• Questionnaire
  • Interview
  • Observation
  • Case Study


  • Questionnaire is described as “a document that contains a set of questions, the answers to which are to be provided personally by the respondents”.
  • Questionnaire is the structured set of questions usually sent by mail, though sometimes it is delivered by hand also. The hand delivery could be at home, school/college, office, organization, and so on.
  • The importance of the survey is explained to the respondents through a covering letter. Usually, a self-addressed stamped envelop is sent to the respondents along with the questionnaire to reduce their expenses.
  • The follow up request for returning the questionnaire is made through repeated letters.

Questionnaire is used as a tool when…

  • Very large samples are desired,
  • Costs have to be kept low,
  • the target groups who are likely to have high response rates are specialized,
  • ease of administration is necessary, and
  • moderate response rate is considered satisfactory.

Following guidelines should be followed for framing and asking questions:

  • Questions should be clear and unambiguous:
    • The question like, “What do you think about the proposed peace plan for Kashmir?” may not be clear to respondent who does not know anything about the peace plan.
  • Questions should be relevant:
    • Sometimes the respondents are asked to give opinions on issues on which they have never given any thought, e.g., “What is your opinion on the economic policies of the BJP, the Congress and the CPI parties?” Such questions are bound to be disregarded by the respondents.
  • Questions should be short:
    • Long and complicated items are to be avoided. The respondent should be able to read an item quickly, understand its meaning and think of an answer without difficulty.
  • Negative questions should be avoided:
    • The appearance of a negation in the question paves the way for easy misinterpretation.
    • For example, asking to agree or disagree with the statement, “India should not recognize the military rule in Fiji”, a sizeable portion of the respondents will not read the word ‘not’ and answer on that basis.
  • Biased terms should be avoided:
    • Prejudice affects the answers. For example, the question, “Have military rulers in the neighbouring country always hampered our country’s progress?” may encourage some respondents to give particular response more than other questions do.
  • Respondents must be competent to answer:
    • The researcher should always ask himself whether the respondents he has chosen are competent enough to answer questions on the issue of research. For example, asking daily wage labourers to give their views on ‘communal violence’ may not be rational.
    • Similarly, asking students to indicate the manner in which university’s total income ought to be spent will be wrong because students may not have fairly good knowledge of the nature of activities and the costs involved in them.
  • Respondents must be willing to answer:
    • Many a time people are unwilling to share opinions with others, e.g., asking Muslims about Pakistan’s attitude towards Muslims in India.

Types of Questions:

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary;

  • Primary Questions elicit information directly related to the research topic.
    • Each question provides information about a specific aspect of the topic.
    • For example, for determining the type of family (whether it is husband-dominant, wife dominant, equalitarian), the question “who takes decisions in your family” is a primary question.
  • Secondary questions elicit information which do not relate directly to the topic,
    • i.e., the information is of secondary importance. They only guard the truthfulness of the respondents, e.g., in the above topic, the question “who decides the nature of gift to be given in marriage to family relative” or “who finally selects the boy with whom the daughter is to be married” are the secondary questions.
  • The tertiary questions are of neither primary nor of secondary importance.
    • These only establish a framework that allows convenient data collection and sufficient information without exhausting or biasing the respondent.

Closed-ended and Open-ended Questions:

  • The closed-ended questions are the fixed-choice questions. They require the respondent to choose a response from those provided by the researcher. Here is one example: “Whom do you consider an ideal teacher?”
    • who takes teaching seriously;
    • who is always available to students for discussions and guidance;
    • whose approach to students’ problems is flexible;
    • who does not believe in punishing students;
    • who takes interest in co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
  • The open-ended questions are free-response questions which require respondents to answer in their own words. For example;
    • Whom do you consider an ideal teacher?
    • How would you rate the performance of the last government?
    • What do you feel is the most important issue facing India today?
The advantages of open-ended questions are:
  • The researcher gets insight in respondent’s understanding.
  • When the total answers categories are very large (say, 50 or more), it would be awkward to list all of them on a questionnaire; but if some were omitted, then there would not be appropriate answers available for all respondents.
  • Since the respondent gets freedom in answering, the researcher gets more and varied information based on the respondent’s logic and thought processes. Sometimes, the information and responses received are so unexpected that the researcher’s ideas are completely changed.
  • They are preferable for complex issues that cannot be condensed into a few small categories.
The disadvantages of open-ended questions are :
  • Sometimes responses received are irrelevant.
  • It is difficult to classify and code all responses.
  • Since the data are not standardized, statistical analysis and computation of percentages become difficult.
  • Sometimes the responses given are very lengthy and analyzing them becomes time-consuming.
  • Semi-literate respondents find it difficult to answer open questions since they require better ability to express one’s feelings.
The advantages of closed-ended questions are:
  • They provide a greater uniformity of responses.
  • It is easy to code, score and process standard answers which saves time and money.
  • The respondent has not to use much brain as he is often clearer about the meaning of question.
  • Little time is taken to complete questionnaire.
  • Answers can be compared from person to person.
  • Irrelevant responses are not received and the answers are relatively complete, e.g., an openended question “how often do you smoke” may receive an answer “whenever I feel like smoking”, but a closed ended question may receive an answer, “one packet a day, or two packets in a day, or four cigarettes in a day”, and so on.
  • Response rate is high, particularly in sensitive questions like income, age, etc. If the answer in closed ended question is a category, the respondent may easily identify himself with the range in which his income/age falls.
The disadvantages of closed-ended questions are:
  • The respondent may not get all alternative responses as some important responses might have been omitted by the researcher.
  • The respondent does not think and does not involve himself in giving free information. He ticks even wrong answer.
  • Many a time the respondents do not find those answers in the closed questions which correspond to their true feelings or attitudes.
  • The respondent who does not know the response guesses and chooses one of the convenient responses or gives an answer randomly.
  • Detecting the mistake whether the respondent has ticked the right answer is not possible.

Direct and Indirect Questions :

  • Direct questions are personal questions which elicit information about the respondent himself/herself, e.g., “Do you believe in God?”
  • Indirect questions seek information about other people, e.g., “Do you think that people of your status and age believe in God now-a-days?” Other examples are:
  • Indirect Question : Do college teachers these days read more English or Hindi Books?
  • Direct Question : Do you read English books?
  • Indirect Question : How would you describe the relations among members in your family?
  • Direct Question : Do you quarrel with your spouse frequently/occasionally/rarely/never?

