Group exercises

Group exercises These activities can be conducted with small or large groups and are intended to attune the researcher to basic principles of coding, pattern development, categorization, and qualitative data analysis.


Patterns are ubiquitous in social and natural environments. Humans have a need and propensity to create patterns for order, function, or ornamentation, and those needs and thus skills transfer into our analysis of qualitative data. In a classroom or other average-size indoor environment (such as an office, small restaurant, or bedroom), look for and list all patterns observed. These can range from patterns in the architecture or décor (e.g., rows of fluorescent lighting tubes, slats in air conditioning vents) to patterns in furnishings and their arrangements (e.g., desks lined up in rows, vertically arranged cabinet drawers). Next, organize the individual items in your master list into categories – a “pattern of patterns.” For example:

  • decorative patterns – those patterns that are purely ornamental or aesthetic, such as stripes on upholstery fabric, painted marbling on a wall

  • functional patterns – those patterns that have a utilitarian purpose, such as four legs on a chair, three hinges connecting a door to its frame

  • organizational patterns – those patterns that bring order to the environment or its artifacts, such as books of similar topics shelved together, various office supplies in appropriate bins

  • other types of patterns you construct.

Conduct the same exercise above in an outdoor/natural environment. However, create a different classification system for the individual patterns you observe (e.g., petals on a flower, leaves on a tree, clusters of cacti).

Next, list the patterns of actions in your own life you’ve experienced thus far today (e.g., not just what happened more than once today, but what series of actions happened today that were repeated from previous days). Formulate categories or themes to appropriately cluster and label these patterns (Saldaña, 2015, p. 45). Compare the patterns of your life with someone else’s.


This is a group exercise. Visit a clothing store, or have all members of a class wear a favorite t-shirt to a session. Address the following:

What is the t-shirt made of? Look at the label (if any) sewn into the garment. That label, with information on the fabric composition and country of manufacture, is like an Attribute Code for the clothing item’s contents. The label – the code – summarizes the entire t-shirt’s basic contents.

What size is the t-shirt?  Again, look at the label (or better still, try it on). The symbols S, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL are Magnitude Codes. The experience of trying it on yourself gives you a better understanding of what that size code actually means. These days, what passes for “medium” in one brand of clothing may be labeled “large” by another manufacturer’s line. If there is no label that specifies the t-shirt’s size, use observation and comparison with other t-shirts to assess its probable size.

What words and/or images (if any) are on the front or back of the t-shirt? Those words and images are both textual and non-verbal In Vivo Codes for the garment. Cluster together with others wearing similarly coded shirts (a form of Focused Coding) and discuss not only what the messages have in common but also what the people wearing them have in common. What you identify for each cluster or category of people might be called a Pattern Code, based on the collective values, attitudes, and beliefs of the wearers – a form of Values Code.


This popular theatre game is intended to build community, but it also serves as an exercise that demonstrates inclusion and exclusion criteria – in other words, categorization.

All participants stand in an open area that permits simple walking movement. One person at a time moves to an unoccupied area of the room calls out, “Come, my neighbor, if,” followed by a prompt intended to learn who shares a similar quality. For example, if the prompt is, “Come, my neighbor, if you’ve ever taken a statistics course,” all those who meet that criterion walk to and join the person, while those who have not move away from the person. Prompts can be descriptive or values-laden but should not be too personal. Examples include:

  • “Come, my neighbor, if you’ve attended a college in a different state or country.”

  • “Come, my neighbor, if you love science fiction.”

  • “Come, my neighbor, if you’re scared of the dark.”

  • “Come, my neighbor, if you’ve ever stayed overnight in a hospital.”

  • “Come, my neighbor, if you believe in the death penalty.”

  • “Come, my neighbor, if you feel you trust others too much.”

After playing 15–20 prompts, group members discuss what they learned about each through the exercise, and how binary or dichotomous categorization can sometimes be problematic.


The purpose of this exercise is to explore grounded theory’s components of properties and dimensions. With peers, collect at least ten different fabric samples, swatches, or articles of clothing that are all the same general color (for example, all green) but vary in texture, saturation, pattern, and other design elements (for example, one article with green sequins, a swatch of green felt, a calico fabric with green motifs, and so on).

Lay the ten articles on a table and, with a small group, negotiate the arrangement of the items along several continua – for example, from the brightest tint to the darkest shade, from the roughest texture to the smoothest texture, from the most seemingly luxurious to the most seemingly homespun. Also explore the possible categorizations of the ten items – for example, a cluster of six that appear natural and a cluster of four that appear synthetic; or a cluster of three that suggest childhood, five that suggest maturity, and two that suggest elder status. Discuss the decision processes among the group that led to the results, and how the property of green has various dimensions.

