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How to use qualitative research

Understand what qualitative research is and how you use it as an effective way to gather and analyse information
Editorial team

/ Last updated on 30th October 2017

A focus group meeting together to discuss different products and services

Qualitative research is the type of non-statistical inquiry that focuses on the analysis of a social phenomenon. The data that is collected from a qualitative research are typically extracted through research methods such as observations, case studies, interviews and videotapes. The participant sample that is used for qualitative research is typically small and is mostly selected on purpose. Qualitative research makes use of descriptions given by the participants in detail.

Related: How to carry out quantitative research

Qualitative research, unlike quantitative research, does not make use of a huge sample size, deductive style, highly structured questionnaires and interviews or standardised techniques. The data extracted from qualitative research is not quantifiable. Qualitative research gives you the ability to:

  • Create an interactive discussion among the participants wherein they would be able to build up on their shared ideas
  • The interactive nature of the methods used in qualitative research encourages the participants to share more
  • This allows the researcher to probe deeper into what the participants are really thinking
  • The researcher can also take into account the body language and physical cues of the participants and incorporate any relevant information from that into their findings

Purposes and uses of qualitative research

There are many reasons why researchers would use qualitative research. Qualitative research offers more flexibility and allows the researcher to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the situation that is presented.

  • Allows researchers to gain more insight into the values and feelings that influence the behaviour of the consumers
  • Understand the feelings, values, and perceptions that influence the behaviour of the participants
  • Be able to know the needs of your consumers
  • Get a good idea of how participants would describe your product
  • Pick up ideas that will help you improve your product or service straight from your consumers
  • The date generated from a qualitative research is easier to understand and interpret
  • Therefore it can be practically applied quicker
  • Get a good idea of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of your product or services
  • Create a structure and foundation for which to build your quantitative research on
  • It can help extensively in product development

Qualitative methods

The main methods that can be used for qualitative research are:

Interviews

There are two types of interviews that researchers can use, structured and unstructured. In a structured interview, the researchers would stick to an already formulated and planned interview question pattern. Whereas in an unstructured interview, the researcher and the participant engage in a more free-flowing conversation that is not following a fixed pattern set by the researcher. Some researchers prefer to employ both methods and come up with something known as a semi-structured interview. Interviews allow the researcher to dig deeper into the thoughts of the participant by picking up on certain ideas and further expanding on it.

An interview can be conducted in several ways. There is the face to face interview where the researcher and the participant conduct the interview in person. An advantage of conducting a face to face interview is that the researcher would be able to observe the participant’s body language and voice intonation as well and that that into account. A disadvantage would be the participant might not be completely truthful with the researcher and only give information that he thinks the researcher is expecting from him or her. A researcher may also conduct an interview by other means like through a phone or an e-mail. An advantage of taking this route is that it saves the researcher time. However, the participant may not take the questions as seriously as they would in person and that can compromise the results.

Focus groups

Focus groups are similar to an interview to a certain degree. However, focus groups follow a more semi-structured approach. In focus groups, participants are encouraged to discuss issues picked by the researchers and expand it by exchanging thoughts and ideas with each other. Focus groups, contrary to what people might think, is not an easier alternative to conducting one on one interviews. Focus groups can be difficult to maintain and the facilitator will have to make sure that the discussion does not go off point. The data that are produced by focus groups is great for market research or product review and launch.

Observation

Observation is another method that a researcher can use when trying to obtain qualitative data. Observations are done when it is not possible for the researcher to collect the data through the other methods available for various reasons such as it lowers the validity of the research or significantly affects the findings. Observation will let the researcher see how the participants behave under normal circumstances. Although, observing participants without their consent is unethical. You will, therefore, have to strike a fine balance between justifying the means that you are using to achieve the desired end result and invading other people’s privacy.

Documents

Documents are a good source of qualitative data. Documents that were for the specific purpose of documenting events in particular such as diary entries, letters and pictures. These types of documents can give you a deeper glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of a person. It can be useful if you are trying to learn about people who have passed away. This can also be useful in a corporate perspective if you are trying to learn about a company’s history through their annual reports, minutes of the meetings, contracts, mission statement, letters of correspondence etc. This method of data collection can be time-consuming but if done well, you can extract a substantial amount of data significant to your research from it.

Narrative

You can also collect a good amount of qualitative data by collecting narratives from the participants. Unlike that in interviews or focus groups, the researcher or facilitator does not interfere or guide the participant as to where the conversation is going. The participant is asked to share their unabridged story as freely as they can and this is where the researcher will gather the date from. Once the participant is done telling the story, that’s when the researcher steps in and probes further on the points that require more detail or information. The researcher can proceed to ask the participant questions that involve how and why.

