Qualitative research approaches are employed across many academic
disciplines, focusing particularly on the human elements of the social
and natural sciences; in less academic contexts, areas of
application include qualitative market research, business, and service
demonstrations by non-profits.
As a field of study, qualitative approaches include research concepts
and methods from multiple established academic fields. The aim of a
qualitative research project may vary with the disciplinary
background, such as a psychologist seeking in-depth understanding of
human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior for example.
Qualitative methods are best for researching many of the why and how
questions of human experience, in making a decision for example
(not just what, where, when, or "who"); and have a strong basis in the
field of sociology to understand government and social programs.
Qualitative research is widely used by political science, social work,
and education researchers.
In the conventional view of statisticians, qualitative methods produce
explanations only of the particular cases studied (e.g., as part of an
ethnography of a newly implemented government program), any more
general conclusions are considered tentative propositions (informed
Quantitative methods can be then used to
seek further mathematical support for such research hypotheses.
In contrast, a qualitative researcher might argue that understanding
of a phenomenon or situation or event, comes from exploring the
totality of the situation (e.g., phenomenology, symbolic
interactionism), often with access to large amounts of "hard data" of
a nonnumerical form. It may begin as a grounded theory approach with
the researcher having no previous understanding of the phenomenon; or
the study may commence with propositions and proceed in a 'scientific
and empirical way' throughout the research process (e.g., Bogdan &
A popular method of qualitative research is the case study (Stake
1995, Yin 1989), which examines in depth 'purposive samples' to
better understand a phenomenon (e.g., support to families; Racino,
1999); the case study method exemplifies the qualitative
researchers' preference for depth, detail, and context, often working
with smaller and more focused samples, compared with the large samples
of primary interest to statistical researchers seeking general
Qualitative methods are an integral component of the five angles of
analysis fostered by the data percolation methodology. These
methods may be used alongside quantitative methods, scholarly or lay
reviews of the literature, interviews with experts, and computer
simulation, as part of multimethod attitude to data collection and
analysis (called Triangulation).
To help navigate the heterogeneous landscape of qualitative research,
one can further think of qualitative inquiry in terms of 'means' and
'orientation' (Pernecky, 2016).
2 Data collection, analysis and field research design
3 Specialized uses of qualitative research
4 Data analysis
4.1 Interpretive techniques 
4.2 Recursive abstraction 
4.3 Coding and "thinking"
5 Distinct qualitative paradigms
Qualitative research journals
Qualitative research in psychology
9 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
Robert Bogdan in his advanced courses on qualitative research traces
the history of the development of the fields, and their particular
relevance to disability and including the work of his colleague Robert
Edgerton and a founder of participant observation, Howard S.
Becker. As Robert Bogdan and Sari Biklen describe in their
education text, "historians of qualitative research have never, for
instance, included Freud or Piaget as developers of the qualitative
approach, yet both relied on case studies, observations and indepth
In the early 1900s, some researchers rejected positivism, the
theoretical idea that there is an objective world which we can gather
data from and "verify" this data through empiricism. These researchers
embraced a qualitative research paradigm, attempting to make
qualitative research as "rigorous" as quantitative research and
creating myriad methods for qualitative research. Of course, such
developments were necessary as qualitative researchers won national
center awards, in collaboration with their research colleagues at
other universities and departments; and university administrations
funded Ph.D.s in both arenas through the ensuing decades. Most
theoretical constructs involve a process of qualitative analysis and
understanding, and construction of these concepts (e.g.,
Wolfensberger's social role valorization theories).
In the 1970s and 1980s, the increasing ubiquity of computers aided in
qualitative analyses, several journals with a qualitative focus
emerged, and postpositivism gained recognition in the academy. In the
late 1980s, questions of identity emerged, including issues of race,
class, gender, and discourse communities, leading to research and
writing becoming more reflexive. Throughout the 1990s, the concept of
a passive observer/researcher was rejected, and qualitative research
became more participatory and activist-oriented with support from the
federal branches, such as the National Institute on Disability
Research and Rehabilitation (NIDRR) of the US Department of Education
(e.g., Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers for Family and
Community Living, 1990). Also, during this time, researchers began to
use mixed-method approaches, indicating a shift in thinking of
qualitative and quantitative methods as intrinsically incompatible.
