What Is Qualitative Research? Explained

What Is Qualitative Research? Explained


Content Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. The Concept of Qualitative Research
  3. Characteristics of Qualitative Research 
  4. Challenges and Limitations of Qualitative Research
  5. Summary   


Qualitative research – that is, research which focuses, not on numbers, but on the meaning of phenomena and processes - is not really a new concept or methodology. However, it has come into a spotlight recently, and there exists a lot of confusion about it. That is because qualitative research, by its very nature, is situated in the context which offers many ways in which its findings can be understood. The history of qualitative methodology throws light on how these meanings have emerged and have led to different types of qualitative research. Second, the language of qualitative research is markedly different from that of its older sibling, quantitative research. As more and more qualitative research studies are conducted in social sciences and applied social sciences, both – the challenges faced by qualitative researchers and limitations have surfaced, as have the benefits and advantages of qualitative research. This module covers these aspects of qualitative research methods – types, challenges and limitations.  

The Concept of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research, as a field, began out of the need to understand the ‘other’ (Vidich & Lyman, 2000 as cited in Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). It was an interpretive, naturalistic approach to understanding the world.

Qualitative researchers attempt to study a phenomenon or process in its natural setting and attempt to make sense of or interpret it in terms of the meanings people bring to them (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). For this, they require to used different innovative field-based methods of data collection. Thus, qualitative research came to be recognized as a methodology that uses a combination of multiple methods based on multiple perspectives trying to capture the rigour, breadth, complexity, richness and depth of lived realities of the participants (Flick, 2002 cited in Denzin & Lincoln, 2005).The meaning of qualitative research evolved through the phases or moments in its history over a period spanning more than two centuries.
  • A Brief History of Qualitative Research
    Qualitative Research began with early ethnographic studies in the 17th century. These studies gained visibility, and ethnography as a research design gained traction in the early 19th and 20th centuries in studies of people in colonized countries by foreigners (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). For instance, think of Margaret Mead’s writings about the life and cultural practices of societies in Samoa and New Guinea

    It was during this era that positivism – the research methodology emphasizing objectivity and measurements – was challenged increasingly. Colonizing nations strived to make sense of the strange and foreign worlds and this required ‘getting into their shoes’ or ‘experiencing or observing life as it exists in a culture or a society’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Social Sciences Researchers started to apply Interpretivism – a research paradigm that looks for culturally derived and historically situated interpretations of the social life-world (ibid)

    In sociology, qualitative method of enquiry was made popular by the work of the ‘Chicago School’ in the 1920s and 30s. The anthropological studies conducted by Boas, Mead, Bendict, Bateson, EvansPritchard, Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski created space for the qualitative research as an alternative way of conducting enquiry (ibid).

    Emergence of qualitative research methodology as an alternative scientific method of enquiry was not without challenges, however. Denzin and Lincoln (2005) highlight eight moments of qualitative research history starting from this phase titled ‘the Traditional Period’ till the eighth moment, the present and future (since 2005). During this whole journey, qualitative research was challenged to create a space as a ‘scientific enquiry’ especially because of its subjective, qualitative focus. Even today, though the debate concerning qualitative research methods as a bonafide means to generate knowledge has dwindled (Manning, 1999); it continues to face the challenge of balancing contextual multiplicity, uniqueness of individual experiences and validity and trustworthiness of the data (Denzin& Lincoln, 2005) 
  • Definitions of qualitative research methodology
    The term qualitative captures such a broad umbrella of research methods that it is difficult to fit all in a single definition; however, one could attempt to define qualitative research highlighting its salient features that sets it apart from inferential and quantitative research methodology.

    Denzin and Lincoln (1994) define qualitative research as a methodology which is ‘multi-method in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalist approach to its subject matter.’ The 'multi-method in focus' implies a combination of multiple methods, empirical materials and perspectives (ibid). Qualitative research is an inquiry process of understanding a social or human problem, based on building a complex, holistic picture, formed with words, reporting detailed views of informants and conducted in a natural setting. (Sogurno, 2001). Gay and Airasian (2000) propose that qualitative research is a ‘collection of extensive data on many variables over an extended period of time, in a naturalistic setting, in order to gain insights not possible using other types of research.  

