Qualitative research seeks to explore and understand individuals’ or groups’ experiences, behaviors, and social phenomena by collecting non-numerical data, such as text or images, and analyzing it in a narrative, descriptive manner.
Its strength is that it provides a deep understanding of human behavior, experiences, and social phenomena, enabling the exploration of nuances, contexts, and underlying factors that may not be evident through quantitative methods (Aurini, Heath & Howells, 2021; Bhattacharya, 2017).
However, its findings can be subjective, less generalizable due to smaller sample sizes, and may require a significant amount of time, effort, and expertise to collect and interpret the data accurately (Bhattacharya, 2017; Hatch, 2023).
Examples of qualitative research include conducting in-depth interviews to explore patients’ experiences with healthcare, utilizing focus groups to understand consumer perceptions of a product, engaging in ethnographic observation to study cultural practices, and employing case studies to investigate real-life phenomena in detail.
Qualitative Methods Examples
1. Case Studies
A case study is a detailed investigation of a specific individual, group, or event over a defined period. It goes in depth in one specific case rather than achieving a broad range of participants or instances of a situation.
The main purpose of a case study is to provide an in-depth analysis and understanding of complex issues that cannot be fully captured through statistical models or broad sweeping quantitative approaches (Bhattacharya, 2017; Lapan, Quartaroli & Riemer, 2011).
This method often involves collecting and analyzing various forms of qualitative data such as interviews, observations, and documents.
The data is then used to construct a narrative about the case, identify themes or patterns, and draw conclusions. Case studies are often used in fields like psychology, business, and education, due to their ability to produce rich, detailed, and practical knowledge.
See Also: Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages
2. Grounded Theory
Grounded theory is a research methodology that involves the collection and analysis of qualitative data with the aim of creating theories that are grounded in the data itself.
The defining feature of grounded theory is that it does not text a theory or hypothesis, unlike most other research approaches. Instead, it studies a phenomenon, allowing the theory to emerge naturally from the data (Atkinson, 2015; Mills, Bonner & Francis, 2017).
So, the study ends with a hypothesis by following the data rather than beginning with a hypothesis to be tested.
Researchers engaged in grounded theory begin with an area of study, then gather, code, and analyze the data, allowing the recurring patterns to evolve into a framework (Atkinson, 2015; Mills, Bonner & Francis, 2017).
This process continues up to the point of theoretical saturation, when no new information or themes are emerging from the data.
The researcher observes, interacts, and records the daily lives, behaviors, and social interactions of the community members from their perspective.
The primary aim of ethnography is to provide rich, holistic insights into people’s views and actions, as well as the nature (i.e., sights, sounds) of the location they inhabit, through the collection of detailed observations and interviews.
During the ethnographic study, the researcher usually lives within the community, allowing them to get deeper insights than they would get from just having occasional contact (Hammersley, 2018; Jones & Smith, 2017).
The result is a detailed description of the community’s social practices, beliefs, and experiences, often looking at such aspects as rituals, ceremonies, interactions, and daily life.
Autoethnography combines elements of autobiography and ethnography.
In autoethnography, researchers use their own personal experiences and reflections as the primary data source to gain insights into cultural, social, and individual phenomena (Pretorius & Cutri, 2019).
The intent is to use personal narratives not only to understand the self, but also to understand the cultural context in which the self is situated.
By focusing on their own experiences, emotions, and responses within a specific cultural context, researchers seek to provide a rich, detailed, and personal account that sheds light on broader cultural norms, behaviors, and experiences (Pretorius & Cutri, 2019).
This method is particularly common in social sciences and humanities, where understanding the complexity of human experiences and emotions is of principal importance.
Phenomenology is a method that focuses on the commonality of a lived experience within a particular group.
Researchers utilizing this method typically gather data through interviews, written stories, artefacts or other forms of personal narratives from the individuals who have experienced the phenomenon firsthand.
Then, through a process of reflecting on these first-person descriptions, researchers aim to draw out the underlying structures and themes of the experience and thereby provide a richer and deeper understanding of the phenomenon (Neubauer, Witkop & Varpio, 2019; Zahavi, 2018).
Phenomenology is often used in social science, psychology, and health sciences research.
6. Narrative Research
Narrative research involves collecting and studying individuals’ lived experiences as told through their own stories. Detailed narratives help to produce detailed and nuanced accounts of phenomena (McAlpine, 2016.
This method is typically used when researchers want to capture detailed stories or life experiences related to the study’s focal area from the perspective of participants.
The research involves gathering data through methods such as interviews, diaries, personal notes, or letters, from which narratives are then constructed and analyzed for recurring themes and patterns (McAlpine, 2016.
A key value of narrative research is its emphasis on giving voice to participants’ experiences in their own words and context, making it a powerful approach to explore personal histories, cultural narratives, and complex social issues.
