What is qualitative research? Definition and meaning

Qualitative research is a mainly exploratory type of scientific research used to understand people’s beliefs, experiences, behavior, attitudes and interactions. Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research generates non-numerical data.

Simply put, qualitative research focuses on the “why” of a phenomena rather than the “what”. Theories of the “why” are devised using systems of inquiry.

Common methods of qualitative research include interviews, focus groups (group discussions), and observations.

Qualtitive research was first used in psychological studies as researchers found it too tedious to evaluate human behavior with numbers. Since then it has become a form of research commonly used in other research fields. 

According to the University of Utah College of Nursing, qualitative methods “allow the researcher to study selected issues in depth and detail without being constrained by pre-determined categories of analysis.”

There are five main methods of qualitative research:

1. Ethnography – researchers completely immerse themselves in the environment first-hand. Ethnography involves hands-on, on-the-scene learning. This method is relevant wherever people are relevant. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Contemporary ethnography is based almost entirely on fieldwork and requires the complete immersion of the anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the people who are the subject of his study.”

2. Narrative – the use of field texts, such as stories, journals, interviews, photos and life experience. Narrative knowledge is created through the stories of lived experience and sense-making. It offers valuable insight into the complexity of human lives, cultures, and behaviors, according to the UK National Centre for Research Methods.

3. Phenomenological – A method used to describe how humans experience a certain phenomenon. The Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching says a phenomenological study “attempts to set aside biases and preconceived assumptions about human experiences, feelings, and responses to a particular situation.”

4. Grounded Theory – an inductive methodology developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s. Grounded theory may be defined as ‘the discovery of theory from data systematically obtained from social research’. Researchers gather data from interviews or existing documents to create a theory about a certain event. Axial coding, the process of relating categories and concepts to each other through inductive and deductive thinking, is used to help build the theory.

5. Case Study – a research method in which the subject of study (the case) is examined in-depth. Case studies can involve both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Data is collected through interviews, documents, reports, observations.