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What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples

Published on June 19, 2020 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences. It can be used to gather in-depth insights into a problem or generate new ideas for research.

Qualitative research is the opposite of quantitative research , which involves collecting and analyzing numerical data for statistical analysis.

Qualitative research is commonly used in the humanities and social sciences, in subjects such as anthropology, sociology, education, health sciences, history, etc.

  • How does social media shape body image in teenagers?
  • How do children and adults interpret healthy eating in the UK?
  • What factors influence employee retention in a large organization?
  • How is anxiety experienced around the world?
  • How can teachers integrate social issues into science curriculums?

Table of contents

Approaches to qualitative research, qualitative research methods, qualitative data analysis, advantages of qualitative research, disadvantages of qualitative research, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about qualitative research.

Qualitative research is used to understand how people experience the world. While there are many approaches to qualitative research, they tend to be flexible and focus on retaining rich meaning when interpreting data.

Common approaches include grounded theory, ethnography , action research , phenomenological research, and narrative research. They share some similarities, but emphasize different aims and perspectives.

Qualitative research approaches
Approach What does it involve?
Grounded theory Researchers collect rich data on a topic of interest and develop theories .
Researchers immerse themselves in groups or organizations to understand their cultures.
Action research Researchers and participants collaboratively link theory to practice to drive social change.
Phenomenological research Researchers investigate a phenomenon or event by describing and interpreting participants’ lived experiences.
Narrative research Researchers examine how stories are told to understand how participants perceive and make sense of their experiences.

Note that qualitative research is at risk for certain research biases including the Hawthorne effect , observer bias , recall bias , and social desirability bias . While not always totally avoidable, awareness of potential biases as you collect and analyze your data can prevent them from impacting your work too much.

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Each of the research approaches involve using one or more data collection methods . These are some of the most common qualitative methods:

  • Observations: recording what you have seen, heard, or encountered in detailed field notes.
  • Interviews:  personally asking people questions in one-on-one conversations.
  • Focus groups: asking questions and generating discussion among a group of people.
  • Surveys : distributing questionnaires with open-ended questions.
  • Secondary research: collecting existing data in the form of texts, images, audio or video recordings, etc.
  • You take field notes with observations and reflect on your own experiences of the company culture.
  • You distribute open-ended surveys to employees across all the company’s offices by email to find out if the culture varies across locations.
  • You conduct in-depth interviews with employees in your office to learn about their experiences and perspectives in greater detail.

Qualitative researchers often consider themselves “instruments” in research because all observations, interpretations and analyses are filtered through their own personal lens.

For this reason, when writing up your methodology for qualitative research, it’s important to reflect on your approach and to thoroughly explain the choices you made in collecting and analyzing the data.

Qualitative data can take the form of texts, photos, videos and audio. For example, you might be working with interview transcripts, survey responses, fieldnotes, or recordings from natural settings.

Most types of qualitative data analysis share the same five steps:

  • Prepare and organize your data. This may mean transcribing interviews or typing up fieldnotes.
  • Review and explore your data. Examine the data for patterns or repeated ideas that emerge.
  • Develop a data coding system. Based on your initial ideas, establish a set of codes that you can apply to categorize your data.
  • Assign codes to the data. For example, in qualitative survey analysis, this may mean going through each participant’s responses and tagging them with codes in a spreadsheet. As you go through your data, you can create new codes to add to your system if necessary.
  • Identify recurring themes. Link codes together into cohesive, overarching themes.

There are several specific approaches to analyzing qualitative data. Although these methods share similar processes, they emphasize different concepts.

Qualitative data analysis
Approach When to use Example
To describe and categorize common words, phrases, and ideas in qualitative data. A market researcher could perform content analysis to find out what kind of language is used in descriptions of therapeutic apps.
To identify and interpret patterns and themes in qualitative data. A psychologist could apply thematic analysis to travel blogs to explore how tourism shapes self-identity.
To examine the content, structure, and design of texts. A media researcher could use textual analysis to understand how news coverage of celebrities has changed in the past decade.
To study communication and how language is used to achieve effects in specific contexts. A political scientist could use discourse analysis to study how politicians generate trust in election campaigns.

Qualitative research often tries to preserve the voice and perspective of participants and can be adjusted as new research questions arise. Qualitative research is good for:

  • Flexibility

The data collection and analysis process can be adapted as new ideas or patterns emerge. They are not rigidly decided beforehand.

  • Natural settings

Data collection occurs in real-world contexts or in naturalistic ways.

  • Meaningful insights

Detailed descriptions of people’s experiences, feelings and perceptions can be used in designing, testing or improving systems or products.

