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What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research generally falls under the category of exploratory research meaning that it aims to identify and generate an understanding of opinions, motivations, underlying causes and other potential factors contributing to a phenomenon. Qualitative research is generally used to provide insight into issues and develop hypotheses that may lead to potential quantitative research. It is particularly useful when the researcher wants to explore a ‘hunch’ or belief about a phenomenon that isn’t necessarily identified or explored by the wider quantitative research community.

Qualitative methods differ from those used in quantitative research as the aim is to develop a richer understanding of factors that may underpin a particular observed phenomenon. To achieve this level of understanding researchers often employ methods such as interviews, observation, ethnography, diaries, case studies, cultural material (films, books, websites etc.) and biographies. These methods are favoured because they can produce high quantities of highly detailed results which can be utilised to create a larger understanding of the identified phenomenon enabling the researcher to ascertain whether their ‘hunch’ has any merit.

Interviews are the most commonly employed method. They involve the researcher asking open-ended questions to gain extensive answers from participants with the aim of identifying themes within their reply that may indicate that the researcher’s ‘hunch’ is correct. Biographies and diaries are also used in the same way, they allow the researcher to explore the participant's feelings and experiences without putting the participant on the spot within an interview. Ethnography involves the researcher exploring the identified phenomenon through the experiences of certain cultures, peoples or religions; it aims to identify the extent to which the phenomenon is related to/caused by aspects that surround said culture etc. Cultural material is often explored when the researchers ‘hunch’ involves a historical or longstanding phenomenon within society, these materials are useful as they denote the general feeling of society at the time, they were published which helps the researcher to explore the evolution of their identified phenomena. Finally, case studies are arguably the most in-depth method as they focus on a single individual or an event and deploy multiple other methods such as observation and interviews to collate data from many angles as these aid in developing a larger picture of the subject.

Qualitative sampling differs from quantitative because the researcher is attempting to identify the existence of a phenomenon as opposed to testing an identified phenomenon. This means that samples are quality focused rather than quantity meaning that there are less of them but much more information taken from each sample through methods such as interviews. Furthermore, qualitative research demands non-random sampling through methods such as opportunity and convenience whereby the researcher actively seeks out participants that potentially have knowledge of/experienced the phenomena being explored.

Qualitative research should be used when:

  • The identified phenomenon has not been previously confirmed
  • A deeper understanding of the aspects and factors of a phenomenon is required
  • To build up evidence of a phenomenon’s existence
  • When the phenomenon cannot be quantified. For example, a one-off incident such as an injury or trauma that cannot be repeated for ethical reasons. This is an example of data from limited sources that require a case study to fully take advantage of the information