Sussex European Institute

Qualitative Methods

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research aims to enhance our understanding of social processes, phenomena and activities. It focuses on meaning and understanding rather than quantification. 

The qualitative research tradition is a field which cross-cuts the social science disciplines. It includes an array of methods ranging from interviewing to observation, discourse and historical analysis and research is often multi-method. Qualitative research studies phenomena and actors in their natural setting in order to understand processes and phenomena through the meanings actors and participants give them in their own terms (Denzin&Lincoln, 1998: 1-3). Qualitative research 'aims to provide an in-depth understanding of people's experiences, perspectives and histories in context' and is often characterised by a concern to find the actors' perspective, semi-structured context-sensitive methods, rich data, explanations at the level of meaning and how and why questions (Spencer et al, 2003: 3).

Denzin and Lincoln say the multiple methodologies of qualitative research may be viewed as a bricolage and the researcher as bricoleur - meaning the researcher is a jack-of-all-trades who will try anything and produces a bricolage, which is an emergent, close-knit, pieced together set of practices which provide a solution to the particular problem which changes and takes new forms as techniques are added to the puzzle. Essentially, the bricoleur, (qualitative researcher) uses whatever tools and strategies are at hand to explore the question in the context as fully as possible. The product connects parts to the whole and stresses the relationships that operate in the research context (Denzin&Lincoln, 1998: 3-4).

  • Denzin, N. And Lincoln, Y. (1998) 'Entering the Field of Qualitative Research' in Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (eds) Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (Sage: London)
  • Spencer, L., Ritchie, J., Lewis, J. and Dillon, L. (2003) Quality in Qualitative Evaluation: A framework for assessing research evidence (The Cabinet Office: London)

How might it help us further understand processes and activity at the EP?

Academic writing and research on the European Parliament has increased in quantity and sophistication as the legislature's powers and prestige have grown. Historically, work was largely descriptive and there were four foci: the EP's historical development, elections analysis, inter-institutional relationships and more recently patterns of political competition (Verzichelli & Edinger, 2005: 255). As their influence in the EU policy process grew with successive institutional reforms, attention turned to the MEPs and EP politics. Hix, Raunio and Scully (2003, 193) say this has resulted in four key contemporary EP research areas where a diverse range of methodological approaches are taken: EP development and functioning, political behaviour and elections, internal politics and organisation, and inter-institutional bargaining.

We believe that further use of qualitative methods at the EP will help enhance understanding of how this institution works and of processes and interactions occurring there to add to the current body of literature. Current work, particularly on areas such as mechanisms of change and socialisation, remains inconclusive and further work on some areas and concepts requires exploration and description before further statistical analyses can be done. In his recent book, Julian Priestley, former EP Secretary-General, laments that 'there is relatively little on the life of the Parliament' (2008: xi) and how it functions. Qualitative researchers listed on this site are beginning to look into these gaps with an array of methods, questions and projects.

  • Hix, S., Raunio, T. and Scully, R. (2003) 'Fifty years on: research on the European Parliament' in Journal of Common Market Studies 41 (2)
  • Verzichelli, L and Edinger, M. (2005) 'A critical juncture? the 2004 European elections and the making of a supranational elite' in The Journal of Legislative Studies 11 (2)
  • Priestley, Julian. (2008) Six Battles that shaped Europe's Parliament (John Harper Publishing: London)

Qualitative Methods 

The following qualitative research methods may help scholars to understand processes, phenomena and activities occurring within the European Parliament.

Elite Interviews

These allow researchers to talk to legislators and others involved in political and policy decision-making processes to find out their perspective and/or what went on backstage away from the final formal institutional story. Elite in this case may be defined as 'a group of individuals, who hold, or have held, a privileged position in a society' (Richards, 1996:199) or more flexibly as an interview for 'any interviewee who is given special, non-standardized treatment' because they have specialist knowledge the researcher is eager to be taught (Dexter, 1970:5). This is often achieved through semi structured interviews with open-ended questions which allow interviewees to ruminate and express themselves within their own framework and introduce new perspectives. This could help gain perspectives, views and experiences of EP processes and politics.

  • Ball, S. (1994) 'Political interviews and the politics of interviewing' in Walford, G. (ed) Researching the Powerful in education (UCL Press: London)
  • Dexter, L. A. (1970) Elite and Specialised Interviewing (Northwestern University Press: Evanston)
  • Puwar, N. (1997) 'Reflections on Interviewing Women MPs' in Sociological Research Online 2 (1)
  • Richards, D. (1996) 'Elite Interviewing: Approaches and Pitfalls' in Politics 16 (3)

Focus Groups

These bring together carefully selected participants to discuss a specific topic about which they are either knowledgeable or their knowledge/input is desirable. In particular, group interaction is used as research data and there is a specific purpose. The aim is to obtain perceptions and reactions and allow participants to bounce ideas off each other. This could help build a fuller picture of complex EP policy processes and interactions by bringing together those involved at different stages.

