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4 ways video can add depth to your qualitative research

21 June 2017 - BY Kath McNiff

In the time it takes you to read this blog post, around 300 hours of video content will have been uploaded to YouTube.

That is a lot of cute puppies and epic fails.

But there's also a swag of interesting content too - things like Ted Talks, conference presentations, interviews and personal journals (vLogs).

Video is a thriving medium and has become an integral part of how we learn, teach, socialize, entertain and generally leave our mark on the world. 

Yet, despite its ubiquity, relatively few researchers are embracing video as an analytical tool or taking advantage of it as a rich reserve of qualitative data.

This may be because the idea of handling and analyzing video seems too challenging and it’s an uncomfortable departure from the more traditional approach of working with interview transcripts, surveys and observational field notes.

This post drags video into the spotlight and suggests 4 ways you could consider using it in your next research project.

#1 Use video as a prompt for productive discussion

During a qualitative interview, you can use video to build rapport with participants and to foster in-depth discussion and reflection.

This idea isn’t completely new.  

For decades, social scientists have been using photos, paintings or other images to stimulate conversation in an interview setting - a technique known as photo-elicitation.

But video takes things a step further and offers a fresh perspective.

Rather than reacting to a static image, participants can instead respond to what they see and hear as events unfold.

For example, in their study, Wasting the doctor’s time, researchers (Henry & Fetters, 2012) used video-elicitation methods to explore the interaction between patients and doctors in a primary healthcare setting.

How did they do this?

They videotaped 36 patient-doctor consultations and then used the video as a talking point in follow-up patient interviews. 

Instead of relying on memory, the patients could watch the video and more accurately discuss what they were feeling at different points in the consultation.

Video elicitation techniques are also useful when working with children. For example, you might use video clips from popular movies or cartoons to inspire discussion around a topic.

#2 Use video as a primary data source

Videography is the audio-visual equivalent of field notes and observations – it involves filming people as they go about activities in all kinds of settings; from operating theatres and factory floors to street markets and art galleries.

You should consider this approach if you’re:

  • Investigating human actions that are complex and difficult to capture by a single observer
  • Interested in body, facial and verbal language
  • Exploring collaborative activities like children’s games or religious ceremonies

Education researchers lead the pack in the use of video for analytic purposes – mostly because they recognize it as the best way to capture classroom dynamics and the complexities that surround the collaborative construction of knowledge.

The best part about video as primary data is that multiple researchers can analyse it repeatedly, looking for different things at each pass – in their book, Video in Qualitative Research, Heath et al describe this fine-grained scrutiny as “akin to the effect of the microscope in biology”.

Traditional field notes are often criticized for their lack of transparency - how do we know you captured a situation accurately? Video can go some way to clearing this up because it offers a more multifaceted record of what took place. It's not totally objective (you choose what and how to record) but it's getting closer.

As with other forms of participant data, you’ll need to carefully consider issues of consent and privacy before using the material and publishing your findings.

#3 Use video to involve your participants in the research process

Are you looking to prioritize your participant’s perspective and remove yourself (as much as possible) from the research equation? 

Video diaries can help you get there.

For example, the Danish study ‘Millions of Stars’ focused on how children handle serious cancer illness in a parent. The children were asked to conduct a “daily camera session” in which they shared their feelings and reflections. (Buchwald et al, 2009, p.13)

The researchers chose this approach because it helped to address the power dynamic that comes into play when adults interview children. They were also confident that contemporary Danish children were familiar with and comfortable using video technology.

This type of participatory research puts the participant in the front seat and can yield insights that would be impossible to attain using other methods.

#4 Plunder the qualitative treasure trove that is YouTube

In his article YouTube: using third party video as research data, Eric Laurier makes a plea for human geographers to make better use of the material available on YouTube.

He suggests that “found materials are just as valid and informative about the socio-spatial organising of the world as interview or focus group materials”. 

I like this idea of ‘found data’ – is it ok to start with an interesting dataset and work backwards to a research question?

No matter what kind of human interaction you’re interested in, whether it’s how patients recover from trauma or the nature of police-public encounters – you’re sure to find relevant content on YouTube. You should also consider the comments that accompany the videos, they can offer additional insights.

For example, a research team in the US conducted a content analysis on 934 videos (and their associated comments) to better understand the impact of antismoking messages. (Paek et al, 2010)

Since YouTube data is in the public domain, issues around consent and privacy may be less contentious but you’ll need to check-in with your review board and make concrete decisions about how to handle the challenges.

And in terms of a literature review or getting to grips with a topic, it's difficult to ignore YouTube as a repository of potentially useful secondary data.

Organizing and analysing your video materials

NVivo is a qualitative data analysis tool that can help you work with videos. 

It provides easy-to-use features for transcribingannotating and coding your video content.

You can choose to import videos directly into a project, link to videos stored on your computer or work with videos from YouTube. 

Download a free trial and try it for yourself.

Do you work with video? If so, we'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.


Henry SG, Fetters MD. Video Elicitation Interviews: A Qualitative Research Method for Investigating Physician-Patient Interactions. Annals of Family Medicine. 2012;10(2):118-125. doi:10.1370/afm.1339.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in qualitative research. Sage Publications.

Buchwald, D., Schantz-Laursen, B & Delmar, C. Video Diary Data Collection in Research with Children: An Alternative Method. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 2009; 8 (1)

Hye-Jin Paek, Kyongseok Kim, Thomas Hove; Content analysis of antismoking videos on YouTube: message sensation value, message appeals, and their relationships with viewer responses. Health Educ Res 2010; 25 (6): 1085-1099. doi: 10.1093/her/cyq063