Nominal, Ordinal and Interval Questions:

  • Nominal question is one in which its response falls in two or more categories, e.g., male/female; rich/poor, married/unmarried; rural/urban; illiterate/educated; Shia/Sunni; Hindu/Muslim. Nominal question is also called classification scale.
  • Ordinal question is one in which the responses are placed in rank order of categories.
    • The categories may be ranked from highest to lowest, greatest to least, or first to last.
      • For Example– Smoking: regularly/occasionally/never
      • Reserving 33 per cent seats for women in Parliament: Agree/disagree/don’t know
      • Relations with colleagues in office excellent/satisfactory/dissatisfactory/can’t say
    • Ordinal scales are sometimes referred to as ranking scales.
  • Interval question is one in which the distance between two numbers is equal. For example:
    • Present age: 10 or below/11-20/21-30/31-40/41 and above
    • Income per annum: Below Rs. 18,000/18,000- 36,000/36,000-54,000/54,000-72,000/Above 72,000
    • Age at marriage: Below 18/18-22/22-26/26- 30/Above 30.

Steps in Questionnaire Construction

Questionnaires are constructed in a systematic manner. The process goes through a number of inter-related steps. The most commonly steps are (Sarantakos):

  • Preparation: The researcher thinks of various items to be covered in the questionnaire, arrangement of these items in relation to one another, and taking into consideration questions prepared and used in other similar studies.
  • Constructing the first draft: The researcher formulates a number of questions including direct/indirect, closed/open-ended and primary/secondary/tertiary questions.
  • Self-evaluation: The researcher thinks about relevance, symmetry, clarity in language, etc.
  • External evaluation: The first draft is given to one or two experts/colleagues for scrutiny and suggestions for changes.
  • Revision: After receiving suggestions, some questions are eliminated, some changed and some new questions added.
  • Pre-test or pilot study: A pre-test or a pilot study is undertaken to check the suitability of the questionnaire as a whole.
  • Revision: The minor and major changes may be made on the basis of experience gained in pretesting.
  • Second pre-testing: The revised questionnaire is then subjected to a second test and amended, if necessary.
  • Preparing final draft: After editing, checking spelling, space for response, pre-coding, and the final draft is prepared.

Limitations of Questionnaire

  • The mailed questionnaires can be used only for educated people. This restricts the number of respondents.
  • The return rate of questionnaires is low. The common return rate is 30 to 40 per cent.
  • The mailing address may not be correct which may omit some eligible respondents. Thus, the sample selected many a time is described as biased.
  • Sometimes different respondents interpret questions differently. The misunderstanding cannot be corrected.
  • There may be bias in the response selectivity because the respondent having no interest in the topic may not give response to all questions. Since the researcher is not present to explain the meaning of certain concepts, the respondent may leave the question blank.
  • Questionnaires do not provide an opportunity to collect additional information while they are being completed.
  • Researchers are not sure whether the person to whom the questionnaire was mailed has himself answered the questions or somebody else has filled up the questionnaire.
  • Many questions remain unanswered. The partial response affects the analysis.
  • The respondent can consult other persons before filling in the questionnaire. The responses, therefore, cannot be viewed as his opinions.
  • The reliability of respondent’s background information cannot be verified. A middle-class person can identify himself as rich person or a person of intermediate caste can describe himself as upper-caste person.
  • Since the size of the questionnaire has to be kept small, full information cannot be secured from the respondents.
  • There is lack of depth or probing for a more specific answer.

Advantages of Questionnaire

  • Lower cost: Questionnaires are less expensive than other methods. Even the staff required is not much as either the researcher himself may mail or one or two investigators may be appointed for hand distributing the questionnaires.
  • Time saving: Since the respondents may be geographically dispersed and sample size may be very large, the time required for getting back the questionnaires may be little greater but usually less than that for face-to-face interviews. Thus, since all questionnaires are sent simultaneously and most of the replies are received in 10-15 days, schedules take months to complete. In simple terms, questionnaires produce quick results.
  • Accessibility to widespread respondents: When the respondents are separated geographically, they can be reached by correspondence which saves travel cost.
  • No interviewer’s bias: Since the interviewer is not physically present at interviewee’s place, he cannot influence his answers, either by prompting or by giving his own opinion or by misreading the question.
  • Greater anonymity: The absence of the interviewer assures anonymity which enables respondent to express free opinions and answers even to socially undesirable questions. The absence of the interviewer assures privacy to the respondents because of which they willingly give details of all events and incidents they would have not revealed otherwise.
  • Respondent’s convenience: The respondent can fillin the questionnaire leisurely at his convenience. He is not forced to complete all questions at one time. Since he fills up the questionnaire in spare time, he can answer easy questions first and take time for difficult questions.
  • Standardized wordings: Each respondent is exposed to same words and therefore there is little difference in understanding questions. The comparison of answers is thus facilitated.
  • No variation: Questionnaires are a stable, consistent and uniform measure, without variation.


  • Interview is verbal questioning. As a research tool or as a method of data collection, interview is different from general interviewing with regard to its preparation, construction and execution.
    • This difference is that: research interview is prepared and executed in a systematic way, it is controlled by the researcher to avoid bias and distortion, and it is related to a specific research question and a specific purpose.
  • Lindzey Gardner (1968) has defined interview as “a two-person conversation, initiated by the interviewer for the specific purpose of obtaining research-relevant information and focused by him on the content specified by the research objectives of description and explanation”.
  • In the research interview, thus, the interviewer asks specific questions pertaining to research objectives/criteria and the respondent restricts his answers to specific questions posed by the interviewer.

Functions of Interview

The two major functions of the interview technique are described as under:

  • Description:
    • The information received from the respondent provides insight into the nature of social reality.
    • Since the interviewer spends some time with the respondents, he can understand their feelings and attitudes more clearly, and seek additional information wherever necessary and make information meaningful for him.
  • Exploration:
    • Interview provides insight into unexplored dimensions of the problem.
    • In the problem of “exploitation of widows by the inlaws and office colleagues”, it is the personal interview with the victims which enables the interviewer to get details about widows’ position in the support system, and their sticking to their traditional values which make their life miserable and adjustment difficult.
    • The interview can prove to be effective exploratory device for identifying new variables for study and for sharpening of conceptual clarity. Even the new hypotheses can be thought of for testing.
    • For example, in the study of problems faced by husbands and wives in inter-caste and intercommunity marriages, probing their attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns in considerable depth, one can come up with interesting data about different aspects of adjustment.

Characteristics of Interview;

Black and Champion have pointed out the following characteristics of an interview:

  • Personal communication: There is a face-to-face contact, conversational exchange and verbal interaction between the interviewer and the respondent.
  • Equal status: The status of the interviewer and the interviewee is equal.
  • Questions are asked and responses received verbally.
  • Information is recorded by the interviewer and not the respondent.
  • The relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee, who are strangers to each other, is transitory.
  • The interview is not necessarily limited to two persons. It could involve two interviewers and a group of respondents, or it could be one interviewer and two or more respondents.
  • There is considerable flexibility in the format of the interview.

Types of Interview;

  • There are many types of interview which differ from one another in terms of structure, the interviewer’s role, number of respondents involved in the interview.
  • Some types of interviews are employed in both quantitative and qualitative researches but others are used in one research type only.

Unstructured V/s structured interviews:

  • The unstructured interview;,
    • There are no specifications in the wording of the questions or the order of the questions. The interviewer forms questions as and when required.
    • The structure of these interviews is flexible, being presented in the form of guide. In this interview, the interviewer has only the general nature of the questions in mind.
    • He has no prior indication of the specific issues on which the questions are to be asked. He has not ordered questions in a particular way.
    • He has no time-limit for continuing the interview.
    • Thus, what is asked from one respondent in the beginning may be asked from the other respondent in the end and from yet other respondent in the middle.
    • The advantages of unstructured interview are:
      • The questions being asked spontaneously, the interview can be conducted in the form of natural conversation.
      • There is a greater possibility of exploring in an unrestricted manner.
      • Finding the interest of the respondent in a specific aspect of the problem, the interviewer can focus his attention on that particular aspect.
    • But unstructured interview has some limitations also:
      • The data obtained from different respondents cannot be compared with each other.
      • With no systematic control over asking questions, the reliability of the data becomes doubtful.
      • The obtained data cannot be quantified.Much time can be wasted adding nothing or little to the knowledge already obtained. Time is also wasted in repetitions and unproductive conversations.
      • Some aspects may be left out in discussions, when conversation is focused on a few aspects.
  • The structured interview;
    • This is based on the structured interview guide which is little different from the questionnaire.
    • In reality, it is a set of specific points and definite questions prepared by the interviewer.
    • It allows little freedom to make adjustments to any of its elements, such as content, wording, or order of the questions.
    • In this type of interviewing, the interviewer is expected to act in a neutral manner offering the same impression to all the respondents.
    • The purpose is to reduce the interviewer’s bias to the minimum and achieve the highest degree of informality in procedure. This form of interview is employed in quantitative research.

Standardized V/s unstandardised interviews:

  • In standardized interviews, answer to each question is standardized as it is determined by a set of response categories given for this purpose. The respondents are expected to choose one of the given options as the answer. For example, the alternative answers could be yes/no/don’t know; agree/disagree; illiterate/less educated/highly educated; for/against/undecided; and so on. This is mainly used in quantitative research.
  • Un standardised interview is one in which the responses are left open to the respondent. This is used mainly in qualitative research.

Individual V/s group interviews:

  • Individual interview is one in which the interviewer interviews only one respondent at a time.
  • In group interview, more than one respondent are interviewed simultaneously. The group can be small, say, of two individuals (e.g., husband and wife, or two co-workers in a factory, etc.) or large, say, of 10 to 20 persons (e.g., all students in a class).

Self-administered V/s other administered interviews:

  • In self-administered interview, the respondent is supplied a list of questions along with instructions for writing answers in the appropriate place on the interview form.
  • In other administered interview, the interviewer himself writes answers to questions on the response sheet.

Unique V/s panel interviews:

  • Unique interview is one in which the interviewer collects entire information in one interview. However, he is not barred for approaching the interviewer for the second time for seeking additional information.
  • In panel interview the interviewer collects information from the same group of respondents two or more times at regular intervals. If different respondents are involved in various stages for asking the same questions, it is called trend study.

Personal V/s non-personal interviews:

  • In the personal interview, there is a face-toface contact between the interviewer and the interviewee,
  • In the non-personal interview there is no faceto-face relationship, but the information is collected through telephone, computer or some other medium.

Conditions for A Successful Interview

  • Gardner has pointed out following three conditions for successful interviewing:
    • Accessibility: For giving information, it is important that the respondent understands what is required of him and he is also willing to provide information he possesses. The possibilities are that the respondent might have no information or he might have forgotten some fact, or he is under emotional stress and therefore, unable to give information or the question is so framed that he cannot answer it.
    • Understanding: The respondent sometimes is not able to understand what is expected of him. Unless he understands the significance of the research/survey, the extent of interview demand, the concepts and the terms used, the nature of answers which the interviewer expects from him, his answers might be off the point.
    • Motivation : The respondent needs to be motivated not only for giving information but also for giving accurate information. The fear of consequences, embarrassment at ignorance, being suspicious about the interviewer, and dislike of the subject are some of the factors which decrease the level of respondent’s motivation. The interviewer, therefore, has to try to reduce the effect of these factors.

Process of Interviewing;

  • It could be said that the training to the interviewer or the process of training implies explaining the interviewer the process of conducting the interview in a number of stages. Each stage including certain tasks. These are:
    • Fully explain the researcher what the study is all about, what the objectives of the study are and • Select and locate the sampled members.
    • what aspects of the theme are to be focused.
    • Seek appointment from the respondent before approaching him for the interview.
    • Manipulate the situation of the interview in such a way that only the respondent is available at the place of interview and others leave the place willingly.
    • Inform the respondent about the approximate time the interview is to last.
    • Begin interview by stating the organization he represents, and explaining how he (respondent) was selected for the interview.
    • Appear with an attitude so that the respondent feels free to express his views.
    • Probe questions phrased in an impartial way.
    • On no account give an indication of own views. This will either prevent the respondent from giving the opposite view or he might favour the interviewer’s view. In either case, the answers would misrepresent the respondent’s true opinion.
    • Increase the respondent’s motivation to cooperate.
    • Reassure the respondent of keeping his identity a secret.
    • Training the interviewer that all applicable questions have to be asked in a given order.

Advantages of Interview

  • The response rate is high,
  • In-depth probing is possible,
  • Respondent’s confidence can be sought through personal rapport,
  • Interviewer can explain difficult terms and remove confusion and misunderstandings,
  • Administration is easy because respondents are not required to be educated or handle long questionnaires,
  • Interviewer gets opportunity to observe respondents’ non-verbal behaviour,
  • Identity of the respondent is known, and
  • Since all questions asked by the interviewers are answered by the respondents, completeness of the interview is guaranteed.

Disadvantages of Interview

  • The interviewees can hide information or give wrong information because of fear of identity.
  • Interviews are more costly and time-consuming than questionnaires.
  • The nature and extent of responses depends upon interviewee’s mood. If he is tired, he will be distracted. If he is in hurry, he will try to dispose off the interviewer quickly.
  • There could be variability in responses with different interviewers, particularly when interview is unstructured.
  • The interviewer may record the responses differently, depending upon his own interpretation sometimes.
  • If offers less anonymity than other methods.
  • It is less effective for sensitive questions.


  • Lindsey Gardner has defined observation as “selection, provocation, recording and encoding of that set of behaviours and settings concerning organisms ‘in situ’ (naturalistic settings or familiar surroundings) which are consistent with empirical aims”. In this definition,
    • Selection means that there is a focus in observation and also editing before, during and after the observations are made.
    • Provocation means that though observers do not destroy natural settings but they can make subtle changes in natural settings which increase clarity.
    • Recording means that the observed incidents/events are recorded for subsequent analysis. Encoding involves simplification of records.

Characteristics of Observation

  • Scientific observation differs from other methods of data collection specifically in four ways:
    1. Observation is always direct while other methods could be direct or indirect;
    2. Field observation takes place in a natural setting;
    3. Observations tend to be less structured; and
    4. It makes only the qualitative (and not the quantitative) study which aims at discovering subjects’ experiences and how subjects make sense of them (phenomenology) or how subjects understand their life (interpretive).
  • Loft land has said that this method is more appropriate for studying lifestyles or sub-cultures, practices, episodes, encounters, relationships, groups, organizations, settlements and roles, etc.

Purpose of Observation

  • To capture human conduct as it actually happens. In other methods, we get a static comprehension of people’s activity.
  • In actual situation, they sometimes modify their views, sometimes contradict themselves, and sometimes are so swayed away by the situation that they react differently altogether, e.g., clerks’ behaviour in office; tone of voice, facial expressions and content of slogans by the demonstrators.
  • To provide more graphic description of social life than can be acquired in other ways. For example, how do women behave when they are physically assaulted by their husbands? How do young widows behave when they are humiliated, harassed and exploited by the in-laws? How are bounded labourers treated by their landlords?
  • To explore important events and situations. There are many instances when little is known. about the topic/issue. By being on the scene, issues that might otherwise be overlooked are examined more carefully, e.g., visiting office soon after the office hours and finding that the married men and single women were working overtime and single men and married women had gone home.
  • It can be used as a tool of collecting information in situations where methods other than observation cannot prove to be useful, e.g., workers’ behaviour during strike.

Types of Observation

Participant and non-participant observation:

  • Participant observation
    • This is a method in which the investigator becomes a part of the situation he is studying. He involves himself in the setting and group life of the research subjects. He shares the activities of the community observing what is going on around him, supplementing this by conversations and interview.
    • In India, M.N. Srinivas had used this method in studying the process of ‘sanskritisation’ in Mysore while Andre Beteille had used it to study social inequality in rural areas (Tanjore village) on the basis of class, status and power.
    • The weaknesses in this type (participant) of observation are:
      • Since the observer participates in events, sometimes he becomes so involved that he loses objectivity in observation;
      • He influences the events;
      • He interprets events subjectively;
      • His presence so sensitizes the subjects that they do not act in a natural way;
      • He may record some information but may fail to record other information as well as to explain reasons why information was not recorded.
      • He fails to be precise about the procedures for data accumulation;
      • Since he fails to specify the procedures for gathering information, others cannot replicate his research findings for verification and validity;
      • There is less attention to precision; and
      • This method cannot be used for studies where people indulge in illegal activities.
  • In non-participant observation,
    • The observer remains detached and does not participate or intervene in the activities of those who are being observed.
    • He merely observes their behaviour. Sometimes this places the persons being observed in an awkward position and their conduct becomes unnatural.
    • But some say that though initially the observer’s behaviour may affect the behaviour of the observed but after a little while, less and less attention is paid to his presence.
    • This type of observation is more useful as a tool of data collection because the observer can choose the situations to be observed and can record the data freely.

Systematic/unsystematic observation :

  • Reiss (1971) has classified observation as systematic and unsystematic on the basis of the ability of the observational data to generate scientifically useful information.
    • The systematic observation is one in which explicit procedure is used in observation and recording by following certain rules, which permits the use of logic, and which makes replication possible.
    • The unsystematic observation does not follow any rules or logic which makes replication difficult.

Naive and scientific observation:

  • Naïve observation is unstructured and unplanned observation.
  • It becomes scientific when it is systematically planned and executed, when it is related to a certain goal, and when it is subjected to tests and controls.

Structured and unstructured observation:

  • Structured observation is organized and planned which employs formal procedure, has a set of well-defined observation categories, and is subjected to high levels of control and differentiation.
  • Unstructured observation is loosely organized and the process is largely left to the observer to define.

Natural and laboratory observation:

  • Natural observation is one in which observation is made in natural settings.
  • Laboratory observation is one in which observation is made in a laboratory.

Direct and indirect observation:

  • Direct observation, the observer plays a passive role, i.e., there is no attempt to control or manipulate the situation. The observer merely records what occurs.
  • Indirect observation is one in which direct observation of the subject(s) is not possible because either the subject is dead or refuses to take part in the study. The researcher observes the physical traces which the phenomena under study have left behind and make conclusions about the subject, e.g., observing the site of bomb explosion where the dead and the injured people and vehicles destroyed is lying.

Convert and overt observation:

  • In convert observation, subjects are unaware that they are being observed. Generally, the researcher in this type of observation is himself a participant in all the activities; otherwise it becomes difficult for him to explain his presence. These observations are mostly unstructured.
  • In overt observation, subjects are aware that they are being observed. Sometimes this causes them to act differently than they do normally. For example, if a policeman in a police station knows that his behaviour is being watched by a researcher, he will never think of using third-degree methods in dealing with the accused person; rather he would show that he is polite and sympathetic.

Process of Observation

  • One of the most striking aspects of observational field research is the absence of standardised operating procedures.
  • As all cultures have their own distinctive characteristics, different demands are placed on researchers. Since observation involves sensitive human interaction, it cannot be reduced to a simple set of techniques.
  • Yet some scholars have tried to point out the path that the observer in the fieldwork has to follow. Sarantakos has pointed out the following six steps in observation:
    • Selection of the topic: This refers to determining the issue to be studied through observations, e.g., marital conflict, riot, caste Panchayat meeting in a village, child labourers in a glass factory, and so on.
    • Formulation of the topic: This involves fixing up categories to be observed and pointing out situations in which cases are to be observed.
    • Research design: This determines identification of subjects to be observed, preparing observation schedule, if any, and arranging entry in situations to be observed.
    • Collection of data: This involves familiarization with the setting, observation and recording.
    • Analysis of data: In this stage, the researcher analyses the data, prepares tables, and interprets the facts.
    • Report writing: This involves writing of the report for submission to the sponsoring agency or for publication.

Factors Affecting Choice of Observation

  • Observers are influenced by a number of factors in the process of observation. Black and Champion have identified three such factors:
    • Relating to the problem:
      • Certain types of situations are not easy to be observed, e.g., mafia group’s functioning, daily lifestyle of professional criminals, prisoners in jails, patients in hospitals and so on.
      • Some theoretical orientations like ethnomethodology (the study of the methods used in everyday routine social activity), phenomenology (approach that observes the phenomena as perceived by the acting individual, emphasizing perception and consciousness), and symbolic interactionism (approach that stresses linguistic and gestural communication in the formation of mind, self and society) are orientations in which observation holds a central place as a method.
    • Relating to skill and characteristics of the investigator:
      • All social scientists do not feel comfortable in observing a situation for a long time.
      • They feel more at ease in asking questions for an hour or so. Only a few scholars adjust themselves in an observable situation.
      • Thus, persons with certain characteristics and skills can prove to be good observers.
    • Relating to the characteristics of the observed:
      • In getting information from the investigated people, their characteristics play an important role.
      • The status of the interviewee vis- à-vis the interviewer is a major factor in determining whether observation will be feasible as a method of data collection.
      • Many people who are to be observed give such importance to their privacy because of their occupational position, economic status, sub-cultural values and social norms that they do not permit the observer to observe them in all situations.
      • It is easy to observe those who are in economically disadvantaged position relative to the well-to-do; easy to observe teachers, clerks, etc., than doctors and lawyers who have to maintain sanctity and confidentiality of their relations with their clients.