  • Burnham, P., Gilland, K., Grant, W. And Layton-Henry, Z. (2004) Research Methods in Politics (Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire)


Observation of EP committees and plenary sessions could assist with analysis of behaviour, interaction, speech and informality in the EP and the EU policy process. Observation means spending time at the institution, watching legislators engage in the institutional procedures and searching for patterns and meaning.

Participant Observation

This is a method which has traditionally been used in anthropology and sociology but can be used in political institutions to study groups, interaction and cultures and the meaning the context has for actors. It helps researchers appreciate motivations and rationalisations of political actors within their environment and context. It means spending long periods of direct and sustained contact with a fieldsite and its members and where the researcher becomes involved in the social situation in order to understand behaviour, unlike short periods of detached observation. The degree of 'participation' or 'observation' is said to be a participant observation continuum and where you are placed will often depend on practical, theoretical and ethical issues (O'Reilly, 2009: 161). Participant observation allows you to experience the intimacies of daily life and relations and once people accept you, 'you can just hang around, and you'll learn the answers in the long run without even having to ask the questions' (Whyte, 1993: 303).

  • Burnham, P., Gilland, K., Grant, W. And Layton-Henry, Z. (2004) Research Methods in Politics (Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire)
  • O'Reilly, J. (2009) Key Concepts in Ethnography (Sage: London)
  • Whyte, W. F. (1993) Street corner society: the social structure of an Italian Slum (4th edition) (Chicago University Press: Chicago)

Historical Analysis / Archival Research

This research can help us understand how the EP has evolved as a legislature and the pressures and influences it came under to make it the institution it is today, as well as helping us understand what has not changed. This can include plenary and committee records as well as legislation itself, media resources, reports and personal diaries.

Discourse Analysis

There has been a recent growth of interest in this method which allows analysis of speeches, narratives and discourses within political speeches, literature and the media, and how institutional arrangements are loaded with assumptions. It starts from the assumption that all objects and actions are meaningful. These research projects start from different places depending on the researcher's definition of discourse and epistemological approach, (e.g. positivist, critical, post-structuralist etc.)

Case studies

Case studies are one of the most used methods in qualitative research. They are an in-depth study of constructed, naturally occurring social situations (O'Reilly, 2009:24) and it implies a focus on a particular instance of something more general which can illuminate broader themes and processes. It is a distinctive form of social inquiry used to 'understand complex social phenomena' and to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events, such as organisational processes (Yin, 2003:2). It is a useful approach for studying the EU which is a complex, multifaceted institution, so case study research allows deeper research on instances which can be generalised with qualification.

Despite some limitations when generalising results based on a limited number of cases, case studies can be used to advance at a theoretical level, advancing theoretical frameworks that can be applied to a larger number of cases. The method has sometimes been used in a purely positivistic framework by authors such as Lijphart, who have used them to measure precise dependent and independent variables isolated from their surroundings. New developments in the use of case studies though try to widen their scope in order to capture the complexity and 'embeddedness' of specific cases. In this sense, case studies are ideally situated to look at the succession of events leading to a certain outcome instead of focusing research only on the outcome. Therefore, the case study method is particularly relevant when looking at processes and mechanisms, especially when it is combined with process tracing or other forms of triangulation.

  • Arend Lijphart, "Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method," The American Political Science Review 65, no. 3 (1971)
  • B. Guy Peters, "The Case Study," in Comparative Politics: Theory and Method Houndmills: MacMillan Press, 1998)
  • Peter A. Hall, "Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Research," in , ed. James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Comparative historical analysis in the social sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Yin, R. (2003) Case Study Research: design and methods (3rd edition) (Sage Publications: London)

Process tracing

Process tracing is a method that allows identifying a chain of events. In this sense, process tracing is, basically, a system that offers a way to researchers for organising the data collected in a systematic way. By pointing at the nodal points and raising interactions between actors and their context, it helps identifying not only mechanisms but also common discourses or narratives that can be later analysed with other methods such as discourse analysis. Process tracing is often found in research projects using case studies or narratives.

  • Checkel, J., "Tracing Causal Mechanisms." International Studies Review 8, no. 2 (2006): 362-370.
  • Checkel, Jeffrey T., 2008. 'Process Tracing' in Audie Klotz & Deepa Prakash, eds, Qualitative Methods in International Relations: A Pluralist Guide. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (114-129).

