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Qualitative Research


Qualitative research aims to understand the richness and complexity of social experience by attending closely to the actions, interactions, and social contexts of everyday life. It involves systematically watching people in their own territory (Kirk and Miller, p. 9) or speaking with them in depth about their thoughts and feelings. In some instances, this will lead to descriptions of multilayered and intricate worlds of experience. In other cases, the researcher may show how everyday experience is meaningfully constructed in social interaction. In still others, the results are reports of experience from the perspectives of the research subjects. Throughout, qualitative research strives to be rigorously empirical, even while its subject matter requires flexible methodologies and hands-on involvement in the lives of the persons being studied.

Qualitative research focuses on the qualities of social life. The goal is to describe the dynamics and texture of everyday life that quantitative research methods typically overlook in their formal operationalizations and numerical representations. Rather than simply designating and enumerating categories of experience, qualitative researchers provide detailed descriptions of the social organization and interpersonal processes in question. Quantitative researchers who seek predictive or explanatory models of social behavior often diminish the importance of qualitative studies by calling them preliminary, exploratory, or merely descriptive. Qualitative researchers staunchly resist this, insisting that we must have clear understandings of the qualities of the social world before we can attempt to explain or predict it.

Common threads of qualitative inquiry

Qualitative research is methodological and theoretically diverse (see Denzin and Lincoln; Silverman, 1993, 2000), so any portrait done in broad strokes will blur crucial differences. At the same time, there are common threads that run throughout qualitative inquiry (see Gubrium and Holstein, 1997). The first is a working skepticism with respect to what everyone ostensibly knows. This derives from a distrust of surface descriptions and facile explanations. Commonsense wisdom and even fixed-variable analysis in the social sciences often fail to appreciate the often hidden nuances of social life. Qualitative research explores the complexities. This results in the development of strategies of critical inquiry, from debunking what is commonly thought to be true and thereby exposing the shortcomings of everyday understandings, to empathizing as completely as possible with those being studied and appreciating the surprising richness of their lives. Across the board, the researcher implicitly challenges what is conventionally known. Arlie Hochschilds book The Unexpected Community (1973) is exemplary in this regard; as the title suggests, this qualitative study found community to thrive in a residential setting for older people where commonsense (and some academic theories of aging) predicted just the opposite. David Unruhs Invisible Lives brings similar sensibilities to the study of the social worlds of the aged.

The skepticism that galvanizes qualitative inquiry prompts qualitative researchers to scrutinize social life at close range, to place themselves in direct contact with, or in the immediate proximity of, the lived world of those being studied. A second common thread is an abiding commitment to close scrutiny. Qualitative researchers study things up close in order to understand and document the organization of social life as it is practiced. The goal has been to look carefully at social phenomena to view in detail what other forms of observation may have missed. The tendency is also to begin where people are and work upwards toward generalizations from there rather than to start with large-scale structures and work down to the level of everyday life.

While methods of close scrutiny vary, the goals are basically the same: to see the commonplace as important in its own right, to represent the previously unknown in fine detail and rich texture. Qualitative researchers typically emphasize the subtle aspects of experience, deferring if not eschewing broad generalizations in favor of describing the particulars. Sweeping claims about the influence of social forces that often characterize nonqualitative research are likely to be softened, qualified, set aside, or replaced by more painstaking accounts of the complex ins and outs of experience. The detail is far from trivial, as qualitative researchers point out, because only close scrutiny can give voice to the significance and eloquence of the ordinary.

A third commonality is that qualitative research is committed to investigating social life in process, as it unfolds in practice. Qualitative researchers typically conceive of the social world as fluid, contingent, and always-emerging. Correspondingly, they see people as active agents of their affairs, engaged in constructing the worlds they live in. There is an enduring appreciation for the working subject who actively injects life into, and shapes, his or her experience.

