Qualitative Research

views updated May 14 2018


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.

Qualitative Research

views updated May 17 2018


Since the seventeenth century modern science has emphasized the strengths of quantitatively based experimentation and research. The success of quantitative research in the so-called hard sciences, especially physics and chemistry, stimulated attempts to extend quantitative work into the social or human sciences, where its application was somewhat problematic. A countermovement with ethical dimensions developed during the nineteenth century as increased attempts at exploration and colonization resulted in efforts to document "native" cultures in qualitative ways; that countermovement contributed to the formalization of methods in anthropology. In the twentieth century qualitative methods were adopted in sociology; many of the applied disciplines, such as nursing, education, and business; and human and rural ecology, geography, and engineering. By the 1970s qualitative research and qualitative inquiry had become the rubrics of a reformist movement in the social sciences, with professional associations, journals, and basic reference works appearing into the twenty-first century.


Many distinct qualitative research methods were developed and formalized, including ethnography, phenomenology (as a method), conversational or discourse analysis, narrative inquiry, grounded theory, participant observation, and ethology. Those methods were complemented by research designs and analytic strategies that allowed data of different levels and types to be accessed, such as focus groups, case studies, and action research. Qualitative research is used in micro and macro descriptions, concept and theory development, and evaluation, all of which often combine or overlap and add to the complexity of methods. There are also different perspectives or schools of thought on qualitative research, such as Marxism, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, cultural theory, symbolic interactionism, feminism, critical theory, and structuralism. These theoretical underpinnings provide a lens that focuses an inquiry on particular purposes, agendas, and goals so that a researcher may choose to conduct, for example, a critical ethnography or formulate a feminist-grounded theory.

Transcending such differences among schools of qualitative inquiry, all qualitative research exhibits seven basic characteristics. The most important are (1) thick description, or rich and relevant descriptions of the social, cultural, linguistic, and material contexts in which people live; (2) the presentation of the perspective of the people being studied (the emic, or natives', point of view); and (3) the use of relatively small and purposefully selected (rather than large and randomly selected) samples. Qualitative inquiry also involves (4) the inductive development of explanation, concepts, and theory; (5) reliance on observational and interview data; (6) the use of textual data involving content and thematic analysis (rather than numerical data and statistical analysis); and (7) techniques of verification that assess the trustworthiness of data, replication, and saturation.


What does qualitative inquiry contribute to knowledge? Using microanalytic inquiry, qualitative researchers explore, document, evaluate, and diagnose mechanisms and individual, group, or organizational behavior for purposes such as investigating problems (e.g., drug errors); processes of teaching, learning, or care giving; naturally occurring interactions between individuals and groups; and behavioral indexes (e.g., expressions of pain) and situations (e.g., drug trafficking).

Qualitative researchers also explore the subjective subjectively. They are concerned with perceptions, beliefs, and values and with the responses and experiences of people. Qualitative researchers look for norms and for exceptions to both obvious and less recognized patterns of behaviors. That research illuminates, explicates, and interprets to provide understanding. This knowledge allows the recognition of humanity in oneself and in others, leading to the ability to care for and teach people, run organizations and programs, and identify practices and develop policy. Qualitative inquiry provides the information, substance, rationale, and interventions needed for the optimal funding of social programs.

Qualitative researchers develop pertinent and useful concepts and valid theories. "Knowing what is actually happening" essentially removes subjectivity and enables action, providing organizing systems and paradigms and thus facilitating efficient, effective, and cohesive approaches to, for instance, health care and education.

Issues and Ethics

Qualitative research arose in the nineteenth century as a form of ethical resistance to what was seen as an unwarranted extension of quantitative methods. That challenge has been revived by attempts by what is known as the Cochrane Collaboration (a group that supports and publishes meta analysis of research, usually clinical drug trials, and evaluates the research using criteria recommended by Archie Cochrane, that support experimental design). Qualitative data is dismissed as "anecdotal" and is valued least to promote quantitative criteria for evidence in the assessment of healthcare interventions, in which efficacy, evaluation, and certainty are valued above context-based and applied knowledge. That approach devalues the contribution of qualitative inquiry. Moreover, the valuation of science for objective knowledge, experimental design, and hard data and measurement has devalued qualitative inquiry in universities and funding agencies, making qualitative inquiry a lower priority in curricula and in the agendas of funding agencies.

Recent efforts to strengthen qualitative inquiry, along with an increasing awareness of the limits of quantitative inquiry and its complementary relationship with quantitative inquiry, have led to increasing interest in mixed-method design, especially research designs that combine qualitative and quantitative inquiry. However, the underlying debate about the rigor of qualitative inquiry continues to constitute an ongoing challenge to qualitative researchers. Are qualitative findings rigorous enough to stand on their own, or should qualitative theories be tested quantitatively? Can qualitative results be generalized?

Despite criticisms, qualitative research is considered a powerful tool for eliciting the meaning of situations and for making sense of the complexity of life as it is lived and communicating that complexity. In the 1990s the art-based qualitative movement used techniques from the theater, the presentation and dissemination of qualitative findings, and the elicitation of qualitative data that reveals the implicit. Qualitative results also may be represented in the form of poetics and even as art installations in efforts to facilitate understanding of the worldview of the other.

In qualitative research ethics also comes into play. Issues of consent are paramount, dealing with subjects not only agreeing to participate in a qualitative study but to remain in that study over time. Such consent is considered ongoing, and the onus is on the researcher to ensure that participants are fully cognizant of the nature of a project. Because the quality of the data is dependent on the relationship with the participant (the establishment of trust) and because of the intimate nature of the topics qualitative researchers study protection of a participant's privacy by providing anonymity and confidentiality is important. The paradox here is that in the process of concealing identities the altering and/or removal of identifiers changes the data and creates the risk of impairing validity. However, this protection of the rights of the individual is one of the hallmarks of qualitative inquiry. It is this, along with its interest in patterns of human behavior, that distinguishes qualitative inquiry from journalism.



Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. (2000). Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. A manual describing the strategies for conducting most of the qualitative methods.

Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds. (2002). The Qualitative Inquiry Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Reprints of seminal articles in qualitative inquiry.

Morse, Janice M., ed. (1994). Critical Issues in Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Addresses important issues in qualitative research, with authors' discussion of each chapter.

Morse, J. M. and Richards, L. (2002). Readme First for a User's Guide to Qualitative Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. A basic text and guide to the qualitative methods literature.

Strauss, Anselm, and Juliet M. Corbin. (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. A text describing the method of grounded theory.


International Journals of Qualitative Methods. Available at http://www.ualberta.ca/~ijqm/. An open access journal that specializes in qualitative methods.

The Qualitative Report. Available at www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/practice.html. An online journal that also provides links to web pages, papers and other texts, other journals, and course syllabuses.

qualitative research

views updated May 23 2018

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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