Nursing Research

What Is Qualitative Research?

What is qualitative research?
Where does qualitative research come from?
What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?
Is qualitative research considered science?

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a process of naturalistic inquiry that seeks in-depth understanding of social phenomena within their natural setting. It focuses on the "why" rather than the "what" of social phenomena and relies on the direct experiences of human beings as meaning-making agents in their every day lives. Rather than by logical and statistical procedures, qualitative researchers use multiple systems of inquiry for the study of human phenomena including biography, case study, historical analysis, discourse analysis, ethnography, grounded theory and phenomenology.

The three major focus areas are individuals, societies and cultures, and language and communication. Although there are many methods of inquiry in qualitative research, the common assumptions are that knowledge is subjective rather than objective and that the researcher learns from the participants in order to understand the meaning of their lives. To ensure rigor and trustworthiness, the researcher attempts to maintain a position of neutrality while engaged in the research process.

Where does qualitative research come from?

Human beings have always attempted to understand the world in which we live. Before the 19th century, questions about human existence were answered from the Bible, the church, and from Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle who believed that the process of "knowing" was absolute, systematic and logical.

It was during the late 18th century when "the pursuit of knowledge" experienced a scientific crisis. Other philosophers such as Immanual Kant, William Dilthey, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty believed that life consists of what we experience in our activities and reflections as we live out our personal histories and that we live in a matrix of complex relationships with others. Therefore, humans cannot be studied as isolated units but must be understood in the context of their "lived world" or cultural and social connections. The seminal work of these philosophers paved the way for the birth of naturalistic or qualitative inquiry.

What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?

Most simply put, quantitative research is concerned with measurement and numbers, while qualitative research is concerned with understanding and words. Qualitative methods allow the researcher to study selected issues in depth and detail without being constrained by pre-determined categories of analysis. Quantitative methods require the use of standardized measures in order to fit the different perspectives and experiences of people into a limited number of predetermined response categories to which numbers are assigned.

While quantitative research values control, qualitative research values openness and flexibility. The quantitative researcher maintains an objective, detached stance, but the qualitative researcher is considered to be the key instrument involved closely with the data collection and analysis. The statistical data of quantitative methods obtained from a great many people results in a broad, generalizable set of findings that are succinct and said to be parsimonious. In contrast qualitative methods produce a large amount of detailed information about a smaller number of people that results in rich understanding but reduces generalizability.

Qualitative and quantitative methods involve differing strengths and weaknesses and, therefore, should be seen as alternative but not mutually exclusive strategies for research.

Is qualitative research considered science?

While many qualitative researchers do not believe that the standards used to judge quantitative methods are appropriate for evaluating qualitative research methods, they do believe that the systemic protocol of "good science" should be retained. In qualitative research the conventional standards of reliability and internal and external validity do not apply. However, there are distinct but related aspects of inquiry on which credibility depends and any credible qualitative study needs to address all of the following in order to ensure credibility and rigor of findings:

  • Context: Keeping things in context is a cardinal principle of qualitative analysis because methods, results and conclusions of qualitative analysis are context-dependent. Therefore, they must be carefully reported in reference to certain situations, certain people and certain time periods, as well as the purpose for which the data are applicable.
  • Credibility: In order to establish researcher credibility, it is essential that a qualitative report include information about the researcher that could have affected data collection, analysis, interpretation and conclusions. Such information includes the personal connections that the researcher has with the participants, the topic and the situation or context. The job of the researcher is to maintain intellectual rigor as she does her best to make sense of all the information collected. The researcher engages in immersion as she returns to the data again and again to see if categories, themes, constructs, explanations, interpretations and conclusions make sense and really reflect the nature of the phenomenon being investigated. Credibility requires that the researcher engage three activities (the numbered bullet points are within this credibility bullet point):
  1. Prolonged engagement: The researcher must spend enough time in the research context to become sufficiently familiar with all aspects of the context and to identify contextual factors that influence the phenomenon of interest, as well as to establish trust from and rapport with the participants.
  2. Persistent observation: Such observation allows the researcher to identify and focus on the most relevant characteristics of the situation or context.
  3. Triangulation: Triangulation most commonly refers to the use of multiple and different sources of data. It is a strategy for reducing systematic bias in the data and involves checking findings against different sources and perspectives. The process guards the researcher from being accused that the findings are simply a result of a single method, a single source or the single researcher's personal bias.
  • Intellectual Integrity: To demonstrate intellectual integrity and lend credibility to the findings of a study, it is important to search for negative cases or disconfirming evidence that does not fit the general patterns that have been identified. This may include identifying alternative themes and explanations to findings, inductively looking for other ways to organize the data and logically thinking about other explanations and then examining whether those possibilities can be supported by the data. In qualitative research, steps are taken to challenge such bias through an active and conscientious search using the following techniques (two bullet points within intellectual integrity):
  1. A self-reflexive journal: The researcher adopts an attitude of skepticism and documents her perspective, guiding ideas and personal thoughts throughout the research process.
  2. Participant checks: In this ongoing process, the data, analytic categories or themes, interpretations and conclusions are reviewed by the participants from whom the data are collected so that they have an opportunity to correct errors of fact and to challenge interpretations that to them seem incorrect. The researcher also uses follow-up questions based on the need for clarification and greater depth of understanding.
  • Transferability: Transferability may be thought of as being somewhat analogous to the external validity or generalizability of traditional quantitative methods. While qualitative findings are not generalizable, the qualitative researcher provides the necessary database from which anyone interested in making a transfer to their context of interest can make transferability judgments and decisions.
  • Dependability may be determined through an audit with the "auditor" or peer reviewer examining the process of the research inquiry and the product, namely the data, findings, interpretations and recommendations. The review confirms that the results, finding, and conclusions, are supported by the data and is internally coherent and establishes the confirmability.
  • Confirmability: An audit trail along with triangulation and the keeping of a reflexive journal are techniques for establishing confirmability. The audit trail includes the complete set of records and documents that are produced and accumulated during the research process. This includes, but is not limited to, all the raw data, written summaries and analyses, the records of analysis, findings and conclusions, final reports, any notes on methodology, trustworthiness and any reflexive journals. The audit trail is reviewed by an independent researcher or peer de-briefer for feedback on the conceptualization and processes of the research.

What is most important for the qualitative researcher is to be familiar with the different qualitative research approaches. Then, researchers can make informed choices about what they will use for their studies and why they will use them. When the comparisons and distinctions among the approaches are clear, the researcher can then design a more rigorous study. 

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