Skip main navigation

What characterises qualitative research?

Qualitative research seeks an in-depth understanding of human experiences, thoughts and emotions as they exist in the real world.

Qualitative research seeks an in-depth understanding of human experiences, thoughts and emotions as they exist in the real world.

As you now know, when it comes to qualitative research, you’ll be studying non-numerical information. This means you’re going to need more than a calculator in your toolbox to answer your question, as we’ll be gathering and interpreting data of a different kind. Qualitative research also requires us to get out from behind our desks or labs to engage with people and hear their stories. These will be captured during interviews, focus groups or through conversations that take place as you observe people in the research setting.

As opposed to numbers and statistics, you’ll be collecting information (data) in the form of notes, interview transcriptions, video logs and written responses. You may need to review diary entries, government records, newspaper articles or photos. Some kinds of qualitative research will also involve you studying art, media, architecture and memoirs. In these instances, you won’t be creating new data, but examining artefacts that already exist.

The most common way of gathering qualitative data is through an interview, however other methods include:

  • Focus groups
  • Observations
  • Video diaries
  • Written text & visual data
  • All forms of media

We will be focusing more on data collection methods in Week 2 of the course.

What else characterises qualitative research?

Here are some features of a qualitative approach.

  • A focus on identifying and understanding social processes and meaning. It can lead us to a deep understanding of how people in different groups, communities and situations think, feel and behave.
  • Studying people (participants) in their ‘natural’ setting, relevant to your question. Eg in a school, hospital, their home, workplace, sports stadium, night club or shopping centre, depending on the context of your research topic.
  • Disturbing the processes of social life within the environment you’re exploring as little as possible in order to gather true to life data.
  • The researcher being seen as an instrument of the research. In other words, the researcher is not considered to be separate from the research. They are collecting subjective data and interpreting it subjectively.
  • The findings are contextualised within a social, cultural and historical framework.

What else should I know?

Keep in mind, people’s thoughts, feelings and personal experiences don’t always fit into neat little boxes and neither will your qualitative research. It’s rich, it’s profound, but it’s also messy. Qualitative research is often conducted with individuals or small groups, so it can also be hard to make a claim that the results of your study are ‘typical’ or representative of those of the wider population. The practicalities of gathering data, collating it, interpreting it and then presenting your findings will take time and effort. Be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but without doubt it’s very rewarding because it leads to such deep levels of understanding.

Your task

Post a comment and share your early thoughts on the advantages and potential disadvantages of qualitative research. Do the pros outweigh the cons when we consider the richness of data it produces?

This article is from the free online

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now