Qualitative research

This article gives you some basics of what is good to know when conducting a qualitative research project. In order to better understand how and why qualitative data is useful and how qualitative data can be analyzed, revisiting the various philosophical positions ranging from positivism to constructivism is a good point to start out with.
Susanne Friese
Product specialist, trainer and author of the book "Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti"
  1. The basics of qualitative research
  2. Ok, what is it?
  3. Looking for a research idea
  4. Doing your homework (the literature review)
  5. Formulating the qualitative research question
  6. Examples
  7. Summary

The basics of qualitative research

Qualitative Research

The aim of every qualitative data analysis is to get you to think about your own position how you see the world from a scientific perspective. Is there a real objective world out there that we can examine as researchers? Or can we only examine constructions of something that might be real, true and objective? Or is everything a construction? Especially for depth interviewing, a special type of research, a profound content analysis is quite important. But how does quantitative and qualitative research difference from each other?

Qualitative research involves looking in-depth at non-numerical data. It is a research method used extensively by researchers studying human behaviour, opinions, themes and motivations as well as artifacts. To put it into other words, social sciences often uses various kinds of content analyses. Moreover, qualitative research are often used in market research.

If you were never introduced to the philosophy of science, recommended reads are the seminal works by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend: The structure of scientific revolutions (Kuhn, 1962 /1996) and Against Methods (Feyerabend, 1975/2010). For all readers with German language proficiency, a good read is the book by Wallach (2009) on the philosophical basic of science.
Kuhn shows that many of the great scientific discoveries were made by chance rather than by applying a rigid methodology. According to Kuhn, scientific knowledge is only true as long as we haven’t found a better truth. Thus, we can never be sure whether our knowledge is in fact objective or whether it is limited to what we are able to see now. The limitations may be of technical or cognitive nature. Kuhn provides examples where scientists have not recognized obvious facts just because they did not believe that they could exist.

Feyerabend is another must-read if you are interested in the philosophy of science. He became known as revolutionary scientists and most readers are likely to have heard about his famous methodological conclusion: “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: Anything goes.” He called for methodological pluralism. A famous quote is: “Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth.”

To confine quantitative and qualitative research from each other, we would like to introduce you briefly to quantitative research as well: Quantitative research analysis are closely related to statistics and discover measurable facts about social phenomena. They assume a fixed reality. Qualitative methods are used to explore reasons why somebody is behaving in a particular way. Therefore face-to-face interviews are important.

Ok, what is it?

After having set the stage by clarifying your position on what there is that can be discovered, you need to figure out whether a qualitative or quantitative approach is more appropriate for answering the kind of questions you are interested in. This is important, because there come different qualitative and quantitative methods into play. The focus of this article is on finding answers to questions that can be answered using a qualitative approach. So, what is qualitative research and how can we define it?

In the handbook of qualitative research, Denzin and Lincoln (2005) describe qualitative research as involving “... an interpretive naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (p. 3). Special consideration is given to the researcher as person. He or she is not the independent observer in a white coat – a picture that is often drawn when natural scientists are depicted. Rather, in qualitative research self-reflection about one’s own attitude and position and role in society is vital. As Denzin and Lincoln write: “Behind all research stands the biography of the gendered researcher, who speaks from a particular class, racial, cultural and ethnic community perspective“ (p. 21). We can only see what our class, culture, race, gender or other factors allows us to recognize. There are plenty of examples for this in our everyday life. Recently, I was looking for a long VGA cable to connect a laptop to a beamer. The cables in our department are “always” black. I looked in the cupboard where the cables are stored but could not find a long VGA cable. I asked a colleague and she then went together with me to the same cupboard and gave me a long VGA cable – a transparent one. I had looked for something black and therefore I did not see it.

There are numerous famous examples of content analyses where major discoveries were delayed or where observations were ignored because they did not fit prevalent theory and thus inhibiting progress and knowledge generation. When you are interested, take a look at the already mentioned books by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

Qualitative research is not desk research, but analyses participants observations. It investigates furthermore how study participants behave in various situations. So they are a kind of an individual case study. As qualitative researcher, you go out into – whatever you consider to be the real world – observe and talk to people, interact with them aiming to understand what is important to your research participants and how they perceive the world. Self-reflection will be your constant companion and from the very beginning to the end of a research project it is important to consider who you are, how you are perceived by others and as what kind of person you enter the field.

To learn how to put ATLAS.ti to good use in YOUR research, visit our Research Hub:

Looking for a research idea

When looking for a research idea, you may want to look into the writings of John Dewey (2013 (1938]), another influential author. In his book “Logic, the Theory of Inquiry” he very clearly outlines the process of research. Very reassuring for beginning researchers, he states that research follows a uniform structure, which applies to our everyday life as well as to science. In other words, there are familiar elements in conducting research and we can draw on knowledge that we already have gained in our everyday life.

