A Research Notes

What is Qualitative Research?

1. Qualitative Research is concerned with:

Early forms of research originated in the natural sciences: biology, chemistry, physics, geology and wanted to observe and measure in some way in order to gain understanding. Quantitative research refers to observations and measurements that can be made objectively and repeated by other researchers. Along with the development of social sciences: psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc, they were interested in studying human behaviour and the social world. The social sciences found it difficult to measure human behaviour in the simpler quantitative methods, therefore qualitative research methods were developed in order to look beyond how, how often and how many…it looks at why and attempts to further and deepen our understanding of the social world.

The theories introduced in unit one that take on a qualitative approach to research include:

  1. Phenomenology
  2. Ethnomethodology
  3. Grounded Theory
  4. Symbolic Interactionists
  5. Interpretivists
  6. Critical Social Science
  7. Feminists

Qualitative research methods:

  1. are concerned with opinions, feelings and experiences
  2. describes social phenomena as they occur naturally – no attempt is made to manipulate the situation – just understand and describe
  3. understanding is sought by taking a holistic perspective/approach, rather than looking at a set of variables
  4. qualitative research data is used to help us to develop concepts and theories that help us to understand the social world – which is an inductive approach to the development of theory, rather than a deductive approach that quantitative research takes – ie. Testing theories that have already been proposed.
  5. Qualitative data is collected through direct encounters i.e. through interview or observation and is rather time consuming

http://www.aqr.org.uk/about/index.shtml is the official site for the Association of Qualitative Research, UK.

2. The Nature of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is concerned with ‘…developing explanations of social phenomena…’

  1. The world in which we live
  2. Why things are the way they are
  3. Concerned with social aspects of our world
  4. Seeks to answer questions about
    1. Why people behave the way they do
    2. How opinions and attitudes are formed
    3. How people are affected by the events that go on around them
    4. How and why cultures have developed in the way they have
    5. The differences between social groups
  5. Qualitative questions:
  1. How
  2. Why
  3. What

3. Methods of collecting qualitative data

Data collection approaches for qualitative research usually involves:

  1. Direct interaction with individuals on a one to one basis
  2. Or direct interaction with individuals in a group setting

Qualitative research data collection methods are time consuming, therefore data is usually collected from a smaller sample than would be the case for quantitative approaches – therefore this makes qualitative research more expensive.

The benefits of the qualitative approach is that the information is richer and has a deeper insight into the phenomenon under study

The main methods for collecting qualitative data are:

  1. Individual interviews
  2. Focus groups
  3. Observations
  4. Action Research

4. Interviews

Interviews can be

  1. Unstructured
    1. Can be referred to as ‘depth’ or ‘in depth’ interviews
    2. They have very little structure at all
    3. The interviewer may just go with the aim of discussing a limited number of topics, sometimes as few as just one or two
    4. The interviewer may frame the interview questions based on the interviewee and his/her previous response
    5. This allows the discussion to cover areas in great detail
    6. They involve the researcher wanting to know or find out more about a specific topic without there being a structure or a preconceived plan or expectation as to how they will deal with the topic
  2. Semi structured
  1. Semi-structured interviews are sometimes also called focused interviews
  2. A series of open ended questions based on the topic areas the researcher wants to cover
  3. A series of broad questions to ask and may have some prompts to help the interviewee
  4. ‘The open ended nature of the question defines the topic under investigation but provides opportunities for both interviewer and interviewee to discuss some topics in more detail’
  5. Semi structured interviews allow the researcher to promt or encourage the interviewee if they are looking for more information or find what they are saying interesting
  6. This method gives the researcher the freedom to probe the interviewee to elaborate or to follow a new line of inquiry introduced by what the interviewee is saying
  7. Work best when the interviewed has a number of areas he/she wants to be sure to be addressing
  8. Structured
  1. The interviewed asks the respondent the same questions in the same way
  2. A tightly structured schedule is used
  3. The questions may be phrased in order that a limited range of responses may be given – i.e. ‘Do you rate our services as very good, good or poor’
  4. A researcher needs to consider whether a questionnaire or structured interview is more appropriate
  5. ‘If the interview schedule is too tightly structured this may not enable the phenomena under investigation to be explored in terms of either breadth or depth.’

Qualitative interviews should be fairly informal and participants feel they are taking part in a conversation or discussion rather than in a formal question and answer situation.

There is skill required and involved in successful qualitative research approaches – which requires careful consideration and planning

Good quality qualitative research involves:

  1. Thought
  2. Preparation
  3. The development of the interview schedule
  4. Conducting and analysing the interview data with care and consideration

5. Focus groups

The use of focus groups is sometimes used when it is better to obtain information from a group rather than individuals.

Group interviews can be used when:

  1. Limited resources (time, manpower, finances)
  2. The phenomena being researched requires a collective discussion in order to understand the circumstances, behaviour or opinions
  3. Greater insights may be developed of the group dynamic – or cause and consequence

Characteristics of a focus group:

  1. Recommended size of the sample group is 6 – 10 people as smaller groups may limit the potential on the amount of information collected, and more may make it difficult for all participants to participate and interact and for the interviewer to be able to make sense of the information given
  2. Several focus groups should be used in order to get a more objective and macro view of the investigation. i.e. focussing on one group may give you idiosyncratic results. The use of several groups will add to the breadth and depth of information. A minimum of three focus groups is recommended for best practice approaches
  3. Members of the focus group should have something in common which is important to the investigation
  4. Groups can either be put together or existing groups – it is always useful to be mindful of the group dynamics of both situations

The aim of the focus group is to make use of participants’ feelings, perceptions and opinions

This method requires the researcher to use a range of skills:

  1. group skills
  2. facilitating
  3. moderating
  4. listening/observing
  5. analysis

6. Observation

Observation involves may take place in natural settings and involve the researcher taking lengthy and descriptive notes of what is happening.

It is argued that there are limits to the situations that can be observed in their ‘natural’ settings and that the presence of the research may lead to problems with validity.

Limitations with observation include:

  1. Change in people’s behaviour when they know they are being observed
  2. A ‘snap shot’ view of a whole situation
  3. Think Big Brother…
  4. The researcher may miss something while they are watching and taking notes
  5. The researcher may make judgements of make value statements or misunderstand what has been observed

Strengths of observation

  1. Can offer a flavour for what is happening
  2. Can give an insight into the bigger picture
  3. Can demonstrate sub-groups
  4. Can be used to assist in the design of the rest of the research

Sometimes, the researcher becomes or needs to become a participant observer, where they are taking part in the situation in order to be accepted and further understand the workings of the social phenomenon.

Observation can sometimes obtain more reliable information about certain things – for example, how people actually behave (although it may not find out the reasons for why they behave in a particular way).

Observation can also serve as a technique for verifying of nullifying information provided in face to face encounters.’

People or environment can be observed.

When environment is researched, it can provide valuable background information that may inform other aspects of the research.

Techniques for collecting data through observation

  1. Written descriptions
    1. The researcher makes written descriptions of the people, situations or environment
    2. Limitations include
      1. Researcher might miss out on an observation as they are taking notes
      2. The researcher may be focussed on a particular event or situation
      3. There is room for subjective interpretation of what is happening
  2. Video recording
  1. Allows the researcher to also record notes
  2. Limitations may include people acting unnaturally towards the camera or others avoiding the camera
  3. The camera may not always see everything
  4. Photographs and artefacts
  1. Useful when there is a need to collect observable information or phenomena such as buildings, neighbourhoods, dress and appearance
  2. Artefacts include objects of significance – memorabilia, instruments, tools etc


  1. Any and all kinds of documentation may be used to provide information – a local paper, information on a notice board, administrative policies and procedures…etc previous research, even

7. Self-Study

Consider an area within your work that you might want to observe in order to get an answer, find out more or gain a better understanding.

