What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a form of social inquiry.  It is important to understand that qualitative research is not a single type of social inquiry.  Qualitative research emerges from a number of different research traditions or disciplines. As a result, there is great variation in approaches for doing qualitative research, and these approach are often in conflict. 

While there is great variation in qualitative research approaches, the following two features emerge across approaches:

  • interpretive - qualitative research focuses on understanding the way people interpret and make sense of their experiences and the world in which they live
  • naturalistic - qualitative research studies social phenomena in their natural settings 


Qualitative research:

  • Developed in the social and human sciences (hermenutics, phenomenoloy, sociology).
  • Involves the use and study of a variety of empirical materials - case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional and visual texts.
  • Typically involves gathering empirical materials using some form of observation or interviewing method.


Some definitions:

"Qualitative research is a form of social inquiry that focuses on the way people interpret and make sense of their experiences and the world in which they live.  A number of different approaches exist within the wider framework of this type of research, but most of these have the same aim: to understand the social reality of individuals, groups and cultures.  Researchers use qualitative approaches to explore the behavior, perspectives and experiences of the people they study.  The basis of qualitative research lies in the interpretive approach to social reality." (Holloway, 1997, p.2)

"Qualitative research, also called naturalistic inquiry, developed within the social and human sciences, and refers to theories on interpretation (hermeneutics) and human experience (phenomenology). They include various strategies for systematic collection, organization and interpretation of textual material obtained while talking with people or through observation.  The aim of such research is to investigate the meaning of social phenomena as experiened by the people themselves." (Malterud, 2001, p. 398).

"Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter.  This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.  Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional and visual texts that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals' lives." (Denzin, NK & Lincoln, YS, 2004, p. 2).


Resources

Holloway, I. (1997). Basic Concepts for Qualitative Research. Oxford. Blackwell Science.

Malterud, K. (2001). The art and science of clinical knowledge: Evidence beyond measures and numbers. The Lancet. 358: 397-400.

Denzin, NK & Lincoln, YS. (1994). "Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 1-18. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

 

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