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Qualitative Data Collection

Qualitative data are any non-numerical data that can provide details of the context in which a program operates. Quantitative data are numerical data that identify outcomes and trends in behavior. When used together, qualitative and quantitative data provide a more comprehensive story than simply looking at numbers. This page provides examples of qualitative data collection methods that are effective in evaluation of food access initiatives.

Most Significant Change (MSC) is a strategy that solicits stories that demonstrate significant change from food access activists. Once gathered, a panel of stakeholders collectively identifies which stories demonstrate the most significant change. This method requires investigators be willing to accept unexpected results; part of the value of MSC resides in identifying where different groups and individuals find meaning.

MSC is about the process of change (how change happened, what change looked like, and on what timeline that change occurred) as much as it is about collection and reporting of stories. As a result, MSC intends to inform program development and be complementary to other evaluation methods.

Storytelling is an effective qualitative method of collecting and sharing nuanced information with the purpose of effecting change. It can be used to share success stories as well as identify needs in communities. Elected officials and other decision-makers appreciate the humanity of storytelling that is not evident in statistics and trends. Storytelling may be used on its own and can be used in conjunction with quantitative data methods.

While it may appear investigators are informally collecting stories, they may use a formal process called disciplined inquiry to collect evaluative stories, meaning they follow a specific protocol and adhere to social science traditions when gathering and analyzing data. The final product includes the following features:

  • Clear identification of the source of each story
  • Confirmation of stories with the storyteller or others familiar with the story
  • Transparency around the research protocols used when collecting and analyzing stories
  • A statement by the person collecting and organizing the stories about how the story relates and applies to others in similar circumstances

Case studies tell stories with more complexity and detail than can be captured through traditional storytelling. On site visits, investigators generally collect comprehensive data (both qualitative and quantitative), including social and environmental contextual factors that affect the situation being investigated. The final product is a detailed description of the circumstances.

Case studies are typically used to showcase a situation's complexity, present different stakeholders' perspectives, describe processes to addressing the situation, and highlight resulting short- and long-term outcomes to the initiative. Case studies may also identify remaining needs.

Photovoice is a method used in community-based participatory research that uses photography to capture the reality of the everyday lives of community members. This method allows individuals the opportunity to document and share their experiences with any given research topic while simultaneously providing important evidence that can be used in evaluation as well as dissemination to stakeholders and policymakers. Photovoice was developed with the intention of giving voice to members of communities that have minimal power and whose voices are often lost in important conversations. Photovoice has three goals:

  1. Provide community members an opportunity to capture their community's strengths and limitations
  2. Stimulate important conversations about community concerns
  3. Bring data to elected officials and other policymakers who are in a position to make change happen

In addition to many other issues, Photovoice has been used to assess:

Photovoice has largely served as a needs assessment tool, though there are some examples of it being used as a pre- post-intervention tool. It can also be a useful tool for dissemination.

Resources to Learn More

Approaches to Conducting Evaluation
List of 22 approaches that can be used to complete some or all of the tasks associated with program evaluation. Each approach includes an explanation of the major concepts and links to additional resources.
Organization(s): BetterEvalution

Building from the Inside Out in Region 5 Minnesota: A Rural Region's Effort to build a Resilient Food System
Case study of a five-county rural region in central Minnesota that used targeted policies to bolster the local food system and address food insecurity in its communities. Includes resources to help develop a business plan, conduct feasibility studies, and perform economic analyses.
Author(s): Hodgson, K., & Martin, K.
Organization(s): Growing Food Connections
Date: 2016

Hunger and Housing in Rural America: Intersecting Challenges and Solutions
Special summer edition of the quarterly journal is dedicated to hunger and housing-related issues in rural America. Contains multiple case studies highlighting a variety of rural communities throughout the country.
Author(s): Various contributing authors
Citation: Rural Voices, 18(3)
Date: Summer, 2013

Implementing Photovoice in your Community
Explains the concept of Photovoice and provides an overview of when and how using Photovoice may benefit a given community.
Author(s): Rabinowitz, P.
Organization(s): Community Toolbox, University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development