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What is Qualitative Research in Psychology?

Updated on May 1, 2014

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Qualitative Research is characterized by the following:

  • Setting and context matter: a qualitative researcher does not believe that it is possible to take findings out of context and apply them or understand them without knowing the context.
  • Researchers do not have "subjects": they have informants who discuss their experience.
  • Usually a small number of informants are used.
  • Informants are encouraged to speak for themselves and their own experience.
  • The Qualitative researcher recognizes that he or she is not an objective observer and acknowledges existing biases.

What is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative research focuses on subjective, human experience and recording and interpreting that experience with as much depth, richness, and usefulness as possible. Depth refers to accurate representation of personal experience, richness refers to the ways we connect these representations to larger areas of life, and usefulness refers to practical application. Basically, Qualitative research seeks to understand a person's experience of a phenomena, how that experience is related to a larger context, and how useful this information is for, in our case, psychological study and clinical implications.

Since qualitative research is so interested in subjective human experience, it is understandable that psychology would have use for this type of research. While quantitative research can tell us about correlation, hard data, and even help determine cause and effect, if we are talking about experimental research, qualitative research can tell us the lived, human experience of a few individuals.

Focus Groups are Common in Qualitative Research


Qualitative Methods

Since qualitative research is interested in personal experience, it is primarily done through personal interviews. Once you have decided what you want to know, it's important to target a specific population of people (specifically, people who have experienced or embodied the topic you want to study). One these individuals have been identified, conduct interviews with questions targeted at fully understanding the depth and breadth of experience. It's important to choose your informants carefully: they must have knowledge and understanding of the topic you want to explore. So, for example, if you were doing a qualitative study around body image and yoga practitioners, you might want to clarify if you are interested in the experience of people who have been practicing for years vs. people who have been practicing for only a brief period of time. Both populations could yield interesting data, but understanding which population you want to understand is key.

After interviews have been completed, researchers must transcribe and code data, which involves categorizing ideas, thoughts, and feelings that show up consistently throughout the interviews and labeling them. Note not only common feelings, thoughts, or ideas, but also individual experiences that differ greatly from more common reported experiences. Often, the researcher that conducts the interview does not do the coding as a way to ensure reliability.

Qualitative researchers also use focus groups, with targeted questions and discussions, to gather qualitative data. Focus group data is coded in the same way as personal interview data.

The goal in qualitative research is to get a saturation of information, so relatively fewer informants are needed than participants in quantitative research. Once your information starts repeating itself and showing very little variation in response, researchers no longer need to continue to gather data.

Do you better understand the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research in psychology?

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When to use qualitative research

Use a qualitative research method when you are interested in the how of an experience instead of the why. If you want to explore and better understand the subjective experience of women who are in group therapy for eating disorders, a qualitative study would be a good idea. If you want to study the effects of group therapy on eating disorders, a quantitative study would be more appropriate. Think about what information you actually want when deciding what research methods to use. Hard data and statistics might tell you if symptoms of eating disorders declined over the course of several group therapy sessions,but it does not tell you the individual participant's experience of that session and what specific aspects of the session were helpful or not helpful to participants.

Therapists use qualitative research to better understand human experience

Quantitative Vs. Qualitative Research

Take a look a the following video for more information about quantitative vs. qualitative research and how to understand when each type of research is best employed.

Resources for More Information

Simply Psychology:

Deborah Biggerstaff:

Qualitative Research Methods for Psychologists:


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    • Lettyann profile image

      Lettyann 3 years ago

      Thanks so much! I love qualitative research, so I figured I'd spread the word about how it adds to our knowledge of human understanding :)

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Psychology is a fascinating subject, and I now have a better understanding of how these studies are conducted. Thanks for a great hub!