Qualitative Research

Although researchers in anthropology and sociology have used the approach known as qualitative research  for a century, the term was not used in the social sciences until the late 1960s. The term qualitative research is used as an umbrella term to refer to several research strategies. Five common types of qualitative research are grounded theory, ethnographic, narrative research, case studies, and phenomenology.

It is unfair to judge qualitative research by a quantitative research paradigm, just as it is unfair to judge quantitative research from the qualitative research paradigm.

“Qualitative researchers seek to make sense of personal stories and the ways in which they intersect” (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992). As one qualitative researcher noted, “I knew that I was not at home in the world of numbers long before I realized that I was at home in the world of words.”

The data collected in qualitative research has been termed “soft”, “that is, rich in description of people, places, and conversations, and not easily handled by statistical procedures.” Researchers do not approach their research with specific questions to answer or hypotheses to test. They are concerned with understanding behavior from the subject’s own frame of reference. Qualitative researcher believe that “multiple ways of interpreting experiences are available to each of us through interacting with others, and that it is the meaning of our experiences that constitutes reality. Reality, consequently,  is ‘socially constructed'” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992).

Data is usually collected through sustained contact with people in the settings where they normally spend their time. Participant observations and in-depth interviewing are the two most common ways to collect data. “The researcher enters the world of the people he or she plans to study, gets to know, be known, and trusted by them, and systematically keeps a detailed written record of what is heard and observed. This material is supplemented by other data such as [artifacts], school memos and records, newspaper articles, and photographs” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992).

Rather than test theories, qualitative researchers often inductively analyze their data and develop theories through a process that Strauss called ” developing grounded theory“. They use purposive sampling to select the people they study. Subjects are selected because of who they are and what they know, rather than by chance.

Some key terms:

Access to a group is often made possible by a gate keeper. The gate keeper is the person who helps you gain access to the people you wish to study. In a school setting it might be a principal.

Most qualitative studies involve at least one key informant. The key informant knows the inside scoop and can point you to other people who have valuable information. The “key informant” is not necessarily the same as the gate keeper. A custodian might be a good key informant to understanding faculty interactions. The process of one subject recommending that you talk with another subject is called “snowballing.”

Qualitative researchers use rich-thick description when they write their research reports. Unlike quantitative research where the researcher wished to generalize his or her findings beyond the sample from whom the data was drawn, qualitative researcher provide rich-thick descriptions for their readers and let their readers determine if the situation described in the qualitative study applies to the reader’s situation. Qualitative researchers do not use the terms validity and reliability. Instead they are concerned about the trustworthiness of their research.

Qualitative researchers often begin their interviews with grand tour questions. Grand tour questions are open ended questions that allow the interviewee to set the direction of the interview. The interviewer then follows the leads that the interviewee provides. The interviewer can always return to his or her preplanned interview questions after the leads have been followed.

Qualitative researchers continue to collect data until they reach a point of data saturation. Data saturation occurs when the researcher is no longer hearing or seeing new information. Unlike quantitative researchers who wait until the end of the study to analyze their data, qualitative researcher analyze their data throughout their study.

Note:  It is beyond the scope of this course to provide an extensive overview of qualitative research. Our purpose is to make you aware of this research option, and hopefully help you develop an appreciation of it. Qualitative research has become a popular research procedure in education.


Del Siegle, PhD