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research has some distinct characteristics (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Flick et al, 2004; Ragins, 1989):
  • Qualitative research is inductive in nature. This means that the research process starts in the field and the data collected leads to theory development. In contrast, most quantitative research begins with some apriori theory, and some quantitative research takes place within a laboratory. 
  • Qualitative research has a strong orientation to everyday life and events. Its foundation is that people’s interactions and behaviours should not be reduced to statistical equations. Quantitative research is described as ‘reductionist’ because it deals with observations about behaviour and processes as research variables. The individual is less important than the finding about the group. 
  • There is minimal manipulation of the research setting. Phenomena are studied as they occur or as they are recalled - without any control by the researcher. In quantitative research, one of the critical methods involves experimentation where there are 2 groups – the researcher delivers some treatment or intervention to one group of people, and then compares their responses to another group which does not receive the treatment. Another quantitative method is the before-after design where a person’s reaction is compared before and after they receive some treatment that the researcher may have decided they would receive. 
  • In qualitative research, data are gathered by flexible, open-ended methods and the diversity of participant responses is valued.
  • Qualitative research emphasizes interaction between the researcher and the researched in a manner which reduces the distance between them. The term ‘researched’ is used to denote this two-way relationship rather than ‘respondent’. 
  • Qualitative research recognizes the inevitability of influences from the researcher’s personal characteristics and alignments like philosophical orientation, personal history, gender, social class, race and ethnicity. Quantitative research will term this as “bias” and will make every attempt to cleanse the research study of this. 
  • The answers that emerge are still always open to question because qualitative research recognizes the ever-changing nature of human interactions and relationships. 

Challenges and Limitations of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research emerged as a response to unwarranted extension of quantitative methods based on numbers and experiments. Even today, one of the biggest challenges to qualitative research comes from the proponents of ‘objectivity’ in research. Qualitative data is dismissed as ‘anecdotal’ and is valued lesser than quantitative research by those who value objectivity and certainty (Morse, 2005). Qualitative researchers respond to these challenges by arguing for a different set of criteria of evaluation the worthiness of research. They propose that whereas in quantitative study one talks about reliability and validity, in qualitative research one talks about trustworthiness of the data and the research process. The purpose for which a qualitative research is undertaken is different from that for which a quantitative research is initiated because both give different type of data and both have limitations (Coates, 2004).

The limitations of qualitative research are:
  • Knowledge produced is note intended to be generalisable to other people or other settings (i.e., findings might be unique to the relatively few people included in the research study). 
  • It might have lower credibility with some administrators and authorities who commission programmes and interventions. 
  • It generally takes more time to collect the data compared to quantitative research.  Data analysis is often time consuming. 
  • As the researcher is the ‘insider’ or closest to the insider, there is more risk of research process and findings being influenced by the researcher’s personal biases and idiosyncrasies. 
 Whatever the limitations, for any research the foremost consideration should be that it is systematic and rigorous. Qualitative Research Methodology also entails a systematic process of investigation, contributes to a body of knowledge and links to the field or practice.


  • The dominant research paradigm for much of the twentieth century was positivism, but today, especially in social sciences, qualitative research which is an alternative research paradigm is also gaining popularity
  • Qualitative research is a methodology which is ‘multi-method in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalist approach to its subject matter. It is an inquiry process that builds a complex, holistic picture of social interactions, behavior or phenomena under study.
  • Qualitative research is characterized by an inductive and iterative research process, minimal manipulation of factors under study by the researcher, multiple data collection methods and in-depth descriptive data. 
  • Qualitative research has both strengths as well as weaknesses. Some of the major strengths of qualitative research are that it reduces gap between theory and practice, gives a holistic picture, it is useful for exploring new concepts and areas and goes beyond obvious. However, some of the challenges faced by the qualitative researcher are it is difficult to generalise, not useful to make quantitative predictions and is time-consuming.


  • Atkinson, P. And Hammersley, M. (2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. (3rd ed.) New York: Routledge_ 
  • Coates, V. (2004) ‘Qualitative Research: A Source of Evidence to Inform Nursing Practice?’ (Research Series). Journal of Diabetes Nursing 8 (9). pp. 329 – 334. 
  • Denzin, N. K & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). "Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.)Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 1-17). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 
  • Denzin, Norman K. and Lincoln, Yvonna, S. (Ed.) (2005) ‘The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research’ (3rd ed.), New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd.  Flick, U., Kardoff E., Steinke, I. (2004) A Companion to Qualitative Research. New Delhi: SAGE Publications. 


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