Qualitative research

From Academic Kids

The term "qualitative research" has at least three meanings.


In the social sciences

In the social sciences, "qualitative research" is an umbrella term used to describe various non-quantitative research methods or approaches. For many, if not most researchers (especially in psychology), qualitative methods are simply exploratory methods used chiefly to generate hypotheses for quantitative testing. Other researchers, though, consider qualitative research a superior alternative to quantitative research.

Researchers from the latter group concern themselves with observation 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.

Though it had its genesis in the fields of journalism, 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 (though this method can be quantitative), 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.


  • Adler, P. A. & Adler, P. (1987). Membership roles in field research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Boas, F. (1943). Recent anthropology. Science, 98, 311-314, 334-337.
  • DeWalt, K. M. & DeWalt, B. R. (2002). Participant observation. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Malinowski, B. (1922/1961). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E. P. Dutton.
  • 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.

In statistics

  • 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.

In climate research

  • In Climate research, qualitative reconstructions of past temperatures rely on records of events such as Frost fairs which indicate periods of cold or warmth, but give little or no numerical information as to the degree of temperature variation. Other indicators – dates of harvest, first flowering of plants – produce information somewhere between qualitative and quantitative.

See also


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