Qualitative research is a field of inquiry that usually emphasizes words rather than numbers in data collection and analysis, is inductive in nature, and more concerned with rich description and meaning than causal connections and generalizations.
The origins of qualitative research date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, it was mainly used in anthropology and sociology, but gradually was adopted by other social science disciplines. Qualitative research is often associated with interpretivism. Within this paradigm, the social world is examined through intersubjective interpretations of its participants and the reality is viewed as socially constructed rather than objective and existing “out there” independently from those who created it. However, many social scientists argue that it is wrong to assume that qualitative studies always fall within the interpretive paradigm—there also exists positivist qualitative research.
In qualitative studies, the emphasis is usually made on the depth and complexity of the phenomenon under investigation. Qualitative researchers generally favor “why” types of questions and concentrate more on theory generation than hypotheses testing. Several major research designs are associated with qualitative research: qualitative interviewing (which can be used on its own or as part of other designs), case studies, ethnography, focus groups, and designs that focus on the examination of language (such as conversation and content analyses). Main methods of qualitative data collection include interviewing, documentation, and observation.
Qualitative interviewing can be unstructured or semistructured. Unstructured interviews do not have any predetermined order or wording of questions and resemble friendly conversations. They are particularly useful when the research question is novel, relatively unexplored, and a set of useful directions for analysis is still to be identified. Semistructured interviews usually rely on some predetermined questions or topics. However, the researcher is still free to develop the conversation flexibly and invent new questions during the course of the interview.
Documents represent a major source of heterogeneous data that can include companies’ annual reports, mission statements, logos and mottos, memos, e-mails, press releases, visual images, and so forth. Some of the methods concerned with the study of documents include qualitative content analysis and semiotics. Qualitative content analysis comprises the search of underlying themes in the source materials; further investigation then evolves around these themes and is usually illustrated by examples and quotations extracted from the documents. Semiotic analysis is referred to as the “science of signs.”
Observation is another important method of qualitative data collection. This term is also used to refer to a research design. It is different from “just looking” in its analytical orientation—the researcher usually holds specific questions in mind, so data collection has direction and purpose. Nonparticipant observation is usually passive—the researcher observes the setting under investigation without getting involved, makes field notes, and may occasionally ask questions to clarify some of the issues.
In contrast, participant observation implies that the researcher actively participates in an investigated setting. In social sciences, the term ethnography is increasingly used in the same sense as participant observation (or sometimes in a broader meaning— when not only a research process is implied but also a particular written outcome of research that is characterized by rich description, personal perspective, and a detailed account). One of the varieties of participant observation is autoethnography—a study in which the investigator acts as a member of the group in question and the research outcome is produced in the form of writing about the self analytically. Interviews, observations, field notes, and research diaries constitute common methods of data collection within ethnographic studies.
Case studies represent in-depth inquiries into a single instance or setting and serve as another popular research design within qualitative research. They sometimes combine both qualitative and quantitative techniques and can be particularly useful when the phenomena under investigation are unusual or contain a temporal dimension.
One of the most popular approaches to qualitative data analysis is grounded theory. The term can also refer to the theory developed as a result of its application.
Two main features of this approach are constant comparison between the data and emerging theory and theoretical sampling. Constant comparison implies that the processes of data collection and analysis are not separated but happen simultaneously and all the procedures are highly iterative. Theoretical sampling refers to the selection of cases for investigation: instead of selecting cases randomly on statistical grounds, theoretically useful cases that can extend existing conceptual categories are used. Grounded theory has been described by some as a compromise between extreme empiricism and complete relativism.
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