Qualitative methods: what and why use them?

Qualitative methods, as the name indicates, are methods that do not involve measurement or statistics.  Because the natural sciences have had such resounding success with quantitative methods, qualitative methods are sometimes looked down upon as less scientific.  That is, of course, a mistake.  Qualitative methods have been in use in philosophy, sociology, and history for centuries, and many of the famous studies we refer to in psychology classes every day were actually qualitative!

One qualitative method that goes back a long way is the case study.  When physicians like Sigmund Freud became interested in psychological problems, they continued their tradition of writing and publishing descriptions of their most interesting patients, the treatments they attempted to use, and the progress of the disorder.  Much of the content of abnormal psychology, for example, is built upon these case studies.

Another example is the méthode clinique or clinical method.  This method was particularly well used by Jean Piaget and his followers.  The basic idea is to present a person (in Piaget’s case, usually a young child) with a situation or problem for them to deal with.  The researcher observes how they handle the situation and asks them questions to try to understand the thought processes they are using.  Another version of the méthode clinique is called experimental phenomenology.  One study, for example, asked chess masters and novices to think out loud while playing chess, and analyzed the differences in approach.  One more example is the method of introspection used by Wilhelm Wundt — often considered the founder of scientific psychology — and his students.  Researchers paid careful attention to their own perceptions of simple events like colors, and noted changes in their perceptions following changes in the events.

Probably the oldest qualitative method is naturalistic observation.  This has been used by biologists who study animals in the wild (ethologists) for centuries, and by sociologists studying people’s behavior for nearly as long.  The idea of naturalistic observation is to step back from the situation and make every effort not to interfere.  A biologist studying birds, for example, may construct a blind — a small hut covered with natural materials — so as not to disturb the birds.  Child psychologists often observe children in a similar way.  In experimental schools, the children are often so used to being observed that the researchers don’t even have to hide!  Recently, video and audio technology has allowed us to do the same with people.  Unfortunately, the ethics of spying on people is very questionable!

A variation on naturalistic observation used by some sociologists and psychologists is called participant observation.  A sociologist who is interested in studying the lifestyles of people in some subculture (say a motorcycle gang) may actually join the subculture and interact with the people.  Many anthropologists use this technique as well.  In most cases, it is clear to all that the researcher is not really a part of the group, but sometimes the researcher hides his identity as a researcher.

One of the most useful qualitative techniques is interviewing.  It is often a part of all of the preceding methods.  Contrary to what many people believe, interviewing is not easy.  In fact, it is a rare person who is truly skillful at interviewing.  You have to be very careful not to listen to the person you interview through any prejudiced ideas you might have.  You have to make sure you are not leading the person in the direction you would like them to go.  You have to make sure you don’t misinterpret what they say.  In other words, you need to be very aware of your own biases!

Many researchers using qualitative methods adhere to a school of thought called phenomenology, and refer to their methods as phenomenological methods.  Phenomenology is the study of the contents of consciousness — phenomena — and phenomenological methods are ways of describing and analyzing these contents.  Originally, the methods focussed on describing one’s own thought, feelings, and perceptions.  For example, researchers would investigate their own experiences of an emotion such as anger, or cognitive processes like making a decision.  As you can imagine, the problem of biases are even more difficult to handle in these kind of studies.  Many people, if asked about their experiences of anger, might say something like “I could feel the adrenaline flowing through my veins!”  Unfortunately, that is a prejudicial statement based on people’s common knowledge about the presence of adrenaline.  In fact, nobody actually feels adrenaline in their veins!  We may feel muscle tension, or the hair raising in our necks, or a change in our hearing — but not adrenaline in our  veins.

As time went on, other ways of investigating phenomena were added.  For example, the researcher might ask other people to write what are called protocols — naïve descriptions of their experiences — and use them for analysis.  This is done, for example, when the researcher wants to investigate something he or she doesn’t have personal experience with, such as a schizophrenics verbal hallucinations.

There are arguments for and against the use of qualitative methods.  The most common criticisms of qualitative methods revolve around the problem of bias mentioned above:  It is much easier for biases to creep into qualitative studies than into quantitative ones.  The great advantage of measurement is that, once we have agreed upon what constitutes a measure (say, a meter stick), everyone can use it and be fairly confident that what they measure is what anyone else would measure.  If, on the other hand, we say “this looks like navy blue to me,” someone else might say “no, I think it’s purple,” and another person “no, it’s clearly royal blue!”

The arguments for qualitative methods revolve around realism.  Measures do not encompass the whole of an event.  You can ask people to rate their anxiety, but how much will that tell you about what they are actually feeling?  How do you measure something like love or hate?  Or think about the anthropologist looking at a culture:  Does counting the number of artifacts or timing rituals tell you much about their meaning to the people involved?  Or consider a person’s personality:  Do scores on personality tests tell you much about a person’s life or experiences?  Qualitative researchers would say not much!

Although quantitative methods are still preferred in psychology, more and more people are acknowledging that qualitative methods also have an important place.  Not everything about human beings can be understood by measurement, or in laboratories, or by using rats and pigeons.

Numerous specific research methods/instruments are used when conducting qualitative research.

  • Case Studies
  • Conversation Analysis
  • Field Studies
  • Focus Groups
  • Interviews
  • Naturalistic Observation
  • Participant Observation
  • Ethnography
  • Phenomenology
  • Autoethnography- This bibliography is compiled from a section of Heather Forest’s ILA on Autoethnography & Storytelling. It includes citations for several peer review journal articles that describe recent autoethnographic studies.
  • Grounded Theory Methods Folder- This bibliography contains references historical and recent books on grounded theory methodology and symbolic interactionalism.
  • Critical Discourse Analysis- Books, chapters, journal articles, whole journals, & dissertations.