Volume 1, No. 1, Art. 8 – January 2000

Qualitative Research in Sport Science1)

Ina Hunger & Jörg Thiele

Abstract: For the last ten years qualitative research approaches have been of growing interest in the comparatively young interdisciplinary field of sport-science, especially regarding its social and educational sections. This article discusses the subjects handled, and the methods used concerning different object understandings, as well as the importance of "qualitative" results in our discipline in general. Moreover, it expresses how far different projects refer to proven research designs of the mother disciplines, respectively which methodical variations are used. Besides chances, mainly problems concerning the (current) efforts to find an own sport-scientific profile within the framework of qualitative research are pointed out. Finally, there are some remarks referring to concrete research practice.

Key words:

1. Introduction

2. Qualitative Research: Beginnings and Continuance

3. Subjects: Questions, Conceptions, Reception of the Results

4. Research approaches: "Traditions and Innovations"

5. Attempts at Gaining Recognition: Opportunities and Problems

6. Research Practice: Remarks and Wishes






1. Introduction

In sport science, a comparatively young "interdisciplinary field", qualitative research approaches have gained increasing acceptance in socially and educationally orientated branches since the middle of the '80s.2) About fifteen years ago the use of qualitative methods was often regarded as "a short-lived fashion trend in the shadow of the mother sciences" or as "methodological work in a hideaway" and was accused of having merely a "scientific waiting-room function". Today qualitative approaches have a solid status in the canon of sport-scientific research design. Although one cannot speak of a change of paradigm as a sure indication that qualitative approaches have found sure footing on sport-scientific ground, current critical remarks still apply. While in 1984 attention was drawn to the fact that quantitative research outweighed qualitative research (the reason "certainly had to do with the comfort of standard research programs" (ANDERS 1984, p.225), today one can read that "sometimes the impression arises that qualitative work is preferred because researchers are familiar with the procedures involved and not because the questions posed recommend it" (ERDMANN 1998, p.66). [1]

That, in the meantime, the use of qualitative methods has become more accepted can also be seen in the structure of research projects. In the 1980s a lot of energy was still invested in criticising quantifying, variable-correlating approaches to justify qualitative research design. The reasons for "soft methods" had an almost awkward undertone. Today these limiting efforts are more or less absent; one can rely on, so-to-say, "socially separate knowledge", i.e., the fact that qualitative research has proved its usefulness. Now one can concentrate more on a differentiated demonstration of the appropriate methodological steps of the relevant research topic. [2]

2. Qualitative Research: Beginnings and Continuance

The reasons for taking up and sticking to a qualitative procedure within the framework of sport-scientific disciplines are inseparably linked to the so-called "epistemological change" or "change of everyday routine" (see, for example, GEULEN 1981), and the methodological developments in the mother disciplines of educational science and sociology. They also point to the specific situation of sport science established at universities in the mid-1980s which, in the course of a (initial, critical) self-assurance, changed its perspectives. In the 1970s—the so-called period of construction and extension of sport scientific departments at universities—the question of new physical education teaching concepts and structural organisation of physical education in schools was a main target of sport pedagogical efforts. In the beginning of the 1980s critical voices arose, referring to the danger of an increasing estrangement between normative designs and practice, and pointing out the problem of the person working in the practical field who was assigned the role of "executive organ" of sport pedagogical designs. [3]

In the framework of practical areas not related to school, too, the call for a different viewpoint regarding these areas and their actors was heard. On the one hand, in the context of a rise in gender-specific research or gender studies in sport science, the appropriateness of the contents of the instrument of deductive research was questioned in as much as "in sport ... as a result of this research perspective, women get covered over with totally improper "scientific" explanations and, in sport practice, insufficient training concepts and sport tactics" (KLEIN 1988, p.16). On the other hand, one was searching, in the context of the at that time emotionally influenced, controversial discussion on the participation of children and youth in high performance sports, for a "different approach" to the athletes. It was to take into account differentiated information on subjective patterns of thought, structure in social areas, the hidden meanings of actions etc. It was no longer enough to satisfy the sport federation's need for advice, namely "to explain and legitimate normative" positions of value and demands "scientifically" (HEIM 1991, p.115), an attempt was made to look behind the scenes and show the things which usually go unnoticed upon superficial examination of the practice field. [4]

There has been a noticeable quantitative rise in qualitative works since the 1990s, particularly in connection with the development of new movement cultures and "sportive phenomena", suggesting explorative approaches. It does, however, prove to be "homemade", with regard to the "transmission" of methods and research designs, practised in many departments, to the new sport scientific generation (usually tied to a professorship), which, since the beginning of the 90s, is supposed to be sponsored in a (more) systematic way. Although one cannot speak of "school learning" in the field of sport-scientific research methods, one can speak of locations at which special method-socialisation effects are generated within the local offspring. Looking at the qualification theses published within the last three years, the fingerprints of the chair are clearly obvious. [5]