Basic Problems in Observation

  • Festinger and Katz have specified six basic problems:
    • Under what conditions are observations to be made? How is the observation situation structured?
    • What behaviour is to be selected and recorded in order to obtain the information required.
    • How stable are the conditions in which observations can be made so that same results may be obtained under what appears to be same conditions. Are the measures reliable?
    • What is the validity of the process which has been observed or inferred?
    • What evidence is there that some process with functional unity is being observed?
    • Has an attempt been made to summarize what is observed in quantitative terms? Can a score be assigned?
  • According to Lyn Lofland (1995: 63), the following activities need to be avoided by a researcher while using observation technique:
    • The observation purpose should not be kept secret from the subjects under observation.
    • Information should be collected from all people and not from a few people only.
    • Help should not be offered to people even if its severe need is felt.
    • There should be no commitment for anything.
    • The researcher should be strategic in relations.
    • In factionalized situations, taking sides should be avoided.
    • Paying cash or kind for getting information should be totally avoided.

Advantages of Observation

  • Bailey has pointed out four advantages of observation:
    • Superior in data collection on non-verbal behaviour :
      • When a person’s opinion on a particular issue is to be assessed, survey method is definitely more useful, but when the nonverbal behaviour is to be discovered or where memory failure of the respondent is possible, observation will be more functional.
      • It allows not the restrictive study of the individuals but their in-depth study. The unstructured observational method, being very flexible, allows the observer to concentrate on any variables that prove to be important.
    • Intimate and informal relationship :
      • Since the observer often lives with the subjects for an extended period of time, the relationship between them is often more intimate and more informal than in a survey in which the interviewer meets the respondents for 30-40 minutes on a very formal basis.
      • The relationship sometimes becomes primary than secondary. Being close to the subject does not necessarily mean that observer will lose objectivity in recording facts.
      • This becomes possible only when the observer becomes emotionally attached to his subjects.
    • Natural environment :
      • The behaviour being observed in natural environment will not cause any bias.
      • Observation will neither be artificial nor restrictive.
    • Longitudinal analysis :
      • In observation, the researcher is able to conduct his study over a much longer period than in the survey.
  • Sarantakos has mentioned the following advantages of observation:
    • It is less complicated and less time-consuming.
    • It offers data when respondents are unable or unwilling to cooperate for giving information.
    • It approaches reality in its natural structure and studies events as they evolve.
    • It allows collection of wide range of information.
    • It is relatively inexpensive. Besides these advantages, two other advantages in observation tool are:
    • Observer can assess the emotional reactions of subjects.
    • The observer is able to record the context which gives meaning to respondent’s expressions.

Disadvantages of Observation

  • According to Bailey, the disadvantages in observation technique are:
    • Lack of Control :
      • In artificial setting, control over variables is possible but in natural environment, the researcher has little control over variables that affect the data.
    • Difficulties of quantification :
      • The data collected through observation cannot be quantified.
      • The recorded data will show how persons interacted with one another but it cannot be completed the number of times they interacted.
      • In communal riots, looting, arson, killing may be observed but it cannot be quantified what type of people indulged in what? It is difficult to categorise in-depth emotional and humanistic data.
    • Small sample size:
      • Observational studies use a smaller sample than survey studies.
      • Two or more observers can study a bigger sample but then their observations cannot be compared. Since observations are made for a longer period, employing many observers can become a costly affair.
    • Gaining entry:
      • Many times the observer has difficulty in receiving approval for the study.
      • It is not always easy to observe the functioning of an organization or institution without obtaining permission from the administrator.
      • In such cases, he may not record observations then and there but may write notes at night.
    • Lack of anonymity/studying sensitive issues:
      • In observational study, it is difficult to maintain the respondent’s anonymity.
      • In survey, it is easy for the husband to say that he has no quarrels and conflicts with his wife but in observation over a longer period of time, he cannot conceal them.
    • Limited study:
      • All aspects of the problem cannot be observed simultaneously.
      • The observation technique studies only limited issues. Similarly, internal attitudes and opinions cannot be studied.
  • Williamson et. al. have discussed the following limitations of observation method
    • This method is not applicable to the investigation of large social settings.
    • There are few safeguards against biases of the researcher.
    • There is the related problem of selectivity in data collection.
    • The mere presence of the researcher in the setting may change the group/social system to some extent.
    • Since there is no set procedure of observation technique, the researcher may not be able to explain exactly how the work was done. It, therefore, becomes difficult to replicate the study.
    • It could thus be concluded that observation becomes an effective tool of scientific study when it is planned systematically, recorded systematically, is subjected to checks and control, and selected observers have skills and are trained.

Case study;

  • Case study is an intensive study of a case which may be an individual, an institution, a system, a community, an organization, an event, or even the entire culture.
  • Yin has defined case study as “an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident, and in which multiple sources of evidence are used”.
  • Kromrey holds that “case study involves studying individual cases, often in their natural environment and for a long period of time”
  • Case study is not a method of data collection; rather it is a research strategy, or an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon by using multiple sources of evidence.
  • Mitchell has also maintained that a case study is not just a narrative account of an event or a series of events but it involves analysis against an appropriate theoretical framework or in support of theoretical conclusions.
  • Case study can be simple and specific, such as “Ram, the delinquent boy”, or complex and abstract, such as “decisionmaking in a university”. But whatever the subject, to qualify as a case study, it must be a bounded system/unit, an entity in itself.

Characteristics of Case Study;

  • Hartfield has referred to the following distinguishing characteristics of case study:
    • It studies whole units in their totality and not some selected aspects or variables of these units.
    • It employs several methods in data collection to prevent errors and distortions.
    • If often studies a single unit: one unit is one study.
    • It perceives the respondent as a knowledgeable person, not just as a source of data.
    • It studies a typical case..

Purposes of Case Study;

  • Following are the purposes of a case study :
    • To use it as a preliminary to major investigation as it may bring to light variables, processes and relationships that deserve more intensive investigation.
    • To probe the phenomenon deeply and analyse it intensively with a view to establishing generalizations about the wider population to which the unit belongs.
    • To get anecdotal evidence that illustrates more general findings.
    • To refute a universal generalization. A single case can represent a significant contribution to theory building and assist in focusing the direction of future investigations in the area.
    • To use it as a unique, typical and an interesting case in its own right.
  • According to Berger et. al. reasons for employing case study method can be :
    • To get intimate and detailed information about the structure, process and complexity of the research object,
    • To formulate hypotheses,
    • To conceptualise,
    • To operationalize variables,
    • To expand quantitative findings, and
    • To test the feasibility of the quantitative study.

