Conducting Qualitative Research

The term Qualitative Research encompasses a wide range of goals, audiences and methodologies.  With historic roots reaching deep into the psychoanalytic tradition, this type of research studies human motivation through the understanding of perceptions, opinions, beliefs and/or attitudes.  Qualitative research can be conducted in tandem with quantitative research, or it can stand alone, depending on the goals of the study.

Qualitative research can be used to explore or explain:

  • Explorative research might look at how much information consumers have or how certain segments of the population view ideas and issues.  Explorative qualitative research can also be used to generate new ideas and plan for the future.
  • Explanatory research looks to understand why consumers make certain choices, how thoughts and ideas vary across different segments or how well certain ideas are understood.  Explanatory qualitative research may follow a quantitative study to dig deeper into trends.
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Qualitative research is dynamic.  The researcher, (often referred to as a moderator or facilitator), is trained to ask and listen, often with an eye to the non-verbal cues of respondents.  Since qualitative research is a process of finding out, the format must be dynamic, as the researcher must be prepared to pursue new thoughts and information that may come out in the course of the research.  A good moderator is trained to watch for opportunities to probe, or dig deeper, into the ideas of the respondents.  While qualitative research has a subjective element, as it is based on human observation and interactions, it is also critical that the moderator be objective, and conduct the research without personal bias.

Methods for Collecting Qualitative Data

The traditional formats for research include focus groups, (most often with 6 to 10 respondents), dyads and triads (2 and 3 respondents, respectively), and one-on-one interviews, (IDIs).  The researcher will choose between these formats due to a number of factors, including budget, location, and how narrow a lens he or she is seeking in terms of response.  It also includes ethnographies, studies in which the researcher goes into the home or other environment of the subjects to gain deep insights through this immersive format.

With the advent of social media, a number of new methodologies have come into the mainstream for qualitative research.  These include using on-line bulletin boards (OLBBs), chat rooms, and text messaging to gather data. The practice of gathering information by monitoring public texting forums such as Twitter has also come into vogue.

Segmenting Groups

Qualitative studies often group respondents into segments.  The researcher chooses segments based on the study goals and scope.  Segments can be as general as age, gender, geographic location or income level, more specific to encompass attributes such as voting habits, brand preference or family composition, or fine-tuned to be a blend of several different attributes.  While segmentation allows for grouping in order to compare and contrast, it also encourages the building of rapport within the study group, an invaluable tool for allowing study participants to reach a level of comfort that will encourage honest and frank responses.


By its very nature, qualitative research should never be considered statistically significant, as the sample can almost never reach large enough numbers to extrapolate results across a wider population.  However, qualitative research is often done to gather or clarify ideas before or after a wider quantitative study is conducted.

Recording Research Methods

Whenever possible, qualitative research will be recorded for later review. Since a good moderator must be “in the moment” to ask, listen and probe, he or she should not be distracted by tasks such as note-taking.  Qualitative studies that are conducted in more formal settings such as focus group suites allow for multiple observers, from behind a one-way mirror, via digital feed and/or by review of tapes, recordings or transcripts.  Of course, the moderator will give full disclosure to the qualitative research respondents regarding the recording methods that are being used, and anonymity (as appropriate) is assured.

Conducting Analysis

The final step in qualitative research is analysis.  During this phase, the researcher reviews the data that has been collected in search of trends, themes, concepts, surprises and ideas for future study.  The goal of qualitative analysis is to report the findings with as much depth and insight as possible, noting findings both within the study segments as well as differences and similarities across the various study groups.

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