Fourth, because the active subject and his or her point of view are central to qualitative research, it has an abiding appreciation for subjectivity. For qualitative researchers, the conception of the subject and the realm of subjective experience are integral features of social life. Qualitative researchers acknowledge that the researcher is a subject in his or her own right; he or she is present in the same world as those studied, and actively participates in the formulation of what comes to be regarded as data.

Qualitative researchers have long resisted the view that the investigation of the subjective side of experience is imprecise or unsystematic, and have now assembled a massive technical literature attesting to this (see Denzin and Lincoln). The growing technical sophistication and rigor does not, however, necessitate an estrangement from subjectivity, inasmuch as rigorous and careful analysis must be applied to the subjective world as much as to any domain of inquiry. Reluctance to standardize data collection and an unwillingness to sacrifice depth for generality are matters of analytic necessity, not technical inadequacies. A world comprised of meanings, interpretations, feelings, talk, and interaction must be scrutinized on its own terms.

Fifth, qualitative research honors perspective. This often means documenting diverse, even competing, versions of experience, such as describing how something looks or feels from various subjects viewpoints. Indeed, portraying the world from alternate viewpoints has been a goal of qualitative research from its inception, and continues to this day in the work of contemporary, even postmodern, researchers. As different as qualitative researchers descriptions might be, the common thread here is the recognition that subjectivity is perspectival.

Finally, a sixth commonality is that qualitative researchers maintain a steadfast tolerance for complexity. While this is sometimes mistaken for analytic fuzziness or a reluctance to generalize, it more accurately reflects the researchers orientation to the lived intricacies of everyday interaction. A skeptical orientation to the commonplace, a commitment to the close scrutiny of social action, the recognition of variety and detail, the focus on process, and the appreciation of subjectivity all, in one form or another, suggest that everyday life is not readily described in a simple, straightforward manner. This can hardly be captured by the operational designation of variables, social forces, and the like, which is typical of quantitative inquiry. A tolerance for complexity militates against the impulse to gloss over troublesome uncertainties, anomalies, irregularities, and inconsistencies in the interest of comprehensive, totalizing explanation. As a matter of principle, qualitative inquiry accommodates and pursues the problematic finding or the unanticipated occurrence.

These common threads intertwine into an abiding concern for meaning. Qualitative research typically regards social life as a vast interpretive process in which people guide themselves by defining the objects, events, and situations which they encounter. With respect to the aging experience, qualitative research focuses on the ordinary ways persons experience time in relation to their age. This comprises a field of meanings centered on how people themselves interpret and discern what it is like to grow older, face the challenges of aging, deal with those who are aging, and simply experience aging in todays world. A leading distinction is the difference between subjective aging or how old one feels, and chronological age or how many years one has lived.

Qualitative research methods

Qualitative research on the aging experience draws upon a variety of techniques and procedures (see Gubrium and Sankar). One of these is observational fieldwork. This may range from the unobtrusive observation of persons interacting in informal settings such as friendship groups, to participant observation in which the researcher is actively involved in the setting which he or she is studying, such as a retirement community. Hochschild, for example, conducted her study of what she eventually called a community of grandmothers while serving as an assistant recreation director of the senior citizen housing project. Similarly, Jaber F. Gubrium conducted participant observation in an American nursing home, focusing on the everyday bed-and-body work of the frontline staff as it related to other worlds of meaning in the home, including the administrative staffs idealized perspective and the residents daily routines of passing time.

In-depth interviewing is another commonly employed qualitative technique (see Gubrium and Holstein, 2002). In contrast to survey research or other forms of forced choice questioning, qualitative interviewing is more openended, allowing the interviewer and the interviewee to participate in the development of responses (see Holstein and Gubrium). Such interviews encourage participants to explore the complexity of the lives and experiences under consideration. For example, Kathy Charmazs in-depth study of the experience of chronic illness among older adults documented the surprising daily alterations of the meaning of being ill. Frequently, researchers combine interviewing with observation in what might be called ethnographic interviewing. Hochschilds fieldwork, for example, also called upon both open-ended interviewing and careful observation to reveal highly variegated relationships and statuses in the community being studied.

