PEHL 557

Class Notes

Qualitative Research

Student Learning Outcomes

At the completion of this unit of instruction students will be able to:

  1. Provide examples of different types of qualitative research (ethnographic, naturalistic, interpretive, grounded, phenomenological, subjective, and participant observational).
  2. Identify principal differences between traditional scientific (quantitative) approaches and qualitative approaches (assumptions of the world, how the process is conducted, what can be studied)
  3. Identify differences between qualitative and quantitative methods (assumptions of world, purpose, approach, researcher's role)
  4. Understand concerns about defining reality through measurements (problems of validity and self-fulfilling outcomes)
  5. Recognize the different types of information accessible through quantitative and qualitative methods (cross-sectional versus in-depth views)
  6. Understand the concept of triangulation (revealing similar findings through different method)

The notes presented here are intended as a supplement to the notes presented in your text. Be sure to read the chapter. Try especially to understand the contrasting characteristics of qualitative and quantitative research as presented in Table 17-1, p. 367. Note also that conducting qualitative research does not exclude the use of quantitative measures. Various types of data can be collected through observation, discussion, and other techniques that could be statistically analyzed


Ethnographic, naturalistic, interpretive, grounded, phenomenological, subjective, and participant observational are all forms of "qualitative research."

Despite some differences in their approaches there are several similarities that distinguish these methods from traditional quantitative approaches to research.

You will remember that "scientific" research as characterized in the text was logical, systematic, replicable, and empirical. Principal differences between the typical scientific (quantitative) approach to problem solving, and the qualitative approach involve: (1) the assumptions that each method makes about the world; (2) how the process of research should be conducted; and (3) what constitutes legitimate problems, solutions, and criteria of proof.

Differences between qualitative and quantitative methods

Imagine yourself a researcher in tourism interested in identifying the reasons why vacationers choose one destination over another.

1. Assumptions about the world

Quantitative researchers see the world and its events as an objective reality apart from the beliefs of individuals. In other words, they believe that we can identify reasons and explanations. Based on this premise our tourist researcher might list possible destination attractions, compile and administer a questionnaire, then rank order the primary reasons for destination choice.

Qualitative researchers in contrast see the world as socially constructed through individual perceptions. Their approach is to not believe that they understand and can identify reasons for behaviors. They are skeptical of providing possible explanations without carefully examining the process. Simply put, in the tourism example, they would approach the problem without preconceived explanations, and through a variety of techniques try to see the factors influencing destination choice.

2. Purpose

Quantitative researchers seek to explain the causes of change primarily through objective measurement and quantitative analysis (statistics).

Qualitative researchers are more concerned with understanding what is happening as viewed by the participants.

3. Approach

Quantitative researchers typically employ experimental or correlational designs to reduce error, control biases, and eliminate unwanted influences

Qualitative researchers typically employ no controls but rather attempt to understand the entire environment and help others to understand how participants are seeing the situation being studied.

4. Researcher’s Role

Quantitative researchers attempt to be detached and avoid bias.

Qualitative researchers become immersed in the situation they are studying.

Examples of Qualitative Research

1. Jane Goodall’s study of mountain gorillas involved her living among the gorillas, trying to become an accepted part of their environment, and through observational techniques trying to understand their behaviors. We might contrast this approach with that of a zoo researcher who also examines gorilla behavior through manipulating aspects of their living environment. Both studies would produce different results but who can say which is better!

2. A researcher could examine a teacher’s instructional effectiveness by collecting various indices of effectiveness: rate of feedback, questioning skills, eye contact, time on task, etc. The research could survey students in the class for their opinions on various aspects of the class (similar to the course evaluation). This data could be statistically analyzed and the resulting conclusions might indicate ways in which the teacher could teach more effectively. Notice that this approach holds the classroom as an objective reality that can be measured (quantified).

A very different approach would be for a researcher to simply attend class, become friendly with the teacher and students, and though observation and questioning attempt to understand how each of them views the learning environment. What might she learn? Perhaps she would discover that the teacher’s tendency to attempt humor often confused the students. Perhaps the teacher’s explanations about assignments were not clear to the students. The possibility exists that she identify several teacher behaviors that appear to negatively impact upon teaching effectiveness.

Alternatively, the researcher might also discover that the students are not performing well for many reasons beyond the teacher’s control. For example, perhaps the format of a 3-hour night class is too long for students to be able to concentrate and absorb the material? Perhaps two students in the class have begun dating and are so immersed in each other that they cannot concentrate? Perhaps there is conflict among students in the class that is impacting on attention? Perhaps the class is being held on a night that has a favorite TV show and students are thinking about rushing home and catching the last part of the show? Perhaps one person has a sick friend and does not have time to properly study? And perhaps three members of the class are on athletic teams and in missing classes failed to hear an important explanation?

Added together, in this latter scenario the researcher might conclude that the primary reasons the students are not learning are less associated with the teacher and more in factors associated with the students. Clearly there could be many different scenarios and the approach of trying to see how each person views (socially creates) the reality of the classroom offers the possibility of some fascinating and unanticipated insights.

3. As a final example I would mention the study on teenage pregnancy discussed as an example of a Case Study. This study clearly employed the approach of the qualitative researcher. The investigator approached the topic without any preconceived explanation and spent a great deal of time with a small number of pregnant teenaged girls. She took copious notes and in her report described the conversations she had with the subjects. She also attempted to point out commonalties and differences in the reported experiences.

A Limitation of Qualitative Research

One limitation - which could also be argued a strength - of qualitative research is that is defines the reality it purports to measure. If you think about it, terms such as "strength," "power," "endurance," "honesty," "personality," and "integrity" only exist according to a definition. You cannot see strength or honesty unless you first define what it means to you. Once you define a term you have made it objectively real. This is good in the sense that now you know exactly what you mean and it can be measured. Unfortunately, it also means that your scale of measurement shapes your understanding of the term. In practical terms consider the term "aggression." Aggression only exists to the extent that you are able to come up with a way of measuring it. The measurement you make then indicates a person’s level of aggression. But we need to ask ourselves the basis upon which we can conclude that this is a valid test? What if someone else were to come up with a different test for aggression - which would be a more valid measurement?

One of the concerns we should have relates to the risk of improperly labeling people through the process of quantification. Many years ago coaches became interested in using tests to assess the personality characteristics of their athletes. Their motivation was probably sincere - to better understand their athletes. A problem that emerged was the risk of interpreting the data and beginning to treat athletes differently sometimes in a self-fulfilling way. For example, if coaches discovered that some athletes scored low on a factor characterized on the questionnaire as "loyalty" there was a risk that they would begin to treat the athletes as if they were disloyal. As you know people often have a way of meeting your expectations!

Different Kinds of Information

The choice of a quantitative or qualitative method of investigation depends on the type of information the researcher is seeking. Quantitative research is designed to reduce the complexity of studying a problem, whereas qualitative research attempts to understand, describe, and sometime explain the complexity. Quantitative research shows patterns across situations (sometimes on a large scale) whereas qualitative research has a much smaller focus. Qualitative research shows details, processes at work, and the important role of individuals.


When focused on the same issue, quantitative and qualitative methods can triangulate. In other words they can show stability (reliability) of the findings. If similar results are obtained it is reasonable to assume that the method of research did not influence the findings. When findings diverge a possible conclusion is that the topic is in need of additional investigation. 

(Revised 2/11/99)



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