Tools for Qualitative Research

The most important tool in qualitative research is the researcher.

Qualitative research gathers rich data about experiences, motivations, beliefs and mental and social dynamics. It strives for understanding, holistic descriptions and deep insights. Unlike quantitative research, it studies relatively small samples of respondents and rarely, if ever, uses statistical methods for data analysis. Qualitative researchers use a variety of tools and methods in their research.

1 Tools versus Methods

The term "research tool" can simply be another name for a research method, or it can apply to specific techniques and materials that researchers use in the study.

Qualitative research uses three main methods of data collection: interviewing, observation and artifact analysis. Main interview types that qualitative researchers use are in-depth, one-on-one interviews and focus-group interviews. Artifact analysis usually means analysis of written texts, but sometimes objects, such as art work, undergo analysis. Each of these methods employs specific tools that facilitate and enrich the data collection process.

2 Role of the Researcher

The main tool of qualitative research (be it in-depth individual interviews, focus groups or observations) is the researcher. Qualitative approaches emphasize the role of the researcher, accept that all data gathering is more or less subjective and value-laden. In many ways, qualitative interviewing is a two-way process.

3 Interviewing Tools

Interviewing techniques that qualitative research uses often derive from clinical and diagnostic interviews in medicine or psychology. In addition to straightforward questioning, qualitative interviewers use probing, clarification requests, paraphrasing, reflection, laddering and listening techniques to explore the topic in depth.

Most qualitative interviews use a topic list, sometimes called the guide or the agenda. This might be a short overview of all issues that the researcher needs to cover or a more specific list of questions, usually open ended. In all cases, the focus is on obtaining particular information, not on asking a specific, standard question.

4 Projective Techniques

Qualitative studies often incorporate projective techniques. Projective techniques have roots in the psycho-dynamic tradition, and work on the assumption that people cannot easily access certain mental content directly, but can express it indirectly by “projecting” their feelings and beliefs on other objects. Projective techniques are popular in marketing research, particularly brand image and attitude studies.

Popular projective and indirect techniques include personification/animization (if this brand was a person/animal, what kind of person/animal would they be?), word association, collage, expressive drawing, imaginary party (if these brands, people or places were at the party, what would they do and how would they behave?), mapping and sorting; sentence completion and many others.

5 Other Tools

Qualitative research has other data-gathering techniques in its toolkit, from accompanied shopping (a form of observation used in market research) to Kelly Grid (rep-test), Delphi technique, simple inventories and more.

Textual analysis is a traditional tool of social sciences, while analysis of artifacts and other material objects is becoming more popular within the academia and starting to appear in the world of consumer research.

6 Role of Technology

ICT development is another source of tools for qualitative research. Gone are the times where researchers only equipment consisted of a pencil, a notebook and, at best, a creaky tape recorder. Researchers record interviews and focus groups using specialized audio and video equipment, often straight to digital formats. Voiced recognition software helps with the transcription of the tapes and textual analysis software makes complex investigations into long documents and transcripts possible.

Internet research opportunities increase as the bandwidth and penetration grow. On-line focus groups and interviews using instant messenger software are now commonplace, and there is a lot of research that examines material, both textual and visual, found on the Internet.

Magdalena Healey has a Master of Science in psychology from the University of Gdansk. She is an English language translator and interpreter, has taught social psychology, information technology and questionnaire design. Healey has also written extensively on travel.