3. Subjects: Questions, Conceptions, Reception of the Results

There is a variety of topics which are taken up with the help of qualitative methods and they can be assigned according to different aspects. Simple and expedient orientation help are first of all offered by the terms "physical education in schools", "sports in clubs", "high performance sport" and "free sport and movement scenes". Thus different topics are classified under the aspect "organisation of sport and shows in the broadest sense under whose responsibility "sport and movement" take place (school, federation, other). Within the special fields, further differentiation is mostly orientated according to the prevailing interests. [6]

Physical education in school: The focus of qualitatively orientated studies within the context of physical education in schools begins with the person teaching and his or her perspective. The questions concern—besides other areas—lesson planning and the reception of the curriculum (e.g., BRÄUTIGAM 1986), "teaching behaviour and its implications" (e.g., LANGE 1984; TREUTLEIN, JANALK & HANKE 1989; for physical education in elementary schools, HUNGER 2000), "language and communication (e.g., KUHLMANN 1985; FRIEDRICH 1991) as well as "stressful situations and coping with problems (e.g., MIETHLING 1986, from a feminist perspective: e.g., KUGELMANN 1996). Among these, too—with some restrictions—interpretative-teaching research approach (SCHIERZ 1986; SCHERLER 1989), which aims at dealing with structural teaching problems through the interpretation of teaching examples without including the perspectives of the persons teaching in the interpretation. [7]

There is a lack of studies that deal with students' perspectives. Some research has been done, however, covering the perspective of so-called "sportively weak" students (e.g. KÖPPE & WARSITZ 1989), documenting the participation of students in the course of lessons (MÜNSTER 1995), or analysing the perception of teachers as seen by their students (FREI 1999). The question of how students analyse, experience and contribute to the reality of the lesson has so far not been explored systematically. Not until a while ago was this target group recognised as a "research subject of high rank and great urgency" (MIETHLING 1998, p.8). Various projects are taking form that will deal with the student's perspective (MIETHLING 1998). [8]

The theoretical conceptualisation of the "objects" at the heart of "physical education in school" has been proven to be heterogeneous and includes, beside others, cognition-theoretical, interaction-theoretical, structure- and knowledge-sociological approaches. Accordingly, the object area is interpreted broadly, depending on the case. On the one hand, microstructures of selected teaching behaviour are of central interest, on the other hand, at attempt is made to identify basic behavioural orientations or general rules, such as, for example, mechanisms of disadvantage, coping with problem strategies, principles of lesson organisation, etc. [9]

The methods of investigation are dominated by procedures which aim at stimulating vocal expression. Besides reconstruction methods such as "loud thinking" and "structure-setting techniques", also mentioned are: partly structured, problem-centred, focused, unstructured, half-open, free, (controlled-) explorative, theme-oriented, biographical or simply qualitative interviews. The variety of terms indicates less that the studies are subject to various methods research than that there are many possibilities of classifying a conversation-like situation, (pre)structured by open, topic-related questions. A closer look at these works usually shows less variation of data collection than the terms suggest.3) Although participating observations often are named as complementary procedures, the process of how data is collected is seldom shown in a transparent way, and these data are hardly taken into consideration when presenting the results. The methods of data analysis are often only outlined and cannot be clearly classified. Here, conventional methods of qualitative data analysis (content analysis, "grounded-theory method", "set analysis") as well as linguistic- and literature- research procedures of interpretation are used. The analysis of the data reaches from a simple presentation of individual cases to the creation of certain types that try to demonstrate the presence of a comprehensive general on a specific constellation. [10]

Most works have an explicitly pedagogically motivated concern with regard to the presentation of the "present state". On the one hand, this is already aimed at by the (change-related dimension of the) questioning method used with the interview partners. These are supposed to loosen up conceptions of the inevitability and immutability of the interview partners' perceptions or behaviour patterns and sensitise them to problematic situations in physical education classes. On the other hand, these works usually result in the presentation of concrete measures which are formulated against the background of the (more or less explicitly) normative ideas of the authors and aim to improve the field of practice. [11]

It can be maintained that in the sport-pedagogical discussion (patchwork-like) insights into the thoughts, experiences and the everyday world of people involved in physical education in schools receive a great deal of attention. Topics such as structural problems in the education of physical education teachers, institutional and organisational setting of physical education, coeducational or gender-separate physical education classes, etc. have been discussed again (with a new approach) and interpreted. The results (at least some) were admitted to the relational horizon of didactic theory-building and proved fruitful with regard to their practical applicability. [12]

