Basics of Research Process

Qualitative Research: Definition, Approaches, Methods & Examples

Qualitative Research
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Qualitative research is a type of data collection and analysis method which involves gathering non-numerical information, such as words, images, observations and experiences. This type of research is used to understand the meaning behind the data. Qualitative research can be conducted by using a variety of methods including focus groups, interviews, case studies, ethnography and action research.

If you are planning to conduct qualitative research and need some guidance, fear not! This article will navigate through the complexities of this research methodology and help you write a dissertation or other study properly. We will start with a detailed definition of a qualitative study, breaking down the key components and showing you how to apply qualitative research methods.  

To help you handle such studies, we’ll provide best practices for data collection and sampling here. To bring it all together, we've included several real-world examples of successful qualitative studies. So let’s get down to business!

What Is Qualitative Research: Definition

Qualitative research is a research methodology used to explore and understand human behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences. It is a non-numerical approach to research that focuses on collecting and analyzing non-numerical data such as text, images, audio recordings, and video.

The purpose of qualitative research is to gain a deep understanding of a particular phenomenon or issue, rather than to test a specific hypothesis or prediction. It’s often used to discover new aspects of problems, understand which factors influence them, and find general ways to solve them. 

Unlike quantitative research, which deals with numbers and percentages, the qualitative approach is non-numeric and mostly involves focusing on various qualities, particularly on naming, evaluating, and explaining them. It can help identify trends or behavior patterns. At this stage, you aren’t expected to calculate anything. Instead, you are trying to understand why certain things happen. 

Qualitative research is typically used for humanitarian disciplines such as psychology, sociology, or political science. Investigation of problems in these areas typically starts with the collection and analysis of non-numerical data, such as opinions and ideas.

Below we’ll explain the strategy behind using the qualitative research method for your specific topic.

>> Read more: Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

Qualitative Study Example

Qualitative research is performed when studying problems that don’t have clearly measurable parameters. Such non-measurable information is often obtained from people who have witnessed certain events or encountered problems. Let’s discuss how to gather and use such evidence with the help of qualitative methods.

Example of qualitative research design

Let’s suppose that you have to understand what are the effects of cyberbullying in gaming communities. You need to use qualitative methods to collect data from your target audience: a number of gamers who agree to share their experience. Their opinions and feelings provide material for understanding factors and trends involved in this problem.

The next step is analyzing the gathered evidence, grouping the participants’ responses by their reactions to cyberbullying, and identifying certain trends. As a result, you would be able to conclude how this problem affects different people.

>> Learn more: What Is a Research Design

Qualitative Research Approaches

When conducting qualitative studies, you need to gather information about your topic from the target groups you’ve selected. There are different ways to approach qualitative research, and each of them is recommended for a specific situation. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Qualitative research approaches




Grounded theory

This qualitative approach examines events and trends in order to explain the reasons behind them. Theories are based on data collected from various sources.

Analysis of political processes, such as elections or wars. Investigating reasons why one side has won or why the struggle has begun.


Involves close studies of specific cultural, ethnic, or social groups. Researchers attempt to get close to these people, ask them questions and inspect their life, thus obtaining ethnographic data.

Studying tribes in their natural habitat or religious groups during their ceremonies.

Action research

Much more can be learned through personal experience than by reading descriptions made by others. This approach is about studying through practice without limiting yourself to just theory.

Recreating original settings and conditions in settlements of ancient cultures to better understand their history.


This qualitative approach in research focuses on direct communications with actual witnesses who possess first-hand information about the research subject.

Investigating the course of a natural disaster by interviewing locals who have suffered from it or inspecting the traces it left.

Narrative research

When using this approach, researchers not only collect evidence from people but also pay attention to how they interpret their experiences.

Examining the aftermath of political or social turbulence by interviewing participants. Their evidence is often biased, which must be taken into account when making conclusions.

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Qualitative Research Methods

Now let’s talk about qualitative research methods which can be used for collection and analysis of non-numerical data. Qualitative research methodology includes paying close attention to the specifics of your research problem so that the best way to obtain valuable knowledge about it could be selected.

Despite their differences, qualitative methods have some common traits:

  • Asking open-ended questions about the problem so that more details and personal opinions could be obtained.
  • Examining your target groups by watching them whenever possible.
  • Paying attention to the context of the problem to find extra details that could add something new to your own assumptions.
  • Aiming to understand the motives of witnesses and participants and the reasons behind their behavior or testimonies.

So, the methodology for qualitative research mostly revolves around finding personal approaches to interpreting evidence from particular members of target groups.

The success and general quality of your research study are determined in part by the approach that you choose. Below is the list of most common types of qualitative research methods:

  • Observation Directly inspecting your subjects in their normal circumstances.
  • Interview Obtaining evidence through personal conversation.
  • Focus group Picking proper representatives of the entire group of subjects.
  • Survey Sending lists of prepared questions to all subjects.
  • Literature review Exploring the existing sources, such as books and articles.
  • Case study Inspecting the development of the problem over a period of time.

Each of these methods is explained in sections below. Several detailed examples of qualitative research methods are also given there.

1. One-on-One Interview

Conducting personal interviews with people who can provide valuable evidence about the problem is one of the most popular qualitative research methods. It typically includes the following steps:

  1. Targeting a limited group of interviewees.
  2. Preparing a basic list of questions beforehand so that nothing important is forgotten during the interview.
  3. Scheduling a meeting with each interviewee. This can be done online, via phone, or by talking face-to-face.
  4. Asking additional questions, if possible, in order to better understand interviewees’ personal opinions, motives, biases towards the problem, etc.

Experienced qualitative researchers can gather a lot of helpful information during such interviews. In addition to exploring the problem’s context, it helps to find out more about the target audience’s psychological traits and thus to evaluate the integrity of the evidence.

Such an approach can be used when you can target a number of witnesses who are ready to share their information. On the other hand, this qualitative method can be very time-consuming if the target group is big. If you need to interview hundreds of people, you’ll need more than a month to complete this task.

Example of using an interview in a qualitative study

Let’s suppose you’re examining the behavior of some rare bird species in captivity, and this species happens to be kept in a nearby zoo. You can interview the workers who are caring for these birds, as well as visitors that have seen them.

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2. Focus Group

A huge target audience can be divided into smaller focus groups. Such subdivisions typically consist of 6 to 10 people with common traits. Depending on your problem’s specifics, you can define your groups based on age, ethnicity, sex, religion, political position, musical preferences, and so on. 

After the groups have been formed, evidence is collected by conducting interviews with every member. Considering a limited group as a proper representative of your target audience, you can treat the research results as applicable to all your subjects.

Compared to other qualitative methods of research, such an approach allows making assumptions about big masses of people. However, there is always some risk of making a mistake during the process of extrapolation. Researchers should be very careful when defining their focus groups. The difficulty of picking right candidates that would properly represent the respective population creates certain limitations for this qualitative research method.

Focus group in qualitative research example

Such an approach can be used by big retail companies that try to obtain valid feedback from their customers. Creating focus groups of morning vs. evening shoppers or dividing them by age may help to understand their ‘average’ representative’s needs.

3. Survey

Another qualitative research method that makes it easier to obtain evidence from big masses is conducting a survey. Instead of organizing personal interviews, you may publish a list of prepared questions and ask all members of your target audience to answer them. After some time, you’ll receive a lot of data that can be processed further.

This is one of the quickest methods of qualitative research. It can be very effective, especially when the target audience is incentivized to take the suggested survey. Its limitation is the lack of depth compared to face-to-face interviews. If every participant responds to the same list of questions, some specific insights may be lost.

Example of survey qualitative research method

Political parties often use survey forms to better perceive the needs and preferences of people they represent and whose votes they need. A list of most important questions is the fastest way to get feedback from voters across the country.

4. Observations

A researcher often needs to learn more about its target group than can be obtained by asking them questions. Their usual activities and interactions with each other might provide additional information. Making direct observations on your subject is one of the most efficient approaches in qualitative methodology. And, of course, this research type is even more helpful when examining wildlife. Observing includes taking notes of subjects’ habits, reactions to usual and unusual events, actions under stress, interactions with each other, etc.

This qualitative research method can bring lots of valuable insights which aren’t possible to obtain otherwise. However, the results of observations are significantly affected by a researcher’s own bias or depth of understanding. This must be taken into account when analyzing such information.

Observation qualitative research method example

In order to study the adaptive capabilities of wild animals in their natural geographical locations, observations are performed in their natural habitats. One of the most efficient ways is installing hidden cameras there. Such recordings contain lots of valuable material about animals’ habits.

5. Literature Review

This method is typically used as a part of the grounded theory approach when an event or a trend is examined from different angles. Qualitative research can be performed by obtaining necessary information about the subject from existing sources. If it has already been examined by other researchers, you can use the data they’ve collected for your own research as long as you make proper references to their works.

In case some books or articles about your problem are available, it may be useful to obtain some insights from them. However, such data is often influenced by their authors’ bias. That’s why you should be careful when making assumptions based on such information.

Literature review qualitative method example

Retrieving knowledge from literature is the main way of researching historical events. If you need information about a person who lived long ago, books and articles about them and their deeds would be your main source.

>> Read more: How to Do a Literature Review

6. Case study

Conducting case studies is another qualitative method of research that helps to obtain some valuable insights. You need access to in-depth information about a particular event or person in order to use this method. 

Such cases may be investigated in real-time or by reviewing recorded information, such as a video or audio record or interview results. A typical case study is limited to one subject. But it aims at getting information from different angles.

Investigation of such particular cases is often used in qualitative research methodologies. But, in order to accomplish that, a researcher needs to have access to real situations related to the subject.

Example of case study method

Let’s suppose that you need to analyze the efficiency of an experimental education project. A group of students completes such a program, and you can monitor this experiment during and after its completion. While observing and interviewing the participants, you may obtain some valuable insights.

