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PhD Research Methods: Qualitative Research

There are two main types of research, and in this article we’re going to look at qualitative research – you can find out about quantitative research here. But just what is qualitative research, you ask? Well, qualitative research is a kind of research most often used by the social science subjects – think psychology, sociology, anthropology, that sort of thing. It’s also used by market researchers and those in similar areas. If you’re doing a PhD in these areas, it’ll be something you need to know.

In a nutshell, qualitative research is the method of using particular case studies and small, focused samples. Any broader ‘conclusions’ drawn using these methods are treated as ‘informed assertions’.

So just what kind of uses would qualitative research have? Well, let’s take the example of market research – you can test a product on a small focus group and from their response you can make changes to the product you are attempting to market. Or, perhaps, let’s look at psychology – many famous psychological theories begin with an initial case study – ever heard of the Little Albert Experiment? This uses just one child to show classical conditioning in humans.

But what are the different types of qualitative research methods? After all, we’ve already listed two that seem quite distinct.

The different types of qualitative research methods

Qualitative Research #1 Observation
Observation is exactly what it sounds like – observing. The goal here is merely to watch the group you are studying. Within the method of ‘observation’ there are two main qualitative research methods: the participant observer (sometimes known as ethnography), and the non-participant observer. In the former, the researcher becomes a member of whatever group is being studied, and in the latter, they are outside the group, but still watching. If we were studying students, say, the difference would be between observing as a student, and observing students whilst not pretending to be one.

Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages; being a participant increases the chance of seeing things as they really are, rather than as shown to an outsider, but it can also increase personal bias and distract from the role as researcher. With non-participatory observation, you are much less likely to experience bias, but you may miss some of the vital things you are looking out for.

#2 Questionnaires
Questionnaires require much less involvement on the researcher’s part than some of these other methods (for example, observation) which means they can spend more time on the setup and results. These can be useful when there are particular responses desired (such as answers to ‘how do you feel about this product’) but does limit what data you end up with (as it’s only what you ask). As with any method, this too has advantages and disadvantages – you can ensure you’re getting the relevant data, but you are also opening up the possibility of biasing the subject in your questions.

#3 Other Written Materials
In this case, it’s not handing out documents to be filled in, but looking at ones already written. This can be any kind of document, depending on your goal. This is particularly useful for subjects such as anthropology, where you can learn much about a group by their writings about themselves. That said, it can be used in many other places, psychology studies may often get you to keep a diary, for instance. This qualitative research method is useful because you can learn a lot from a variety of settings, and, if the materials are pre-created, then you don't have the problem of your presence changing how the group acts. However, interpreting them can be difficult, especially if they’re from a different culture or in another language.

#4 Sampling
Sampling is the method of picking out a small group to focus on out of a larger one. Say we were studying students at a university, we cannot study all of them, so we may choose around 50 to focus on. Sampling can be complex as you want to ensure that your chosen sample is diverse meaning they can’t all be the same age, gender, ethnicity, orientation, and so on, unless of course one of these is the factor you’re studying. Sampling has the advantage of making it easier to study the group in question, and as you can manually choose a sample it does have the advantage of being able to fine tune the variables. Flaws, however, include the fact that a sample is just a sample, and may not be as representative as you hoped, especially if it’s a sample that people volunteer for as this will heavily bias the results towards the type of people who volunteer for studies.

#5 Interviews
Interviews are a great way of talking one on one, or to small groups of people. This method is often useful when starting a project, to find out general trends or to get a feel for what you’re studying. It can also be useful later on, when wanting to ask specific things. However, if you are using interviews, you’ll have to be very aware of your methods and you need to be in control of everything. No leading questions, or closed off body language here.

The good thing about interviews is the chance to really ask questions, to get to know the person you’re talking to, and to observe the answers, rather than just reading them. The downside is the possibility of you influencing the answers accidentally.

These are the main methods used in qualitative research, and you’ll have seen them or variants thereof used in most social science textbooks.

Useful links:

Quantitative Research

Qualitative Vs Quantitative Research

Social Sciences

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