Qualitative research is the approach usually associated with the social constructivist paradigm which emphasises the socially constructed nature of reality. It is about recording, analysing and attempting to uncover the deeper meaning and significance of human behaviour and experience, including contradictory beliefs, behaviours and emotions. Researchers are interested in gaining a rich and complex understanding of people‘s experience and not in obtaining information which can be generalized to other larger groups.
The approach adopted by qualitative researchers tends to be inductive which means that they develop a theory or look for a pattern of meaning on the basis of the data that they have collected. This involves a move from the specific to the general and is sometimes called a bottom-up approach. However, most research projects also involve a certain degree of deductive reasoning.
Qualitative researchers do not base their research on pre-determined hypotheses. Nevertheless, they clearly identify a problem or topic that they want to explore and may be guided by a theoretical lens – a kind of overarching theory which provides a framework for their investigation.
The approach to data collection and analysis is methodical but allows for greater flexibility than in quantitative research. Data is collected in textual form on the basis of observation and interaction with the participants e.g. through participant observation, in-depth interviews and focus groups. It is not converted into numerical form and is not statistically analysed.
Researchers will tend to use methods which give participants a certain degree of freedom and permit spontaneity rather than forcing them to select from a set of pre-determined responses (of which none might be appropriate or accurately describe the participant‘s thoughts, feelings, attitudes or behaviour) and to try to create the right atmosphere to enable people to express themselves. This may mean adopting a less formal and less rigid approach than that used in quantitative research. Qualitative research often involves a smaller number of participants. This may be because the methods used such as in-depth interviews are time and labour intensive but also because a large number of people are not needed for the purposes of statistical analysis or to make generalizations from the results.