Interpretive Research Methods

Course Description: 

Understanding environmental issues from the perspectives of diverse actors is paramount to addressing environmental problems.  This course provides rigorous scientific tools to capture the perspectives of actors in our field of work, allowing us meaningful insight into how environmental problems are defined, resisted and/or addressed.   We will focus in particular on in-depth, semi-structured interviewing techniques, document analysis, and briefly participant observation. At the end of this course, students should understand how to conduct a research interview and analyze texts using open coding, and gain exposure to some of the fundamentals of participant observation.  

Learning Outcomes: 

With the successful completion of this course, students can gain knowledge, skills, and experience in:

  • Preparing and conducting in-depth interviews to maximize useful data collection.
  • Organizing field work involving participant observation to generate meaningful and valid field notes.
  • Analyzing texts (including interview transcripts, documents, field notes) using open coding techniques to generate empirical themes, concepts and their attributes and relationships.
  • Applying inductive reasoning skills.
  • Strengthening team research skills.

Class participation:

  • Attendance.
  • Engagement of the topics and readings in class discussion.
  • Preparation for class: completing assigned readings, and submitting assignments as per instructions.


Students will be divided into research teams, and engage in the following activities.

A. Interviewing and Participant Observation:

Each team member:

1) conducts an in-class interview and generates a minimum of two pages of transcribed raw data; and

2) prepares one page of field notes based on participant observation (guidelines provided in-class).

B. Document Analysis:

1) Each research team identifies, collects, and codes one relevant document (guidelines provided in-class).

C. Data Analysis:

Research team members code their interviews and field notes; and prepare a verbal summary of preliminary codes and categories, and their possible relationships.

Protocols and criteria for conducting interviews, participant observation and document analysis as per the class readings and discussions will be used to assess student interview transcripts, field notes, document analysis, and overall data analysis.


Approaches to Social Research