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Qualitative Methods

Research methods that emphasize detailed, personal descriptions of phenomena.

Research psychologists can collect two kinds of information: quantitative data and qualitative data. Quantitative data are often represented numerically in the form of means, percentages, or frequency counts. Such data are often referred to as "measurement" data, referring to the fact that we often like to measure the amount or extent of some behavior, trait, or disposition. For example, shyness, test anxiety, and depression can all be appraised by means of paper-and-pencil tests which yield numerical scores representing the extent of shyness, anxiety, etc. that resides in the individual taking the test. A psychologist interested in the relationship between test anxiety and grade point average would collect the appropriate quantitative information on each of these two variables and conduct statistical tests that would reveal the strength (or absence) of the relationship.

The term "qualitative research methods" refers to a variety of ways of collecting information that is less amenable to quantification and statistical manipulation. Qualitative methods differ from quantitative methods largely because their ultimate purpose is different. The goal of qualitative research is to arrive at some general, overall appreciation of a phenomenon—highlighting interesting aspects and perhaps generating specific hypotheses. In contrast, quantitative research is typically designed to test relatively specific predictions. Qualitative research thus provides an initial description of a phenomenon, whereas quantitative research aims to investigate its various details. Some examples of qualitative methods include focus groups, surveys, naturalistic observations, interviews, content analyses of archival material, and case studies. What these approaches share is an emphasis on revealing some general pattern by observing a few particular cases.

Focus groups are commonly used by marketing or advertising agencies to derive information about people's reactions to a particular product or event. A small number of people, often fewer than 10, are asked their opinions. A focus group engaged by the marketing department of a breakfast cereal company, for example, might be asked how appealing the cereal looks, whether the box would make them consider buying it, and how agreeable the cereal's texture and taste were. A facilitator would encourage the participants to share their opinions and reactions in the context of a group discussion. The session would be taped and transcribed. Researchers would then use the information to make their product more appealing. Naturalistic observations involve studying individuals in their natural environments. One common variant consists of participant observation research in which the researcher, in order to understand it, becomes part of a particular group. George Kirkham was a criminologist who took a year off from his university position to work as a police patrolman. He then wrote about the changes in his attitudes and values that occurred when he worked in high-crime neighborhood.

There are several drawbacks to qualitative methods of inquiry. Firstly, the results are always subject to personal biases. A person who is interviewed, for example, is stating their version of the truth. Personal perspectives invariably affect what the individual believes and understands. Similarly, the results reported by the researcher conducting a naturalistic observation will be tainted by that researcher's individual interpretation of the events. Further, while case studies are rich sources of information about individuals, it is risky to assume that the information can be generalized to the rest of the population. Moreover, analyzing the data from qualitative research can be difficult, since open-ended questions and naturalistic observation leave room for so much variability between individuals that comparisons are difficult. Finally, although it may be tempting for researchers to infer cause and effect relationships from the results of naturalistic observations, interviews, archival data and case studies, this would be irresponsible. Qualitative methods rarely attempt to control any of the factors that affect situations, so although one factor may appear to have caused an event, its influence cannot be confirmed without conducting more precise investigations. There is thus a tradeoff between flexibility and precision.

The advantages of doing qualitative research are numerous. One of the most important of these is that the flexibility of qualitative data collection methods can provide researchers access to individuals who would be unable or unwilling to respond in more structured formats. For this reason, much research on children is qualitative. Naturalistic observations of children are sometimes undertaken to assess social dynamics. For example, covert videotaping of elementary school playgrounds has revealed that bullying and aggression are far more common than most teachers and parents realize, and that bullying is not uncommon among girls. Similarly, comparative psychologists learn a lot about the social, behavioral, and cognitive abilities of animals by studying them in their natural habitats. A further advantage of this type of research is that the validity of the results is not jeopardized by the laboratory environment. An animal or child may not act the way they usually would in their natural surroundings if they are studied in a laboratory.

Another important application of qualitative research is in the study of new areas of interest, or topics about which not very much is known. Qualitative research usually yields a lot of information. In contrast with quantitative research, the information gathered by qualitative researchers is usually broadly focused. This means that qualitative methods can yield information about the major factors at play, highlighting areas that might warrant more in-depth quantitative study. Although many researchers believe quantitative methods to be superior to qualitative methods, the two are probably best seen as complementary. Qualitative research can suggest what should be measured and in what way, while controlled quantitative studies may be the most accurate way of doing the actual measuring.

Timothy E. Moore

Further Reading

Murray, J. "Qualitative methods." International Review of Psychiatry, vol 10, no. 4 (1998): 312-316.

Marecek, J. "Qualitative methods and social psychology." Journal of Social Issues vol 53, no. 4 (1997): 631-644.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie