What is Qualitative Research?

We will discuss some basics of what is good to know when conducting a qualitative research project. To better understand how and why a qualitative approach is useful and what qualitative research methods can analyze data, it's essential to explore some fundamental assumptions about qualitative research in the social sciences.
Susanne Friese
Product specialist, trainer and author of the book "Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti"
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Qualitative research
  2. The basics of qualitative research
  3. The qualitative research process
  4. Building your ideas
  5. Formulating the qualitative research question
  6. Examples
  7. Summary


The qualitative research process is often entirely different from what may be commonly perceived as research. Rather than controlled experiments or statistical analysis, qualitative research involves observation, interactions, and deep analysis to create or develop theory. Understanding qualitative research will benefit you by opening new lines of inquiry and broadening possibilities for data collection and data analysis.

  • The basics of qualitative research
  • The qualitative research process
  • Building your ideas
  • Formulating the qualitative research question
  • Summary

The basics of qualitative research

Qualitative research

Qualitative research involves looking in-depth at non-numerical data, organizing the data, and analyzing the data in a way that provides in-depth insights into the concepts under study. Qualitative research methods can range from observations to focus groups and are used extensively to study human behavior, opinions, themes, and motivations. Researchers often conduct qualitative research for various kinds of analyses. Moreover, qualitative research can also be found in various professional fields:

  • market research
  • clinical research
  • health services research
  • user research

Any field that depends on deeper insights and a thorough understanding of a particular phenomenon relies on the various methods involved in qualitative research. However, qualitative research can be challenging to understand without exploring the theoretical underpinnings that guide the analysis process. Let's examine some of them briefly.

The goal of research

Qualitative social science research aims to look at the world from a scientific perspective, which is true for all scientific disciplines. The role of science is to organize knowledge in an orderly manner so people can achieve a better understanding. Research in fields such as chemistry and physics indeed relies on the organization of knowledge to generate a consensus for scientists who can then build further knowledge.

Chemistry provides a good example. The periodic table places elements on different rows and columns depending on how many electron shells they have and how their electron shells are composed. Each element is also classified by its atomic number, atomic weight, and an abbreviation for easy reference. When researchers have this information in mind, they can have a dialogue about chemistry and appropriate data collection methods and research methods for further research.

Qualitative research in the social sciences

The social sciences rely on qualitative research to organize knowledge in areas such as culture, language, and political affairs. However, the challenge in qualitative research is the subjective quality of many concepts. What does it mean for food to be "delicious"? What are the qualities people look at when they consider art "appealing"? What makes a "cohesive" community?

Unlike elements and atomic numbers, which are fixed and objective, a concept like "delicious food" is subjective, meaning that the definition can differ from person to person. It would be challenging for quantitative research alone to identify what food qualifies as delicious. You could conduct data collection where you ask respondents to give a particular dish a score, but analyzing numerical data from that inquiry is unreliable unless people share a consensus regarding what their scores mean.

Alternatively, qualitative methods provide for data analysis that defines the qualities of a concept rather than just their relative value. Qualitative researchers can conduct qualitative research methods like in-depth interviews or focus groups to collect data. The resulting data analysis can identify themes arising from the respondents' answers and propose a conceptual framework for the idea of "delicious food." Afterward, researchers can take that framework (perhaps made up of more specific aspects such as taste, smell, and visual presentation) and conduct quantitative methods to collect quantitative data from respondents.

Qualitative methods

Quantitative studies can easily take place in a laboratory or a controlled setting. Quantitative research methods can then be used to conduct data collection that is numerical in nature for easy data analysis.

On the other hand, experimentation is less appropriate for conducting qualitative research. Numerical data is seldom useful for defining the qualities of a social concept, which is best seen in a "real" environment in the outside world anyways.

As a result, qualitative research is less about experimenting and more about observing. It investigates furthermore how study participants behave in various situations. As a qualitative researcher, you observe the world and talk to people, aiming to understand what is important to your research participants and how they perceive what is around them.

The qualitative research process

Now that we understand the basic assumptions behind qualitative and quantitative research, let's look broadly at the qualitative research method in terms of data collection and data analysis.

Qualitative data collection

Qualitative studies can adopt any of several qualitative research methods to achieve the goal of understanding a particular topic or phenomenon:

The last research method is critical to the qualitative researcher as it also provides valuable insights for data analysis. In qualitative research, the researcher is the most important instrument of data collection. Their reflections on the data collected provide the deepest insight into how to interpret and analyze the data.

The data from the various qualitative research methods can take on many forms, including:

  • field notes
  • transcripts
  • pictures
  • audio or video recordings
  • reflection memos

Whatever qualitative research methods you employ, ATLAS.ti provides a place for qualitative researchers to collect, organize, and analyze all of your data.

Qualitative data analysis

Through the coding process, qualitative researchers can use ATLAS.ti to gather in-depth insights from their data. The various qualitative methods for data analysis include:

  • content analysis
  • thematic analysis
  • textual analysis
  • grounded theory
  • deductive coding

Whatever the method of qualitative data analysis, the goal is ultimately to organize the data to generate knowledge that is meaningful and accessible to researchers and their audiences.