However, this history is not apolitical, as this has ushered in a
politics of "evidence" (e.g., evidence-based practices in health and
human services) and what can count as "scientific" research in
scholarship, a current, ongoing debate in the academy.
Data collection, analysis and field research design
Qualitative researchers face many choices for techniques to generate
data ranging from grounded theory development and practice,
narratology, storytelling, transcript poetry, classical ethnography,
state or governmental studies, research and service demonstrations,
focus groups, case studies, participant observation, qualitative
review of statistics in order to predict future happenings, or
shadowing, among many others. Qualitative methods are used in various
methodological approaches, such as action research which has
sociological basis, or actor-network theory.
The most common method used to generate data in qualitative research
is an interview which may be structured, semi-structured or
unstructured. Other ways to generate data include group discussions or
focus groups, observations, reflective field notes, texts, pictures,
and other materials. Very popular among qualitative researchers
are the studies of photographs, public and official documents,
personal documents, and historical items in addition to images in the
media and literature fields.
To analyse qualitative data, the researcher seeks meaning from all of
the data that is available. The data may be categorized and sorted
into patterns (i.e., pattern or thematic analyses) as the primary
basis for organizing and reporting the study findings (e.g.,
activities in the home; interactions with government). Qualitative
researchers, often associated with the education field, typically rely
on the following methods for gathering information: Participant
Observation, Non-participant Observation, Field Notes, Reflexive
Journals, Structured Interview, Semi-structured Interview,
Unstructured Interview, and Analysis of documents and
The ways of participating and observing can vary widely from setting
to setting as exemplified by Helen Schwartzman's primer on Ethnography
in Organizations (1993). or Anne Copeland and Kathleen White's
"Studying Families" (1991).
Participant observation is a strategy
of reflexive learning, not a single method of observing. and has
been described as a continuum of between participation and
observation. In participant observation researchers typically
become members of a culture, group, or setting, and adopt roles to
conform to that setting. In doing so, the aim is for the researcher to
gain a closer insight into the culture's practices, motivations, and
emotions. It is argued that the researchers' ability to understand the
experiences of the culture may be inhibited if they observe without
The data that is obtained is streamlined (texts of thousands of pages
in length) to a definite theme or pattern, or representation of a
theory or systemic issue or approach. This step in a theoretical
analysis or data analytic technique is further worked on (e.g., gender
analysis may be conducted; comparative policy analysis may be
developed). An alternative research hypothesis is generated which
finally provides the basis of the research statement for continuing
work in the fields.
Some distinctive qualitative methods are the use of focus groups and
key informant interviews, the latter often identified through
sophisticated and sometimes, elitist, snowballing techniques. The
focus group technique (e.g., Morgan, 1988) involves a moderator
facilitating a small group discussion between selected individuals on
a particular topic, with video and handscribed data recorded, and is
useful in a coordinated research approach studying phenomenon in
diverse ways in different environments with distinct stakeholders
often excluded from traditional processes. This method is a
particularly popular in market research and testing new initiatives
The research then must be "written up" into a report, book chapter,
journal paper, thesis or dissertation, using descriptions, quotes from
participants, charts and tables to demonstrate the trustworthiness of
the study findings.
In qualitative research, the idea of recursivity is expressed in terms
of the nature of its research procedures, which may be contrasted with
experimental forms of research design. From the experimental
perspective, its major stages of research (data collection, data
analysis, discussion of the data in context of the literature, and
drawing conclusions) should be each undertaken once (or at most a
small number of times) in a research study. In qualitative research
however, all of the four stages above may be undertaken repeatedly
until one or more specific stopping conditions are met, reflecting a
nonstatic attitude to the planning and design of research activities.
