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Methods, Qualitative

Methods, Qualitative





Qualitative methodology is used by social scientists in the study of human behavior. This methodology may be used in addition to or in place of quantitative methods. The use of qualitative methods by social scientists allows the researcher to obtain a rich set of data that is not easily obtainable with the use of quantitative methods. Qualitative methods encompass a variety of methodologies, including observation, interviewing, document analysis, and archival document analysis.


Two key methods used in the social sciences are observation and interviewing. Observation involves the examination of research subjects in the natural social environment, with particular attention paid to the subjects behavior and actions. These observations are made firsthand by the researcher. An important element of observation is to study the subjects unmodified, natural behavior. Observational methods include several types of examination. Unobtrusive observation is one in which the researcher does not directly participate in the activities that are being observed. Unobtrusive measures are often used to prevent researcher influence on the subjects behavior. Participant observation allows the researcher to take part in the activities that are being observed and to gain familiarity with the subjects experiences. Researchers can become fully involved in the activities being observed or they may observe activities they are involved in themselves.

Adrian Holliday, in What Counts as Data (2002), creates a schema of the different types of data that may be collected and the methods in which they are collected. Data may include description of (1) behaviors, in which the researcher describes the subjects behaviors and verbalizations; (2) events, in which the researcher or the subject involved in the event describes the behaviors observed; (3) institutions, in which the researcher describes the rules, regulations, or rituals of the institution; (4) appearance, in which the researcher describes how the environment or the subjects in the environment appear; (5) research events, in which the researcher describes what subjects say or how they behave in the research setting, such as those occurring in interviews; and (6) settings, in which the researcher describes what is actually occurring in a particular setting. These types of data can be obtained through observation notes, research diaries, photographs, or video recordings.

The use of observation as a method of research is valuable for several reasons. Observation allows the investigator to study human behavior as it naturally occurs, with or without the researchers influence on the behavior. In other words, human activity is observed without the filtering effects of the subjects interpretation of their interactions.

Interviewing involves direct interaction between the investigator and the research subject. The investigator speaks directly with the subject asking questions related to a specific topical area. Interviews are generally recorded utilizing audiotapes, videotapes, or written notations. Interviewing may take the form of structured or semistructured interviews.

Andrea Fonatna and James H. Frey, in The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Text (2000), note that structured interviewing allows the researcher to ask targeted questions of the research subjects. This form of interviewing consists of a prepared series of questions asked of all subjects. The subjects responses are limited, leaving little room for variation among the answers. The questions are directed at obtaining answers to specific topics of interest for the researcher. Semi-structured interviewing, by contrast, allows for more freedom of discussion with the subject and aims for a greater understanding of the subject. Questions are prepared to prompt topical areas of dialogue. The goal of these questions is to allow the subject to expand upon the question and reveal information that cannot be achieved with a structured interview.

Interviews have several benefits to research. They allow the researcher to discover the meanings of experience that subjects create in relation to the research topics. Interviews provide richer understandings of human behavior by providing real-life examples.


Document analysis and archival document analysis are two additional methods utilized in qualitative analysis. Document analysis entails the study of photographs, diaries, newspapers, government documents, books, memorandums, and other written documents. Archival document analysis involves the study of historical documents, including historical examples of those listed above. Importance is placed on analysis of original documents, as opposed to photocopies or other reproductions. While this method allows access to difficult study subjects such as historical figures or societal elites, the study of documents does not allow the investigator to speak to the individual who has created the document. This may lead the investigator to theorize the meanings of the documents and the motivations underlying their creation. These types of studies require the researcher to hypothesize the relationship of the document to the social environment of the time.

The analysis of qualitative data includes a variety of methods, including grounded theory, narrative analysis, and computer-based approaches. As Kathy Charmaz notes in Grounded Theory: Objectivist and Constructivist Methods (2000), grounded theory involves an ongoing analysis of the data as it is collected. The data are coded as they are collected and categories begin to emerge. With these categories, theories begin to develop related to the data. These then guide further data collection.

Narrative analysis focuses on the narratives, or stories and experiences, of subjects. Through narrative analysis the researcher endeavors to understand the meaning attached to the experiences of the subject. The researcher may also analyze the specific words employed to describe these experiences.