Types of Case Studies:

  • Burns has stated six types of case studies:
    • Oral history case studies:
      • These studies trace the development of an organization/system over time.
      • The study of an adult criminal right from his childhood through adolescence and youth is an example of this type of case study.
      • This type depends more on interviews, recording and documents.
    • Oral history case studies:
      • These focus on observing a drunkard, a teacher, a student, a union leader, some activity, events, or a specific group of people.
      • However, the researchers in this type of study are rarely total participants or total observers.
    • Oral history case studies:
      • These are usually first person narratives that the researcher collects using extensive interviewing of a single individual.
      • For example, the case of a drug addict or an alcoholic, or a prostitute or a retired person who fails to adjust himself in son’s family.
      • The use of this approach depends more on the nature and cooperation of the respondent.
    • Oral history case studies:
      • This form studies particular events. The views of all participants in the event are sought. For example, a communal riot: how it started with conflict between two persons of two different religious groups, how each person sought support of persons of his own religion present at the spot, how police was informed, how police arrested persons of one particular religious group, how power elite interfered and pressurized the police department, how did public and the media react, and so on.
      • Pulling all these views together, a depth is provided that contributes significantly to the understanding of the event.
    • Oral history case studies:
      • This approach aims at understanding in depth a particular individual such as a patient in the hospital, a prisoner in the jail, a woman in a rescue home, a problem child in a school, etc.
      • These studies involve detailed interviews, observation, going through records and reports, and so on.
    • Oral history case studies:
      • It is a collection of case studies or a form of replication, i.e., multiple experiments. For example, we can take three case studies and analyse them on replication logic.
      • This logic is that each case will either produce contrary results or similar results. The outcome will demonstrate either support for the initial propositions or a need to revise and retest with another set of cases.
      • The advantage of multi-case design is that the evidence can be more compelling. However, this approach requires more time and effort.

Sources of Data Collection for Case Studies;

  • Two main sources of primary data collection are interviews and observation, while the secondary data are collected through a variety of sources like reports, records, newspapers, magazines, books, files, diaries, etc.
  • The secondary sources may not be accurate or may be biased. But they specify events and issues in greater detail than interviews can.
    • The observation method used could either be participant or non-participant. The latter has been used more by sociologists in India like M.N. Srinivas, Sachchidananda, L.P. Vidyarthi, etc. For some topics, the non-participant observation is more suitable.
    • The observation method used could either be participant or non-participant. The latter has been used more by sociologists in India like M.N. Srinivas, Sachchidananda, L.P. Vidyarthi, etc. For some topics, the non-participant observation is more suitable.

Advantages of Case Study;

  • It makes in-depth study possible.
  • It is flexible with respect to using methods for collecting data, e.g., questionnaire, interview, observation, etc.
  • It could be used for studying any dimension of the topic, i.e., it could study one specific aspect and may not include other aspects.
  • It can be conducted in practically any kind of social setting.
  • Case studies are inexpensive.
  • Yin has referred to following three uses of single case study :
    • It provides a critical test of a theory to corroborate, challenge or extend it.
    • It helps in studying a unique case which is useful not only in clinical psychology but also in sociology for the study of deviant groups, problem individuals, and so on.
    • It helps in studying the phenomenon that occurs in a situation where it (the phenomenon) has not been studies before, e.g., studying the problems and rehabilitation of the sufferers of cyclones in the coastal areas (sociology of disaster), management of irrigation canals for the farmers, environment disasters, etc.

Criticisms of Case Studie;

  • Case study method is generally criticized on the following basis :
    • Subjective bias : The case study design is regarded with disdain because of investigator’s subjectivity in collecting data for supporting or refuting a particular explanation. Many a time the investigator allows personal views to influence the direction of the findings and his conclusions.
    • Little evidence for scientific generalizations: It is said that case study provides little evidence for inferences and generalizing theory. The common complaint is: How can generalization be made from a single case?
    • Time-consuming : Case study is timeconsuming as it produces a lot of information which is difficult to analyse adequately. Selectivity has naturally a tendency to be biased. But if the case study is focused on relevant issues of person or event under study, it need not be lengthy.
    • Doubtful reliability: It is very difficult to establish reliability in the case study. The investigator cannot prove his authenticity for obtaining data or having no bias in analysing them. It is not easy to fix steps and procedures explicitly to the extent that others are enabled to replicate the same study.
    • Missing validity: The investigators in the case study fail to develop a sufficiently operational set of measures. As such, checks and balances of reliable instruments are found missing. For investigator, what seems true is more important than what is true. The case study can oversimplify or exaggerate leading to erroneous conclusions.The validity question also arises because the investigator by his presence and actions affects the behaviour of the observed but he does not give importance to this reaction while interpreting the facts. Yet one more argument against the case study is that it has no representativeness, i.e., each case studied does not represent other similar cases.
  • Yin has criticized case studies mainly on three grounds :
    • The findings of case studies are biased because the research is usually sloppy. This criticism is probably based on the prejudice that quantitative researchers are against qualitative data. They think that only numbers can be used to describe and explain social life validly and reliably.
    • Case studies are not useful for generalization. One argument is that it is not possible to generalize from a single case. The other argument is that if a number of cases are used for the purpose, it will be extremely difficult to establish their comparability. Each case has too many unique aspects.
    • Case studies take too long time and produce unmanageable amounts of data. In fact, it is not the case study but the methods of data collection which are time-consuming.

Additional Notes;

Social Survey;

  • The basic procedure in survey is that people are asked a number of questions on that aspect of behavior which the sociologist is interested in. A number of people carefully selected so that their representation of their population being studied are asked to answer exactly the same question so that the replies to different categories of respondents may be examined for differences.
  • One type of survey relies on contacting the respondents by letter and asking them to complete the questionnaire themselves before returning it.
  • These are called Mail questionnaires. Sometimes questionnaires are not completed by individuals separately but by people in a group under the direct supervision of the research worker.
  • A variation of the procedure can be that a trained interviewer asks the questions and records the responses on a schedule from each respondent.
  • These alternate procedures have different advantages and disadvantages. Mail questionnaires are relatively cheap and can be used to contact respondents who are scattered over a wide area.
  • But at the same time the proportion of people who return questionnaires sent through post is usually rather small.
  • The questions asked in main questionnaires have also to be very carefully worded in order to avoid ambiguity since the respondents cannot ask to have questions clarified for them.
  • Using groups to complete questionnaires means that the return rate is good and that information is assembled quickly and fairly.
  • Administrating the interview schedules to the respondents individually is probably the most reliable method. Several trained interviewers may be employed to contact specific individuals.
  • The questionnaires and schedules can consist of both close-ended and open-ended questions. Also a special attention needs to be paid to ensure that the questionnaires are filled in logical order.
  • Where aptitude questions are included great care must be exercised to ensure the proper words are used. In case of schedules emphasis and interactions may also be standardized between different individuals and from respondents to respondents.
  • Finally proper sampling techniques must be used to ensure that the sample under study represents the universe of study. In order to enhance the reliability of data collected through questionnaires and schedules, these questionnaires and schedules must be pretested through pilot studies.