Open-Ended Questionnaires – Open-ended questionnaires allow the participant to elaborate on their answers a bit more. With a close ended ‘yes or no’ type of questionnaire, the participant would not be able to explain or clarify their answer to the researcher. In a qualitative research, the more detail is extracted from the participant; the better it is for the overall findings.

Criticisms of qualitative research

Reliability and validity

One of the frequently pointed out criticisms of qualitative research is its lack of reliability and validity in its findings. In qualitative research, it is difficult to replicate the observations to test for its reliability. The ability of qualitative research in giving correct answers to the phenomena in question or its validity is also normally put to test. Another major criticism of qualitative research stems from the presence of the researcher in most of the methods that are sued to extract data. The presence of an observer or the researcher during an interview, for example, can cause demand characteristics or in other words, the participant gets an idea as to what the research is all about and gives the researcher the answers he/she thinks the researchers is expecting from them. If this happens, the findings are not reliable nor are they valid.

This criticism can be addressed in various different ways. The researcher can use what is known as purposive sampling that involves participants who are not directly influenced or affected by the phenomena that are being studied. Although it may seem like quantitative research resolves the threat posed to validity by using strategies like choosing a random sample and proper use of controls, the way that data is collected and analysed in a qualitative research addresses the issue of validity. Because of qualitative research’s nature that encourages researchers to dig in deeper in the cases, find an emerging pattern in the themes and tests the developing hypotheses, qualitative researchers are basically ensuring validity.

Triangulation also helps eradicate any questions that may be raised against the validity of a qualitative research. Triangulation is a technique used by researchers wherein they make use of a variety of strategies when working on the same topic throughout the study. They gather data from two other methods and try to establish comparisons and commonalities, this way, the validity increases significantly.

Ethical issues

Because of the nature of qualitative studies where the researcher aims to probe and get as much detail as they possibly could from the participants, the issue of ethics is prevalent. Two of the main ethical issues that qualitative researchers have to face are an invasion of privacy and ensuring the confidentiality of their findings. Despite the researchers’ attempts to guarantee privacy and confidentiality, most participants would still be unwilling to share details they think are private and personal. Instead, they give the researchers “safe” answers. This can hamper the findings and reduce the validity of the study. Although it is the researcher’s responsibility to keep the findings confidential, there have been many such instances where the findings have leaked which caused significant distress to the participant involved.

To counter this, researchers would then resort to deception by conducting covert observations or not informing the participants that they are a part of a research study. Another technique in qualitative research that stirs debate because of the ethical issues it may be breaching is data analysis. When a researcher analyses texts, computer data and databases, it is debated in the research community whether or not this practice is a breach of privacy.

Ethics is also an issue that researchers who are conducting ethnographic research faces. Participants in such studies are subjected to deceit to a varying degree. For example, a researcher may want to research about the quality of life in an impoverished are of the city, he or she then embeds himself in the community. The researcher will participate in their daily activities, gain their trust and make the participants believe that the researcher is one of them. This way, the researcher will be able to observe the participants in their most natural state and have the most valid findings. However, the degree of deception is in such cases is an important issue that researchers have to find a solution for.

Diversity

The techniques that are used to gather and collect data in a qualitative research are better suited for participants who are more comfortable answering open-ended questions and talk in interviews compared to more structured and close-ended questionnaires. Women, for instance, may be more comfortable in the methods deployed in qualitative research than men who would prefer more close-ended questionnaires and would not want to elaborate on details.

It has also been observed that participants coming from a background that is far from that of the researcher’s tend to go into much more detail. One way to make sure that the study is valid and generalizable is by creating a questionnaire that has no cultural bias or different interpretations across different cultures. The researcher should also go through regular checks to know if there are any biases from their side that is affecting how they view the study. Qualitative research, undeniably, gives the researcher a deeper knowledge of the complexity of human diversity.

Technology and computers

The advent of computer technology has allowed qualitative researchers to gather and collect data easier using computers. This can be both a disadvantage and advantage in qualitative research. The disadvantages would be that merely processing data through the computer tarnishes the main idea of a qualitative research, which is being able to look deeper into the participant’s thoughts. This is not something that a machine can do no matter how many keywords and phrases the researcher feeds the system. Creating and identifying the pattern requires manual work and analysis.

Related: How to research your business idea

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