Dewey describes the research process as follows: “The antecedent condition of inquiry that gets it all started is an indeterminate or uncertain situation. It is a situation that makes us feel disturbed, troubled, confused; it is ambiguous and contradictory. This leads us to formulate a problem statement and to determine a way to solve this problem. Dewey puts it very simply: “We inquire when we question; and we inquire when we seek for whatever will provide an answer to a question asked.” (p. 105).

In consequence, research is and should be based on real life problems and should not contain fictitious elements. Often questions are derived from the personal biography or social context of the researcher. If you talk to people around you about the research projects, you will often see a connection between their research and their life trajectory. Friese (1997, 2001) for example describes the situation that made her feel disturbed / troubled / confused as follows:

“I shared a house with two other female students at the time – and we chatted about what we did that day. One of my housemates told us that she had been looking for a wedding dress. I asked her with whom she went shopping and she said: With my fiancé. This was in 1992 and my housemate was rather conservative. If this is so, I thought, then why did she take her fiancé to look for a bridal gown? Is he not supposed to first see her in the gown when she walks down the aisle in church on the day of their wedding? This was it – the undetermined situation that sparked my research idea. I asked myself whether in postmodern times conservative couples also begin to twist the rules.”

Other examples from student projects where the connection between social context and personal biography was obvious are the following:

  • being a boxing trainer himself, a student examined the function of boxing to help adolescents with a criminal record to deal with aggression
  • having provided voluntary work for elderly, a group of students examined the benefits and down sights of the honorary office
  • the soccer world championship took place in Germany in 2006 and within this context some students looked at the new German nationalism
  • based on the personal biography of a student who served as soldier in the KFOR-Mission in Kosovo, he studied the individual consequences and effects on soldiers who take part in military operations in foreign countries

After having come across an uncertain situation, the next step is to clearly identify and formulate the problem. This is very important as the problem statement is like a lens through which you look at reality, it reduces the complexity of reality and structures the research field. See also the chapter on research design for computer-assisted analysis in Di Gregorio and Davidson (2008).

Doing your homework (the literature review)

Once you have an idea what you want to study, you should spend some time search for existing literature on the topic. Maybe someone else has already solved your problem or there are existing studies that have looked at the same or similar issues you are interested in. Maybe other researchers before you have looked at different aspects, or maybe the study was conducted a long time ago and repeating it would be fruitful.

If in previous studies a quantitative approach was chosen, qualitative data can offer a different perspective on the same topic. A depth interviewing can strengthen a grounded theory, which is based on quantitative research. These qualitative data collection and researches are relevant in market research. In the main, it is essential to know on what kind of information you can build on and how you can contextualize your study. If you cannot find anything in your first search for literature, look for comparable topics. Others may not have exactly researched the issue you are interested in but something very similar, e.g. not boxing as prevention strategy for adolescents with a criminal record, but mountain biking, free climbing or karate. Look a bit to the left and to the right of the topic you are interested in when searching for keywords in library catalogs. Maybe your topic is interesting just for a small group. But this is not a reason not to investigate your topic. A smaller random sampling might be also an advantage: Smaller groups are easier to handle because the analysis of qualitative data is much easier. But also a discourse analysis is easier to handle, if you concentrate only on a few key factors. By doing a discourse analysis you are analysing a text and derive interpretations based on your analysis. This data collection method might be quite time-consuming.

If you need some more insights, but do not have the time to investigate test persons in person, a mobile survey, also called online survey or online poll, might be a good idea. This also enables you to manage the investigated data a lot quicker. The form of your online survey is also to be discussed. Open answers might give you great insights, but it is really complicated to analyse them. Therefore, you could check out semi structured interviews. They are often used in household research and help to define a framework, which makes it easier to compare results afterwards.

Another issue is type of literature. Often students come back from a first visit to the library and are a bit frustrated because they found a few books but two out of the three are loaned for the next three months. Books are okay to look at, but for other reasons than finding up-to-date research results. The first places where new findings are disseminated are at conferences. The resulting papers are often published in conference proceedings. The next steps are journal publication, followed by chapters in edited volumes and possibly single authored books.

Look at books for classical research studies, for gaining an overview of the research field, the major theoretical frameworks used and for definition of established terms. Words used in everyday language like stress, motivation, violence, emotions, employment, unemployment, nationalism and so on, may have specific meanings in a scientific context different from everyday practice. In order to formulate good research questions, you need to define your major terms. Rather than inventing your own definitions, it is better to look at the various alternatives offered in the existing literature. Then make an informed decision.

