Qualitative Research Methods: An Introduction

Introduction to qualitative research methods

Qualitative research has gained recognition in the last few years and researchers have come to acknowledge that it is in no way inferior to quantitative research but rather that each of these research methods has its own pros and cons. However, together they can complement each other when researchers use a mixed-methods approach.

This post is the first of a series of posts that will discuss qualitative research methods. In this post, I introduce qualitative research methods, its main characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, as well as how it differs from quantitative research methods.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research has been defined as “a process of naturalistic inquiry that seeks in-depth understanding of social phenomena within their natural setting.

From the definition above, there are four distinct features of qualitative research methods:

Inquiry: qualitative research can be likened to an investigative type of research where the researcher sets out to make inquiries about the problem under investigation.

In-depth understanding: the purpose of qualitative research is to gain a deep understanding of the problem under investigation.

Social phenomena: in qualitative research, the researcher studies social phenomena which may include: individuals, communities, societies, and cultures.

Natural setting: to be able to gain a deep understanding of the problem under investigation, the qualitative researcher must go to where the social phenomena being studied is. For instance, if a researcher is interested in studying youth joblessness in an informal urban setting, he must go to carry out the study in the informal urban setting.

The importance of the researcher going to the natural setting of the social phenomena is that he will use several methods of inquiry including interviews and observation. It is not enough for the researcher to carry out interviews only but he should also observe how the social phenomena behave in their natural setting.

Nature of qualitative research

Qualitative research is a subjective research method. The knowledge obtained from qualitative research is unique to the social phenomena being studied (or to other social phenomena with similar characteristics).

Because of the subjective nature of qualitative research, the researcher must be neutral while undertaking qualitative researcher to avoid creating bias. Neutrality in qualitative research is important because the researcher may have different experiences and beliefs from the social phenomena he is studying.

Qualitative research produces rich data. The data is often in the form of words, opinions, and feelings expressed by the respondents as well as notes of things observed by the researcher but not verbally communicated by the respondents. A researcher may therefore end up with hundreds of pages of notes collected from a qualitative study.

Qualitative research seeks to answer the “why” rather than the “what” of social problems. In the example of youth joblessness in an informal urban setting, a quantitative research may show that youth joblessness is higher in informal urban settings than in the non-informal urban settings and even rural settings. A qualitative study will seek to understand why this is the case.

The knowledge obtained from qualitative research evolves as the process continues. It is therefore normal for new knowledge to emerge that was unexpected at the beginning of the research.

Inductivism: in qualitative research, knowledge can be derived inductively through observation. In the example above, the researcher will go to the informal urban setting and may observe that there are many children who do not go to school but rather play throughout the day. He may conclude that the high youth joblessness in informal urban settings may be contributed by low schooling levels of the children.

Constructivism: in this strategy, the researcher tries to understand the occurrence of the phenomenon by engaging the respondents and getting to hear their subjective view. In the example above, the researcher will interview the youth in the informal setting to try and understand why majority of them are unemployed.

Interpretivist: in this approach, the researcher will try to understand and interpret the meanings of the social phenomenon under investigation within the natural setting of the social phenomenon being studied.

Strengths of qualitative research

It gives a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of the social phenomena that numerical data cannot provide.

It enables the researcher to understand things from the perspective of the research subjects.

It gives a holistic view of the problem under investigation.

It offers flexibility in the data collection, data analysis and data interpretation process. Because of the flexibility, a researcher can change the way he is doing the research, can extend the fieldwork if need be, and can also change the focus of the research if necessary.

Limitations of qualitative research

Because of the flexibility it provides, the potential shift of the researcher from the original focus of the study can also be a limitation, e.g. it may require additional time and resources.

It is possible for a researcher to arrive at different conclusions and interpretation depending on his personal characteristics, which may create biases.

It is difficult to replicate a study conducted through qualitative research methods because of its changing and evolving nature. Additionally, researcher-respondent experiences will differ from one respondent to another. This is different from quantitative research where the process is highly structured and can therefore be easily replicated.

Lack of consistency in qualitative research methods. This arises from the fact that a researcher will use different probing techniques for different respondents depending on the personalities of the respondents. Some respondents are more open than others therefore it is up to the researcher to use different techniques to enable him gain adequate information from the respondents.

Differences between qualitative and quantitative research

Qualitative research differs from quantitative research in various ways, as shown in the table below:

Qualitative researchQuantitative research
It deals with words.It deals with numbers.
There is a lot of probing of the respondents.There is no probing of the respondents.
It does not test any hypotheses.Tests hypotheses.
It involves developing new theories.It involves testing of existing theories.
The researcher immerses himself in the research process. The researcher does not immerse himself in the research process.
Validation of knowledge gained from qualitative research happens during the fieldwork process. Validation of quantitative research outcomes can only happen after the research process.

Qualitative research process

The figure below shows the process followed when conducting qualitative research.

Qualitative research process

Recommended resources

  1. Business Research Methods by Alan Bryman & Emma Bell.
  2. Social Research Methods by Alan Bryman.
  3. Research Methods for Business Students by Mark Saunders, Philip Lewis & Adrian Thornhill.

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A Comprehensive Guide for Designing and Administering a Questionnaire

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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