Qualitative Study

Article Author:
Steven Tenny
Article Editor:
Nancy Sharts-Hopko
11/27/2019 9:35:15 AM
PubMed Link:
Qualitative Study


Qualitative research is classified as exploratory research. Instead of collecting numerical data points (quantitative research), qualitative research helps generate hypotheses as well as explore and understand the reasons for the data. Qualitative research uses techniques including structured and unstructured interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and surveys.[1][2][3]

Many times a research question will start with qualitative research. The qualitative research will help generate the research hypothesis which can be tested with quantitative methods. After the data is collected and analyzed with quantitative methods, a set of qualitative methods can be used to dive deeper into the data for a better understanding of what the numbers truly mean and their implications. The qualitative methods can then help clarify the quantitative data and also help refine the hypothesis for future research. Furthermore, with qualitative research researchers can explore subjects that are poorly studied with quantitative methods. These include opinions, individual's actions, and social science research.

A good qualitative study design starts with a goal or objective. This should be clearly defined or stated. The target population needs to be specified. A method for obtaining information from the study population must be carefully detailed to ensure there are no omissions of part of the target population. A proper collection method should be selected which will help obtain the desired information without overly limiting the collected data because many times, the information sought is not well compartmentalized or obtained. Finally, the design should ensure adequate methods for analyzing the data.

An example may help better clarify some of the various aspects of qualitative research.

A researcher wants to decrease the number of teenagers who smoke in their community. The researcher could begin by asking current teen smokers why they started smoking through structured or unstructured interviews (qualitative research). The researcher can also get together a group of current teenage smokers and conduct a focus group to help brainstorm factors which may have prevented them from starting to smoke (qualitative research).

In this example, the researcher has used qualitative research (interviews and focus groups) to generate a list of ideas of both why teens start to smoke as well as factors that may have prevented them from starting to smoke. Next, the researcher compiles this data. The research found that, hypothetically, peer pressure, health issues, cost, being considered “cool,” and rebellious behavior all might increase or decrease the likelihood of teens starting to smoke.

The researcher creates a survey asking teen participants to rank how important each of the above factors is in either starting smoking (for current smokers) or not smoking (for current non-smokers). This survey provides specific numbers (ranked importance of each factor) and is thus a quantitative research tool.

The researcher can use the results of the survey to focus efforts on the one or two highest-ranked factors. Let us say the researcher found that health was the major factor that keeps teens from starting to smoke, and peer pressure was the major factor that contributed to teens to start smoking. The researcher can go back to qualitative research methods to dive deeper into each of these for more information. The researcher wants to focus on how to keep teens from starting to smoke, so they focus on the peer pressure aspect.

The researcher can conduct interviews and/or focus groups (qualitative research) about what types and forms of peer pressure are commonly encountered, where the peer pressure comes from and where smoking first starts. The researcher hypothetically finds that peer pressure often occurs after school at the local teen hangouts, mostly the local park. The researcher also hypothetically finds that peer pressure comes from older, current smokers who provide the cigarettes

The researcher could further explore this observation made at the local teen hangouts (qualitative research) and take notes regarding who is smoking, who is not, and what observable factors are at play for peer pressure of smoking. The researcher finds a local park where many local teenagers hang out and sees that a shady, overgrown area of the park is where the smokers tend to hang out. The researcher notes the smoking teenagers buy their cigarettes from a local convenience store adjacent to the park where the clerk does not check identification before selling cigarettes. These observations fall under qualitative research.

If the researcher returns to the park and counts how many individuals smoke in each region of the park, this numerical data would be quantitative research.

Based on the researcher's efforts thus far, they conclude that local teen smoking and teenagers who start to smoke may decrease if there are fewer overgrown areas of the park and the local convenience store does not sell cigarettes to underage individuals.

The researcher could try to have the parks department reassess the shady areas to make them less conducive to the smokers or identify how to limit the sales of cigarettes to underage individuals by the convenience store. The researcher would then cycle back to qualitative methods of asking at-risk population their perceptions of the changes, what factors are still at play, as well as quantitative research that includes teen smoking rates in the community, the incidence of new teen smokers, among others.[4][5]


Qualitative research functions in combination with quantitative research to enhance our understanding of the world. Qualitative research uses techniques including structured and unstructured interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and surveys to not only help generate hypotheses which can be more rigorously tested with quantitative research but also to help researchers delve deeper into the quantitative research numbers, understand what they mean, and understand what the implications are.  Qualitative research provides researchers with a way to understand what is going on, especially when things are not easily categorized.[2]

Issues of Concern

There are many issues of concern relating to qualitative research including reliability and external validity. There are also concerns with sample-related problems and observer bias.[2][3]


Reliability refers to how consistent the results are. If a test is very reliable, it should generate the same results under the same conditions with repeat testing. As qualitative research involves individual's perceptions of the world, reliability for qualitative research is more focused on whether the results are consistent with data collected.