7. Action Research
Action Research is a participatory, problem-solving method which aims to improve concrete situations through a cycle of action and reflection (Jacobs, 2018).
The core idea is that the researcher is not a passive observer but actively involved in the phenomenon being studied, working collaboratively with participants to solve real-world problems.
The cycle typically includes problem identification, planning for improvement, implementation of change, observation of the effects, and reflection on the process and results to adjust and refine the plan for the next cycle (Jacobs, 2018).
This type of research is usually employed in education, healthcare, community development, or organizational studies, where the goal is to make practical improvements while also expanding knowledge.
Action research, thus, blurs the boundary between researcher and participant, prioritizing experiential learning, shared decision making and equitable relationships.
8. Focus Group Research
Focus group research is a form of qualitative research where a group of people are asked about their attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and reactions to a specific subject, product, concept, or idea.
The interaction between the group members is observed and used for gathering data, as it can provide additional depth and complexity to the understanding of the topic being discussed (Guest, Namey & McKenna, 2017; Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2013).
Focus group usually involves 6-12 participants, led by a trained facilitator who guides the discussion and ensures everyone’s voice is heard.
Data collected in focus groups can be analyzed qualitatively to identify themes, patterns, or trends in people’s perceptions and experiences.
This research method is widely used in marketing, political studies, public health, and social sciences, due to its ability to provide rich, detailed and nuanced data.
9. Semi-Structured Interviewing
Semi-structured interviewing is a common method of data collection in qualitative research where the interviewer directs the conversation using a predetermined set of open-ended questions, but with flexibility to explore topics in more depth (Aurini, Heath & Howells, 2021; Bhattacharya, 2017).
This type of interview does not follow a strict form, allowing the interviewee to express their thoughts and feelings more freely and the interviewer to adapt and probe further based on their responses.
Semi-structured interviews can cover a wide range of topics, gain detailed information, and provide a more nuanced understanding of the interviewee’s perspective and context.
While each interview is guided by a consistent list of topics (interview guide), the order can change depending on the flow of conversation, and additional questions can be asked for clarification or further exploration (Aurini, Heath & Howells, 2021.
10. Structured Interviewing
Structured interviewing is a quantitative research method where all participants are asked the same predetermined and standardized set of questions, with the same wording and in the same order (Aurini, Heath & Howells, 2021; Bhattacharya, 2017).
The structured interview format ensures that comparison and statistical analysis is possible since every respondent is asked exactly the same questions.
Response categories are also often predetermined and fixed, limiting the scope for exploring issues in depth, but permitting the gathering of consistent, comparable data (Aurini, Heath & Howells, 2021; Bhattacharya, 2017).
Structured interviewing reduces the potential impact of interviewer bias, enabling more objectivity in the responses.
This method is commonly used in large-scale surveys, market research, and social science research where researchers are interested in measuring trends, comparison between groups, or relationships between variables.
11. Observational Research
Observational research is a qualitative research method where researchers observe participants in their natural setting without any direct involvement or intervention (Seim, 2021; Lapan, Quartaroli & Riemer, 2011).
The aim is to study people’s behavior, interactions, routines or events as they naturally occur, and as a result, gain a more authentic and holistic understanding of the phenomena being studied.
Methods of observation can vary vastly ranging from completely unobtrusive and passive observations, where participants are unaware they are being observed, to participant observations, where researchers immerse themselves into the groups to gain firsthand experience (Seim, 2021).
The information gathered can be rich and detailed, including body language, expressions, and the context and sequence of events, offering insights that are not possible through traditional survey and experimental methods.
12. Delphi Method
The Delphi Method is a structured communication technique used in qualitative research that relies on a panel of experts (Brady, 2015).
The process begins with researchers presenting a problem to the experts who respond individually, usually through a series of questionnaires or online surveys.
Responses are collected and summarized anonymously, then feedback is given to the group, allowing experts to revise their earlier answers based on the replies of their peers (Brady, 2015).
Throughout multiple rounds, the group seeks to reach a consensus on the issue being investigated while minimizing bias because of group interaction.
The Delphi method is often used in predictive research, policy-making, decision-support, and system and technology forecasting where expert opinions are valuable.
13. Textual & Content Analysis
Textual analysis, also known as content analysis, is a qualitative research method used to interpret the content and meaning of textual material in a systematic way.
Researchers using this approach analyze the communication content (like books, essays, interviews, speeches, online posts, etc.) in order to decipher patterns, themes, biases, and other cultural, societal, or thematic elements.
A researcher might analyze the themes, symbols, motifs, dialogues, plot structures, or stylistic choices in a text, in an attempt to understand how these elements contribute to its overall meaning and potential effects on its audience.
I have a detailed explanation of how to conduct a qualitative content analysis in my article on inductive coding, and I also highly recommend Attride-Stirling’s (2001) article on thematic network analysis for a step-by-step guide.