An example of this dynamicism might be when the qualitative researcher
unexpectedly changes their research focus or design midway through a
research study, based on their 1st interim data analysis, and then
makes further unplanned changes again based on a 2nd interim data
analysis; this would be a terrible thing to do from the perspective of
an (predefined) experimental study of the same thing. Qualitative
researchers would argue that their recursivity in developing the
relevant evidence and reasoning, enables the researcher to be more
open to unexpected results, more open to the potential of building new
constructs, and the possibility of integrating them with the
explanations developed continuously throughout a study.
Specialized uses of qualitative research
Qualitative methods are often part of survey methodology, including
telephone surveys and consumer satisfaction surveys.
In fields that study households, a much debated topic is whether
interviews should be conducted individually or collectively (e.g. as
One traditional and specialized form of qualitative research is called
cognitive testing or pilot testing which is used in the development of
quantitative survey items. Survey items are piloted on study
participants to test the reliability and validity of the items. This
approach is similar to psychological testing using an intelligence
test like the WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Survey) in which the
interviewer records "qualitative" (i.e., clinical
observations)throughout the testing process.
Qualitative research is
often useful in a sociological lens. Although often ignored,
qualitative research is of great value to sociological studies that
can shed light on the intricacies in the functionality of society and
There are several different research approaches, or research designs,
that qualitative researchers use. In the academic social
sciences, the most frequently used qualitative research approaches
include the following points:
Basic/generic/pragmatic qualitative research, which involves using an
eclectic approach taken up to best match the research question at
hand. This is often called the mixed-method approach.
Ethnographic Research. An example of applied ethnographic research is
the study of a particular culture and their understanding of the role
of a particular disease in their cultural framework.
Grounded Theory is an inductive type of research, based or "grounded"
in the observations or data from which it was developed; it uses a
variety of data sources, including quantitative data, review of
records, interviews, observation and surveys.
Phenomenology describes the "subjective reality" of an event, as
perceived by the study population; it is the study of a
Philosophical Research is conducted by field experts within the
boundaries of a specific field of study or profession, the best
qualified individual in any field of study to use an intellectual
analysis, in order to clarify definitions, identify ethics, or make a
value judgment concerning an issue in their field of study their
Critical Social Research, used by a researcher to understand how
people communicate and develop symbolic meanings.
Ethical Inquiry, an intellectual analysis of ethical problems. It
includes the study of ethics as related to obligation, rights, duty,
right and wrong, choice etc.
Social Science and Governmental Research to understand social
services, government operations, and recommendations (or not)
regarding future developments and programs, including whether or not
government should be involved.
Activist Research which aims to raise the views of the underprivileged
or "underdogs" to prominence to the elite or master classes, the
latter who often control the public view or positions.
Foundational Research, examines the foundations for a science,
analyzes the beliefs, and develops ways to specify how a knowledge
base should change in light of new information.
Historical Research allows one to discuss past and present events in
the context of the present condition, and allows one to reflect and
provide possible answers to current issues and problems. Historical
research helps us in answering questions such as: Where have we come
from, where are we, who are we now and where are we going?
Visual Ethnography. It uses visual methods of data collection,
including photo, voice, photo elicitation, collaging, drawing, and
mapping. These techniques have been used extensively as a
participatory qualitative technique and to make the familiar
Autoethnography, the study of self, is a method of qualitative
research in which the researcher uses their personal experience to
address an issue.
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Interpretive techniques 
As a form of qualitative inquiry, students of interpretive inquiry
(interpretivists) often disagree with the idea of theory-free
observation or knowledge. Whilst this crucial philosophical
realization is also held by researchers in other fields,
interpretivists are often the most aggressive in taking this
philosophical realization to its logical conclusions. For example, an
interpretivist researcher might believe in the existence of an
objective reality 'out there', but argue that the social and
educational reality we act on the basis of, never allows a single
human subject to direct access the reality 'out there' in reality
(this is a view shared by constructivist philosophies[disambiguation
To researchers outside the qualitative research field, the most common
analysis of qualitative data is often perceived to be observer
impression. That is, expert or bystander observers examine the data,
interpret it via forming an impression and report their impression in
a structured and sometimes quantitative form.