After a while, you will know the major journals in your field, and it becomes much easier to find relevant articles. Besides, the authors of such articles have done a literature search themselves. Once you have found a handful of good articles, begin to read. Most likely, you find interesting articles referenced in these papers and thus the bibliographies put together by other authors are another good source when looking for relevant literature.

Formulating the qualitative research question

With this background knowledge you are ready to formulate your research question(s). Qualitative research questions are the why and wherefores rather than asking “how often” something occurs and how widespread it is. You may ask who is doing or involved in something, how is it done, for what kind of reasons? What is done, what kind of steps are followed in what kind of order, what kind of strategies are used, what are the consequences of doing or not doing something, why is this so, wherefore is it done and why?

In order not to be overwhelmed by a flood of data it is necessary to specify different focus groups and group data for each of them. So take your time in data collection and analysis. Before starting your own research, you have to determine your exposé and your theory. Afterwards you define all qualitative research methods you want to use. Make sure that the research tools you intend to use are carefully prepared in order to reduce the error rate and avoid misinterpretation.

Below you find a selection of qualitative research question that present good and not so good examples:


Example 1

Elderly people living in a retirement home
Figure 1: Elderly people living in a retirement home

How do elderly people living in a retirement home perceive their situation and how are they dealing with it? – This question can be approached using a qualitative approach as you can talk with the elderly about it. A questionnaire is not appropriate as you can probably not come up with all the possible answer categories.

Example 2

The ideal man?
Figure 2: The ideal man?

How does the image of the ideal man influences the male population between the ages 20 and 35? – The question, as formulated above, is probably difficult to answer in either a single qualitative or quantitative study. One first needs to know what the image of the ideal man is. Maybe there is not just one but several ideal images. This question could be followed up on in a qualitative study. For finding out how this influences a particular segment of the male population, however, a representative survey would need to be conducted.

Example 3

Students on campus
Figure 3: Students on campus

What are the special challenges that students who are born in country X and have an immigrant background face? – Generally, this question can serve as basis for a qualitative study, but it needs some further clarification. In Germany, for example immigrants have lots of different backgrounds: people from Turkey, Russia and the successor states of the former Soviet Union, Poland, successor states of the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Syria, North Africa, etc.

Some are Muslims, some are Christians of various denominations, and others are atheists. And they came for different reasons: work, war, breakdown of communism or having German ancestors. Hence, it is to expect that each group faces different challenges. It is thinkable to design a study where all groups are included, but this would be very large and extensive qualitative research project. The advice here is to narrow the question to one group of immigrants.

Example 4

Thousands of people gathering at a mass event
Figure 4: Thousands of people gathering at a mass event

What kind of emotions and attitudes motivate individuals to take part in mass events? – This question also requires some modification. On the one hand it needs to be more specific regarding the kind of individuals and the kind of mass event(s) to be studied. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to extend the question by including individual background, life situation and the like. The focus on emotions and attitudes most probably is too narrow.

Example 5

Soon to be married couple
Figure 5: Soon to be married couple

Did the role models of marriage and motherhood as perceived by 20 to 30 years old women in our society change; and if so, how did they change? –As in example 2, results from a qualitative study cannot be used to generalize to larger portions of the society, i.e. all 20 to 30 years old women from a country think like that or perceive the role model to be such and such. Thus, one could examine what kind of role models are perceived by a specific group of 20 to 30 years old women and compare those with previous role models described in the literature.


In summary, a qualitative research question mainly focuses on “W” questions; distributions across or within large populations are of lesser importance and often cannot be examined due to the nature of qualitative research itself. The question should not be too broad, but also not too narrow. And you should be able to examine it at all. A prerequisite is that you can gain access to the field.

You may have formulated a perfect qualitative research question, if putting it into practice requires talking to all ministers in your country and you do not have the right connections, your project cannot be realized. Before you continue to invest a lot of time and effort in a research idea, check out whether you can find participants. Talking to pupils in schools often takes a long process of getting permissions from the school board; you cannot just go to a schoolyard and talk to kids there. Military institutions are another case, where you need to adhere to specific procedures to be allowed access.

Recently some students wanted to interview people that have converted to Islam but were not able to find individuals that were willing to participate. Others were interested in people that are addicted to sports; they ended up changing their topic as they did not manage to get in contact with such persons. In qualitative research terms, they could not access the field. Thus, there are not only institutional hurdles to overcome. It is probably easiest to find participants for your research, when the research question is based on your personal background or related to your social context. In other cases, it is not impossible, but more difficult.