In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Qualitative Methods

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Ontological and Epistemological Assumptions
  • Feminist Contributions to Qualitative Methodology
  • Methods of “Reading” Landscape and “Sense of Place”
  • Historical and Archival Methods
  • Participatory Methods and Action Research
  • Indigenous Methods and “Decolonizing” Methodologies

Geography Qualitative Methods
Annette Watson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0109


Much of the current qualitative scholarship in geography can be characterized as inductive or descriptive, theory-building work. In understanding human experience, qualitative methods aim to be holistic and to articulate actual causes of particular events or phenomena, thus preserving the context of “data” in collecting and producing evidence. By contrast, quantitative work aims to be deductive or hypothesis-driven, testing data to make generalizations. But qualitative methods can be designed to test hypotheses, often relying upon approaches of triangulation (correspondence of evidence across contexts or sources) to make generalizations. A complaint shared among many social sciences is that qualitative methods are not explicitly taught or well-articulated, compared to quantitative methods. Perhaps because of geography’s history of “borrowing” methods developed in other disciplines, or because of the complexity of some mixed-method research designs, geographers can be relatively silent about their use of qualitative methods. But the discipline has contributed to developing these methods in key ways, because of geography’s epistemological and ontological commitments to analyze space, place, and scale, and because of its tradition of fieldwork. During the Age of Exploration and amidst the rise of Enlightenment humanism, early geographers were explorers and natural historians; geography as a discipline evolved in service to the nation-state, cartographically circumscribing territories and describing regions and their resources. Geographers articulated a “regional approach” to describe places in the early 20th century, but it was not until the quantitative revolution of the 1960s that geographers more carefully began to articulate qualitative methods in the discipline. “Humanistic” approaches to understanding “sense of place” and “landscape” developed more rigorous methods to analyze qualitative human experience, expanding on a core of fieldwork and interviewing techniques. Recent engagements with social theory, especially feminist theory, have spawned many contributions to understanding qualitative experience, and engagements with poststructural and postcolonial scholarship have also produced a growing literature in critical qualitative methods. Today’s global problems have increased investments into understanding qualitative experiences of place and space, such as the meanings and practices societies develop within urban experience, the global political-economy, or in response to climate change. The works of critical qualitative geographers are also finding increasing relevance in an age where both research and governance is becoming decentralized and participatory. Geographers have recently begun to explore “post-humanist” epistemologies and nature-society ontologies—called the “more-than-human”—and in these and other ways, they are poised to contribute to post-Enlightenment qualitative research across the social sciences.

Textbooks and Edited Collections

The following volumes, all with significant “how-to” approaches to qualitative methods, are useful in designing course syllabi on methods. The choices below reflect the variety of contexts in which qualitative methods in geography are taught; these sources are instructive for developing research projects from beginning to end, both inside and outside the classroom. Gomez and Jones 2010; Clifford, et al. 2010; and Flowerdew and Martin 2005 cover the entire range of the discipline, across human and physical geography, both qualitative and quantitative methods. These texts are especially useful in undergraduate teaching, when designing mixed-methods projects, or when engaging in larger-scale projects that bridge multiple subfields of the discipline. Among those works that focus only on human geography or qualitative methods, there is surprising diversity in range of topics and how the chapters are organized. For example, Cloke, et al. 2004 and DeLyser, et al. 2010 contain chapters explaining how to collect and analyze data using particular qualitative approaches; but Cloke, et al. 2004 is organized more as a textbook, while DeLyser, et al. 2010 focuses less on step-by-step instruction because each chapter draws on the authors’ particular research experiences. Pryke, et al. 2003 and Shurmer-Smith 2002 are useful to graduate students in that they devote chapters tying theory to the practice of qualitative methods within specific geographic subfields. Hay 2010 covers issues such as ethics and representing results, important considerations for all geographic research, and not necessarily tied to particular research practices.

  • Clifford, Nicholas, Shaun French, and Gill Valentine, eds. Key Methods in Geography. 2d ed. London: SAGE, 2010.

    Covers the broad spectrum of qualitative and quantitative approaches in geography. Authors downplay literature reviews to emphasize a how-to focus; individual chapters could be used for undergraduates as well as for introducing graduate students to practicing qualitative methods. Some chapters are highlighted in this bibliography as particularly instructive.

  • Cloke, Paul, Ian Cook, Phillip Crang, Mark Goodwin, Joe Painter, and Chris Philo, eds. Practicing Human Geography. London: SAGE, 2004.

    Primarily informs the collection of qualitative data—including chapters on “official sources” (p. 41), “non-official sources” (p. 62), and “imaginative sources” (p. 93). Also instructive on how to process qualitative data, such as the “sifting and sorting” (p. 215) that researchers do in their efforts to assess patterns in their data.

  • DeLyser, Dydia, Steve Herbert, Stuart Aiken, Mike Crang, and Linda McDowell, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Methods in Human Geography. London: SAGE, 2010.

    Excellent for graduate students because of particular emphasis on tracing the literature of the use of qualitative methods in geography; authors do blend their heavy lit reviews with their own practices and practical experience.

  • Flowerdew, Robin, and David Martin, eds. Methods in Human Geography: A Guide for Students Doing a Research Project. New York: Prentice Hall, 2005.

    Comprehensive step-by-step guide for undergraduates and graduates; especially useful are chapters on conducting literature reviews, as well as structuring and presenting data and evidence in dissertations.

  • Gomez, Basil, and J. P. Jones III, eds. Research Methods in Geography: A Critical Introduction. New York: John Wiley, 2010.

    Comprehensive across qualitative and quantitative traditions in geography, ties the collection and analysis of data to the discipline’s main ontological and epistemological commitments. Most useful at the graduate level.

  • Hay, Iain, ed. Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Useful especially for graduate students, particularly chapters discussing case studies and the ethics of cross-cultural research. The final section includes essays on writing research proposals and writing geography for the public.

  • Pryke, Michael, Gillian Rose, and Sarah Whatmore, eds. Using Social Theory: Thinking Through Research. London: SAGE, 2003.

    This volume informs the asking of research questions using social theory. Chapters carefully tie theory to methodological practice—particularly field practices.

  • Shurmer-Smith, Pamela, ed. Doing Cultural Geography. London: SAGE, 2002.

    Collection that addresses the connection between theory and practice in the subfield of cultural geography. Early chapters review humanistic, Marxist, feminist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial epistemologies, followed by a section on collecting qualitative data, and a final section on issues in presenting research.

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