The Freelisting Method

  • Marsha B. QuinlanEmail author
Reference work entry


A freelist is a mental inventory of items an individual thinks of within a given category. Freelists reveal cultural “salience” of particular notions within groups, and variation in individuals’ topical knowledge across groups. The ease and accuracy of freelist interviewing, or freelisting, makes it ideal for collecting data on health knowledge and beliefs from relatively large samples. Successful freelisting requires researchers to break the research topic into honed categories. Research participants presented with broad prompts tend to “unpack” mental subcategories and may omit (forget) common items or categories. Researchers should find subdomains to present individually for participants to unpack in separate smaller freelists. Researchers may focus the freelist prompts through successive freelisting, pile sorts, or focus group-interviews. Written freelisting among literate populations allows for rapid data collection, possibly from multiple individuals simultaneously. Among nonliterate peoples, using oral freelists remains a relatively rapid method; however, interviewers must prevent bystanders from “contaminating” individual interviewees’ lists. Researchers should cross-check freelist responses with informal methods as much as practicable to contextualize and understand the references therein. With proper attention to detail, freelisting can amass high quality data on people’s medical understanding, attitudes, and behaviors.


Freelist Free recall Salience analysis Systematic data collection Domain analysis Rapid Ethnographic Assessment (REA) approaches 


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

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