Nomothetic and Ideographic Methods;

  • Ideographic and nomothetic methods represent two different approaches to understanding social life.
    • An ideographic method focuses on individual cases or events. Ethnographers, for example, observe the minute details of everyday life to construct an overall portrait.
    • A nomothetic method, on the other hand, focuses on general statements that account for larger social patterns that form the context of single events or individual behavior and experience.
    • Nomothetic Method refers to the approach of investigating large groups of people in order to find general laws of behaviour that apply to everyone.
    • Idiographic Method refers to the approach of investigating individuals in personal, in-depth detail to achieve a unique understanding of them.
    • “Nomos” refer to laws in ancient Greek; this approach assumes that an individual is a complex combination of many universal laws; it is best to study people on a large scale.
    • “Idios” refer to ‘private’ or ‘personal’ in ancient Greek; this approach assumes that humans are unique.
  • According to Nomothetic Method, Quantitative Experimental methods are best to identify the universal laws governing behaviour. The individual will be classified with others and measured as a score upon a dimension, or be a statistic supporting a general principle (‘averaging’).
  • According to Idiographic Method, Qualitative methods are best; case study method will provide a more complete and global understanding of the individual who should be studied using flexible, long terms and detailed procedures in order to put them in a ‘class of their own’.
  • Advantages of Nomothetic Method – In line with the deterministic, law abiding nature of science, useful in predicting and controlling behaviour; nomothetic findings on prejudice and discrimination perhaps helpful (reduce discrimination)
  • Disadvantages of Nomothetic Method – Superficial understanding of any one person; even if two persons have same IQ they may have answered different questions in the test; a person may have 1% chance of developing depression (but is he among the 1%?); classification manuals are not accurate and does not help people.
  • Advantages of Idiographic Method: More complete and global understanding of an individual; sometimes the most efficient; often lead to results that spark off experimental investigation of behaviour.
  • Disadvantages of Idiographic Method;– Difficult to generalize findings; Sociologists create universal theories on the basis of a limited and unrepresentative sample; Idiographic research tends to be more unreliable and unscientific (subjective, long term and unstandardised procedures) While comparing Sociology and History, Radcliff Brown said “sociology is nomothetic, while history is idiographic”. In other words, sociologists produce generalizations while historians describe unique events.

Content Analysis;

  • Content analysis is a research method used to analyze social life by interpreting words and images from documents, film, art, music, and other cultural products and media.
  • It has been used extensively to examine the place of women in society. In advertising, for example, women tend to be portrayed as subordinate, often through their lower physical positioning in relation to the males or the unassertive nature of their poses or gestures.
  • Researchers can learn a great deal about a society by analyzing cultural artifacts such as newspapers, magazines, television programs, or music.
  • This is called content analysis. Researchers who use content analysis are not studying the people, but are studying the communications the people produce as a way of creating a picture of their society.
  • Content analysis is frequently used to measure cultural change and to study different aspects of culture.
  • Sociologists also use it as an indirect way to determine how social groups are perceived. For example, they might examine how African Americans are depicted in television shows or how women are depicted in advertisements.
  • In conducting a content analysis, researchers quantify and analyze the presence, meanings, and relationships of words and concepts within the cultural artifacts they are studying. They then make inferences about the messages within the artifacts and about the culture they are studying.
  • At its most basic, content analysis is a statistical exercise that involves categorizing some aspect of behavior and counting the number of times such behavior occurs. For example, a researcher might count the number of minutes that men and women appear on screen in a television show and make comparisons.
  • This allows us to paint a picture of the patterns of behavior that underlie social interactions portrayed in the media.

Strengths And Weaknesses of Content Analysis;

  • Content analysis has several strengths as a research method. First, it is a great method because it is unobtrusive.
  • That is, it has no effect on the person being studied since the cultural artifact has already been produced. Second, it is relatively easy to gain access to the media source or publication the researcher wishes to study.
  • Finally, it can present an objective account of events, themes, and issues that might not be immediately apparent to a reader, viewer, or general consumer.
  • Content analysis also has several weaknesses as a research method.
    • First, it is limited in what it can study. Since it is based only on mass communication – either visual, oral, or written – it cannot tell us what people really think about these images or whether they affect people’s behavior.
    • Second, it may not be as objective as it claims since the researcher must select and record data accurately.
  • In some cases, the researcher must make choices about how to interpret or categorize particular forms of behavior and other researchers may interpret it differently. A final weakness of content analysis is that it can be time consuming.

Focus Group Discussion;

  • Focus group Discussion is a form of qualitative research that is used most often in product marketing and marketing research. During a focus group, a group of individuals – usually 6-12 people -is brought together in a room to engage in a guided discussion of some topic.
  • Focus groups are often used in social science research as well. Take William Gamson’s research on political views as an example.
  • In 1992, he used focus groups to examine how U.S. citizens frame their views of political issues. He chose four issues for discussion: Affirmative action, nuclear power, troubled industries, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
    • First Gamson conducted a content analysis of the press coverage on these topics to get an idea of the media context within which the participants would be thinking and talking about these topics and politics in general.
    • Then he conducted the focus groups to observe the process of people discussing these issues with their friends.
  • The participants of a focus group are selected based on their relevance and relationship to the topic under study.
  • They are not typically chosen through rigorous, probability sampling methods, which means that they do not statistically represent any meaningful population. Rather, participants are chosen through word-of-mouth, advertising, snowball sampling, or similar, depending on the type of person and characteristics the researcher is looking to include.

Advantages of Focus Groups:

  • There are several advantages of focus groups:
    • As a socially oriented research method, it captures real-life data in a social setting.
    • It is flexible.
    • It has high face validity, meaning that it measures what it is intended to measure.
    • It generates quick results.
    • It costs little to conduct.
    • Group dynamics often bring out aspects of the topic or reveal information about the subject that may not have been anticipated by the researcher or emerged from individual interviews.

