Qualitative research is a method of collecting, analyzing and interpreting data that is not easily reduced to numbers. By its very nature, it cannot be judged by quantitative standards. Qualitative data usually takes the form of case studies and notes rather than numerical data characterized by quantitative research. Its subjectivity is one of the main criticisms of this research method. Its main detractors are researchers who are trained in statistical analysis. Criticism has meant that qualitative research has not gained the same acceptance as quantitative studies, which is seen as more reliable due to its reliance on numbers and surface data. Often studies that involve "number-crunching" are viewed as more valid.
This very subjectivity, however, may be one of the redeeming features of qualitative research, as it may offer a greater scope in its ability to develop theory and look into the "how and why," rather than simply the "what is." Unlike quantitative research, it is useful in understanding complex data that is difficult to study or explain in simple terms, for example in healthcare, which can involve complex human interactions or situations. The qualitative research method is practiced widely in education and social sciences. A combination of both qualitative and quantitative research is increasingly seen as useful in answering research questions and understanding the world.
One problem with qualitative research is its potential for bias. This is due to the exploratory nature of the research, which is more open-ended than the quantitative equivalent. It allows for selective observation and recording of information, and analysis of the data may be more interpretive. This can be overcome to some extent, by acknowledgement of any research bias (called reflexivity), the monitoring of any possible bias and the attempt to limit or control it. Qualitative researchers may even include a section called researcher bias in their reports, which will discuss their personal background and the effect it may have on their work.
Another tool in reducing this bias is called negative case sampling, where the researcher searches for information that will disconfirm their expectations. This can help bring to light important information about what they are studying. Methods of capturing qualitative research data include:
- Documents (such as reports and emails)
- Observation notes
- Press clippings
- Audio recordings of interviews
- Focus group sessions
- Field notes
There are both advantages and disadvantages to using qualitative research. One of its strengths is the fact that the direction of research can be revised quickly in light of new information. It also allows for issues to be examined in-depth and the data obtained can often be more compelling than quantitative data. It can also uncover subtleties and complexities that are often missed by quantitative research. However the validity of qualitative research can be easily affected by the skills of the researcher and their personal idiosyncrasies. It can also be more time-consuming to analyze and interpret due to high data volumes. Another problematic aspect is the fact that the research may contain personal information, so anonymity and confidentiality may create difficulties in presenting data. A major concern among critics of qualitative research is the issue of sampling. Qualitative researchers claim that sampling is not an issue, however it is posited that a researcher may generalize a particular situation or population to other individuals, times, settings, or contexts on the basis of a data sample that is unsuitable. The size of the sample and careful selection of appropriate cases to study would limit this possibility; this is central to the quality of the research.
When presenting qualitative data, a description of how the data was analyzed should be included. A conclusion should detail and justify the end of data collection (data saturation); this would usually be the point at which the reader has gleaned enough information to carry out their own research into the subject. The analytics involved should be described in detail and theoretically justified in light of the original research question. The report should include an adequate account of how the findings were produced and how themes and concepts emerged from the findings. Also important is the presentation of negative or deviant cases that did not fit with the central interpretation. Qualitative research has both negative and positive features; to traditional quantitative researchers, it can seem like an exercise in "mystical processes." In reality it is an extremely useful method of research.