Textual analysis is commonly used in fields such as communication studies, literature, history, sociology, cultural studies, media studies, and more.
14. Discourse Analysis
Discourse analysis is a qualitative research method used to analyze written, verbal, or sign language use or any significant semiotic event. It differs from textual analysis in its focus on the concept of emergent and dominant discourses, based on Foucauldian theory (Fairclough, 2013).
The main purpose is to understand how language is used in real-life situations and uncover the social, cultural, and psychological structures that underlie the text or talk in its specific context (i.e. the discourses).
Discourse analysis considers language at several levels, such as sounds, words, sentences, speech acts, conversations, and narratives, and explores how these elements shape and are shaped by social practices, identities, relationships, and power dynamics.
It also looks beyond explicit meaning to explore implicit messages, underlying assumptions, and ideological standpoints that are conveyed through language.
This method is applied in a wide range of disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, communication studies, and cognitive and cultural studies.
15. Life History Research
Life history research is a qualitative methodology that focuses on understanding people’s lives and experiences through their personal narratives over a prolonged period, usually their entire life (Goodson & Sykes, 2016).
The objective is to gain in-depth insight into the subjective experiences, cultural contexts, identity development, decision-making processes, and changes over time.
Methods commonly used in life history research include interviews, diaries, photo elicitation or other artifacts, aiming to capture a rich, detailed, and holistic account of the person’s life (Goodson & Sykes, 2016).
In interpreting the data, researchers pay attention to how the individual makes sense of their life trajectory, the pivotal moments, their relationships, and how historical and sociocultural contexts influence their life events and perceptions.
The life history method is suitable for research in diverse fields such as education, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and health sciences, particularly when studying themes like identity, resilience, transformation, and moral development over time.
16. Semiotic Analysis
Semiotic analysis is like textual analysis, but has its own range of methods for examining how multimodal texts (images, video, movements) convey meaning in cultural contexts (Andersen et al., 2015; Gualberto & Kress, 2019).
The approach acknowledges that things (signs) can stand for something else and carry a particular meaning, especially within a social or cultural contexts.
So, this approach involves examining the signs and symbols that are used in various forms of communication, such as language, imagery, body language, music, and even things like fashion and food (Gualberto & Kress, 2019).
The process of this method typically includes identifying the signs, exploring the system or code that organizes these signs (syntax), and interpreting how these signs work to inform or influence our ideas and beliefs (semantics).
By providing these insights, semiotic analysis helps researchers understand societal norms, cultural values, power relations, ideological beliefs, and more.
Pros and Cons of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research offers a profound understanding of human behaviors, experiences, and the underlying factors driving these phenomena, which often cannot be achieved through quantitative methods.
By employing methods like in-depth interviews, focus groups, or ethnographic studies, most types of qualitative research allow for a detailed exploration of complex issues, providing rich, contextual insights (Bhattacharya, 2017; Merriam & Tisdell, 2015).
Furthermore, the flexible design of qualitative research enables researchers to adjust their approaches as new themes or patterns emerge during the study, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the research topic.
However, one of the significant disadvantages of qualitative research is its potential for subjectivity (Hatch, 2023; Weaver-Hightower, 2018). The researcher’s perspectives and interactions with participants can influence the data collection and interpretation, possibly leading to biased or skewed findings.
Additionally, the inherent nature of qualitative research, which often relies on small, non-random samples, may result in findings that are not easily generalizable to a larger population (Bhattacharya, 2017; Lapan, Quartaroli & Riemer, 2011). This lack of generalizability can be a drawback when the goal is to make broader inferences or when comparing findings across different groups or settings.
The following table summarizes the pros and cons:
|Provides deep understanding of human behaviors, experiences, and social phenomena.||Potential for researcher’s subjectivity leading to biased or skewed findings.|
|Offers rich, contextual insights into complex issues.||Findings may not be easily generalizable due to small, non-random samples.|
|Flexible design allows for adjustment of approaches as new themes or patterns emerge.||Can become too broad or diverge from original objectives due to its flexible nature.|
|Produces rich, detailed, and complex data.||Analyzing complex, narrative data can be challenging and time-consuming.|
|High validity as data are collected in natural settings based on participants’ lived experiences.||Potential for researcher’s subjectivity to influence data validity.|
|Can be conducted with fewer resources compared to large-scale quantitative studies.||Can require significant time, effort, and expertise, especially in data analysis.|
|Narrative presentation can tell a compelling story of the research findings.||Findings can be difficult to present concisely and clearly.|
|Can adapt to changes in the research environment or emerging findings.||Adaptation can lead to a loss of focus or deviations from planned methodologies.|
|Enables comparison of different perspectives or experiences within the study.||Difficult to compare with other studies or apply standardized measurement techniques.|
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]