Infer and interpret how each green fabric piece might symbolize different human personalities – for example, a dark green velvet as an upper class socialite, and a light green felt as a warm, nurturing parent. Discuss how their assigned attributes are comparable to the dynamics or range of human qualities, and how the variances play a role in grounded theory’s search for the properties and dimensions of data.


The Spectrum of Difference is a popular theatre game which demonstrates how people’s attributes, preferences, opinions, and values, attitudes, and beliefs can be represented in three-dimensional space. The game serves as a way of simulating, diagnosing, and understanding how our research participants hold multiple perspectives on an issue. It also demonstrates how grounded theory’s properties and dimensions of categories operate.

Players imagine that a line the length of a typical room is drawn on the floor. A prompt is called out and participants walk to and stand on a place on the imaginary line that represents their position about a descriptive or values-laden issue. The imaginary line is a continuum and each endpoint represents opposite sides of the prompt. For example, the leader calls out, “Are you a cat person (pointing to one end of the imaginary line) or a dog person (pointing to the other end of the line), or do you like both equally or have no opinion (pointing to the center)? Or maybe you align yourself more toward the cat side or dog side but not completely at the far ends (pointing toward the one-third and two-thirds areas). Go.” Participants then move to and stand on the part of the line that they feel best represents their individual preferences for cats and/or dogs. They do not have to stand in single file; clusters around a point on the line are acceptable. The group diagnoses and discusses the results.

This same technique is repeated with a series of prompts prepared by the leader or offered by the participants. Prompts for the continuum can be realistic or metaphoric, and can focus on intrinsic, social, or thematic issues. For example:

  • Are you a morning person or a night person?

  • Are you a risk taker or do you play it safe?

  • Are you the wind or the wings?

  • What’s more important to you: questions or answers?

  • “I’m pro-life” or “I’m pro-choice.”

  • “Protect our borders” or “Tear down the fence.”

Prompts such as the latter two are examples of “hot button” issues that can generate fruitful discussion and reflection by the group if facilitated with care.


Aside from The Spectrum of Difference, there is The Landscape of Difference which places participants in two- and three-dimensional positions according to multiple criteria. For example, the leader can prompt, “What do you prefer: pie or cake?” Players place themselves on the imaginary line in a continuum as they each see fit. But then the line becomes a landscape by prompting: “From the general area where you’re standing, cake people: move to this side of the line if you’re into white cake, this side of the line if you’re into chocolate cake, and stay on the line if you’re into specialty cakes like marble, yellow, or red velvet. Pie people: from the general area where you’re standing, move to this side of the line if you’re into fruit pies, this side of the line if you’re into cream pies, and stay on the line if you’re into other pies like mincemeat or pecan.” The landscape can become even more dimensional if you ask: “From where you’re standing, raise you hand high if you’d like a cold beverage with that dessert, or just a thumbs up if you’d prefer a hot beverage.”

The Landscape of Difference positioning techniques can now be applied to more complex or nuanced prompts for participants to explore. Explore only topics you and the group feel comfortable with. Discuss the individual and collective process and results after each set of prompts:

  • First dimension (on the line): “I know who I am” or “I’m still searching for my identity.” Second dimension (on either side of the line): “Other people have had more influence on who I am” or “I myself create who I am.” Third dimension (hands up or thumbs up): “I’ve got a lot of work to do” or “I’m OK for now.”

  • First Dimension: “Public parking” or “No trespassing.” Second Dimension: “On the ground” or “In the air.” Third Dimension: “Maybe,” or “Maybe not.”

Advanced or willing groups can even explore a fourth dimension: movement in time. From the third dimension position, players can create a self-sculpted image, repeated gesture, or whole body movement that synthesizes and embodies the three dimensions’ prompts. For a fifth dimension, players add repeated, evocative sounds or keywords to accompany their movement.

The Spectrum and Landscape of Difference are gaming diagnostics to assess the varying perspectives of the group, but they are also exercises to explore how qualitative data analysts can map out the properties and dimensions of data. After several rounds of play, the discussion can focus on how we interpret and write about these diverse positions and clusters of meaning in our reports. Discussion can also focus on how these three-dimensional displays can transfer into drawn displays on paper or as graphics with computing software.


This is a group exercise. “Carnival in Rio” (also known as “Homogenous Rhythms”), a game developed by theatre artist Augusto Boal, is a movement and sound exercise that, serendipitously, parallels the processes for developing grounded theory (GT). I facilitate the game in my research methods workshops to demonstrate how GT “works.”

A large group of people first divides into smaller groups of three. Each of the individual small-group members creates a simple gesture (such as a hand wave or head tilt) that can be replicated and repeated easily by the other two in the small group, accompanied with a nonsensical sound (such as “beep” or “woop”) that others can imitate. Then the other two small-group members each offer their own unique gesture–sound combinations to their partners for replication and repetition. (Analogy: Think of each person in the small group as a datum; their unique gestures are Process Codes, and their unique sounds In Vivo Codes. The preliminary sharing is a form of Open or Initial Coding.)

