Qualitative research seeks to tell the story of a particular group’s experiences in their own words, and is therefore focused on narrative (while quantitative research focuses on numbers). The logic of qualitative research can be challenging for researchers more accustomed (as most of us are) to the traditional deductive approach. Unlike quantitative research, in which researchers state specific hypotheses and then collect data to empirically test them, most qualitative research employs an inductive approach in which the researcher first collects data and then attempts to derive explanations from those data. As such, qualitative research tends to be more exploratory in nature, seeking to provide insight into how individuals (or organizations, groups, etc.) understand aspects of their worlds.
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There are numerous data collection techniques commonly used in qualitative research. A classic approach is observation, also sometimes called field research. Observation in the qualitative research tradition requires prolonged, systematic assessment of a particular setting. Researchers can choose to remain separate from the setting they are observing, by passively observing without revealing their purpose or by actively disclosing that they are a researcher conducting observations of the setting. Researchers can also take the role of participant observers, becoming actively involved in the setting they are observing and carefully recording both their observations and their own actions and interpretations of the setting. The data collected through observations are the carefully recorded notes which the researcher makes immediately after each observation, which may include descriptions, impressions, quotes, and even sketches when spatial aspects of the setting appear important.
In-depth interviews are often conducted by researchers to guide individuals in sharing their perspectives on the phenomena of interest. Interviews can be highly structured (based on a standard set of questions which the researcher asks of numerous individuals) or more free-flowing like a conversation. Interviews are commonly audio-recorded and then transcribed to ensure that participants’ exact phrasing, emphasis, hesitations, emotions, etc. are captured. When recording is not possible, researchers generally take brief notes during the interview and record more detailed impressions immediately following.
While in-depth interviews are useful for collecting the perspectives of individuals, focus group interviews are an excellent tool for uncovering how groups of similar individuals understand a particular phenomenon. A well-conducted focus group provides the opportunity for individuals to interact with one another and with the moderator to produce a shared narrative of the phenomenon of interest; this process can be an invaluable tool in understanding how the various perspectives shared through in-depth interviews fit together. Like in-depth interviews, focus groups are commonly recorded and transcribed in order to capture the exact language used by the participants.
Another broad category of qualitative analysis is content analysis. The data for content analysis can take almost any form, including all types of written documents (magazines, court proceedings, teacher’s evaluations of students) and audio/visual materials (movies, television advertisements). The goal of qualitative content analysis is to examine both the manifest content of an item – what is actually recorded or depicted – and the latent content. Latent content refers to the subtle messages or meaning encoded in an item, such as the unspoken assumptions that give the content meaning in the social world.
The qualitative approach is informed by inductive logic, in which potential understandings of a phenomenon are derived from the data. As such, hypotheses are formed following the collection and initial analysis of the data, at which point additional data are often collected to assess the hypotheses in an iterative process. Hypotheses in qualitative research often point to the role of contextual factors that influence the phenomenon of interest, seeking to distinguish why and how individuals with varying experiences understand the phenomenon differently. The goal of qualitative analysis is not to produce broadly generalizable results but rather to provide detailed or “thick” descriptions of specific situations or experiences.
Qualitative research is often critiqued as being “soft” and open to multiple interpretations (in contrast to the hard numbers associated with quantitative research). Well-designed qualitative research is highly systematic, however, requiring that researchers carefully record both their observations and their experiences in collecting the data. A related concern is that qualitative research tends to confirm researchers’ own understanding of phenomenon. Good qualitative researchers aim for “saturation” of data, however, which involves collecting and analyzing data in an iterative process until no new information arises. Systematically collected, saturated qualitative data provide a degree of insight into complex phenomenon that differs dramatically from what is provided through quantitative analysis, and both approaches should be valued for the unique contributions they make in research.