Like all scientific research, qualitative research aims at the systematic application of a predetermined set of procedures, to collect and analyze evidence, and present findings that resolve issues. Qualitative research however aims to gain an understanding only on the particular case studied rather than to generalize, or to use the data to support hypothesis. For instance, in a qualitative study on organizational behavior, the focus is on understanding the behavior of the employees and the reasons for such behavior rather than using the sample to predict the personality types of the workforce.
Qualitative research provides complex descriptions of how people experience a given research issue. It provides an overview of
- the “human” side of an issue in terms of behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships, and
- intangible factors, such as social norms, socioeconomic status, gender roles, ethnicity, and religion.
Very often, a single research project contains both qualitative and quantitative components.
The major methods of qualitative research are
- Interviews, to elicit people’s view and perspectives in a detailed and comprehensive manner
- Case studies or detailed investigations to analyze the variables relevant to the subject under study in its own natural settings
- Participant observation or collecting data by observing the sample in their natural environment
- Action research, or collaborative inquiry that entails interactive inquiry about the subject including review of records and data driven analysis and identification of underlying causes of the phenomenon by active enquiry
- Historical research, or studying documents, artifacts, and other materials to gain insight into the group’s behaviors, actions, and other characteristics over a period
- Phenomenology, or the theoretical study of a phenomenon to describe the “subjective reality” of an event
- Philosophical research, or intellectual analysis, which involves clarification of definitions, ethical values and norms, and other percepts for the specific field of study
Qualitative research requires small focus groups rather than large diffused samples. Such focus groups provide broad overviews of the population they represent.
Assume the existence of a fictitious convenience store looking to improve its patronage. Participant observation concludes that most visitors are men. One good method to determine why women were not entering the store is in-depth interviews of potential customers in the category. Interviewing a sample of potential female customers, selected at random from competing stores or shopping malls might reveal the reason of the store not stocking enough products suitable for women, having an image of a “men’s store” selling adult items, having dirty or filthy bathrooms, and the like.
Such qualitative research can serve as the basis to indulge in further quantitative research, which provides remedies. Quantitative research for instance would shed light on whether a renovation or re-branding would entice women customers to patronize the store, by selecting a broader sample and generalizing the findings based on established market trends.
One good real life example of qualitative research is Alan Peshkin’s 1986 book God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School published by the University of Chicago Press. Peshkin studies the culture of Bethany Baptist Academy by interviewing the students, parents, teachers, and members of the community, and spending eighteen months observing, to provide a comprehensive and in depth analysis of Christian schooling as an alternative to public education.
Peshkin describes Bethany Baptist Academy as having institutional unity of purpose, a dedicated faculty, an administration that backs teachers in enforcing classroom disciplines, cheerful students, rigorous homework, committed parents, and above all grounded in positive moral values and a character building environment. The school aims to prepare students for “wholesome” lives, distinct from the normal secular world, while still interacting with such a world. The flip side however is the lack of cultural diversity, an inescapable fact in today’s world, students trained in one-dimensional thought, totally cut off from viewpoints that differ with their teacher’s biblical interpretations, and a heavily censored library. This becomes counterproductive. For instance, they become incapable of arguing against Drawin's theory of evolution if they known nothing about the concept in the first place.
The school also ignores state regulations for schools, such as state assessments, certification and minimum wages for teachers, while enforcing compulsory “volunteer” tasks for teachers. Peskin however consider's the school in a positive light and holds that public schools have much to learn from such schools.
Paskin's work represents qualitative research as it is an in-depth study using tools such as observations and unstructured interviews, without any assumptions or hypothesis, and aimed at securing descriptive or non-quantifiable data on Bethany Baptist Academy specifically, without attempting to generalize the findings to other schools.
- Denzin, Norman K. & Lincoln, Yvonna S. (Eds.). (2005). "The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research." Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. ISBN 0761927573
- Oklahoma State University. “Qualitative Research.” Retrieved May 13, 2011.
- Family Health International. "Qualitative Research Methods Overview." Retrieved May 13, 2011.
- The University of Chicago Press. “God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School.” Retrieved May 13, 2011.
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