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Helping social science undergraduates to navigate their first piece of qualitative research

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 March 2024

Credit: AS Art media / Adobe

Jon Swain

Many social science undergraduate programmes include modules where students are asked to carry out a small piece of qualitative research. This usually takes the form of interviews with real people. Although sample sizes are usually quite small (2-5 people), getting to grips with the resulting data can nevertheless be daunting for a novice researcher.

This blog post outlines the guidance I use with my own BA students, which, they tell me, is a clear and an effective method of showing them how to organise and begin to analyse interview data. The beauty is in its simplicity.

The approach in outline

Qualitative social research involves:

  1. collecting data,
  2. familiarising yourself with the data,
  3. organising the data,
  4. coding patterns or units of meaning, including looking for similarities and differences,
  5. finding quotations, and,
  6. presenting findings and conclusions.

The process I advise for analysing the data follows four stages and is based on four tables:

  • Stage 1: Preparation
  • Stage 2: Summary of responses
  • Stage 3: Recording similarities and differences and coding units of meaning
  • Stage 4: Adding quotations.

The whole point of analysing the interviews is to enable the researcher to present their findings and make conclusions. The tables provide a quick overall view and will make life considerably easier by breaking down the process of analysis into manageable chunks.

Set out below is an illustrative example from a small piece of research that asked students about their career plans after graduation.

The process stage-by-stage

Table 1: Preparation

This involves drawing up a table of interviewees and interview questions. The student adds however many interview questions they used down the side. This process is a further prompt to the student to check that their questions will enable them to answer their research question(s).

Interview question and research question this answers Interviewee 1: Wang Interviewee 2: Jack Interviewee 3: Zhang Interviewee 4: Sun
1. What are your career plans for the future?

RQ1 …


Table 2: Summary of responses

The student listens to the data file of each interview and records what they regard as the key points from the responses in short note form. The table format helps them to organise these notes in preparation for the next stage.

Interview question Interviewee 1: Wang Interviewee 2: Jack Interviewee 3: Zhang Interviewee 4: Sun
1. What are your career plans for the future? Two paths (depends on what I’m studying in graduate school):

Keep studying Education Studies, be a counsellor or do some administrative work at university

Studying English literature, to be English teacher in primary or secondary school

To be headmaster, or senior manager of school

Work at a bank, involving data modelling

Be a manager in a bank

Study postgraduate first and then try to find a job in the UK

Career choice depends on the postgraduate major, maybe in consultancy

Two career paths: economic consulting (higher salary but busy); development consulting (more leisure time but low salary)

Plan to go to graduate school; depending on the specific programme I’m accepted into, then decide on my career direction

I don’t have any lifelong goals


Table 3: Looking for similarities and differences and coding units of meaning

The student looks across the interviews in order to pick out and summarise the notable similarities and differences in the participants’ responses. These can be summarised in a row below or in an additional column at the side. The student can also begin to look for simple codes, or units of meaning. This coded text can be marked in some distinctive way (e.g. coloured-coded). The codes can be used as themes to organise the findings.

Interview question … Interviewee 1: Wang Interviewee 2: Jack Interviewee 3: Zhang Interviewee 4: Sun
Similarities: All interviewees choose to do their postgraduate studies directly after their undergraduate year.

Differences: Interviewee 4 is the only one who doesn’t have clear career plans; interviewees 1 and 3 have two possible career paths. Some have short, and some have long career plans.

Summary: All students will take postgraduate studies next year. Most know their final career path; some are short, others long.

Codes: post-graduate studies; career paths; long-term goals; counsellor; administrator; teacher; manager; consultancy; money; leisure time; choices…

Table 4: Adding quotations

The student re-listens to the interviews and makes a judgement about where they feel they have interesting data (in the form of verbatim quotes) that provides answers to their research questions. They then transcribe this text word for word. The quotations will probably be a few lines, but they make the findings feel more life-like and real, and it also gives the participants a voice. Importantly, this means that the student does not have to transcribe the whole interview. The quotations will also produce a list of new codes, which will keep on growing (e.g. ‘aspirations’, ‘internships’, ‘financial freedom, ‘small steps’). Students can move and keep (or park) each quotation under a particular code in a separate document.

Interview question Interviewee 1: Wang Interviewee 2: Jack Interviewee 3: Zhang Interviewee 4: Sun
1. What are your career plans for the future? “My career aspiration depends on what I’m studying in graduate school. If I am accepted by Education Studies, I might be a university counsellor in the future. But If I am accepted by English literature, I will be an English teacher in primary school.”


“I will focus on statistics at the postgraduate level… I wish to have an internship at one of the Big Four accounting firms in the next year.”



“I really want to achieve financial freedom before retirement”

“I was torn, mainly because of the employment issue. I was thinking about whether or not to go for a major … that has a very clear job prospect, or a major I am really interested in.”

“I don’t have any lifelong goals, I am just taking one step at a time”

“I may keep studying electronic and electrical engineering… I hope to have an internship at top Chinese internet companies.”

Of course, students don’t have to use tables; some students prefer to use a spreadsheet instead, especially when they have a larger sample of interviewees.

I have developed and refined this approach over a few years with students working on undergraduate dissertations. Although there are many texts available that budding social researchers can turn to, this method that I have devised will help students who have collected data from interviews to begin to figure out what to do with it.

Adapted from: Jon Swain and Zhixiu Chen (2024) ‘A Simple Way to Organize and Analyze Data from Qualitative Interviews Using Thematic Analysis’, Sage Research Methods Datasets Part 1. DOI: https://methods.sagepub.com/dataset/qualitative-interviews-thematic-analysis

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