Essentials of Qualitative Research

What is Qualitative Research?

"Some of our greatest insights into social processes can result from what appear to be very ordinary activities – observing, participating, listening, and talking" (Bachman and Schutt, 2001: 279).

Qualitative methods (sometimes called ethnographic, naturalistic, etc.) are generally associated with interpretive epistemology and tend to be used to refer to forms of data collection and analysis which rely on understanding, with an emphasis on meanings. The richness of meaning only comes with words and actions; words and actions that seek to discover what people think and how and why they act in certain situations and settings. Qualitative research focuses on the objective nature of behavior as well as subjective meanings.

Approaches to Qualitative Research

1.  The Research Question
Qualitative research does not always begin with a well-defined research question. There may be an interest in a phenomenon previously understudied (such as the social world of ice-fishing) and sometimes research begins with an opportunity (for instance access to residents of a drug rehabilitation center). In both instances the researcher may apply inductive theory (see what comes out at the end and see how it applies to theory) or a theory may emerge during the period of study (grounded theory).
However, qualitative research often begins with a well-defined research question that will attempt to describe/explain/explore, for instance, the relationship between variables such as job satisfaction and caring for elderly parents.

2.    Review the Literature
The researcher should be acquainted with current research on the topic and must also demonstrate knowledge of existing literature. A review of the literature will also inform the researcher on methods and analysis. UVU's Library website: is available to all UVU students and faculty as is the expert help of specialist librarians.

3.     Research Design
Although qualitative research does not have a distinct set of methods or practices that are entirely its own, and no specific method or practice is privileged over another they often fall within three distinctive research designs:
(A)    participant observation (collecting data from people while they go about their normal activities),
(B)    intensive interviewing (usually open-ended, unstructured questioning), and
(C)    focus groups (allowing the participants to agree or disagree with each other so that it provides an insight into how a group thinks about an issue)

These methods, however, are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. Regardless of the method researchers must pay close attention to sampling (units of analysis and how they were selected)

4.  Data Collection
(A)    Surveys – series of questions administered electronically, face-to-face, by mail, etc.
(B)    Observation - variety of strategies to study groups in natural settings by observing activities, and to some extent participating
(C)    Unobtrusive methods – methods of studying social behavior without affecting it, e.g., studying newspaper reports for hate speech

5.  Analysis of findings
Analysis has long been a problem for qualitative researchers because coding can be extremely time-consuming and complicated. Further, because of the nature of the data a criticism of qualitative research has been that it is less scientific than quantitative research; coding sometimes seen as subjective. However, basic computer tools have moved beyond basic recording and storage of data to sophisticated software packages such as NVivo; programs that lend themselves to verification of findings.

6.  Conclusions
Qualitative evaluations are always subject to the errors of human judgment but with the rigorous application of the scientific approach (systematic and logical) a wealth of rich data can be obtained and analyzed that could not be obtained in any other way.