Think about and plan:

  1. What your aim/purpose is.
  2. What permission, etc, you may need to gain.
  3. What your role/presence will be.
  4. How you will record your observation.
  5. What you will record.
  6. What you will do with your findings.

What are the pros and cons of this process.

8. Ethnography

Ethnography has a background in anthropology and means ‘portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a methodology for descriptive studies of culture and people and looks at the people, cultures and commonalities of shared experiences.

Ethnographic research entails extensive fieldwork by the researcher. Data collection includes:

  1. formal and informal interviews
  2. often interviewing an individual on several occasions
  3. participative observations
    1. therefore, ethnography is very time consuming and involves the researcher spending a great deal of time in the field
  4. analysis of ethnographic data = ’emic’ – which means the researcher attempts to interpret data from the perspective of the sample that was studied, i.e. to understand the subjects themselves and the language and terminology they use, as well as the meanings behind this
  5. the risk of using ethnographic research is that the researcher may not fully understand or be familiar with the social norms of those they are researching and therefore there is risk of misinterpretation
  6. Payne and Payne Key Concepts in Social Research, 2004, describe ethnography as ‘…the production of highly detailed accounts of how people in a social setting lead their lives, based upon systematic and long-term observation of, and conversation with, informants’

9. Action Research

Action Research doesn’t just involve asking about it, it involves doing it.

Action Research is a framework that is:

  1. Collaborative
  2. There is a practical intervention made – i.e. you do something to make a change or intervention in a situation that you research (i.e. the work that we do in vcs…project monitoring and evaluation…use for bids)
  3. The researcher will be actively involved in the planned intervention
  4. Checklands FMA model
    1. F – framework of ideas
    2. M – methodology being applied
    3. A – area of concern


10. Other forms of qualitative research includes:

Longitudinal research or panel studies

  1. When research is conducted over a long period of time and the researcher contacts the participant at various times: i.e. every two years
  2. Examples of longitudinal studies include:
    1. West and Farrington’s Who Becomes Delinquent (1973) which followed the development of 411 London schoolboys from the age of 8 to 18 to determine the factors that cause delinquency


  1. ‘The systematic collection and objective evaluation of data related to past occurrences in order to test hypotheses concerning causes, effects or trends of these events that may help to explain present events and anticipate future events’ (Gay, 1996)

Case study

  1. Case study research is a methodology which can take either a qualitative or quantitative approach
  2. In the qualitative approach, case study refers to the in depth analysis of a single or small number of units
  3. A case study unit may include a single person, a group of people, an organization or an institution
  4. Some case study research may involve the research of a series of cases
  5. Case study research ranges in its complexity:
    1. From a simple, illustrative description of a single event or occurrence
    2. To a more complex analysis of a social situation over a period of time
    3. To the most complex approach which is an extended case study which traces events involving the same actors over a period of time – enabling the analysis reflect changes and adjustments
  6. Case studies aims to:
  1. Offer a richness and depth of information by capturing as many variables as possible to identify how a complex set of circumstances come together to produce a particular manifestation ‘…to as identify how a complex set of circumstances come together to produce a particular manifestation.’
  2. Case study as a method is very versatile, as it uses many methods of gather information, from observation to interview to testing
  3. One of the criticisms of the case study method is that the case under study may not be representative of a wider social setting and therefore it is argued that the results of the research cannot be used to make generalisations
  4. Therefore, the purpose of case study research is to describe that particular case in detail and take learning from that and develop theory from that approach – it is particularlistic and contextual

The attached link will provide further information about developing a case study:



L. R. Gay Educational Research: Competencies for Analysis and Application Fifth Edition (1996), Prentice-Hall.

G. Payne and J. Payne Key Concepts in Social Research (2004) Sage Publications Ltd

D.J. West and D.P. Farrington Who Becomes Delinquent (1973) Heinemann Educational Publishers

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