Qualitative research strives to define human behavior and explain the reasons behind that behavior. Often used in commercial areas such as market research, the goal of qualitative research is to provide answers as to why and how people come to make certain decisions. There are several different approaches to undertaking qualitative research.
The ethnographic approach draws from anthropology, in which an entire culture is studied by an outsider. Although ethnography was initially concerned with geographic location and ethnicity, the definition has expanded to include pretty much any organization of group, allowing for the study of a particular organization's culture. The most common ethnographic approach is simply to observe the participants by becoming immersed in the culture, taking extensive notes about observations and impressions.
Field research also takes its cues from anthropology but offers a broader approach to qualitative research, in that the researcher will literally go into the field -- or in the case of an organization, within that organization -- to observe the group in its natural state. In this way, field research is similar to ethnography, since the field researcher will make extensive notes based on his observations. The difference is that a field researcher will go among his subjects, while an ethnographic approach finds the researcher observing from outside the culture. The notes and data gathered can then be analyzed according to a variety of different criteria.
Phenomenology can be considered a philosophical approach to undertaking qualitative research. The goal of phenomenology is to understand how others view the world, and how this view may vary from commonly held views by focusing on a person's subjective interpretations of what she experiences. Phenomenology is done by interviewing the subjects to learn their impressions, and is frequently used in such fields as psychology, sociology and social work.
Initially developed in the 1960s, grounded theory researchers attempt to develop theories about the phenomena that is being studied, but these theories must be grounded in observation. As a result, core theoretical concepts are identified while the data is being gathered. Linkages between the theoretical concepts and the data are then formed. Since each new observation can potentially lead to a new linkage, the process never really ends, and only stops when the researcher decides to conclude his study.
Case study research presents a detailed analysis of a specific case. Unlike an ethnographic approach, which observes the entire group, a case study focuses on one specific facet, such as a person, group process or activity. The processes involved in preparing a case study are interdisciplinary, so a variety of different theories and concepts can emerge when it comes to interpreting a case study.