Other Qualitative Work

This is a list of qualitative work and reflections on the use of qualitative methods from across the social sciences, which those interested in using this approach at the EP may be interested in engaging with.

Abélès, M. (1993) 'Political Anthropology of a Transnational Institution: The European Parliament' in French Politics & Society 11 (1)

Aberbach, J. & Rockman, B. (2002) 'Conducting and Coding Elite Interviews' PS: Political Science and Politics, 35(4)

Abram, S. (2001) 'Among Professionals: Working with Pressure Groups and Local Authorities' in Gellner, D. & Hirsch, E. (eds) Inside Organizations: Anthropologists at Work (Berg: Oxford)

Adler, N. (1997) International Dimensions of Organisational Behaviour (3rd edition) (South-Western College Publishing: Cincinnati)

Alvesson, M. (2002) Understanding Organizational Culture (Sage: London)

Asher, H. B. (1973) 'The Learning of Legislative Norms', The American Political Science Review, 67 (2)

Asher, H. B. (1974) 'Committees and the Norm of Specialization', Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 411

Ball, S. (1994) 'Political interviews and the politics of interviewing', in Walford, G. (ed) Researching the Powerful in education (UCL Press: London)

Ball, S. (1994b) 'Researching Inside the State: Issues in the interpretation of Elite Interviews', in Halpin, D. & Troyna, B. (eds) Researching education policy: ethical and methodological issues (Falmer Press: London)

Barbour, R. & Schostak, J. (2005) 'Interviewing and Focus Groups', in Somekh, B. & Lewin, C. (eds) Research Methods in the Social Sciences (Sage Publications: London)

Berry, J. (2002) 'Validity and reliability issues in elite interviewing' in PS: Political Science and Politics, 35(4)

Bogdan, R. (1972) Participant Observation in Organizational Settings (Syracuse University Press: New York)

Byrne, B. (2004) 'Qualitative Interviewing', in Seale, C. (ed) Researching Society and Culture (2nd edition) (Sage Publications: London)

Checkel, J.T (2008) 'Process Tracing' in Klotz, A. & Prakash, D. (eds), Qualitative Methods in International Relations: A Pluralist Guide (Palgrave Macmillan: New York)

Checkel, J.T. (2006) 'Tracing Causal Mechanisms', International Studies Review, 8(2)

Cochrane, A. (1998) 'Illusions of power: interviewing local elites', Environment and Planning A, 30(12)

Davidson, R. H. (1969) The role of the Congressman (Pegasus: New York)

Deal, T. and Kennedy, A. (1982) Corporate Cultures : the rites and rituals of corporate life (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc: Harmondsworth)

Delwit, P., Kulahci, E. & Van de Walle, C. (eds) (2004) The Europarties: Organisation and Influence (Free University of Brussels: Brussels)

Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (1998) 'Entering the Field of Qualitative Research' in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (eds) Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (Sage: London)

Dexter, L. A. (1970) Elite and Specialised Interviewing (Northwestern University Press: Evanston)

Dunne, M., Pryor, J. & Yates, P. (2005) Becoming a Researcher: A Companion to the research process (Open University Press: Berkshire)

Edelman, M. (1988) Constructing the political spectacle (University of Chicago Press: Chicago)

Egeberg, M. (2007) 'How bureaucratic structure matters: an organisational perspective', in Peters, B.G. & Pierre, J. (eds) Handbook of public administration (Sage: London)

Falcione, R. & Wilson, C. (1988) 'Socialization Processes in Organizations' in Goldhaber, G. & Barnett, G. (eds) Handbook of Organizational Communication (Ablex Publishing: New Jersey)

Faucher-King, F. (2005) Changing Parties: An Anthropology of British Political Party Conferences (Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire)

Favell, A. (2006) 'The Sociology of EU politics', in Jorgensen, K.E., Pollack, M. & Rosamond, B. (eds) Handbook of European Union Politics (Sage: London)

Fenno, R. (1978) Home Style: House Members in their Districts (Longman Classics Series)

Fitz, J. & Halpin, D. (1994) 'Ministers and Mandarins: educational research in elite settings', in Walford, G. (ed) Researching the Powerful in education (UCL Press: London)

Forsey, M. (2004) 'He's not a spy; he's one of us: ethnographic positioning in a middle-class setting', in Hume, L. & Mulcock, J. (eds) Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation (Columbia University Press: New York)

Gellner, D. & Hirsch, E. (eds) (2001) Inside Organizations: Anthropologists at Work (Berg: Oxford)

Goldhaber, G. & Barnett, G. (eds) (1988) Handbook of Organizational Communication (Ablex Publishing: New Jersey)

Hall, P.A. (2003) 'Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Research', in Mahoney, J. & Rueschemeyer, D. (eds) Comparative historical analysis in the social sciences (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)

Heidar, K. & Koole, RA. (2000) Parliamentary party groups in European democracies: political parties behind closed doors (Routledge: London)

Hertz, R. & Imber, J. (eds) (1995) Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods (Sage Publications: London)

Hunter, A. (1993) 'Local Knowledge and Local Power: Notes on the Ethnography of Local Community Elites', Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 22(36)

Jenkins, S. & Roscoe, D. (2008) 'Assessing the Organizational Culture of State Political Parties', Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Manchester Hyatt, San Diego, CA.