Main article: Coding (social sciences)
In general, coding refers to the act of associating meaningful ideas
with the data of interest. In the context of qualitative research,
interpretative aspects of the coding process are often explicitly
recognized, articulated, and celebrated; producing specific words or
short phrases believed to be useful abstractions over the data.
As an act of sense making, most coding requires the qualitative
analyst to read the data and demarcate segments within it, which may
be done at multiple and different times throughout the data analysis
process. Each segment is labeled with a 'code' – usually a word
or short phrase suggesting how the associated data segments inform the
research objectives. In contrast with more quantitative forms of
coding, mathematical ideas and forms are usually under-developed in a
'pure' qualitative data analysis. When coding is complete, the analyst
may prepare reports via a mix of: summarizing the prevalence of codes,
discussing similarities and differences in related codes across
distinct original sources/contexts, or comparing the relationship
between one or more codes.
Some qualitative data that is highly structured (e.g., open-ended
responses from surveys or tightly defined interview questions) is
typically coded with minimal additional segmentation of the data.
Quantitative analysis based on codes from statistical theory is
typically the capstone analytical step for this type of qualitative
data. A common form of coding is open-ended coding, while other more
structured techniques such as axial coding or integration have also
been described and articulated (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).
Because qualitative analyses are often more inductive than the
hypothesis testing nature of most quantitative research, the existing
'theoretical sensitivity' (i.e., familiarity with established theories
in the field) of the analyst becomes a more pressing concern in
producing an acceptable analysis.
Contemporary qualitative data analyses are often supported by computer
programs (termed Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software)
which has mostly replaced the detailed hand coding and labeling of the
past decades. These programs do not supplant the interpretive nature
of coding, but rather are aimed at enhancing the analyst’s
efficiency at applying, retrieving, and storing the codes generated
from reading the data. Many programs enhance efficiency in editing and
revision of codes, which allow for more effective work sharing, peer
review, and recursive examination of data. The university goals were
to place such programs on computer mainframes and analyze large data
sets, which is not easily conducted past 1,000 to 2,000 pages of text.
Common Qualitative Data Analysis Software includes:
MAXQDA (mixed methods)
Dedoose (mixed methods)
A frequent criticism of quantitative coding approaches is against the
transformation of qualitative data into predefined (nomothetic) data
structures, underpinned by 'objective properties'; the variety,
richness, and individual characteristics of the qualitative data is
argued to be largely omitted from such data coding processes,
rendering the original collection of qualitative data somewhat
To defend against the criticism of too much subjective variability in
the categories and relationships identified from data, qualitative
analysts respond by thoroughly articulating their definitions of codes
and linking those codes soundly to the underlying data, thereby
preserving some of the richness that might be absent from a mere list
of codes, whilst satisfying the need for repeatable procedure held by
experimentally oriented researchers.
Recursive abstraction 
As defined by Leshan 2012, this is a method of qualitative data
analysis where qualitative datasets are analyzed without coding. A
common method here is recursive abstraction, where datasets are
summarized; those summaries are therefore furthered into summary and
so on. The end result is a more compact summary that would have been
difficult to accurately discern without the preceding steps of
A frequent criticism of recursive abstraction is that the final
conclusions are several times removed from the underlying data. While
it is true that poor initial summaries will certainly yield an
inaccurate final report, qualitative analysts can respond to this
criticism. They do so, like those using coding method, by documenting
the reasoning behind each summary step, citing examples from the data
where statements were included and where statements were excluded from
the intermediate summary.
Coding and "thinking"
Some data analysis techniques, often referred to as the tedious, hard
work of research studies similar to field notes, rely on using
computers to scan and reduce large sets of qualitative data. At their
most basic level, numerical coding relies on counting words, phrases,
or coincidences of tokens within the data; other similar techniques
are the analyses of phrases and exchanges in conversational analyses.