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Building your ideas

Researchers employing quantitative research methods have a relatively easy time pursuing a particular research idea. Quantitative researchers typically design a study to confirm or challenge existing theories. Qualitative research, on the other hand, is more exploratory in nature, often relying on the unfamiliarity of concepts to drive research.

Qualitative inquiry can pursue one of three goals:

  • Conceptualize an entirely new social concept,
  • Develop the theory behind an existing social concept, or
  • Apply an existing social concept to a new context.

Each goal deals with unfamiliarity to different extents. Applying theories to new contexts is a good motivation that allows qualitative research to challenge understanding of existing concepts. The idea of delicious food is sure to differ between cultures, for example. While some countries may focus on the size of the food portions, others may emphasize the food's presentation. Qualitative data analysis of interviews in different countries can develop the theory of "delicious food" to be more universally applicable.

Looking within and around you

While qualitative research should generate knowledge that connects to existing theory, a new qualitative inquiry need not always start with existing theory from a research article or book. Research questions are often derived from the researcher's personal biography or social context. 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 their wedding day? 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 involved in qualitative research include a variety of topics that are derived from personal experiences:

Being a boxing trainer himself, a student examined the function of boxing to help adolescents with a criminal record deal with aggression

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 a 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 encountering an uncertain situation, the next step is clearly identifying and formulating 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 know what to study, you should search for existing literature on the topic. Qualitative research, let alone any research, relies on connections from your data analysis to the larger body of research scholarship in journals, books, and other sources of scientific knowledge.

Literature reviews rely on collecting studies on the concepts and theories relevant to your research. The goal of conducting a literature review is to demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of your topic to reliably contribute new knowledge through qualitative research. Even if you are working with an underdeveloped concept with little discussion or few studies on the subject, a literature review can emphasize the need for your qualitative research to explore something that has been given little attention.

It's essential to search broadly for discussion of your inquiry. If you are conducting education research, for example, perhaps studies in health research, behavioral sciences, or other fields of qualitative research or social research can help you explore your concept more deeply.

On top of coding primary data you collect in the field, you can also organize, code, and analyze PDFs of qualitative research in ATLAS.ti. ATLAS.ti is useful for conducting content analysis or theoretical sampling to look for an appropriate research gap in the literature to justify your qualitative study.

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Identifying the research gap

The literature review can identify gaps that existing scholarship still needs to discuss and that your qualitative research can fill. The gap can be substantive in nature, in which case further theoretical development is necessary. It can also be filled by studying a new context or conducting an unused qualitative method.

Maybe someone else has already conducted qualitative research on the subject, or there are existing studies that have looked at the same or similar issues you are interested in. Maybe other researchers have employed different qualitative methods; if a previous qualitative researcher used observations, perhaps collecting data from focus groups would generate further insights. Or maybe the study was conducted long ago, and repeating it would be fruitful to update our understanding of the phenomenon.

If previous studies relied on quantitative methods, qualitative data could offer a different perspective on the same topic. In-depth interviewing can strengthen a grounded theory that can generate a concept for further qualitative research. These qualitative data collection and analyses are relevant to market research. It is essential to know 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 a prevention strategy for adolescents with a criminal record, but mountain biking, free climbing, or karate. Look a bit to the left and 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 analyzing a text and deriving interpretations based on your analysis. This data collection method might be quite time-consuming.

Gaining insights from the field

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

Another issue is the 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, chapters in edited volumes, and possibly single-authored books.

Look at books for classical research studies to gain 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 qualitative 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 can find interesting articles referenced in these papers. 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 questions. Qualitative research tends to ask "why" something occurs, while quantitative research tends to ask “how often” something occurs or how widespread it is. Qualitative researchers 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 for qualitative researchers to specify different focus groups and group data for each of them. So take your time with qualitative data collection and analysis. Before starting qualitative research, you have to determine your exposé and your theory. Afterward, you can define all qualitative research methods you want to use. Make sure that the qualitative research methods you intend to use are carefully prepared in order to reduce the error rate and avoid misinterpretation.

Below you can find a selection of questions 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 qualitative research methods 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 influence the male population between the ages 20 and 35?

The question, as formulated above, is probably difficult to answer in either a single qualitative research study or quantitative research 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 in future qualitative research. To find 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 a 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 expected that each group faces different challenges. It is thinkable to design a study where all groups are included, but this would be a 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 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 backgrounds and life situations. The focus on emotions and attitudes is probably 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-year-old women). Thus, one could examine what kind of role models is perceived by a specific group of 20- to 30-year-old women and compare those with previous role models described in the literature.


We have discussed the key considerations to keep in mind when conducting qualitative research:

  • guiding assumptions of inquiry
  • formulation of a research agenda
  • selection of appropriate qualitative research methods
  • the data collection and data analysis process

To go back to the beginning, qualitative research just to "know more" is less useful than qualitative research that more effectively organizes new and existing knowledge. Achieving this goal requires a comprehensive understanding of the complex issues around your topic, the choice of useful qualitative research methods for your inquiry, and the organization of your collected data for meaningful insights.

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