Qualitative research aims to understand ideas, experiences, and opinions using non-numeric data, such as text, audio, and visual recordings. The focus is on language, behaviors, and social structures. Qualitative researchers want to present personal experiences and produce narrative stories that use natural language to provide meaningful answers to their research questions.
Qualitative research focuses on descriptions, opinions, and experiences rather than numbers. Standard data collection techniques include interviews, diaries, focus groups, documents, artifacts, and direct observations.
Qualitative research provides a sharp contrast to quantitative research, which uses numeric data and statistical analyses to understand a concrete reality. The vast majority of content on my website is about quantitative research and statistical analyses. However, there are areas where qualitative research is more effective at understanding dynamic social structures and subjective perceptions in a real-world that can be convoluted.
Psychologists created qualitative research because the traditional methods failed to understand the human experience. Consequently, they developed a naturalistic approach that focuses on human behavior, what gives people meaning, how they perceive things, and why they act in a particular manner. This process involves understanding the people in their natural settings and social interactions.
Psychology, sociology, anthropology, education, and history frequently use qualitative research. Marketing groups also use it to understand how real people use their products, what factors increase usage, and obstacles that reduce usage. Ultimately, they want to market their products better, which requires understanding consumer mindsets.
Examples of Qualitative Research Questions
Qualitative research can answer a wide range of questions. Below are six example research questions.
- What factors shape body image?
- How do single-parent homes affect children?
- What challenges do consumers face in adopting a company’s new product?
- How does social media affect anxiety?
- What effect does previous domestic violence have on current relationships?
- What are the unique problems that night shift workers face?
Qualitative Research Methods
Qualitative research studies subjects in their natural environments to understand how they behave and why they behave the way they do. What pressures, influences, and constraints do they face? Multiple methods exist for collecting the necessary information for these types of studies. Below I summarize several of the more common approaches.
The researchers embed themselves in the daily lives of their subjects and their social groups. Their goal is to understand their habits, routines, beliefs, and challenges.
For an excellent guide to observing participants in the field, read Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector’s Field Guide [external PDF].
An alternative qualitative approach is to interview several subjects in-depth, gather documents, and collect artifacts. The researchers then piece these multiple lines of evidence together to create a narrative that answers the research question.
Qualitative researchers can study an event as it happens from different vantage points. For instance, they can conduct interviews, record videos, and directly observe the proceedings to understand the participants’ subjective experiences.
This form of qualitative research differs from most other methods. The researchers start with a qualitative dataset and then sort through these data, tagging concepts and ideas. As the study continues, they organize and group the conceptual tags. During this process, the researchers watch for hypotheses to emerge. This method seeks to let the scientists organically react to the dataset but yet ground the results in as much empirical data as possible.
A case study usually examines one subject in great detail. The subject can be a person, business, or other organization. The goal is to understand the subject as much as possible and use that information to understand the larger population to some extent. This qualitative research method can foster understanding of the motivations, influences, and factors that lead to success or failure.
Qualitative Research Data Collection Methods
Qualitative researchers seek what they refer to as “rich data.” Rich data is the idea that qualitative data should preserve the nuances and intricacies that exist in the real world. The researchers must record the full richness of the phenomenon to be able to present that richness faithfully in their findings.
Below are the standard data collection methods for qualitative research. Studies can combine multiple methods.
- Secondary research: Use existing documents, photographs, audio, and video.
- Interviews: One-on-one guided conversations.
- Direct observations: Researchers observe the subjects in the field and take notes.
- Questionnaires: Qualitative research frequently uses surveys with open-ended questions.
- Focus groups: A guided small group conversation where the discussion provides the data.
Analyzing Qualitative Data
After collecting their data, qualitative researchers have multiple ways to analyze the content. A common approach is to add codes that represent meaningful ideas to communications, documents, videos, etc. The researchers evaluate frequencies and patterns of these conceptual codes. They can also find the most common words, thematic patterns, communications structure, and the method by which communications obtain specific goals. Analysts refer to these approaches with names such as content analysis, thematic analysis, textual analysis, etc.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research has many advantages because it seeks to record the subjects’ lived experiences and understand them in ways that quantitative data cannot. Going beyond just the numbers, they can gain insights into opinions, emotions, and perceptions. These studies frequently occur in natural environments and real-world social contexts rather than labs and other artificial environments that might affect the participants, particularly when talking about personal matters.
Unlike quantitative research, qualitative methods are flexible. Researchers can change their methodology and theories as they gather information. The open-ended nature of qualitative research allows the researchers to uncover new ideas they hadn’t anticipated and adjust accordingly.
However, qualitative research has some disadvantages.
Its primary disadvantage is that it is more subjective than quantitative research. It’s harder to separate the researchers’ opinions and predilections from the more personal nature of qualitative data. Determining what concepts to code and when to apply those codes can be highly subjective. Flexibly adapting the research on the fly can be great, but it also increases the prominence of the researcher’s personal determination of relevance.
Furthermore, consider how ordinary people can observe the same reality in all its real-world messiness and draw different conclusions. Similarly, qualitative researchers can evaluate the same real-world data and produce dissimilar findings.
Qualitative research typically uses small samples that are less likely to be representative, which limits generalizability. Finally, as with other types of observational studies, the real-world settings in qualitative research can be an advantage, but they potentially introduce a host of confounding variables that can bias the results.