  • Generation of new ideas

Open-ended responses mean that researchers can uncover novel problems or opportunities that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Researchers must consider practical and theoretical limitations in analyzing and interpreting their data. Qualitative research suffers from:

  • Unreliability

The real-world setting often makes qualitative research unreliable because of uncontrolled factors that affect the data.

  • Subjectivity

Due to the researcher’s primary role in analyzing and interpreting data, qualitative research cannot be replicated . The researcher decides what is important and what is irrelevant in data analysis, so interpretations of the same data can vary greatly.

  • Limited generalizability

Small samples are often used to gather detailed data about specific contexts. Despite rigorous analysis procedures, it is difficult to draw generalizable conclusions because the data may be biased and unrepresentative of the wider population .

  • Labor-intensive

Although software can be used to manage and record large amounts of text, data analysis often has to be checked or performed manually.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Chi square goodness of fit test
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

There are five common approaches to qualitative research :

  • Grounded theory involves collecting data in order to develop new theories.
  • Ethnography involves immersing yourself in a group or organization to understand its culture.
  • Narrative research involves interpreting stories to understand how people make sense of their experiences and perceptions.
  • Phenomenological research involves investigating phenomena through people’s lived experiences.
  • Action research links theory and practice in several cycles to drive innovative changes.

Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organizations.

There are various approaches to qualitative data analysis , but they all share five steps in common:

  • Prepare and organize your data.
  • Review and explore your data.
  • Develop a data coding system.
  • Assign codes to the data.
  • Identify recurring themes.

The specifics of each step depend on the focus of the analysis. Some common approaches include textual analysis , thematic analysis , and discourse analysis .

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Qualitative Research: Getting Started


As scientifically trained clinicians, pharmacists may be more familiar and comfortable with the concept of quantitative rather than qualitative research. Quantitative research can be defined as “the means for testing objective theories by examining the relationship among variables which in turn can be measured so that numbered data can be analyzed using statistical procedures”. 1 Pharmacists may have used such methods to carry out audits or surveys within their own practice settings; if so, they may have had a sense of “something missing” from their data. What is missing from quantitative research methods is the voice of the participant. In a quantitative study, large amounts of data can be collected about the number of people who hold certain attitudes toward their health and health care, but what qualitative study tells us is why people have thoughts and feelings that might affect the way they respond to that care and how it is given (in this way, qualitative and quantitative data are frequently complementary). Possibly the most important point about qualitative research is that its practitioners do not seek to generalize their findings to a wider population. Rather, they attempt to find examples of behaviour, to clarify the thoughts and feelings of study participants, and to interpret participants’ experiences of the phenomena of interest, in order to find explanations for human behaviour in a given context.


Much of the work of clinicians (including pharmacists) takes place within a social, clinical, or interpersonal context where statistical procedures and numeric data may be insufficient to capture how patients and health care professionals feel about patients’ care. Qualitative research involves asking participants about their experiences of things that happen in their lives. It enables researchers to obtain insights into what it feels like to be another person and to understand the world as another experiences it.

Qualitative research was historically employed in fields such as sociology, history, and anthropology. 2 Miles and Huberman 2 said that qualitative data “are a source of well-grounded, rich descriptions and explanations of processes in identifiable local contexts. With qualitative data one can preserve chronological flow, see precisely which events lead to which consequences, and derive fruitful explanations.” Qualitative methods are concerned with how human behaviour can be explained, within the framework of the social structures in which that behaviour takes place. 3 So, in the context of health care, and hospital pharmacy in particular, researchers can, for example, explore how patients feel about their care, about their medicines, or indeed about “being a patient”.


Smith 4 has described methodology as the “explanation of the approach, methods and procedures with some justification for their selection.” It is essential that researchers have robust theories that underpin the way they conduct their research—this is called “methodology”. It is also important for researchers to have a thorough understanding of various methodologies, to ensure alignment between their own positionality (i.e., bias or stance), research questions, and objectives. Clinicians may express reservations about the value or impact of qualitative research, given their perceptions that it is inherently subjective or biased, that it does not seek to be reproducible across different contexts, and that it does not produce generalizable findings. Other clinicians may express nervousness or hesitation about using qualitative methods, claiming that their previous “scientific” training and experience have not prepared them for the ambiguity and interpretative nature of qualitative data analysis. In both cases, these clinicians are depriving themselves of opportunities to understand complex or ambiguous situations, phenomena, or processes in a different way.

Qualitative researchers generally begin their work by recognizing that the position (or world view) of the researcher exerts an enormous influence on the entire research enterprise. Whether explicitly understood and acknowledged or not, this world view shapes the way in which research questions are raised and framed, methods selected, data collected and analyzed, and results reported. 5 A broad range of different methods and methodologies are available within the qualitative tradition, and no single review paper can adequately capture the depth and nuance of these diverse options. Here, given space constraints, we highlight certain options for illustrative purposes only, emphasizing that they are only a sample of what may be available to you as a prospective qualitative researcher. We encourage you to continue your own study of this area to identify methods and methodologies suitable to your questions and needs, beyond those highlighted here.