Often referred to as content analysis, a basic structural building
block to conceptual analysis, the technique utilizes mixed methodology
to unpack both small and large corpuses.
Content analysis is
frequently used in sociology to explore relationships, such as the
change in perceptions of race over time (Morning 2008), or the
lifestyles of temporal contractors (Evans, et al. 2004).
Content analysis techniques thus help to provide broader output for a
larger, more accurate conceptual analysis.
Mechanical techniques are particularly well-suited for a few
scenarios. One such scenario is for datasets that are simply too large
for a human to effectively analyze, or where analysis of them would be
cost prohibitive relative to the value of information they contain.
Another scenario is when the chief value of a dataset is the extent to
which it contains "red flags" (e.g., searching for reports of certain
adverse events within a lengthy journal dataset from patients in a
clinical trial) or "green flags" (e.g., searching for mentions of your
brand in positive reviews of marketplace products). Many researchers
would consider these procedures on their data sets to be misuse of
their data collection and purposes.
A frequent criticism of mechanical techniques is the absence of a
human interpreter; computer analysis is relatively new having arrived
in the late 1980s to the university sectors. And while masters of
these methods are able to write sophisticated software to mimic some
human decisions, the bulk of the "analysis" is still nonhuman.
Analysts respond by proving the value of their methods relative to
either a) hiring and training a human team to analyze the data or b)
by letting the data go untouched, leaving any actionable nuggets
undiscovered; almost all coding schemes indicate probably studies for
Data sets and their analyses must also be written up, reviewed by
other researchers, circulated for comments, and finalized for public
review. Numerical coding must be available in the published articles,
if the methodology and findings are to be compared across research
studies in traditional literature review and recommendation formats.
Distinct qualitative paradigms
Contemporary qualitative research has been conducted using a large
number of paradigms that influence conceptual and metatheoretical
concerns of legitimacy, control, data analysis, ontology, and
epistemology, among others. Research conducted in the twenty-first
century has been characterized by a distinct turn toward more
interpretive, postmodern, and critical practices. Guba and Lincoln
(2005) identify five main paradigms of contemporary qualitative
research: positivism, postpositivism, critical theories,
constructivism, and participatory/cooperative paradigms. Each of
the paradigms listed by Guba and Lincoln are characterized by
axiomatic differences in axiology, intended action of research,
control of research process/outcomes, relationship to foundations of
truth and knowledge, validity (see below), textual representation and
voice of the researcher/participants, and commensurability with other
paradigms. In particular, commensurability involves the extent to
which paradigmatic concerns "can be retrofitted to each other in ways
that make the simultaneous practice of both possible". Positivist
and post positivist paradigms share commensurable assumptions but are
largely incommensurable with critical, constructivist, and
participatory paradigms. Likewise, critical, constructivist, and
participatory paradigms are commensurable on certain issues (e.g.,
intended action and textual representation).
Qualitative research in the 2000s also has been characterized by
concern with everyday categorization and ordinary storytelling. This
"narrative turn" is producing an enormous literature as researchers
present sensitizing concepts and perspectives that bear especially on
narrative practice, which centers on the circumstances and
communicative actions of storytelling. Catherine Riessman (1993) and
Gubrium and Holstein (2009) provide analytic strategies, and Holstein
and Gubrium (2012) present the variety of approaches in recent
comprehensive texts. Relatedly, narrative practice increasingly takes
up the institutional conditioning of narrative practice (see Gubrium
and Holstein 2000).
A central issue in qualitative research is trustworthiness (also known
as credibility, or in quantitative studies, validity). There are many
different ways of establishing trustworthiness, including: member
check, interviewer corroboration, peer debriefing, prolonged
engagement, negative case analysis, auditability, confirmability,
bracketing, and balance. Most of these methods are described in
Lincoln and Guba (1985). As exemplified by researchers Preston
Teeter and Jorgen Sandberg, data triangulation and eliciting examples
of interviewee accounts are two of the most commonly used methods of
establishing trustworthiness in qualitative studies. Dependability
is equivalent to the notion of reliability in quantitative methods and
is the extent to which two or more people are likely to come to the
same conclusions by examining the same evidence. Again, Lincoln and
Guba (1985) is the salient reference.
