A brief guide to types of qualitative research approaches in social science

Qualitative research involving ‘how’ and ‘why’ of decision making as opposed to ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘where’ of quantitative research, is an effective way to gain a deeper understanding of culture, event or organization. As per Denzin & Lincoln, qualitative research has neither theory/paradigm of its own nor does it have a distinct practices or methods. Similar to other studies, this research approach requires research question encompassing a range of topics which focuses on participants understanding of social events or life in a specific context. 

Qualitative research which is descriptive in nature employs non-statistical approaches. Put simply, it does not deal with numerical data, unlike the quantitative study. Also, it involves the relationship between the researcher's theoretical frames (including existing theories, previous researches, etc.) and goals. 

Some of the characteristics of this type of research are as follows

  • Data is collected from specific, small and non-random samples
  • Study results are judged based on the consistent of collected data

  • The results are validated externally depending on its applicability on a particular situation


Types of qualitative research methods 

Qualitative research emphasizes nostalgic methods and typically incorporates observations, interviews, document analysis, etc. 

The non-statistical research approaches in social science included are: 

        1. Phenomenological research 

This approach aims at exploring the everyday life experience of individuals. This method is used when the researcher wants to find a phenomenon experienced by the individuals. In other words, it is used to study the subjective phenomenon. For instance, understanding the meaningful elements of having a conversation or experience of interacting through social networks or a group talk. The phenomenological approach can also be used to study aspects including minimum knowledge. For example, conducting an interview of flood survival and asking them to describe the experience of surviving the natural calamity. 

        2. Grounded theory 

This type of method used to develop a theory rather than empirically examining the theory. The grounded theory leverages both an inductive and deductive approach to develop a theory from unprocessed information or extension of existing theory. It evaluates the social processes and interactions of the individuals. However, most often, it uses the inductive method to study the human response on sensitive topics irrespective of the cultural context. The data collection method involved here is focus groups, telephonic, face-to-face, etc. interviews. For instance, if a theory is developed on identifying loss and reconstruction among individuals with disabilities, the theoretical categories in participants' life who have experienced sudden loss due to various reasons must be studied.  

       3.  Ethnographic research 

Ethnography is regarded as the most intensive and in-depth observational method. It is a study of social interactions, beliefs, behaviors of society, involving observations for prolonged time and interpretation of data collected. The ethnographic research studies the group with a similar culture as a whole. It can also study the type of behavior, value, interactions among the individuals of the group. For instance, encouraging children to use the camera and determining factors such as who is the subject, who is the photographer, who is the observer, etc. 

       4.  Action research 

This type of qualitative research integrates theory and action to combine the existing organization's knowledge with scientific knowledge. Action research is the systematic investigation seeking to enhance the practice and study the results of the action. Consider an example where the language conventions for conveying human motivation are linked to objects and settings. 

       5. Case study 

Case studies are an in-depth evaluation of people and a group of people. It is not used to test a hypothesis, rather it is used to generate hypotheses. This approach can be used to evaluate single or multiple cases. If it investigates a single case, then it is known as a singular case study and if it is performed using multiple sources, then it is known as a multiple case study. Further, depending on the time dimension the singular & multiple case studies can be classified into retrospective, snapshot, diachronic, nested, sequential, parallel, and heuristic case studies. 

       6. Content analysis 

As the name suggests, content analysis is an approach to evaluating the visual, verbal and written messages. In social science, it is used to analyze social life by interpreting the images & words, from documents, films, arts, newspapers, and other media. For instance, finding responses to open-ended questions on the basis of content analysis. 

Qualitative research is the most suitable approach to social science. This is so because it offers deep insights into the attitudes, behavior, and feelings of the participants under study. Also, it deals with the exclusion of prejudgments and prejudices as every thought or action is researched with reality.

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