The following are some of the methodologies commonly used in qualitative research:

  • Ethnography generally involves researchers directly observing participants in their natural environments over time. A key feature of ethnography is the fact that natural settings, unadapted for the researchers’ interests, are used. In ethnography, the natural setting or environment is as important as the participants, and such methods have the advantage of explicitly acknowledging that, in the real world, environmental constraints and context influence behaviours and outcomes. 6 An example of ethnographic research in pharmacy might involve observations to determine how pharmacists integrate into family health teams. Such a study would also include collection of documents about participants’ lives from the participants themselves and field notes from the researcher. 7
  • Grounded theory, first described by Glaser and Strauss in 1967, 8 is a framework for qualitative research that suggests that theory must derive from data, unlike other forms of research, which suggest that data should be used to test theory. Grounded theory may be particularly valuable when little or nothing is known or understood about a problem, situation, or context, and any attempt to start with a hypothesis or theory would be conjecture at best. 9 An example of the use of grounded theory in hospital pharmacy might be to determine potential roles for pharmacists in a new or underserviced clinical area. As with other qualitative methodologies, grounded theory provides researchers with a process that can be followed to facilitate the conduct of such research. As an example, Thurston and others 10 used constructivist grounded theory to explore the availability of arthritis care among indigenous people of Canada and were able to identify a number of influences on health care for this population.
  • Phenomenology attempts to understand problems, ideas, and situations from the perspective of common understanding and experience rather than differences. 10 Phenomenology is about understanding how human beings experience their world. It gives researchers a powerful tool with which to understand subjective experience. In other words, 2 people may have the same diagnosis, with the same treatment prescribed, but the ways in which they experience that diagnosis and treatment will be different, even though they may have some experiences in common. Phenomenology helps researchers to explore those experiences, thoughts, and feelings and helps to elicit the meaning underlying how people behave. As an example, Hancock and others 11 used a phenomenological approach to explore health care professionals’ views of the diagnosis and management of heart failure since publication of an earlier study in 2003. Their findings revealed that barriers to effective treatment for heart failure had not changed in 10 years and provided a new understanding of why this was the case.


For any researcher, the starting point for research must be articulation of his or her research world view. This core feature of qualitative work is increasingly seen in quantitative research too: the explicit acknowledgement of one’s position, biases, and assumptions, so that readers can better understand the particular researcher. Reflexivity describes the processes whereby the act of engaging in research actually affects the process being studied, calling into question the notion of “detached objectivity”. Here, the researcher’s own subjectivity is as critical to the research process and output as any other variable. Applications of reflexivity may include participant-observer research, where the researcher is actually one of the participants in the process or situation being researched and must then examine it from these divergent perspectives. 12 Some researchers believe that objectivity is a myth and that attempts at impartiality will fail because human beings who happen to be researchers cannot isolate their own backgrounds and interests from the conduct of a study. 5 Rather than aspire to an unachievable goal of “objectivity”, it is better to simply be honest and transparent about one’s own subjectivities, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the interpretations that are presented through the research itself. For new (and experienced) qualitative researchers, an important first step is to step back and articulate your own underlying biases and assumptions. The following questions can help to begin this reflection process:

  • Why am I interested in this topic? To answer this question, try to identify what is driving your enthusiasm, energy, and interest in researching this subject.
  • What do I really think the answer is? Asking this question helps to identify any biases you may have through honest reflection on what you expect to find. You can then “bracket” those assumptions to enable the participants’ voices to be heard.
  • What am I getting out of this? In many cases, pressures to publish or “do” research make research nothing more than an employment requirement. How does this affect your interest in the question or its outcomes, or the depth to which you are willing to go to find information?
  • What do others in my professional community think of this work—and of me? As a researcher, you will not be operating in a vacuum; you will be part of a complex social and interpersonal world. These external influences will shape your views and expectations of yourself and your work. Acknowledging this influence and its potential effects on personal behaviour will facilitate greater self-scrutiny throughout the research process.


Qualitative research methodology is not a single method, but instead offers a variety of different choices to researchers, according to specific parameters of topic, research question, participants, and settings. The method is the way you carry out your research within the paradigm of quantitative or qualitative research.

Qualitative research is concerned with participants’ own experiences of a life event, and the aim is to interpret what participants have said in order to explain why they have said it. Thus, methods should be chosen that enable participants to express themselves openly and without constraint. The framework selected by the researcher to conduct the research may direct the project toward specific methods. From among the numerous methods used by qualitative researchers, we outline below the three most frequently encountered.