Club and high-performance sport: Here, qualitative works deal mainly with the personality and situation of the athlete. Thereby presentation and analysis of pertinent sport careers and movement biographies (e.g., SCHWIER 1995), discipline-specific life styles (e.g., ROSE 1991; LÜSEBRINK 1997) and questions relating to identity development and problems, disruptions, etc. are of central interest (e.g., ABRAHAM 1986; PALZKILL 1990; RICHARTZ & BRETTSCHNEIDER 1996; THIELE 1996). [13]

The data collection usually is based on narrative or topic-relevant interviews. The evaluation tries to disclose structural patterns, completion forms (hidden), and initiations through comparative case analyses in the areas studied. With regard to research strategy, the grounded-theory methodology has been primarily favoured over the past few years. [14]

Whereas in the context of school, the teaching person in charge of sportive activity is at the centre of qualitative research, in the context of club and high-level sport, the trainers and coaches are mostly ignored. A crossing of the perspectives of the people participating in the system occurs here very rarely. Exceptions are the works of BETTE, SCHIMANK and TREUTLEIN.4) In the context of a broad qualitative study which takes the perspectives of athletes, officials and trainers equally into consideration, authors have been trying for some time to draw attention to the structural and biographical framework which are related to the taking or prescription of drugs.5) [15]

According to their initial arguments for studying a specific topic in the field of high-performance sport, all authors wish to draw attention to structurally immanent problems and (identity) conflicts of athletes. Usually they conclude with more or less carefully formulated recommendations to the people carrying responsibility within the system. Although the results of the studies can be quantified in a certain way and point-focal distribution predictions can be permitted because of the small total number of high-level athletes within a given sport discipline, intervention measures and recommendations have so far had hardly any consequences. Organised high-performance sports is structurally extremely resistant to pedagogically motivated recommendations and studies which are based on "soft methods". One is tempted to say that, as is traditional in high-performance sport, the people responsible believe in measures like "counting and measuring" and expect clear recommendations which promise fast and visible success. [16]

Free "sport and movement scenes": Within the last years, movement-orientated forms of youth culture, such as inline skating, skateboarding, street ball, raving, etc., have become a special focus of qualitative studies. Although at the moment few reports have been completed (e.g., SCHWIER 1998), relevant essays—usually written by young sport researchers—indicate that in the coming years, (at the moment current) results on youth-specific movement practices, codes, body images, etc., will be available. Further studies relating to the paragraph title treat topics that deal with the motivation for engaging in or being fascinated by a certain sport (see, e.g., SCHWIER 1998a), or are devoted to the question of "unfulfilled sport desires" (SCHWARK 1994) or to the renunciation of athletic activities. [17]

4. Research approaches: "Traditions and Innovations"

Looking at studies by asking in how far qualitative research methodological designs can be described as traditional or innovative, one tends to classify the concepts of most studies as "conventional". Usually one employs recognised methods of data collection and evaluation strategies, even if—depending of course, on the question formulation, data material, etc.—they are varied. In so far as individual authors attribute an innovative character to the concept of their study, a combination of methods is involved. Here, we think, it is questionable whether it really makes sense to combine a rather fragmentary addition of different methods. The simple reference to a "multi-methodological" approach is, in itself, not convincing with regard to the unsolved question of the compatibility of different methodological approaches. Rather, creative approaches can be confirmed by the "presentation of results," always a new challenge in the context of qualitative research. Here, forms of presentation often appear which aim at a comprehensible mediation of interpretations and generalisation processes and do not follow a conventional model of result presentation. [18]

The fact that the studies follow familiar qualitative research designs suggests at least two general requirements. One is that many of the studies, carried out in the context of scientific qualification—mostly doctoral theses—, were research projects. Here, independent methodological experiments—in the sense of innovative qualitative practical research—usually would have meant steps into unknown territory, entered only reluctantly for the sake of safety. Another reason for orientation according to proven methods is concrete research practice. Because within the framework of the scientific community of sport science there are hardly any networks or forums that focus on qualitative approaches to scientific discourse, researchers do not seek contact to neighbouring disciplines and are left to their own devices. Problems which come up in the context of the qualitative research process, such as "access to a field of examination", "interaction disturbances", etc., are—because one "is left to stew in one's own juices"—very hardly profitable or useful from a research-strategic point of view. [19]

