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Math, Statistics, & Research Methods: Qualitative Methods


Qualitative Research

Qualitative research seeks to understanding some aspect of social life, and its methods (usually) generate words, rather than numbers, as data for analysis.


For researchers more familiar with quantitative methods, which aim to measure something (such as the percentage of people with a particular disease in a community, or the number of households owning a bed net), the aims and methods of qualitative research can seem imprecise. Common criticisms include:

  • samples are small and not necessarily representative of the broader population, so it is difficult to know how far we can generalise the results;
  • the findings lack rigour;
  • it is difficult to tell how far the findings are biased by the researcher’s own opinions.

Qualitative methods generally aim to understand the experiences and attitudes of patients, the community or health care worker. These methods aim to answer questions about the “what,” “how, “ or “why” of a phenomenon rather than “how many” or “how much,” which are answered by quantitative methods.

Qualitative researchers findings are collected through a variety of methods, and often, a researcher will use at least two or several of the following while conducting a qualitative study.

Direct observation: With direct observation, a researcher studies people as they go about their daily lives without participating or interfering.

In-depth interviews: Researchers conduct in-depth interviews by speaking with participants in a one-on-one setting. Sometimes a researcher approaches the interview with a predetermined list of questions or topics for discussion but allows the conversation to evolve based on how the participant responds.

Ethnographic observation: Ethnographic observation is the most intensive and in-depth observational method. This approach comes mostly from the field of anthropology. The emphasis in ethnography is on studying an entire culture. Originally, the idea of a culture was tied to the notion of ethnicity and geographic location (e.g., the culture of the Trobriand Islands), but it has been broadened to include virtually any group or organization. That is, we can study the "culture" of a business or defined group (e.g., a fraternity or a basketball team).

Open-ended surveys: While many surveys are designed to generate quantitative data, many are also designed with open-ended questions that allow for the generation and analysis of qualitative data.

Ethnographic Research