What is Qualitative Research?

Lee Flamand

Qualitative research utilizes methods that seek to discern the quality — as opposed to the quantity — of its subject. It is, therefore, more often concerned with explaining the why and how of a phenomenon rather than the what, when and where.

Qualitative research is a subjective form of research in which an individual tends to become more emotionally attached to their subject and, as a result, his or her own bias may play heavily into the results.
Qualitative research is a subjective form of research in which an individual tends to become more emotionally attached to their subject and, as a result, his or her own bias may play heavily into the results.

Qualitative research methods are most often utilized in fields such as anthropology, the humanities and sociology, although each of these fields can be studied through quantitative methods as well. Since this type of research is exploratory and focuses on discerning the why of things, such as human behavior, rather than the what of the natural world, it is often criticized for being too subjective. Many make the counter-argument, however, that since qualitative methods are hypothesis generating, they are not only just as valuable as quantitative methods but necessary for the production of theoretical models which come to inform the direction of quantitative research methods.

Qualitative research utilizes methods that seek to discern the quality — as opposed to the quantity — of its subject.
Qualitative research utilizes methods that seek to discern the quality — as opposed to the quantity — of its subject.

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Data collection and analysis is another way that quantitative and qualitative research differ. In qualitative research, data samples are usually not collected through random selection but rather purposive reasoning, which is to say they are chosen for how well they typify the characteristics of a certain class. For example, a qualitative study on racial inequality will not likely concern itself with affluent minorities or the entire population of a minority, but rather, it might focus on depressed areas where minorities are most prevalent. This approach is chosen because qualitative researchers are not concerned with discerning the quantity of people in a minority class, but rather the quality of life for minorities who are affected by inequality.

The researcher's role in interpreting the meaning of data is more centralized in the qualitative approach than it is in quantitative methods, which ideally seek to make purely empirical observations devoid of perspective. In sharp contrast, qualitative researchers must reflect upon their research and make the reasoning behind the interpretations of their data explicit in their analysis.

Qualitative research is thought especially valuable in circumstances where quantitative data does not account for a particular phenomenon. For example, while economics frequently concerns itself with collecting concrete information, like statistics and financial data, it can be said to be flawed because it ignores the humanistic and psychological aspects of the people that are a key component. This human component requires a qualitative understanding, which leads to the development of such concepts as "consumer confidence."

An important variable to consider when analyzing the dependability of qualitative research is validity. It is important to consider how a conclusion was reached, and whether it really represents a dependable and realistic interpretation of its subject. It may or may not be pertinent to ask whether or not a conclusion is reproducible, or whether it was affected by bias. One should also consider whether data from qualitative studies is well reasoned and the extent to which it accounts for a substantial majority of the available data.

Qualitative research can help verify effectiveness of methods.
Qualitative research can help verify effectiveness of methods.

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Discussion Comments


The qualitative research process is useful when little is known about complex phenomena of interest. Knowledge, therefore, must be generated inductively. It is useful for discovering the insider's viewpoint within the naturalistic setting or exploring in rich detail a relatively few number of cases.


I just wanted to say that there is a phenomenon called the Bradley effect that causes Caucasian people to say favorable things about African American candidates that they might not vote for because they do not want to be perceived as racist.

These findings also skew the results incorrectly and lead to the wrong conclusions.

Sometimes people give erroneous information regarding exit polling. This happened in the Presidential election of George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Polling data suggested that John Kerry should have won by a comfortable margin, but President George W. Bush actual won the race by that same margin.

This is why in areas regarding qualitative research sociology studies you really have to take the findings with a grain of salt.


The problem with coding qualitative research is that the data is interpreted and not scored.

Since the data is interpreted the subjective nature of the findings and how it is interpreted can taint the integrity of the study.

Also, if the sample is selected that overwhelmingly presents one point of view than the study is not valid. A perfect example involves political polls. Political polls survey likely voters but most oversample Democrats which creates a left leaning result.

Often these results do not measure a true sample of the American public because the sample size was not equal. Sometimes in qualitative research surveys the researcher might have an inherent bias that might alter the findings of the results.

This can also include leading questions that will lead the respondent to answer the question in the manner that the researcher prefers. Lastly, people might not disclose how they really feel because they are afraid of being judged.


I think that there is significant difference between quantitative vs. qualitative research.

Quantitative research targets a select group of people that may or may not have similar demographics and records their findings based on an objective questionnaire. Usually these responses are multiple choice and the responses are measured in a quantitative manner.

Statistics are gathered based on the number of respondent’s answers that are very specific and not open to interpretation.

However, in qualitative research the use of interviewing techniques and gathering more ideas regarding the general feelings a respondent has is used.

Usually respondents are asked more open ended questions in order to determine how they feel regarding a product or service.

The information given is usually a better measure of how the respondent feels because he or she is offering feedback in his or her words and not simply filling out a list of predetermined answers. These are some of the biggest qualitative research advantages because the data tends to be more accurate.


Qualitative research methodology involves the psychoanalytic approach or the humanistic approach. Freud who believed that human behavior was based on childhood experiences and these experiences are most responsible for the development of character traits that includes fears and motivation made the psychoanalytical approach famous.

The use of psychoanalysis explores childhood traumas and experiences to explain adult neurosis. The humanistic approach developed by Maslow reveals that people have the free will to make their own choices in life.

He also explained that people react based on how their needs are meet. He called this the Maslow hierarchy of needs. He argued that people’s basic needs of food and shelter have to be made before a person could consider self actualization needs which are the ultimate level of achievement and personal success.

Qualitative research psychology really determines which aspect of these theories the researcher espouses to. This will influence the qualitative research dissertation and the direction of the study.

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