Qualitative Research is a research method, a kind of empirical research study, that

  • relies on observations and interviews to develop qualitative data (i.e., words and ideas)
  • focuses primarily on gathering and interpreting qualitative data (i.e., words and ideas) rather than numerical data (i.e., numbers and statistics) in order to test knowledge claims and develop knowledge
  • is deployed by different methodological communities for different purposes–e.g., to test hypotheses, to generate hypotheses, to create narratives about individual experience, to develop theories.

The authority and value of qualitative research methods–the kind of knowledge qualitative research produces–has been a robust topic of academic debate.

  • Some view qualitative research to be a scientific method, a way to research cause-effect relationships and identify universal truths.
  • Others view qualitative research to be a rhetorical act, a method of invention that results in stories about the observed and the observer.

Qualitative research means different things to different methodological communities. And qualitative research methods change over time–in response to critique, dialectic, and changes in technologies for gathering and analyzing data.

Key Words: Fieldwork, Ethnography, Case Study, Phenomenology, Positivism, Postpositivism


Qualitative Research is a highly prized method for developing knowledge across academic disciplines, including business, communication studies, English, education, social work, psychology, cultural studies, and medicine. Furthermore, Qualitative research methods are widely used in workplace contexts, especially journalism, medicine, and education.

From the sciences and social sciences to the arts and humanities, qualitative researchers rely on observations and interviews to develop knowledge. They observe and interview people and communities to learn why and how something happens (Atkinson & Delamont 2010). They work to identify, analyze, and understand “patterned behaviors and social processes” (Given 2008).

Denoting a study as a form of qualitative research doesn’t mean it may not have elements of textual research or quantitative research. Qualitative researchers often employ some textual research practices. For instance, they may review related research or relate insights from their study to other studies. Plus, they may quantify–count and measure–some observations. Thus, if someone describes their study as qualitative, then they are saying that most of evidence, the really foundational evidence on which they base their knowledge claims, is based primarily on qualitative data.

What is the Authority of Qualitative Research?

Across disciplines and workplace settings, qualitative researchers agree with one another that observations and interviews can be used to generate knowledge. However, methodological communities may have conflicting ideas about how observations and interviews should be conducted or what the observations ultimately mean.

Some researchers believe qualitative research produces positivistic knowledge–that insights gleaned from interviews with individuals or observations of people can be generalized to explain the behaviors of other individuals and groups. Others believe that qualitative research produces stories and localized knowledge as opposed to generalizable knowledge.

Qualitative Research & Positivism

For methodological communities that privilege positivistic knowledge (especially academic disciplines within the sciences, social sciences, and education), qualitative research may be perceived as

  1. a viable way to inductively develop hypotheses that can be tested through scientific methods
  2. a viable way to test hypotheses so long as certain experimental procedures are followed, such as randomized selection of subjects

Qualitative researchers who are endeavoring to develop knowledge claims the positivistic community will accept as authoritative assume that it’s valid to generalize from the particular to the general so long as researchers remain as objective as possible, that they ground insights into multiple observations. These researchers assume their qualitative studies of individuals or communities produce insights that are generalizable to all of humanity.

  • For instance, a neurologist may conduct a case study of a patient who has a neurological deficit. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacs reports on his interviews and observations of a patient with visual agnosia. He provides this case history, this research closeup of one patient, to provide a description of not only how that one patient responded to a neurological deficit but how other (if not all) patients with similar deficits would engage in cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal tasks.

Qualitative Methods and PostPositivism

Between the 1970s to the 1980s, as surveyed below, qualitative researchers took a postmodern turn: they began problematizing how researchers represented the other–the individuals or communities they were observing. They rejected the idealization of the investigator as an impartial, objective observer who discovered universal truths. Instead, they argued efforts to engage in qualitative research are invariably rhetorical efforts–that the investigator’s words and interpretations are grounded in their personal experiences, gender, economics, culture, historical periods–and more. Likewise, the perceptions, the words and experiences of the observed are equally rhetorical. From this perspective, qualitative research is a way of seeing and a way of not seeing. Rather than a scientific method, qualitative research is a rhetorical method for developing stories about ourselves and others.

Historical Trends in Qualitative Research

Qualitative research methods are constantly changing over time–in response to critique, dialectic, theory, and changes in technologies for gathering and analyzing data.

Early Ethnography

Initially, back in the day, qualitative research was a method practiced by early explorers to account for their journeys. In “Qualitative Research, History of,” Sharon Lockyer (2012) argues

Qualitative research during this period [17th century] involved the Western researcher observing the customs, practices, and behaviors of “primitive” societies, to understand the other. During this period, the other was often regarded as a non-White person living in a society considered less civilized than the society to which the observer belonged. Such interest in “primitive people” was exacerbated by the problems experienced by explorers during the 15th and 16th centuries when attempting to account for people they discovered in the New World

Lockyer, Sharon (2012)

Colonial Ethnography

From the 17th to the 19th century, according to Lockyer, qualitative researchers engaged in colonial ethnography: they analyzed cultural differences and “highlighted the positive preservation effects of indirect rule.” American ethnographers, from the late 19th to early 20th century) “focused on American Indians, who were still regarded as primitive and as representing a specific other” (Lockyer 2012).

Ethnography of the Civic Other

Between the early 20th century to the late 1960s, ethnography became professionalized by the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago. Ethnographers engaged in participant observation and focused on urban communities to research “the religious beliefs, practices, and customs of Black, Asian, and European immigrants” (Lockyer 2012).

Postmodern Ethnography

Since the 1980s, postmodernism, feminism, and postpositivism–and related emerging critical theories–have destabilized and problematized the assumptions that guided classical qualitative methods (see discussion above).

Qualitative research methods informed by postmodernism, p

  • rejects the colonial narrative–
    • (e.g., notions such as the investigator is somehow superior, the subjects are savages, the goal of the narrative is to celebrate cultural control and assimilation)
  • rejects the characterization of the investigator as an impartial, objective who discovers knowledge
  • explores how the subjectivity of the investigator shapes the narrative.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Paul &has  Sara Delamont (2010). SAGE Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Given, Lisa M., ed. (2008). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Commuities and Classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lockyer, Sharon (2012). “Qualitative Research, History of.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications