‘What is qualitative research?’

Whenever I’ve been introduced to someone in a research group or asked what I’ve been hired to do, and said ‘qualitative research’, people tend to respond with a blank expression or a slightly awkward look to the side which indicates they aren’t too sure of what I’m talking about. Likewise, saying that I was a ‘social researcher’ probably gave people the impression that I spent all my time at parties or at the pub…(This might explain why I was asked to give a presentation explaining what I do!).

That was actually an eye-opener for me.  Just a little reading around the subject made me question what I was really sure about…  It’s easy to say qualitative research is a ‘contested area’, but it’s hard to say anything else definitively… Although there’s some overlap between different sources of information on what qualitative research is despite using different terminology for similar concepts and processes, a lot isn’t that clear!

It would have been easy to get lost and overwhelmed (as I did) when trying to write a presentation covering everything, including all the debate. However, I thought the most important thing to consider was my audience; what was it that people I was presenting to would actually find useful to know? I decided to highlight some of the differences between qualitative and quantitative research and how qualitative research is not like what they might be used to.

Quality over quantity

By that, I don’t mean to suggest that quantitative researchers are not interested in producing high quality research, but, as the name suggests, its interest lies in data that can be quantified i.e. numerical data.

Qualitative research is far more concerned with exploring meaning and phenomenon in their natural setting. Qualitative researchers aim to “understand the entirety of an experience” [1], for example, exploring what it is like to be someone diagnosed with cancer. The data they’d collect would be in the words and descriptions from the participants.

Participant’s views

Interviews are the mainstay of qualitative research. These and similar methods, such as life histories and focus groups, allow the researcher to find out the participant’s views from their perspective, with freedom to answer the question in their own words and as much detail as they prefer. Researchers can explore why, rather than just measuring what. Observations (such as ethnography) can be used when the focus is to find out what the participants do, rather than what they might think they do, e.g. whether hand-washing practices are always followed in hospitals.

Being inductive

When research in an area is sparse, this is when qualitative research is really in its element! Qualitative researchers can explore an area of interest by using an ‘inductive’ approach where new theories can be “built up from data observation rather than being imposed upon the data from pre-existing theory” [2]. It is not that qualitative research cannot and does not incorporate existing theory, but the distinction is made from the more deductive approach of most quantitative research, where a hypothesis or theory is created and then confirmed or refuted by an experiment. Although, is it contested whether qualitative research can ‘test’ a theory in this sense [3].

The most common theoretical basis for qualitative research is ‘grounded theory’, which moves “iteratively between (the) data and…emergent ideas to build theory that is literally ‘grounded’ in the research setting”[4]. Grounded theory assesses its rigour in the proximity of the emerging concepts and theory to participants’ views and experiences.

Regardless of their differences, quantitative and qualitative methods help develop our understanding of health behaviour by i.e. testing the usefulness of interventions (quantifying success or therein the lack of) or creating an understanding of how and why individuals act the way they do. Qualitative research can help give depth to a field of research by providing rich insight into a phenomenon of interest.

The relative merits of quantitative and qualitative approaches are still being debated within health research [5,6], which is one of the reasons why using both approaches (‘mixed methods’) to overcome this debate is “very fashionable” at the moment [2]. More importantly though, different approaches can produce different (and not necessarily compatible) kinds of knowledge, and so, it is the research question (and the knowledge needed to answer it) that should have the largest influence when a researcher decides which approach(es) and methods to choose [1,2].

These are some of the differences between qualitative and quantitative methods as summarised in the table below:



Data is usually words and descriptions, typically from participants Data is numerical
Methods include interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, observation Methods include random controlled trials, case-controls, questionnaires
Inductive Deductive
Insights and interpretations generalizable to other settings Findings generalizable from sample population to study population


  1. Aveyard, H. (2016) (2014) Doing a Literature Review in Health and Social Care: A practical guide. 3rd edn. Berkshire: Open University Press.
  2. Greener, I. (2011) Designing social research: a guide for the bewildered. London: Sage, p.3.
  3. Grbich, C. (1999) Qualitative Research in Health: An introduction. London: Sage.
  4. Greener, I. (2011) Designing social research: a guide for the bewildered. London: Sage, p.95.
  5. Loder, E., Groves, T., Schroter, S., and Merino, J.G. (2016) ‘Qualitative research and the BMJ: A response to Greenhalgh and colleagues’ appeal for more’, British Medical Journal, 352, p.i641. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i641
  6. Caffrey, L. (2016) ‘The BMJ’s stance on qualitative research is epistemologically naive’, British Medical Journal, 352. doi: http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i641/rr-6

By Natalie Tyldesley-Marshall

Edited by Farina Kokab



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