Qualitative research methods involve the collection of information that is not easily reduced to numbers. Qualitative findings have great value in the study of human behavior and the social world. Because health care and education, for example, involve complex human interactions, qualitative approaches to research are important tools for researchers in those fields. Qualitative research methods typically include in-depth interviews, audio recordings, video recordings, observation, journals or diaries and photographs.

Strengths of Qualitative Methods

Qualitative approaches to research yield rich details, allowing an issue to be explored in great depth. Because qualitative research involves asking participants open-ended questions, the participants can elaborate at length on their feelings and experiences. Therefore, these approaches can tend to reveal the subtle and truly complex aspects of a topic. The data that is produced in qualitative studies offers more convincing and dramatic information about the lives of participants than more numerical approaches tend to offer. For example, observation of a classroom to determine the differences in the teacher's treatment of boys and girls could use tape-recording, video or descriptive notes to provide fresh insight.

Limitations of Qualitative Methods

One important limitation of qualitative research is the difficulty in achieving scientific rigor. The quality of the research also depends a great deal on the skills of those involved in the interviewing and data gathering. An interviewer's very demeanor, attitude or remarks can influence responses. Added to this is the task of sorting through the sheer volume of information resulting from qualitative interviews. Despite what they reveal and the work required, qualitative methods are not always as readily accepted by the scientific establishment as more numerical approaches are.

Qualitative Research at Its Best

Qualitative research considers the how and why questions within larger events or topics. It generates detailed observation notes and descriptions of behavior and motivation. Focus groups are one qualitative approach in which small groups of participants offer opinions on a topic, such as an ad campaign or a new product. When there is a need to observe a daily routine, qualitative approaches are ideal. Historians, sociologists and anthropologists often need to study qualitative research, and this approach is increasingly valuable to product designers and computer system designers as well. Qualitative research is reliable when there is a need to understand how people interact with equipment or objects in an environment.

When Qualitative Methods Should Be Applied

Researchers need to thoughtfully consider their goals in choosing an approach. Qualitative research methods rarely test theory, for example, but they are useful for developing theory. These approaches are rooted in discovering meaning, using words and description as the most basic element. A study of the experiences of black fathers while they supported wives or partners during childbirth would lend itself perfectly to unstructured interviews with the individual fathers. Such interviews would generate the sort of narrative that makes qualitative research valuable in developing theory. In contrast, when there is a need to collect hard numbers or to determine general trends, quantitative research approaches are numerical in nature and more appropriate.