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This is a background article. See Qualitative psychological research

The term "qualitative research" has different meanings in different fields, with the social science usage the most well-known. In the social sciences, qualitative research is often a broad term that describes research that focuses on how individuals and groups view and understand the world and construct meaning out of their experiences. It essentially is narrative-oriented and uses content analysis methods on selected levels of communication content. Other researchers consider it simply to be research whose goal is not to estimate statistical parameters but to generate hypotheses to be tested quantitatively.

In statistics, qualitative analysis consists of procedures that use only dichotomous data – that is, data which can take only the values 0 (zero) and 1 (one). These techniques are suitable where events or entities can only be counted or classified rather than measured. The techniques themselves are, of course, numerically based.


Qualitative research approach begun to gain recognition in the 1970s. The very phrase 'qualitative research' was until then marginalized as a discipline of anthropology or sociology, and terms like ethnography, fieldwork, participant observation and Chicago school approach were used instead. During the 1970s and 1980s qualitative research begun to be used in other disciplines, and became a dominant - or at least significant - type of research in the fields of women's studies, disability studies, education studies, social work studies, information studies, management studies, nursing service studies, psychology research and others. In the late 1980s and 1990s after a series of criticism from the quantitative side, new methods of qualitative research have been designed, to address the problems with reliability and imprecise modes of data analysis.[Taylor, 1998]


In the social sciences, qualitative research is a broad term that describes research that focuses on how individuals and groups view and understand the world and construct meaning out of their experiences. Qualitative research methods are sometimes used together with quantitative research methods to gain deeper understanding of the causes of social phenomena, or to help generate questions for further research. Unlike quantitative methods, qualitative research methods place little importance on developing statistically valid samples, or on searching for conclusive proof of hypotheses.

Instead, qualitative research focuses on the understanding of research phenomena in situ; that is, within their naturally-occurring context(s). One aim of the qualitative researcher is to tease out the meaning(s) the phenomena have for the actors or participants. Quantitative studies, however, may also observe phenomena in situ and address issues of meaning, and one criticism of this approach to qualitative research is that the definitions offered of it do not distinguish it adequately from quantitative research (for more on this issue, and about the debate over the merits of qualitative and quantitative approaches, see qualitative psychological research).

Generally (though there are exceptions), qualitative research studies rely on three basic data gathering techniques: participant observation, interview, and document or artifact analysis (Wolcott, 1995, 1999). Each of these techniques represents a continuum of from less to more structured (Adler & Adler, 1987; DeWalt & DeWalt, 2002) Various studies or particular techniques may rely more heavily on one data gathering technique or another.

Epistemologically qualitative methods insist that we should not invent the viewpoint of the actor, and should only attribute to them ideas about the world they actually hold, in order that we can truly understant their motives, reasons and actions.(Becker, 1996)


Though it had its genesis in the fields of anthropology, and sociology, qualitative research has burgeoned into and been taken up by many fields. Anthropology contributed to the field with its development of the research method of ethnography — a type of cultural translation (Boas, 1943; Malinowski, 1922/1961). Qualitative research in sociology, especially in the U.S., has its roots in the Chicago School (Adler & Adler, 1987).

Some of the different methods included under the umbrella of qualitative research, therefore, include: ethnography, ethnology, oral life history, case study, focus groups, conversation analysis, and portraiture.

Qualitative research has gained in popularity, especially due to the linguistic or subjective turn taking hold across the globe (Giddens, 1990). The social sciences, especially, as well as laypeople, have more readily accepted a subjective (as opposed to an objective or objectivist) ontology. Its practitioners often believe that qualitative research is especially well-suited to getting at the subjective qualities of the lived world, although this belief is far from universally accepted.

Many forms of qualitative analysis are labour-intensive. A number of software packages have been developed with the aim of reducing the load and systematising the task. Commercially available packages include Nud*ist; open source or free packages include AnSWR homepage.

Because of its emphasis on in-depth knowledge and elaboration of images and concepts, qualiative methods have been viewed as particulary useful for the areas of social research like "giving voice" to marginalized groups, formulation of new interpretations of historical and cultural significance of various events and advancing theory as in-depth, empirical qualitative studies may capture important facts missed by more general, quantitative studies. Such investigations usually focuse on a primary case, on the commonalities among separate instances of the same phenomenon identified through analytic induction, or on paraller phenomena identified through theoretical sampling. (Ragin, 1994).

Statistical packages for qualitative analysis

Main article: Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software

See also




  • Adler, P. A. & Adler, P. (1987). Membership roles in field research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Becker, Howard S., The epistemology of qualitative research. University of Chicago Press, 1996. 53-71. [from Ethnography and human development : context and meaning in social inquiry / edited by Richard Jessor, Anne Colby, and Richard A. Shweder]
  • Boas, Franz (1943). Recent anthropology. Science, 98, 311-314, 334-337.
  • Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research ( 2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • DeWalt, K. M. & DeWalt, B. R. (2002). Participant observation. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Fischer, C.T. (Ed.) (2005). Qualitative research methods for psychologists: Introduction through empirical studies. Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-088470-4.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). "Five Misunderstandings About Case Study Research." Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 2, April 2006, pp. 219-245.
  • Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hayes, N. (ed)(1997). Doing Qualitative Analysis in Psychology. East Sussex: Psychology Press.
  • Kaminski, Marek M. 2004. Games Prisoners Play. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11721-7
  • Malinowski, B. (1922/1961). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E. P. Dutton.
  • Morgan, D. (1988). Focus groups as Qualitative Research. London:Sage Publications.
  • Pamela Maykut, Richard Morehouse. 1994 Beginning Qualitative Research. Falmer Press.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research & evaluation methods ( 3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Charles C. Ragin, Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method, Pine Forge Press, 1994, ISBN 0-8039-9021-9
  • Richardsson, J.T.E. (1998) Handbook of Qualitaitve Research Methods for Psychology and the Social Science. Leicester:BPS
  • Silverman, D. (2004) Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and practice. London:Sage.
  • Steven J. Taylor, Robert Bogdan, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods, Wiley, 1998, ISBN 0-471-16868-8
  • Strauss, A & Corbin, j (1990). Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory procedures and Techniques. London:Sage.
  • Wolcott, H. F. (1995). The art of fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Wolcott, H. F. (1999). Ethnography: A way of seeing. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Ziman, John (2000). Real Science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge, Uk: Cambridge University Press.


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