Interviewing may elicit many forms of data. Ethnographic interviews typically supply native accounts and understandings of what is going on in a particular setting. In-depth interviews strive for detailed, richly textured accounts and descriptions of the experiences of individuals. Sometimes interview responses come in the form of life stories (see Gubrium, 1993). Life story interviews themselves may be treated as different sorts of data. They may be viewed as a means of discovering the objective facts of an individuals life, but increasingly they have been utilized to document how the course of life is socially constructed (Holstein and Gubrium, 2000). Life story interviews reveal the perceptions, values, goals, and understandings of persons through time.

Lately, narrative analysis (see Riessman) is being applied to life stories in order to understand how narratives of the past, present, and future are assembled to provide a sense of meaningful coherence to the lives under discussion. For example, Gubriums (1993) life story interview study of nursing home residents used narrative analysis to show how the ways in which the quality of life and of care in the home, as understood by the residents, related to lives as a whole.

Narrative analysis is but one aspect of the recent linguistic turn in qualitative research. Talk and interaction have long been the stock-in-trade of qualitative researchers, and the attention has been amplified in rapidly developing methods of discourse analysis and other approaches to studying the fine-grained detail of conversation. All of these approaches focus on what people do with words as they construct the meaningful parameters of their everyday lives. Audio and video taped recordings and highly detailed transcripts of interactions are analyzed to discern how participants conduct their lives through conversation and communication. James Holstein, for example, in a careful analysis of court proceedings, illustrated how age is negotiated and altered in meaning in practice, rather than being a fixed category of time.

Finally, modes of literary analysis and other forms of representation from the humanities are being imported to the study of aging-in-progress. Anne Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossens important collection of studies of creativity in the later years shows how individual writing careers, among others, change with the passing years. Ruth E. Rays research on life-story writing among older adults directs us to the ways that writing ones life story, as Ray puts it, initiates change and personal growth among older people. These are but two instances from the growing body of research in which qualitative research is being fertilized by the humanities.

James A. Holstein Jaber F. Gubrium

See also Narrative; Surveys.


Charmaz, K. Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Denzin, N. K., and Lincoln, Y. S., eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. 2d ed., 2000.

Gubrium, J. F. Living and Dying at Murray Manor. Charlottsville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1975. Reprint, 1997.

Gubrium, J. F. Speaking of Life. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.

Gubrium, J. F., and Holstein, J. A. Handbook of Interviewing. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2002.

Gubrium, J. F., and Holstein, J. A. The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gubrium, J. F., and Sankar, A., eds. Qualitative Methods in Aging Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

Hochschild, A. R. The Unexpected Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Holstein, J. A. The Discourse of Age in Involuntary Commitment Proceedings. Journal of Aging Studies 4 (1990): 111130.

Holstein, J. A., and Gubrium, J. F. The Active Interview. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1995.

Holstein, J. A., and Gubrium, J. F. Constructing the Life Course. Dix Hills, N.Y.: General Hall, 2000.

Kirk, J., and Miller, M. L. Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1986.

Ray, R. E. Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life-Story Writing. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Riessman, C. K. Narrative Analysis. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1993.

Silverman, D. Doing Qualitative Research. London: Sage, 2000.

Silverman, D. Interpreting Qualitative Data. London: Sage, 1993.

Unruh, D. R. Invisible Lives: Social Worlds of the Aged. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983.

Wyatt-Brown, A. M., and Rossen, J., eds. Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

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"Qualitative Research." Encyclopedia of Aging. . 23 Nov. 2017 <>.

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qualitative research

qualitative research (kwol-it-ă-tiv) n. research that seeks to provide understanding of human experience, perceptions, motivations, intentions, and behaviours based on description and observation and utilizing a naturalistic interpretative approach to a subject and its contextual setting. Compare quantitative research.

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