Computer-based analytic approaches look to the burgeoning World Wide Web for new research subjects. Innovative research is being conducted on subjects found in a variety of Internet communities and through a variety of methods, including online chat rooms, online or e-mail based interviews, and document-type analysis of Web sites. These approaches allow the investigator to contact communities of individuals with similar interests and individuals located outside the investigators region or around the world.


The use of qualitative methods, however, can be challenging in several respects. As Valerie Janesick notes in The Choreography of Qualitative Research Design (2000), qualitative researchers have struggled to address issues of validity and reliability. These terms are used primarily in the interpretation of quantitative data, yet qualitative researchers too are called upon to adhere to these standards of research.

For research to be considered valid it must actually measure what it proposes to measure, and the results should reflect the activity being studied. In other words, the data should accurately reflect the topic being studied. The notion of validity as it relates to qualitative methodology differs from its understanding in quantitative methodology. As Janesick contends, validity in qualitative research asks whether the description and the explanation fit. In an effort to achieve qualitative validity, researchers may permit participants to review the data for accuracy or ask a fellow researcher to do so.

For research to be considered reliable it must yield similar results in subsequent tests. Quantitative reliability is achieved when results are found to be consistent in subsequent tests. Unlike qualitative studies, quantitative reliability is determined through the use of mathematical equations to determine reliability, such as the determination of alpha. Qualitative tests are considered reliable when similar findings are achieved in subsequent tests. However, some debate exists as to whether reliability is pertinent in conducting qualitative studies, particularly since qualitative studies target the meanings and interpretations of experience by the subject and may involve investigator bias. One argument made by some researchers, including Caroline Stenbacka, is that, owing to the nature of qualitative studies and their aim at understanding rather than explaining human experience, the reliability of qualitative research is difficult to assess. Other researchers, such as James F. Davis, Robert Hagedorn, Morton B. King, Jerome Kirk and Marc L. Miller argue that a form of reliability is achievable in qualitative research.

Ethical issues are a concern when using qualitative methods. The protection of the research subject is of the highest priority. Ethical concerns include whether or not the subjects should know they are being observed, how investigator involvement may influence the behaviors under study, how the investigator-interviewee relationship may influence research results, and the bias involved in interpreting qualitative data, as well as protection of subjects identities.

In particular, the influence of the investigator on responses given by a subject in interview has been an ongoing concern. Subjects may provide answers they believe the interviewer prefers rather than providing their own unique answers. Subjects may construct answers due to a lack of knowledge of the topical area. Interviewers may unintentionally influence the subjects answers through their body language, facial gestures, or other responses. As well as the information garnered from interviews is information that has been filtered and interpreted by both the subject and the researcher, calling into question the validity or reliability of the data obtained.

SEE ALSO Ethnography; Methodology; Methods, Research (in Sociology)


Charmaz, Kathy. 2000. Grounded Theory: Objectivist and Constructivist Methods. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 509535. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Crittenden, Kathleen S., and Richard J. Hill. 1971. Coding Reliability and Validity of Interview Data. American Sociological Review 36 (6): 10731080.

Davis, F. James, and Robert Hagedorn. 1954. Testing the Reliability of Systematic Field Observations. American Sociological Review 19 (3): 345348.

Ellis, Carolyn, and Arthur P. Bochner. 2000. Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 751. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fonatna, Andrea, and James H. Frey. 2000. The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Text. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 649651. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Holliday, Adrian. 2002. What Counts as Data? In Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Janesick, Valerie. 2000. The Choreography of Qualitative Research Design. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 379399. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

King, Morton B., Jr. 1944. Reliability of the Idea-Centered Question in Interview Schedules. American Sociological Review 9 (1): 5764.

Kirk, Jerome, and Marc L. Miller. 1986. Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Stenbacka, Caroline. 2001. Qualitative Research Requires Quality Concepts of Its Own. Management Decision 39 (7): 551556.

Gabriela Guazzo

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Qualitative Methods

Qualitative methods

Research methods that emphasize detailed, personal descriptions of phenomena.

Research psychologists can collect two kinds of information: quantitative data and qualitative data. Quantitative data are often represented numerically in the form of means, percentages, or frequency counts. Such data are often referred to as "measurement" data, referring to the fact that we often like to measure the amount or extent of some behavior, trait, or disposition. For example, shyness , test anxiety , and depression can all be appraised by means of paper-and-pencil tests which yield numerical scores representing the extent of shyness, anxiety, etc. that resides in the individual taking the test. A psychologist interested in the relationship between test anxiety and grade point average would collect the appropriate quantitative information on each of these two variables and conduct statistical tests that would reveal the strength (or absence) of the relationship.

