Beyond Words: Using Nonverbal Communication Data in Research to Enhance Thick Description and Interpretation

  • Magdalena A. Denham Department of Security Studies College of Criminal Justice Sam Houston State University Huntsville, Texas, United States
  • Anthony John Onwuegbuzie Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Sam Houston State University Huntsville, Texas, United States


Interviews represent the most common method of collecting qualitative data in both qualitative research and mixed research because, potentially, they provide researchers with opportunities for collecting rich data. Unfortunately, when collecting and analyzing interview data, it appears that researchers tend to pay little attention to describing nonverbal communication data and the role that these data played in the meaning-making process. Thus, in this mixed methods research-based systematic review, we examined the prevalence and use of nonverbal communication data throughout the phases of all qualitative research studies published in a reputable qualitative journal—namely The Qualitative Report—since its inception in 1990 (n = 299) to the mid-year point (i.e., June 30) of 2012—representing approximately 22 years. Overall, nonverbal communication was evidenced in only 24% (N = 299, n = 72) of qualitative research studies involving design and instruments suitable for collection of nonverbal communication. Moreover, the degree of discussion varied greatly from a mere mention to substantive integration and interpretation. Nonverbal discussion was least frequent in the data analysis phase of research and most underutilized in case studies. The essential functions of nonverbal discussion across the stages of research were identified as clarification, juxtaposition, discovery, confirmation, emphasis, illustration, elaboration, complementarity, corroboration and verification, and effect. Implications are discussed.

Author Biography

Magdalena A. Denham, Department of Security Studies College of Criminal Justice Sam Houston State University Huntsville, Texas, United States
Magdalena Denham is the Program Manager of the Professional Development Programs (PDP) at the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT), at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), College of Criminal Justice. She is also a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership – to be conferred August 2013 - at the College of Education; her dissertation is entitled The Impact of Function, Experience, and Training of School District Police on School Climate. Magdalena will be joining the SHSU faculty as an Associate Professor of Security Studies in the Fall of 2013. Her areas of expertise and interest are in executive law enforcement leadership, gender issues in law enforcement leadership, crisis management, campus safety and school-based policing, critical decision-making, and research methodologies. Former federal law enforcement officer, Magdalena prepared and implemented professional development programs for Texas law enforcement and international police agencies from more than 20 countries. She co-authored three articles on school safety and school violence published in peer refereed journals, authored an article on school-based policing, had numerous presentations at the Southwest Educational Research Association (SERA) and American Educational Research Association (AERA) conferences, and conducted more than 20 professional presentations and workshops under the auspices of Homeland Security and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). Her current research endeavors involve a comprehensive study on Qualitative Analysis Typology, a meta-analysis of qualitative studies in nonverbal communication, and an evaluation of the development program for female executives working in male congenial environments. Her research philosophy reflects a dialectical pluralism stance.