Data collection – gathering, generating or making it up?

Post by Dr Sue Nielsen Most books on research methods include long sections on Data Collection. It’s interesting then, that in Schwandt’s (2007) Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, there is no entry for ‘Data Collection’ but a ‘See’ reference to ‘Description’ and ‘Generating Data’. In the former entry he discusses how so called factual descriptions of the world are theory laden and that data ‘collection’ is more appropriately described as generation or construction. In the latter, he mentions that data is not ‘out there’ to be discovered like gold or collected as we would gather fruit from a tree.

But what does this mean? The word ‘generate’ gives rise to images of nature, birth, growth and so on. If constructed, how is this done? Certainly we would hope that we are not just making it up as we go along!

At this point, a researcher engaged in a large qualitative project with deadlines to meet, papers to write and colleagues to argue with, might mutter - ‘collect, gather, generate – a lot of fuss about nothing.’ But given the increasing trend to using interviews as the major means for ‘collecting’ data, and even to treat these interviews as representations of underlying phenomena,  it’s worthwhile to reconsider what we are doing when we 'collect' data and why.

One definition of data is ‘factual information’ but given the discussion above, this makes for even more complications. The meaning in Latin is more informative – something given – which would signify that the research subjects are active, or as Creswell (2007, p.118) puts it “will provide good data”. When Creswell discusses data collection he often refers to ‘studying’ a site or an individual. Put these two ideas together and data collection means studying what research subjects can give you.

Qualitative research is primarily about understanding, which most agree is achieved through interaction. This involves acknowledging the potential for misunderstanding as well as being open to challenging one’s own understanding. Recognising and exploring the role of both the researcher and the data giver may ‘generate’  or ‘construct’ greater insights. ‘Collecting’ data, removing it from its source and then subjecting it to analysis seems unlikely to achieve this.

It’s ok to use a catch-phrase such as data collection which when scrutinised could be considered misleading. Language is like that – after all, very few people are breaking a fast when they eat breakfast. But it’s good to remember the various meanings of data and collection and not misapply them to that phase of qualitative research.


Creswell, J.W. (2007) Qualitative inquiry and research design; choosing among five approaches. 2nd.ed. London, Sage.

Schwandt, T.A. (2007) The Sage dictionary of qualitative inquiry. 3rd ed. Los Angeles, Sage.