The term "qualitative research methods" refers to a variety of ways of collecting information that is less amenable to quantification and statistical manipulation. Qualitative methods differ from quantitative methods largely because their ultimate purpose is different. The goal of qualitative research is to arrive at some general, overall appreciation of a phenomenonhighlighting interesting aspects and perhaps generating specific hypotheses. In contrast, quantitative research is typically designed to test relatively specific predictions. Qualitative research thus provides an initial description of a phenomenon, whereas quantitative research aims to investigate its various details. Some examples of qualitative methods include focus groups, surveys, naturalistic observations, interviews, content analyses of archival material, and case studies. What these approaches share is an emphasis on revealing some general pattern by observing a few particular cases.

Focus groups are commonly used by marketing or advertising agencies to derive information about people's reactions to a particular product or event. A small number of people, often fewer than 10, are asked their opinions. A focus group engaged by the marketing department of a breakfast cereal company, for example, might be asked how appealing the cereal looks, whether the box would make them consider buying it, and how agreeable the cereal's texture and taste were. A facilitator would encourage the participants to share their opinions and reactions in the context of a group discussion. The session would be taped and transcribed. Researchers would then use the information to make their product more appealing. Naturalistic observations involve studying individuals in their natural environments. One common variant consists of participant observation research in which the researcher, in order to understand it, becomes part of a particular group. George Kirkham was a criminologist who took a year off from his university position to work as a police patrolman. He then wrote about the changes in his attitudes and values that occurred when he worked in high-crime neighborhood.

There are several drawbacks to qualitative methods of inquiry. Firstly, the results are always subject to personal biases. A person who is interviewed, for example, is stating their version of the truth. Personal perspectives invariably affect what the individual believes and understands. Similarly, the results reported by the researcher conducting a naturalistic observation will be tainted by that researcher's individual interpretation of the events. Further, while case studies are rich sources of information about individuals, it is risky to assume that the information can be generalized to the rest of the population. Moreover, analyzing the data from qualitative research can be difficult, since open-ended questions and naturalistic observation leave room for so much variability between individuals that comparisons are difficult. Finally, although it may be tempting for researchers to infer cause and effect relationships from the results of naturalistic observations, interviews, archival data and case studies, this would be irresponsible. Qualitative methods rarely attempt to control any of the factors that affect situations, so although one factor may appear to have caused an event, its influence cannot be confirmed without conducting more precise investigations. There is thus a tradeoff between flexibility and precision.

The advantages of doing qualitative research are numerous. One of the most important of these is that the flexibility of qualitative data collection methods can provide researchers access to individuals who would be unable or unwilling to respond in more structured formats. For this reason, much research on children is qualitative. Naturalistic observations of children are sometimes undertaken to assess social dynamics. For example, covert videotaping of elementary school playgrounds has revealed that bullying and aggression are far more common than most teachers and parents realize, and that bullying is not uncommon among girls. Similarly, comparative psychologists learn a lot about the social, behavioral, and cognitive abilities of animals by studying them in their natural habitats. A further advantage of this type of research is that the validity of the results is not jeopardized by the laboratory environment . An animal or child may not act the way they usually would in their natural surroundings if they are studied in a laboratory.

Another important application of qualitative research is in the study of new areas of interest, or topics about which not very much is known. Qualitative research usually yields a lot of information. In contrast with quantitative research, the information gathered by qualitative researchers is usually broadly focused. This means that qualitative methods can yield information about the major factors at play, highlighting areas that might warrant more in-depth quantitative study. Although many researchers believe quantitative methods to be superior to qualitative methods, the two are probably best seen as complementary. Qualitative research can suggest what should be measured and in what way, while controlled quantitative studies may be the most accurate way of doing the actual measuring.

Timothy E. Moore

Further Reading

Murray, J. "Qualitative methods." International Review of Psychiatry, vol 10, no. 4 (1998): 312-316.

Marecek, J. "Qualitative methods and social psychology." Journal of Social Issues vol 53, no. 4 (1997): 631-644.

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