After each small-group member shares a gesture and sound, they then simultaneously enact their unique sounds and gestures repeatedly. Through the processes of individual negotiation and non-verbal communication, the small group of three “morphs” or synthesizes their individual gestures and sounds so that all three evolve toward making the exact same gesture and sound repeatedly. The final small-group sequence might consist of one person’s gesture combined with another person’s sound, or a new composite movement that integrates two gestures with one person’s sound, and so on. (Analogy: Think of the process above as Focused Coding to develop an initial category. Whatever thoughts run through an individual’s mind are an analytic memo.)

Each small group of three, now enacting its newly collective gesture and sound, joins another group of three doing its own unique gesture and sound. The process of morphing/synthesizing continues so that ever-increasing groups of 6, 9, 12, … evolve into more and more people gesturing and sounding the exact same way. Sometimes one gesture will dominate because it is easy to replicate; perhaps a sound will dominate because it is the loudest; perhaps a particular gesture–sound combination will dominate simply because most group members are doing it and the minority acquiesces to the majority; or a whimsical gesture–sound combination will prevail because its qualities appeal to the group. (Analogy: Think of the processes above as GT’s Axial and Selective Coding.)

The whole group eventually assembles standing in a circle as all participants continue to evolve their gestures and sounds. The goal or culminating product (ideally) is everyone making the exact same gesture and sound. (Analogy: The process above represents Theoretical Coding, resulting in the core category.)

The group stops and reflects on the process. I clarify how each stage of game playing simulates the analytic stages of GT. We share our thought processes (the analytic memos) as we played to discover how we arrived at our “core category” and what the final gesture–sound combination might mean – our grounded theory (Birks & Mills, 2015, pp. 122–3).


Several commercial board/DVD/electronic/app games actually provide valuable experience with exercising necessary analytic skills for the qualitative researcher, such as pattern recognition, coding and categorizing, and inductive and deductive reasoning. A few of these games can be played by one person, but most work best with two or more players. Selected Internet sites about the games are listed; try googling for additional sites:

See also Waite (2011) for a clever classroom exercise in sorting a deck of playing cards to stimulate student discussion about categories and discrepant cases.


Selected popular films include scenes that illustrate the characters in analytic life dilemmas (Saldaña, 2009). These conflicts are artistic metaphors, comparable to what the qualitative researcher encounters when coding and analyzing data. View and reflect on relevant scenes from the titles below with peers to discuss how certain principles of qualitative inquiry are depicted and can transfer to your own work.

Research Genres

  • Case studies: The Final Cut, The Truman Show, 49 Up (and the entire Up series)

  • Survey research: Kinsey

  • Quantitative (and qualitative) research: π [Pi], A Beautiful Mind

  • Longitudinal research/change: The Truman Show, 56 Up, Half Nelson, Boyhood

  • Action research: Dangerous Minds, Kindergarten Cop

  • Life course research: The Final Cut, 56 Up

  • Phenomenology: Silence of the Lambs

  • Field experiments: Super Size Me

  • Critical ethnography: Bowling for Columbine

  • Performance ethnography/ethnodrama: Twilight: Los Angeles, The Laramie Project, The Exonerated, United 93, Howl

Research Methodology and Methods

  • Epistemology and ontology: The Matrix, Inception, Source Code, Interstellar

  • Research design: Super Size Me

  • Research ethics: The Truman Show, Krippendorf’s Tribe, Miss Evers’ Boys

  • Participant observation/fieldwork: The Truman Show, Gorillas in the Mist, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Kitchen Stories, WALL-E, Avatar, Following (1998), Dark Mysterious Austria [available on YouTube]

  • Interview techniques: Kinsey, 49 Up, The Laramie Project, The Guys, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, The Help

  • Inductive, abductive, deductive, and retroductive reasoning: Memento, Fargo, π [Pi], Silence of the Lambs, Sherlock Holmes (2009), Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows

  • Codes and categories: The Final Cut

  • Triangulation: Minority Report

  • Cause and effect, influences and affects: The Butterfly Effect, World War Z

  • Correlation/interrelationship: An Inconvenient Truth, The Number 23

  • Data analysis: A Beautiful Mind, Contact, The Final Cut, Silence of the Lambs, The Imitation Game

  • Mixed methods: Super Size Me


Birks, M., & Mills, J. (2015). Grounded theory: A practical guide (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Saldaña, J. (2009). Popular film as an instructional strategy in qualitative research method courses. Qualitative Inquiry 15(1), 247–61.

Saldaña, J. (2015). Thinking qualitatively: Methods of mind. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Waite, D. (2011). A simple card trick: Teaching qualitative data analysis using a deck of playing cards. Qualitative Inquiry 17(10), 982–5.