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Qualitative research is a type of social science research that collects and works with non-numerical data and that seeks to interpret meaning from these data that help understand social life through the study of targeted populations or places.
People often frame it in opposition to quantitative research, which uses numerical data to identify large-scale trends and employs statistical operations to determine causal and correlative relationships between variables.
Within sociology, qualitative research is typically focused on the micro-level of social interaction that composes everyday life, whereas quantitative research typically focuses on macro-level trends and phenomena.
Methods of qualitative research include:
- observation and immersion
- open-ended surveys
- focus groups
- content analysis of visual and textual materials
- oral history
Qualitative research has a long history in sociology and has been used within it for as long as the field has existed.
This type of research has long appealed to social scientists because it allows the researchers to investigate the meanings people attribute to their behavior, actions, and interactions with others.
While quantitative research is useful for identifying relationships between variables, like, for example, the connection between poverty and racial hate, it is qualitative research that can illuminate why this connection exists by going directly to the source-the people themselves.
Qualitative research is designed to reveal the meaning that informs the action or outcomes that are typically measured by quantitative research. So qualitative researchers investigate meanings, interpretations, symbols, and the processes and relations of social life.
What this type of research produces is descriptive data that the researcher must then interpret using rigorous and systematic methods of transcribing, coding, and analysis of trends and themes.
Because its focus is everyday life and people's experiences, qualitative research lends itself well to creating new theories using the inductive method, which can then be tested with further research.
Qualitative researchers use their own eyes, ears, and intelligence to collect in-depth perceptions and descriptions of targeted populations, places, and events.
Their findings are collected through a variety of methods, and often a researcher will use at least two or several of the following while conducting a qualitative study:
- Direct observation: With direct observation, a researcher studies people as they go about their daily lives without participating or interfering. This type of research is often unknown to those under study, and as such, must be conducted in public settings where people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, a researcher might observe the ways in which strangers interact in public as they gather to watch a street performer.
- Open-ended surveys: While many surveys are designed to generate quantitative data, many are also designed with open-ended questions that allow for the generation and analysis of qualitative data. For example, a survey might be used to investigate not just which political candidates voters chose, but why they chose them, in their own words.
- Focus group: In a focus group, a researcher engages a small group of participants in a conversation designed to generate data relevant to the research question. Focus groups can contain anywhere from 5 to 15 participants. Social scientists often use them in studies that examine an event or trend that occurs within a specific community. They are common in market research, too.
- In-depth interviews: Researchers conduct in-depth interviews by speaking with participants in a one-on-one setting. Sometimes a researcher approaches the interview with a predetermined list of questions or topics for discussion but allows the conversation to evolve based on how the participant responds. Other times, the researcher has identified certain topics of interest but does not have a formal guide for the conversation, but allows the participant to guide it.
- Oral history: The oral history method is used to create a historical account of an event, group, or community, and typically involves a series of in-depth interviews conducted with one or multiple participants over an extended period.
- Participant observation: This method is similar to observation, however with this one, the researcher also participates in the action or events to not only observe others but to gain the first-hand experience in the setting.
- Ethnographic observation: Ethnographic observation is the most intensive and in-depth observational method. Originating in anthropology, with this method, a researcher fully immerses themselves into the research setting and lives among the participants as one of them for anywhere from months to years. By doing this, the researcher attempts to experience day-to-day existence from the viewpoints of those studied to develop in-depth and long-term accounts of the community, events, or trends under observation.
- Content analysis: This method is used by sociologists to analyze social life by interpreting words and images from documents, film, art, music, and other cultural products and media. The researchers look at how the words and images are used, and the context in which they are used to draw inferences about the underlying culture. Content analysis of digital material, especially that generated by social media users, has become a popular technique within the social sciences.
While much of the data generated by qualitative research is coded and analyzed using just the researcher's eyes and brain, the use of computer software to do these processes is increasingly popular within the social sciences.
Such software analysis works well when the data is too large for humans to handle, though the lack of a human interpreter is a common criticism of the use of computer software.
Pros and Cons
Qualitative research has both benefits and drawbacks.
On the plus side, it creates an in-depth understanding of the attitudes, behaviors, interactions, events, and social processes that comprise everyday life. In doing so, it helps social scientists understand how everyday life is influenced by society-wide things like social structure, social order, and all kinds of social forces.
This set of methods also has the benefit of being flexible and easily adaptable to changes in the research environment and can be conducted with minimal cost in many cases.
Among the downsides of qualitative research is that its scope is fairly limited so its findings are not always widely able to be generalized.
Researchers also have to use caution with these methods to ensure that they do not influence the data in ways that significantly change it and that they do not bring undue personal bias to their interpretation of the findings.
Fortunately, qualitative researchers receive rigorous training designed to eliminate or reduce these types of research bias.