5. Attempts at Gaining Recognition: Opportunities and Problems

During the mid-80's sport-research or pedagogical opinions could be heard that attributed a "method inferiority complex" to the discipline (SCHERLER & SCHIERZ 1987, p.77). It was accused of using existing methods without criticising them. Today, however, tendencies can be observed that suggest a new self-confidence in sport science. Textbooks with the demanding title "Datenanalyse in der Sportwissenschaft" (e.g., STRAUSS & HAAG 1999) are on the market. Other handbooks dealing with qualitative method teaching are—according to insiders—in the process of emerging. On the one hand, it is a good sign that sport science is concerned with outlining its interdisciplinary research approaches in the form of a survey of research designs and demonstrating publicly the variety of methods available. This can also be seen positively because research studies from sport science are still hardly recognised by other disciplines. On the contrary: many researchers from other fields often react with surprise when they hear that sport science even exists. [20]

On the other hand, however, the current attempts at recognition also hide—at least in our opinion—problematic aspects. Here we refer to the potential problem of ignoring the foundations of the mother discipline or the one-sided orientation to the supposed methodical experts of sport science. With all due respect to the scientific achievements of different authors, it has to be emphasised that there is no method-orientated, sport-research professorship in the Federal Republic of Germany. Methodological approaches are usually considered to involve primarily receptive work, i.e., the summarising of relevant concepts of data gathering and data evaluation which have already been portrayed in detail against the background of scientific theoretical fundamentals. In this sense, these studies are inevitably watered-down methodological versions which—in case they are followed exclusively—could lead to "qualitative research lite". [21]

6. Research Practice: Remarks and Wishes

Current sport-research practice can, as already suggested above, be characterised by the term "isolationism". Its interdisciplinarity includes, for example, sport-medical, sport-economic, sport-philosophical, and sport-historical areas, and therefore follows discipline-specific research traditions. The size of the department, which has on the average five differently structured professorships, and the fact that professorships which mainly focus on "methodology" are not planned, explain why there is hardly any systematic exchange on scientific-strategic procedures in the context of qualitative approaches within this discipline. Very rarely is there any cooperation with neighbouring disciplines—which ought to be methodologically similar—, because hardly any overlapping of interests are supposed. Pragmatically seen, this lack of contact can be explained, last but not least, by the spatial separation of physical education departments from other departments. [22]

The possibilities which are wasted because of the absence of networking are obvious. A systematic selection and work on perspective-combining research topics is rare. Topic selection is usually based on a certain biographical closeness of the researchers to their corresponding fields of practice or by spontaneous discoveries in the framework of prevailing correlations with their studies. A single person usually works on a topic. Very often, for research economical reasons (one's own or someone else's), there is no regular discussion of the process of data collection and evaluation or of the problems arising in this context. [23]

We think it is necessary to (re-) organise networks within sport science as well as to establish connections to the prevailing mother discipline. These should aim at a continuing exchange about current research topics and processing forms, and thus provide insight into prevailing working processes. Certainly, here the new media offer a good possibility by which to establish transparency and contacts and offer thus the basis for (potential) meaningful cooperation. [24]

From a structural perspective, we see, furthermore, a need for action to be taken with respect to the education of students or young potential (sport-) scientific scholars in the field of "research methods". In considering the fact that many neighbouring disciplines (e.g., sociology, educational sciences, psychology) offer parallel courses on the topic "qualitative research methods," we think that, with regard to contents and—last but not least—capacity, it makes sense to offer joint, discipline-overlapping courses on this topic. [25]


1) We are very grateful to our colleague Annette HOFFMANN (University of Muenster) for translating our text into English! <back>

2) In the context of movement sciences (e.g. LIPPENS 1992) and sport psychology (e.g. QUINTEN 1994; STELTER 1996) as well, some studies are based on qualitative approaches. Because here the use qualitative methods is rather exceptional, the following text is not referring to these disciplines. <back>

3) Because research projects published in essays hardly give information referring to methods, they are not used in the following. Here only book publications are mentioned, which may not be complete. <back>

4) See KUHLMANN (1993). <back>

5) Also FREI is working at the Deutsche Sporthochschule in Cologne on the stress and risks of female gymnasts. Here system perspectives and different perspectives of coaches, athletes and parents are related to one another. <back>


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Dr. Ina Hunger

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Fachbereich Psychologie und Sportwissenschaft
Institut für Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften des Sports
Horstmarer Landweg 62 b
48149 Münster, Germany

E-mail: inahunge@uni-muenster.de




PD. Dr. Jörg Thiele

Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Institut für Sport und Sportwissenschaft
Schwarzwaldstr. 175
79117 Freiburg, Germany

E-mail: Thielej@uni-freiburg.de


Hunger, Ina & Thiele, Jörg (2000). Qualitative Research in Sport Science [25 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(1), Art. 8, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs000185.

Revised 3/2007

Copyright (c) 2000 Ina Hunger, Jörg Thiele

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