Johansson, K.M. (1998) 'The transnationalisation of party politics', in Bell, D. & Lord, C. (eds) Transnational parties in the European Union (Ashgate: Aldershot)

Keats, D. (2000) Interviewing: a practical guide for students and professionals (Buckingham: Open University Press) 

Kirk, J. & Miller, M. (1986) Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research (London: Sage Publications) 

Lijphart, A. (1971) 'Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method', The American Political Science Review, 65(3)  

Lynggaard, K. (2007) 'The Institutional Construction of a Policy Field: A Discursive Institutional Perspective on Change within the Common Agricultural Policy', Journal of European Public Policy, 14(2)

Macdonald, S. (1993) Inside European Identities: Ethnography in Western Europe (Berg: Oxford)

March, J. & Olsen, J. (1989) Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics (Collier Macmillan Publishers: London) 

Mason, J. (2002) Qualitative Researching (2nd edition) (Sage: London) 

Matthews, D. (1960) U.S. Senators and their World (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill) 

Maxwell, J. (2005) Qualitative Research Design: An Interpretive Approach (2nd edition) (Sage Publications: London)  

Mays, N. & Pope, C. (1995) 'Qualitative Research: Rigor and qualitative research', British Medical Journal, 311 

McElroy, G. (2006) 'Legislative Politics', in Jorgensen, K.E., Pollack, M. & Rosamond, B. (eds) Handbook of European Union Politics (Sage: London)

Melhuus, M., Mitchell, J. & Wulff, H. (eds) (2010) Ethnographic practice in the present (Berghahn Books: Oxford)

Morse, J. (1999) 'Myth #93: Reliability and Validity Are Not Relevant to Qualitative Inquiry', Qualitative Health Research, 9 

Morse, J. et al. (2002) 'Verification Strategies for Establishing Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research', International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1(2) 

Oliver, D., Serovich, J. & Mason, T. (2005) 'Constraints and Opportunities with Interview Transcription: Towards Reflection in Qualitative Research', Soc Forces, 84(2) 

Ozga, J. & Gewirtz, S. (1994) 'Sex, Lies and Audiotape: interviewing the education policy elite', in Halpin, D. & Troyna, B. (eds) Researching education policy: ethical and methodological issues (Falmer Press: London) 

Peters, G.B. (1998) 'The Case Study', in Comparative Politics: Theory and Method (MacMillan Press: Houndmills)  

Rhodes, RAW., Hart, P. & Noordegraaf, M. (2007) Observing government elites : up close and personal (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke) 

Richards, D. (1996) 'Elite Interviewing: Approaches and Pitfalls', Politics, 16(3) 

Robson, C. (2000) Small-Scale Evaluation: Principles and Practice (Sage: London) 

Sandelowski, M. (1986) 'The problem of rigor in qualitative research', Advances in Nursing Science, 8(3) 

Schwartzman, H. (1993) Ethnography in Organizations (Sage: London) 

Seale, C. (2004) 'Validity, Reliability and Quality' in Seale, C. (ed) Researching Society and Culture (2nd edition) (Sage: London) 

Seale, C. (1999) 'Quality in Qualitative Research', Qualitative Inquiry,5  

Searing, D. (1994) Westminster's World: Understanding Political Roles (Harvard University Press: Cambridge) 

Shore, Cris. (2001) 'The EU and the Politics of Culture', The Bruges Group paper, 43.  

Shore, Cris. (2000) Building Europe: the cultural politics of European integration (London: Routledge) 

Spradley, J. (1980) Participant Observation (Tomson Learning: London) 

Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1998) Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (2nd edition) (Sage: London) 

Wanous, J.P. (1980) Organizational Entry: Recruitment, Selection and Socialisation of Newcomers (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: London)  

Weatherford, J.M. (1985) Tribes on the Hill (Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc: Massachusetts) 

Wright, S. (ed) (1994) Anthropology of Organizations (Routledge: London) 

Zabusky, S. (1995) Launching Europe: An Ethnography of European Cooperation in Space Science (Princeton University Press: Princeton)