It should be noted that just because the results of qualitative research are reliable, they may not be accurate or correct as they are based on perceptions of individuals. A classic example is a room full of people watching a magic act. The members of the audience may report they saw the magician make someone disappear into thin air from under a sheet but the true answer to what happened may be more accurately reported from the stagehand behind the curtain.

There are three things which can be done to increase the reliability of qualitative research.

  • Audit trail: An audit trail provides a documented set of steps of how the participants were selected and the data was collected. The original records of information should also be kept (e.g., surveys, notes, recordings).
  • Triangulation: Triangulation involves using multiple methods of data collection to increase the likelihood of getting a reliable and accurate result. In our above magic example, the result would be more reliable by also interviewing the magician, back-stage hand, and the person who "vanished." In qualitative research, triangulation can include using telephone surveys, in-person surveys, focus groups, and interviews as well as surveying an adequate cross-section of the target demographic.
  • Peer examination: Results can be reviewed by a peer to ensure the data is consistent with the findings.

External Validity 

External validity is the ability to extrapolate or apply the results of the smaller subset to a larger population or a different population than studied. Many consider the external validity of qualitative research to be weak as qualitative research is based more or individual's perceptions of the world and influenced by the individual's current and past experiences. There are four ways in which qualitative research can be made more generalizable to increase its external validity.

  • Sampling selection: The better the sample represents the intended study population, the more likely the researcher is to encompass the varying factors at play.
  • Thorough description: If the research provides a more thorough description of the study population, characteristics, and phenomenon then others are more easily able to determine if the results are generalizable or translatable to other circumstances.

  • Modal comparison: Comparing the current environment and situation compared to the average situation can allow for future investigators to be able to identify how some of the results may vary from the average based on the underlying environmental deviation from the mode.

  • Multi-site design: Repeat experimentation under differing locations, environments, times, and situations can provide more robust data that is more able to be generalized.

Sample-Related Problems

Three sample-related problems with qualitative research are sample size, sampling bias, and self-selection bias.

  • Sample size: Many qualitative studies involve a study group or set of interviews where the size of the sample may be twenty or fewer. Even with smaller samples sizes, there is lots of information which can be obtained as qualitative research is more than the sole data point of the individual interviewed/surveyed but rather the answers provided.

  • Sampling bias: It is important to construct the sample to include a cross-section of all individuals in the targeted population.  Sometimes researchers can unintentionally leave out part of the target population. For example, a researcher wants to ask about television habits and conducts an online survey. The survey would miss all those who watch television and do not have Internet access or go to the researcher's website.

  • Self-selection bias: Some people self-select for surveys, interviews, or research groups. The researcher must be careful to include an appropriate cross-section of the targeted population. If a researcher wants to gather information about Internet habits and uses an online survey, the survey will have self-selection bias as only those who want to complete the survey will take the time to complete it.

Observation Bias

Bias can also be introduced by the researcher and include the Hawthorne effect, observer-expectancy effect, and artificial-scenario effect.

  • Hawthorne effect: The Hawthorne effect is the change in participant behavior when they know they are being observed. If a researcher was wanting to identify factors which contribute to employee theft and tells the employees they are going to watch them to see what factors affect employee theft, one would suspect employee behavior would change when they know they are being watched.

  • Observer-expectancy effect: Some participants change their behavior or responses to satisfy the researcher's desired effect. This happens in an unconscious manner for the participant so it is important to eliminate or limit transmitting the researcher's views.

  • Artificial scenario effect: Some qualitative research occurs in artificial scenarios and/or with preset goals. In such situations, the information may not be accurate because of the artificial nature of the scenario. The preset goals may limit the qualitative information obtained.

Clinical Significance

Qualitative research provides an important adjunct to quantitative research. Qualitative research provides an opportunity to generate and refine hypotheses and delve deeper into the data generated by quantitative research. Qualitative research does not exist as an island apart from rigorous science and quantitative research, but as an integral part of research methods to be used for rigorous scientific investigation and understanding of the world around us.[6]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Qualitative research is important for all members of the health care team as all are affected by qualitative research. Many research ideas start with qualitative research to help define a research idea and lay the foundation for the research idea.  Much of the qualitative research data acquisition is completed by numerous team members including social works, scientists, nurses, etc.  Within each area of the medical field there is copious ongoing qualitative research including physician-patient interactions, nursing-patient interactions, patient-environment interactions, health care team function, patient information delivery, etc. 


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