>> Learn more: How to Write a Case Study

Qualitative Data Analysis

After you have collected enough qualitative data, it is time to process it. As we’ve explained above, this shouldn’t include calculating percentages or finding statistical dependencies. When you analyze qualitative data, you’re dealing with non-numerical information.

Depending on types of qualitative data obtained during research, the following methods can be used:

Qualitative data analysis methods




Content analysis

Examining the language peculiarities of responses and descriptions: vocabulary, common phrases, unique ideas, etc.

When observing teen subcultures, researchers typically analyze their special language in order to better understand their views and goals.

Textual Analysis

Retrieving insights from texts. Their design, style, subtext, assumptions, and other elements can be examined.

If an event is described ironically, a researcher may assume the author’s actual opinion or perception of it.

Discourse analysis

Examining the peculiarities of descriptive language used in a text or a speech, taking its political, cultural, and social context into account.

It can be used to study methods of persuasion or discussion in political or advertising campaigns.

Thematic analysis

Involves finding patterns or themes in your data, such as repeatable or similar evidence.

When interviewing people about an event, you might notice that some of them have similar impressions of it. Such responses can be grouped.

As we can see, the qualitative research approach to analysis involves a number of special techniques to process non-numerical data. The general qualitative study design includes the following key steps:

  1. Review your data and structure it. For example, you may divide it into primary and secondary data and compare the results from both subsets.
  2. Analyze the data. Identify patterns if possible.
  3. Develop some coding systems. A system should correspond to your initial assumptions or ideas about your subject.
  4. Go through your data and assign codes to it. E.g., assign one to each available response that confirms your idea and another to each one that denies it.
  5. Make final assumptions. Explain your results, and conclude by confirming or refuting the initial claim of your qualitative research.

Advantages of Qualitative Research

After reviewing and explaining the qualitative research methods, we can discuss their strong and weak sides. Let’s start with the advantages of qualitative research:

  • Extensivity Results often show some knowledge beyond the specific topic. This helps to generate new ideas and provides ground for new research.
  • Flexibility These methods involve adapting to the context and searching for various approaches to newly arised research questions. This contributes to a deep understanding of their most important aspects and helps solve difficulties such as lack of data.
  • Bias removal Qualitative methods usually include measures to detect and counter bias, coming from either interviewees or researchers.
  • Affordability Useful findings can be obtained even from a relatively small sample, making the research faster and requiring fewer expenditures.

Disadvantages of Qualitative Research

When doing the qualitative research design, it is important to understand its flaws and limitations. Its results may help find new ideas or detect important changes. However, in order to obtain statistical data about your subject or to examine some trends in detail, you’ll need another approach to data collection and processing.

So, here are typical disadvantages of a qualitative research study:

  • Poor predictability of analysis Sometimes it can take significant time to process the extensive information, especially when there is a huge variety of replies and opinions received from individual interviews or surveys. Finding valid patterns among such results might be quite challenging.
  • Repetitive research efforts Usage of limited samples may result in receiving insufficient data. Then a new series of interviews or observations would be required.
  • Subjectivity The evidence collected via qualitative methods is subjective. Both questions and answers can be biased, which is why there is always the need for bias removal measures when conducting such research.
  • Difficulty to apply Since non-numerical data does not provide any statistical insights, the results of such research may not be enough for making informed decisions.

Bottom Line on Qualitative Research Methods

We have discussed the specifics of qualitative research and explained its notion and the field of its usage: obtaining ideas and insights from non-numerical information. Key qualitative research methods and approaches have also been examined in detail, including their meaning, strengths, and limitations. We have provided a lot of helpful qualitative research examples to illustrate all these explanations as well.

Hopefully, this information would help you a lot with your own research. Feel free to use it as reference material when performing the analysis and composing your paper. If you need more help with your research, just let us know!

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FAQ About Qualitative Research Studies & Methods

1. What is the purpose of qualitative research?

The main purpose of qualitative research is to retrieve insights and ideas from non-numerical data. After collecting evidence about some problem, you can use qualitative methods and procedures to analyze it, finding ideas and patterns. This helps to obtain knowledge about the problem, even if no statistical information is available at this stage.

2. When qualitative research methods are used?

You should use qualitative research methods if you are dealing with information that cannot be counted. Evidence such as personal opinions, experiences, feelings, and reactions to challenges requires a special approach in order to develop an initial understanding of the problem. Such results can be used to obtain insights and ideas or to form an initial hypothesis before further investigations.

3. What are the characteristics of qualitative research?

The main characteristics of qualitative research are as follows:

  • Works with non-numerical data types
  • Provides insights and ideas, not numbers or statistics
  • Applied to understand the subject
  • Involves complex analysis from different angles
  • Is very flexible when it comes to ways and designs to obtain and analyze evidence.
Article posted on:Apr 11, 2023
Article updated on:May 11, 2023


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