Q Methodology – A Systematic Approach for Interpretive Research Design

Module fact file

Masters Level
Summer Term
10 credits
Contact Hours:
10:00-16:00 (Over two days)
MA Social Research

Contact details

Module lead
Stephen Jeffares

Module description

If we want to measure a person’s height we use a tape measure, if we want to know the temperature of a room we use a thermometer, but what about measuring a person’s view on a topic or issue?  The two most common approaches is either to make a survey where respondents consider a range of questions or we engage respondents in a semi-structured interview, transcribe and code their responses.  A third alternative is called Q methodology.

Since the 1930s researchers in education, political science, social policy, health economics, business and environmental science have been using this methodology to understand the viewpoints of teachers, politicians, public servants, residents, consumers, as well as exploring moral and ethical questions of spending in health care, the adoption of technologies or understanding discourses of democracy.

Rather than tick survey questions or answer open ended interview questions, in Q methodology respondents sort cards on a topic into order of preference on a grid.  Each of the 50 or so cards includes a different statement about the topic.  It is an interactive methodology, in that it requires the respondent to make considered decisions and choices between the statements.  At the end of the sorting process we can ask further questions, asking the respondent to elaborate on their choices.  It therefore allows for the depth of discussion found in qualitative interviews, but with the added bonus of having a means of systematically comparing responses quantitatively. 

The statistics are relatively simple and needn’t be off putting to researchers who favour qualitative analysis.  Using specialist software, within a few minutes it is possible to identify if there are some shared viewpoints among the respondents.  Q methodologists talk of the magic 7, in that in most issues or topics there are between 1 and 7 shared points of view or shared viewpoints. So if you are considering a research design with a view to measuring the viewpoints of your respondents, perhaps using a survey questionnaire or interviews, then designing in Q methodology might be of interest to you.  

The module is based around a two-day interactive workshop, where a topic is chosen in advance and participants source and contribute statements drawn from Twitter, Facebook, newspaper comments, interviews and YouTube.   We collect data by collecting face to face Q sorts and also administering them online.  By the end of day 2 we will have analysed the data using specialist Q methodology software and interpreted and named the viewpoints.   For the assignment participants write up the process and critically reflect on the process.  In previous years the topic has focused on everything from student fees to the future of higher of education, from mobile phone radiation to plans to build HS2.

By the end of the module, participants will possess the ability to design, administer and interpret a Q methodology research project. 

Leaning outcomes

  • Understand principles of Q metholology;
  • Understand the principles of question sampling in Q survey instrument design;
  • Knowledge of participant selection and understanding of the relative opportunities and limitations of administering Q sorts in collective, individual or online settings;
  • Knowledge and experience of how to input and manage data and run factor analysis using dedicated Q method software packages;
  • Knowledge and experience of  interpreting factors and integrating quantitative and qualitatative data


A single 2500 word research report which presents the findings from the in-class research exercise undertaken during the workshop. The in-class research exercise employs Q methodology to systematically map the subjectivity surrounding a current national or local public policy issue.

Related degrees:

The optional modules listed on the website for this programme may unfortunately occasionally be subject to change. As you will appreciate key members of staff may leave the University and this necessitates a review of the modules that are offered. Where the module is no longer available we will let you know as soon as we can and help you make other choices.