attempts to see the world from their perspective and to interpret their practices in a meaningful way. In fact, scholars such as Howard Becker and Clifford Geertz have argued that the ultimate test of the validity of a qualitative research study is whether it produces an account of social action that would make sense to the actors themselves. As this would imply, the foundational logic underlying qualitative studies differs from that of variable-oriented quantitative research. The latter measures particular properties of social phenomena and then uses statistical models to determine patterns of association among these properties, or variables. Because these models require a larger number of cases to establish statistically significant associations, quantitative researchers necessarily must sacrifice depth for breadth. Qualitative researchers, in contrast, are comfortable working with a small number of cases, or even a single case. They have at their disposal a variety of assumptions, theories, and methods to produce rich accounts of social life. In addition, qualitative research can offer unique insight into the relationship between microsocial and macrosocial worlds and even global forces.

Background and Context

The following texts offer the interested reader a general introduction to basic principles and debates associated with qualitative research methods. Ross 1992 and Abbott 1999 situate these methods in historical context. During the first half of the 20th century, ethnographic field research was the gold standard for sociology—especially at the famed Chicago school. The same was true in much of Europe, as Masson 2008 describes in the case of France. Katz 1997, Burawoy 1998, and Steinmetz 2005, in turn, defend ethnography against recent critiques that it does not represent a legitimate mode of inquiry according to the standards of positivist science. That such debates are intertwined with larger moral concerns is demonstrated by Smith 2005 and Van Manen 1990, both of which argue that qualitative methods are uniquely suited to study the lives of oppressed and subaltern groups.

  • Abbott, Andrew. 1999. Department and discipline: Chicago sociology at one hundred. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Robert Park, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in the early 20th century, ordered his students to “Go get the seat of your pants dirty.” Abbott offers a balanced insider account of the famed Chicago School of ethnographic field research.

  • Burawoy, Michael. 1998. The extended case method. Sociological Theory 16.1: 5–33.

    Argues that qualitative methods should not be held to the standards of “positive science.” Rather, they represent an equally valid mode of analysis grounded in a “reflexive science.”

  • Katz, Jack. 1997. Ethnography’s warrants. Sociological Methods and Research 25.4: 391–423.

    DOI: 10.1177/0049124197025004002

    Addresses the question how qualitative researchers can justify, or warrant, their case studies in relation to potentially hostile audiences who adhere to a mainstream quantitative view.

  • Masson, Philippe. 2008. Faire de la sociologie: Les grandes enquêtes françaises depuis 1945. Grands repères. Guides. Paris: La Découverte.

    Currently available only in French, this book covers the history of qualitative field methods in French sociology, especially the diffusion of ideas from the United States.

  • Ross, Dorothy. 1992. The origins of American social science. Ideas in Context. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive study of the history of sociology in America, this book argues that the legitimacy of qualitative research has been tied to the preeminence of various universities, departments, and faculties.

  • Smith, Dorothy. 2005. Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Gender Lens series. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

    Argues persuasively that ethnographers have a responsibility to impart in their research subjects an understanding of the powerful external forces shaping their everyday life worlds. Very much in the spirit of what C. Wright Mills referred to as the sociological imagination: the capacity to understand personal issues in the context of larger public problems.

  • Steinmetz, George, ed. 2005. The politics of method in the human sciences: Positivism and its epistemological others. Politics, History and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Collection of essays examining how positivism (i.e., an epistemology valorizing empirical observations and the application of the scientific method) came to dominate many human sciences, including sociology. Qualitative researchers often have to deal with the critique that their methods do not meet the standards of positivism.

  • Van Manen, Max. 1990. Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. SUNY Series in Philosophy of Education. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    A short but powerful book offering an accessible introduction to hermeneutic and phenomenological methods. It focuses on the applied aspects of qualitative methods for simultaneously teaching and learning from our subjects.

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