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In psychology, qualitative research has come to be defined as research whose findings are not arrived at by statistical or other quantitative procedures. Qualitative research is often said to be naturalistic.[1] That is, its goal is to understand behaviour in a natural setting. Two other goals attributed to qualitative research are understanding a phenomenon from the perspective of the research participant and understanding the meanings people give to their experience. It attempts to do this by using so-called naturalistic methods - interviewing, observation, ethnography, participant observation and focus groups. Each of these methods seeks to understand the perspective of the research participant within the context of their everyday life. This means that the researcher is concerned with asking broad questions that allow the respondent to answer in their own words. These methods allow the researcher to try to qualify their understanding during the research process through further probing questions. In addition, a method such as observation allows the researcher to observe people within natural settings - particularly those in public places. This has resulted in greater understanding of people's behaviours in for example - lifts, public transport, and queues.

Qualitative research is sometimes said to have as its goal the understanding of the sample studied, rather than generalizing from the sample to the population. However, the results of qualitative research can be applied to other settings - as long as the reader of the research understands the limitations. For example, the research findings of a qualitative case study of primary school children in a particular school and their mobile phone use will tell us more about the mobile phone of children in the general population, than of adults. However, the type of school (public or private), where it was located, and the socio-economic background of the students need to be taken into consideration when applying any findings to other settings (either schools or the general population of children).

In addition to the methods for collecting data mentioned above, qualitative research includes a wide range of ways to analyse the data. One of the most popular of these is known as grounded theory. Others include conversation analysis, discourse analysis, thematic analysis, and even historical analysis[2].

Qualitative psychological research emphasizes fieldwork, and this emphasis has been offered as a distinguishing mark. Qualitative psychological research is also described as holistic. That is, qualitative researchers believe in studying phenomena in its context rather than concentrating on narrow aspects of the phenomena. This means that they either observe or participate in the phenomena they are studying, e.g. attending a football game to understand the behaviours of fan, and/or they ask open-ended questions about the behaviour of fans at football games. These questions are holistic because they are designed to understand the context of behaviour - they will usually follow a pattern that replicates the experience, e.g. "What did you do when you arrived? Who did you come with? What did you do then?" However, similar methods are used by quantitative researchers.


Origins and methods

The philosophical bases of qualitative psychological research are found in phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and naturalistic behaviourism. Its research methods are derived from ethnography and anthropology.

In psychology, the research methods commonly classified as qualitative include:

The data collected by researchers using these techniques consist of:

  • the results of open-ended interviews
  • notes of direct observation
  • written documents (answers to questionnaires, diaries, program records, and so on)

After collecting data qualitative psychological researchers goal are to examine their data in depth and in detail.

Most psychological researchers probably use both types of method. In particular, qualitative methods are widely used as exploratory methods; the results of qualitative analysis are used to design quantitative research which tests null hypotheses derived from the qualitative observations.

Those psychological researchers who prefer qualitative research argue that statistically-based research has limitations because it is less able to take into consideration the context of behaviour. Qualitative researchers have developed their own criteria for assessing reliability and validity. The work of Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba is an example of this.

Confirmability is a qualitative concept analogous to the concept of objectivity in quantitative research. It is the degree to which research results can be confirmed by other researchers.

Transferability has been proposed as a qualitative substitute for psychometric validity. Research findings are transferable to the extent to which they can be generalized to settings other than the one in which they were made.

It could be argued, however, that any concept which attempts to assess degree or extent is inherently quantitative.

See also


  1. ^ For example see Hutchins 1995
  2. ^ For an example of a historical approach to psychology see Wertsch, 1998

Hutchins, Edwin (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 0262082314.  

Wertsch, James (1998). Mind as Action. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195117530.  

External links

  • Center for Qualitative Psychology


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