Qualitative methods have their origins in the humanities: sociology, anthropology, geography and history. They aim to obtain a holistic understanding of complex realities and processes where questions and hypotheses emerge cumulatively as the investigation progresses.
- typically focus on compiling a selection of microlevel Case Studies using a combination of informal interviews, participant observation and more recently visual media like photography.
- questions are broad and open-ended, changing and developing over time to fill in a ‘jigsaw’ of differing accounts of ‘reality’, identifying which may be said to be generally ‘true’ and which are specific and subjective and why.
- different sampling methods are combined: different purposive sampling techniques, identification of key informants and also ‘random encounters’.
- causality and attribution are directly investigated through questionning as well as qualitative analysis of data. Computer programmes are used to deal systematically with large amounts of data.
- in-depth qualitative research requires a skilled researcher in the field who engages in a reflexive process of data collection and analysis over a period of time.
Good qualitative research can reveal very powerful messages and illustrative cases which can be used in advocacy campaigns.
Gender issues, and particularly concepts like empowerment and sensitive issues like violence are often seen as best researched using qualitative methods. However this has often led to gender issues being marginalised and relegated to superficial anecdotes rather than fully integrated into ‘mainstream’ research.
For more discussion of qualitative methods see:
The Forum for Qualitative Research website brings together resources and debates on qualitative methods in English and other European languages.