Qualitative psychological research
Learn more about Qualitative psychological research
In psychology qualitative research has come to be defined as research whose findings are not arrived at by statistical or other quantitative procedures. This definition, however, is entirely negative, describing qualitative research by what it lacks rather than by what it possesses. Absence of a characteristic is not itself a defining characteristic — journalism, for example, does not estimate parameters or test null hypotheses, but one would scarcely claim that it is a form of psychological research. If qualitative research has some goal other than estimating parameters or testing, the important issue is what that goal is. Qualitative psychological researchers have described other characteristics of qualitative research which they believe also distinguish it from so-called quantitative psychological research.
 Goals attributed to qualitative psychological research
To many researchers the goal of qualitative psychological research is to develop theory. The crucial question here is the definitions of hypothesis or theory. If what is meant are hypotheses or theories which can be tested by quantitative statistical methods, then the definition is operational and objective. However, it is not universally accepted. Many practitioners reject quantitative methods outright. Other goals have therefore been proposed for qualitative research.
Qualitative research is often said to be naturalistic. That is, its goal is to understand behaviour in a natural setting.
Two other goals attributed to qualitative research are understanding a phenomenon from the perspective of the research participant and understanding the meanings people give to their experience. It attempts to do this by using so-called naturalistic methods - interviewing, observation, ethnography, participant observation and focus groups. Each of these methods seeks to understand the perspective of the research participant within the context of their everyday life. This means that the researcher is concerned with asking broad questions that allow the respondent to answer in their own words. These methods allow the researcher to try to qualify their understanding during the research process through further probing questions. In addition, a method such as observation allows the researcher to observe people within natural settings - particularly those in public places. This has resulted in greater understanding of people's behaviours in for example - lifts, public transport, and queues.
Qualitative research is sometimes said to have as its goal the understanding of the sample studied, rather than generalizing from the sample to the population. However, the results of qualitative research can be applied to other settings - as long as the reader of the research understands the limitations. For example, the research findings of a qualitative case study of primary school children in a particular school and their mobile phone use will tell us more about the mobile phone of children in the general population, than of adults. However, the type of school (public or private), where it was located, and the socio-economic background of the students need to be taken into consideration when applying any findings to other settings (either schools or the general population of children).
In addition to the methods for collecting data mentioned above, qualitative research includes a wide range of ways to analyse the data. One of the most popular of these is known as grounded theory. Others include conversation analysis, discourse analysis, and thematic analysis. In quantitative research these methods are used as data collection tools rather than as analystic ones.
Qualitative psychological research emphasizes fieldwork, and this emphasis has been offered as a distinguishing mark. However, quantitative researchers often perform fieldwork.
Qualitative psychological research is also described as holistic. That is, qualitative researchers believe in studying phenomena in its context rather than concentrating on narrow aspects of the phenomena. This means that they either observe or participate in the phenomena they are studying, e. g. attending a football game to understand the behaviours of fan, and/or they ask open-ended questions about the behaviour of fans at football games. These questions are holistic because they are designed to understand the context of behaviour - they will usually follow a pattern that replicates the experience eg. what did you do when you arrived? who did you come with? what did you do then? However, similar methods are used by quantitative researchers.
 Origins and methods
The philosophical bases of qualitative psychological research are found in phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and naturalistic behaviourism. Its research methods are derived from ethnography and anthropology.
In psychology, the research methods commonly classified as qualitative include:
- participant observation
- direct observation
- unstructured interviewing
- case studies
- content analysis
- focus groups
The data collected by researchers using these techniques consist of:
- the results of open-ended interviews
- notes of direct observation
- written documents (answers to questionnaires, diaries, program records, and so on)
After collecting data qualitative psychological researchers goal are to examine their data in depth and in detail.
Most psychological researchers probably use both types of method. In particular, qualitative methods are widely used as exploratory methods; the results of qualitative analysis are used to design quantitative research which tests null hypotheses derived from the qualitative observations.
Many psychological researchers prefer qualitative research. They argue that statistically-based research has limitations because it is less able to take into consideration the context of behaviour.
Qualitative researchers have developed their own criteria for assessing reliability and validity. The work of Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba is an example of this.
Confirmability is a qualitative concept analogous to the concept of objectivity in quantitative research. It is the degree to which research results can be confirmed by other researchers.
Transferability has been proposed as a qualitative substitute for psychometric validity. Research findings are transferable to the extent to which they can be generalized to settings other than the one in which they were made.
It could be argued, however, that any concept which attempts to assess degree or extent is inherently quantitative.
 Status in psychology
The prevailing opinion in psychology is probably that both approaches offer important benefits, that rejecting one or the other means renouncing some of those benefits, and that the most useful debate is about the circumstances in which the two approaches may most profitably be used.
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