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An Overview Of Qualitative Research Methods

Direct Observation, Interviews, Participation, Immersion, And Focus Groups


What Is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative researchers are primarily concerned with practice and process rather than outcomes. That is, they focus on the process that is occurring instead of the outcome of that process. The focus is on participants' perceptions and experiences and the way they make sense of their lives.

Qualitative research, also called field research, typically involves fieldwork in which the researcher observes and records behavior and events in their natural setting. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, or site in order to observe the subject as it normally and naturally occurs or behaves.

In a sense, you've been doing qualitative research your whole life. We do field research whenever we observe or participate in social behavior and try to understand it, whether in a college classroom, in a doctor's waiting room, or on an airplane. Whenever we report our observations to others, we are reporting our field research efforts.

Methods Of Data Collection

  • Direct observation: The researcher studies people in their natural environment, simply observing interactions and behaviors as an outsider, without participating.
  • In-depth interviews: The researcher interviews participants in-depth and one-on-one. The interviewer typically has a general plan of inquiry but not a specific set of questions that must be asked in a particular order. Rather, it flows more like a conversation in which the respondent guides the direction of the interview.
  • Participation: The researcher observes behavior by participating in the group and gaining first-hand experiences.
  • Immersion: The researcher immerses themselves into the setting, living among the participants for months or years. The researcher "goes native" to get an in-depth and longitudinal understanding of the subject.
  • Focus group: The researcher interviews a small group of participants at the same time. The focus groups are generally more structured and contain 10-15 participants at a time. Focus groups are used often in market research.

Strengths Of Qualitative Research

Field research is especially effective for studying subtle nuances in attitudes and behaviors and for examining social processes over time. The main strength of this method, then, lies in the depth of understanding that it allows. Rarely is field research challenged as being "superficial."

Another advantage of qualitative research is the flexibility it permits. Researchers can modify their field research design at any time and as often as they like. Further, one is always prepared to engage in field research, whenever the occasion should arise, as there is little to no preparation needed. You could not as easily initiate a survey or conduct an experiment in this manner.

Field research can be relatively inexpensive as well. Other social scientific research methods may require expensive equipment or an extensive research staff, but field research typically can be undertaken by one researcher with a notebook and pen.

Weakness of Qualitative Research

Field research has several weaknesses as well. First, qualitative research is not an appropriate means for arriving at statistical descriptions of large populations. Observing casual political discussions in restaurants, for example, would not yield trustworthy estimates of future voting behaviors of the total voting population. Nevertheless, the study could provide important insights into how political attitudes are formed.

Field research also has a potential problem with reliability. Reliability can also be thought of as dependability: If you made the same measurement or observation again and again, would you get the same result? In field research, since observations and interpretations are subjective and personal, the researcher must take pains to address this and prevent their personal opinions and feelings from biasing their results.


Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

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