Disadvantages of Focus Group:

  • There are also several disadvantages of focus groups:
  • The researcher has less control over the session than he or she does in individual interviews.
  • Data are often difficult to analyze.
  • Moderators require certain skills.
  • Differences between groups can be troublesome.
  • Groups can often be difficult to pull together.
  • The discussion must be conducted in a conducive environment.
Preparing For The Focus Group:
  • Identify the main objective of the focus group.
  • Carefully develop your focus group questions. Your focus group should generally last 1 to 1.5 hours, which is usually enough time to cover 5 or 6 questions.
  • Call potential participants to invite them to the meeting. Focus groups generally consist of 6-12 participants who have some similar characteristic (e.g., age group, status in a program, etc). Select participants who are likely to participate in discussions and who don’t all know each other.
  • Send a follow-up invitation with a proposed agenda, questions up for discussion, and time/location details.
  • Three days before the focus group, call each participant to remind them of the meeting.
Planning The Session:
  • Schedule a time that is convenient for most people. Plan the focus group to take between 1 and 1.5 hours. Lunchtime or dinnertime is usually a good time for people, and if you serve food, they are more likely to attend.
  • Find a good setting, such as a conference room, with good air flow and lighting. Configure the room so that all members can see each other. Provide nametags as well as refreshments. If your focus group is at lunch or dinnertime, be sure to provide food as well.
  • Set some ground rules for the participants that help foster participation and keep the session moving along appropriately. For example: 1. Stay focused on the subject/question, 2. Keep the momentum of the conversation going, and 3. Get closure on each question.
  • Make an agenda for the focus group. Consider the following: Welcome, review of agenda, review of the goal of the meeting, review of ground rules, introductions, questions and answers, wrap up.
  • Don’t count on your memory for information shared at the focus group. Plan to record the session with either an audio or video recorder. If this isn’t possible, involve a co-facilitator who takes good notes.
Facilitating The Session:
  • Introduce yourself and your cofacilitator, if you have one.
  • Explain your need and reason for recording the focus group discussion.
  • Carry out the agenda.
  • Carefully word each question to the group. Before a group discussion, allow everyone a few minutes to carefully record his or her responses or answers. Then, facilitate discussion around the answers to each question, one at a time.
  • After the discussion of each question, reflect back to the group a summary of what you just heard. If you have a note-taker/cofacilitator, he or she may do this.
  • Ensure even participation among the group. If a few people are dominating the conversation, then call on others. Also, consider a round-table approach in which you go in one direction around the table, giving each person a chance to answer the question.
  • Close the session by thanking the participants and telling them that they will receive a copy of the report generated as a result of the discussion.
Immediately After The Session:
  • Verify that the audio or video recorder worked throughout the entire session (if one was used).
  • Make any additional notes on your written notes that you need.
  • Write down any observations you made during the session, such as the nature of participation in the group, any surprises of the session, where and when the session was held, etc.


  • In general, serendipity is the act of finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it. In information technology, serendipity often plays a part in the recognition of a new product need or in solving a design problem.
  • Web surfing can be an occasion for serendipity since you sometimes come across a valuable or interesting site when you are looking for something else.
  • The term was coined by English writer Horace Walpole on January 28, 1754, in a letter written to Horace Mann. He credited it to a “silly fairy tale” he once read called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’.
  • Three goodly young princes were traveling the world in hopes of being educated to take their proper position upon their return. On their journey they happened upon a camel driver who inquired if they had seen his missing camel. As sport, they claimed to have seen the camel, reporting correctly that the camel was blind in one eye, missing a tooth, and lame. From these accurate details, the owner assumed that the three had surely stolen the camel, and they were subsequently thrown into jail. Soon the wayward camel was discovered, and the princes brought to the perplexed Emperor of the land, who inquired of them how they had learned these facts. That the grass was eaten on one side of the road suggested that camel had one eye, the cuds of grass on the ground indicated a tooth gap, and the traces of a dragged hoof revealed the camel’s lameness.
  • This exotic tale, told of ancient princes of Sri Lanka, then known as Serendip, inspired Horace Walpole, the English novelist (e.g., The Castle of Otranto), politician, and belle lettrist. In this last capacity, Walpole coined the term ‘serendipity” while writing to the British diplomat, Horace Mann, in January 28, 1754. Walpole created serendipity to refer to the combination of accident and sagacity in recognizing the significance of a discovery.

Serendipity in classical fieldwork:

  • Qualitative research inevitably contains such “good fortune,” but serendipity consists in how we transform our fortune into substantive discovery.
  • Since Malinowski (1950), many fieldwork classics provide evidence of the importance of interpreting and capitalizing on unpredicted, unplanned events. Yet, traditionally, ethnographers were reluctant to discuss their errors and chance occurrences, even when these events proved to be the basis of subsequent insight, perhaps fearing that it would confirm the belief that ethnography was truly dilettantism. Hortense Powdermaker (1966) recognized this absence when she remarked:
  • Little record exists of mistakes and learning from them, and of the role of chance and accident in stumbling upon significant problems, in reformulating old ones, and in devising new techniques, a process known as “serendipity.” A lack of theory, or of imagination, an over commitment to a particular hypothesis, or a rigidity in personality may prevent a fieldworker from learning as he stumbles.
  • With the growth of the “reflexive turn” in ethnography – what some have labelled the “new ethnography” (Dowd, 1994), the inclusion of occurrences of serendipity in accounts of fieldwork is a battle won long ago, perhaps contributing to the heroic image of the ethnographer who pulls meaning from chaos. We have come to present ourselves as lovers of the play and surprise of research. Although we now have what Atkinson (1990) described as a “mythological corpus” of ethnographers’ tales of discovery – frequently in the form of ” confessionals” we know little of how serendipity operates in qualitative research. The conceptualization of the dimensions of serendipity must be made more explicit. The question becomes: How do our own lived experiences of insight lead to substantive discovery?

The serendipity pattern:

  • The most influential attempt to apply the concept of serendipity to social scientific theorizing has been the one by Robert Merton. As Merton (1962) noted, “There is a rich corpus of literature on how social scientists ought to think, feel, and act, but little detail on what they actually do, think, and feel” (p. 19). Merton (1968, p. 157) provided a systematic attempt to make sense of serendipity in sociology, speaking of the serendipity pattern, whereby unexpected data provide the spark for the creation of theoretical analysis. For Merton three features characterize datum that fit into a serendipity pattern: it must be “unanticipated,” “anomalous,” and “strategic” (i.e., with implications for the development of theory).
  • Merton, of course, operated from the scientific model described above, which is also implicated in the princes’ tale. That is, a real world exists for which clues provide insight. In contrast to a positivist (or postpositivist) view, we suggest that serendipitous insight provides the opportunity for constructing a plausible story. We do not deny the reality of an external world, but only suggest that numerous possible explanations exist and that chance events can be made serendipitous if the event provides the opportunity for storybuilding. In this way, story-telling is a means, not an end. We use stories in much the same way as researchers might use an illustrative case decorating a statistical study. Our stories are intended as supporting evidence for the paper’s conclusions and, it is hoped, permit the reader to experience an abbreviated version of the verstehen and inference processes of the researcher.

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