Qualitative research journals
By the end of the 1970s many leading journals began to publish
qualitative research articles and several new journals emerged
which published only qualitative research studies and articles about
qualitative research methods. In the 1980s and 1990s, the new
qualitative research journals became more multidisciplinary in focus
moving beyond qualitative research’s traditional disciplinary roots
of anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. In the late 1980s to
1990s, early academic articles emerged beginning the transformation
from institutional studies (e.g., Taylor's "Let them eat programs") to
studies of community, community services and community life reviewed
and cited in professional journals. These studies ranged from
extremely controversial concerns involving the death penalty and
disability (Bogdan, 1995) to the efforts of families with service
providers (O'Connor, 1995)  to the government divisions which
regulate families by "coming to take" the children away (Taylor,
Qualitative research in psychology
Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of scientific psychology, was one of the
first psychologists to conduct qualitative research.
Early examples of his qualitative research were published in 1900
through 1920, in his 10-volume study, Völkerpsychologie (translated
to: Social Psychology). Wundt advocated the strong relation between
psychology and philosophy. He believed that there was a gap between
psychology and quantitative research that could only be filled by
conducting qualitative research. Qualitative research
dove into aspects of human life that could not adequately be covered
by quantitative research; aspects such as culture, expression,
beliefs, morality and imagination.
There are records of qualitative research being used in psychology
before World War II, but prior to the 1950s, these methods were viewed
as invalid. Owing to this, many of the psychologists who practiced
qualitative research denied the usage of such methods or apologized
for doing so. It was not until the late 20th century when qualitative
research was accepted in elements of psychology though it remains
controversial. The excitement about the
groundbreaking form of research was short-lived as few novel findings
emerged which gained attention. Community psychologists felt they
didn't get the recognition they deserved. A selection of
autobiographical narratives of community psychologists can be found in
"Six Community Psychologists Tell Their Stories: History, Contexts and
Narratives" (Kelly & Song, 2004), including the well known Julian
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Library resources about
Resources in your library
Resources in other libraries
C.Wright Mills, On intellectual Craftsmanship, The Sociological
Qualitative research methods: a Data
collector's field guide
Analyzing and Reporting Qualitative Market Research
Overview of available QDA Software
Qualitative analysis, with a focus on interview data on YouTube
Living Theory Approach to Qualitative Action Research on YouTube
Yale University series by Leslie Curry on YouTube
Logical positivism / analytic philosophy
Machian positivism (empiriocriticism)
Rankean historical positivism
Russian positivism (empiriomonism)
Critique of metaphysics
Unity of science
Problem of induction
Related paradigm shifts
in the history of science
Non-Euclidean geometry (1830s)
Heisenberg uncertainty principle (1927)
Criticism of science
Holism in anthropology
Naturalism in literature
Objectivity in science
Philosophy of science
Relationship between religion and science
Social science (Philosophy)
1980s Fourth Great Debate in international relations
1990s Science Wars
1830 The Course in Positive Philosophy
1848 A General View of Positivism
1869 Critical History of Philosophy
1879 Idealism and Positivism
1886 The Analysis of Sensations
1927 The Logic of Modern Physics
1936 Language, Truth, and Logic
1959 The Two Cultures
2001 The Universe in a Nutshell
A. J. Ayer
1909 Materialism and Empirio-criticism
1923 History and Class Consciousness
1934 The Logic of Scientific Discovery
1936 The Poverty of Historicism
1942 World Hypotheses
1951 Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Truth and Method
1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
1963 Conjectures and Refutations
1964 One-Dimensional Man
Knowledge and Human Interests
1978 The Poverty of Theory
1980 The Scientific Image
1986 The Rhetoric of Economics
Theodor W. Adorno
Willard Van Orman Quine
Concepts in contention