What is qualitative research?

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Qualitative research is an exploratory methodological approach used to study complex phenomena by collecting and analyzing nonnumerical data. Qualitative research grew out of naturalistic inquiries conducted in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, but is now readily applied across the social sciences.
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Qualitative methodology is a type of scientific inquiry that emphasizes the qualities or essences of the phenomenon under study. This type of research relies on nonnumerical data, such as words and images. For example, Rosemarie Rizzo Parse in Qualitative Inquiry: The Path of Sciencing (2001) defined qualitative research as “the systematic study of phenomena with rigorous adherence to a design, the data of which comprises oral, written, or artistic descriptions of human experiences, and for which there are no digital findings.”

Historical Foundations

Qualitative research grew out of naturalistic inquiries conducted in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, but is now readily applied across the social sciences. This methodological approach has been used to investigate research questions in psychology and has been widely used in the fields of anthropology, sociology, nursing, social work, administration, community services, management, education, and medicine.

Qualitative methods have been used to investigate research questions ill-suited to quantitative methods, provide rich descriptions of particularly complex or multidimensional phenomena, give voice to traditionally marginalized groups, serve as an initial exploration toward the development of theories or quantitative measures, illuminate the diverse perspectives and experiences of several people experiencing a similar event, and connect research to applied practice.

Features of Qualitative Research

Qualitative investigations contain several common features that distinguish them from other types of scientific inquiry. For example, in Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods(3d ed., 2002), Michael Quinn Patton has outlined ten primary characteristics of qualitative research: naturalistic inquiry, inductive analysis, holistic perspective, qualitative data, personal contact and insight, dynamic systems, unique case orientation, context sensitivity, empathic neutrality, and design flexibility. Psychology’s interest in qualitative approaches has grown in the twenty-first century. Several events have occurred that are examples of the emergence of qualitative methods in psychology. Psychology journals (such as the Journal of Counseling Psychology) have published special issues devoted to qualitative methods. There has also been an increased appreciation for how qualitative methods can be used to bridge the science-practice gap within the field of psychology. Researchers have also expressed a growing understanding of how such methods are congruent with the paradigms that characterize the helping professions. Psychological researchers have also increasingly begun using mixed models. Common qualitative approaches include phenomenology, case study, and grounded theory.


Phenomenology seeks to describe the meaning individuals give their life experiences and is based on the philosophy that observable, measurable, duplicable (that is, quantitative) approaches to psychological inquiry are prone to missing, or even altogether eliminating, the most important phenomenon under study, human experience. It concerns itself not with explanation and control but rather with understanding and description. According to Paul F. Colaizzi in his essay “Psychological Research as the Phenomenologist Views It,” in Existential-Phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology (1978), it is “a refusal to tell the phenomenon what it is, but a respectful listening to what the phenomenon speaks of itself.”

There is no single phenomenological method, but most approaches fall under one of two major methodological umbrellas: hermeneutic or empirical. Hermeneutic phenomenological approaches are concerned with analyzing and understanding written narratives to understand and describe human experience. The goal is to produce a rich, deep description of a phenomenon as it emerges within a text, which can be done by analyzing the life texts, or written experience, of participants, or by studying previously written historical or literary narratives. The researcher works to overcome personal assumptions to understand and describe the phenomenon itself, as viewed in context from the text’s perspective. Phenomenology seeks to explore and describe the unique meaning assigned to experience by persons who have lived through a common phenomenon. Phenomenology also provides a flexible step-by-step process for data analysis, the result of which is a description of the essence of participants’ experience in terms of both their common and unique experiences.

Case Study

Case study research has a long and rich history, especially within the disciplines of medicine, law, business, and the social sciences. Yet, this form of qualitative research was not conceptualized as a specific approach until the late 1970s and 1980s. The emphasis of case study research is on understanding phenomena from a specific case or cases within a bounded system. According to Patton, the primary function of case study research is “to gather comprehensive, systematic, and in-depth information about each case of interest.” Robert E. Stake suggests that there are three different types of case studies. The primary investigation into one specific case is known as an intrinsic case study. In an instrumental case study, researchers study a particular case as a means to better understanding a specific issue. A collective case study involves the use of numerous cases to understand a particular phenomenon.

Case study research differs from other qualitative methods in several ways. It seeks to determine and describe the prevailing processes of the phenomena under investigation. Another key characteristic of case study research is that it makes a comparison of all the data sources, such as interviews, documents, and observations, within a contextual and historical framework. Case study research also attempts to integrate empirical data with theory. According to Sharan B. Merriam in Case Study Research in Education: A Qualitative Approach (1988), this approach to research also focuses on “thick” descriptions of the phenomena being studied; case study research uses “complete, literal description of the incident or entity being investigated.” In addition, case study procedures engage the researcher in examining the data from the onset of the investigation.

Several basic assumptions are innate to case study research. First, a case may be chosen because it is unique and therefore is of interest. Second, the phenomenon under study is bound to a specific system, consisting of complex and interrelated elements. Third, an emphasis should be placed on understanding the intrinsic particulars of a phenomenon. Fourth, the research process is influenced by the perceptions of the researcher. Moreover, through careful comparative analysis of the data, and theory, a greater understanding of the phenomenon can be obtained.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a major qualitative tradition. Sociologists Barney G. Glasser and Anselm L. Strauss introduced this qualitative tradition in Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (1967). The goal of grounded theory is to discover and develop comprehensive theories. It is a general methodology for theory development that comes from systematically gathered and analyzed data. The emphasis of grounded theory is on theory generation (developing theory from data) rather than on theory confirmation, or hypothesis testing. As a result, researchers have the freedom to modify procedures (for example, sampling changes) and methods (for example, reworking interview protocols) in accordance with the data.

Several basic assumptions are unique to grounded theory. The social phenomenon under study is seen as both complex and repeatedly adapting to the environment. Through a systematic approach, researchers can understand, predict, and control human behavior. Grounded theory also recognizes that the research process is subjective in nature and views the researcher as an active participant. Theory emerges through careful comparative analysis of the data.

Evaluative Criteria

The criteria that should be used to evaluate qualitative research have been the cause of great debate among many qualitative researchers. Several researchers have attempted to evaluate qualitative research in terms of internal validity, external validity, reliability, and objectivity, which have traditionally been used in quantitative approaches. Kelly J. Devers states, in his 1999 article on qualitative research, that these criteria largely evolved out of the positivistic paradigm, which judged the scientific method suitable for researching all forms of knowledge (natural and social) and defined what that method should entail. Yet, qualitative research is based in postpositivistic philosophy, which proposes “reality is dynamic, contextual, and socially constructed.” The differences in philosophical perspectives lead to a split between many quantitative and qualitative researchers.

During the late 1970s and mid-1980s, several qualitative researchers started challenging the positivistic criteria that had been used to evaluate qualitative research and began calling for a new set of criteria. Out of this dialogue came several diverse sets of evaluative criteria. Among these new advances were the criteria set forth by Norman Lincoln and Yvonna Guba: credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. Credibility refers to the degree to which the results of a study have merit and accurately represent the experienced reality of its participants. Transferability is the qualitative counterpart of the quantitative concept of external validity or generalizability. It refers to the degree to which findings can be generalized or transferred to people, settings, and times similar to those found in the original study. Dependability is the qualitative counterpart to quantitative reliability. Dependable investigations can be relied on to accurately and impartially report the findings that emerged. Confirmability refers to the degree to which the results of the investigation can be objectively corroborated by the obtained data.


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