Patton 12 has described an interview as “open-ended questions and probes yielding in-depth responses about people’s experiences, perceptions, opinions, feelings, and knowledge. Data consists of verbatim quotations and sufficient content/context to be interpretable”. Researchers may use a structured or unstructured interview approach. Structured interviews rely upon a predetermined list of questions framed algorithmically to guide the interviewer. This approach resists improvisation and following up on hunches, but has the advantage of facilitating consistency between participants. In contrast, unstructured or semistructured interviews may begin with some defined questions, but the interviewer has considerable latitude to adapt questions to the specific direction of responses, in an effort to allow for more intuitive and natural conversations between researchers and participants. Generally, you should continue to interview additional participants until you have saturated your field of interest, i.e., until you are not hearing anything new. The number of participants is therefore dependent on the richness of the data, though Miles and Huberman 2 suggested that more than 15 cases can make analysis complicated and “unwieldy”.

Focus Groups

Patton 12 has described the focus group as a primary means of collecting qualitative data. In essence, focus groups are unstructured interviews with multiple participants, which allow participants and a facilitator to interact freely with one another and to build on ideas and conversation. This method allows for the collection of group-generated data, which can be a challenging experience.


Patton 12 described observation as a useful tool in both quantitative and qualitative research: “[it involves] descriptions of activities, behaviours, actions, conversations, interpersonal interactions, organization or community processes or any other aspect of observable human experience”. Observation is critical in both interviews and focus groups, as nonalignment between verbal and nonverbal data frequently can be the result of sarcasm, irony, or other conversational techniques that may be confusing or open to interpretation. Observation can also be used as a stand-alone tool for exploring participants’ experiences, whether or not the researcher is a participant in the process.

Selecting the most appropriate and practical method is an important decision and must be taken carefully. Those unfamiliar with qualitative research may assume that “anyone” can interview, observe, or facilitate a focus group; however, it is important to recognize that the quality of data collected through qualitative methods is a direct reflection of the skills and competencies of the researcher. 13 The hardest thing to do during an interview is to sit back and listen to participants. They should be doing most of the talking—it is their perception of their own life-world that the researcher is trying to understand. Sophisticated interpersonal skills are required, in particular the ability to accurately interpret and respond to the nuanced behaviour of participants in various settings. More information about the collection of qualitative data may be found in the “Further Reading” section of this paper.

It is essential that data gathered during interviews, focus groups, and observation sessions are stored in a retrievable format. The most accurate way to do this is by audio-recording (with the participants’ permission). Video-recording may be a useful tool for focus groups, because the body language of group members and how they interact can be missed with audio-recording alone. Recordings should be transcribed verbatim and checked for accuracy against the audio- or video-recording, and all personally identifiable information should be removed from the transcript. You are then ready to start your analysis.


Regardless of the research method used, the researcher must try to analyze or make sense of the participants’ narratives. This analysis can be done by coding sections of text, by writing down your thoughts in the margins of transcripts, or by making separate notes about the data collection. Coding is the process by which raw data (e.g., transcripts from interviews and focus groups or field notes from observations) are gradually converted into usable data through the identification of themes, concepts, or ideas that have some connection with each other. It may be that certain words or phrases are used by different participants, and these can be drawn together to allow the researcher an opportunity to focus findings in a more meaningful manner. The researcher will then give the words, phrases, or pieces of text meaningful names that exemplify what the participants are saying. This process is referred to as “theming”. Generating themes in an orderly fashion out of the chaos of transcripts or field notes can be a daunting task, particularly since it may involve many pages of raw data. Fortunately, sophisticated software programs such as NVivo (QSR International Pty Ltd) now exist to support researchers in converting data into themes; familiarization with such software supports is of considerable benefit to researchers and is strongly recommended. Manual coding is possible with small and straightforward data sets, but the management of qualitative data is a complexity unto itself, one that is best addressed through technological and software support.

There is both an art and a science to coding, and the second checking of themes from data is well advised (where feasible) to enhance the face validity of the work and to demonstrate reliability. Further reliability-enhancing mechanisms include “member checking”, where participants are given an opportunity to actually learn about and respond to the researchers’ preliminary analysis and coding of data. Careful documentation of various iterations of “coding trees” is important. These structures allow readers to understand how and why raw data were converted into a theme and what rules the researcher is using to govern inclusion or exclusion of specific data within or from a theme. Coding trees may be produced iteratively: after each interview, the researcher may immediately code and categorize data into themes to facilitate subsequent interviews and allow for probing with subsequent participants as necessary. At the end of the theming process, you will be in a position to tell the participants’ stories illustrated by quotations from your transcripts. For more information on different ways to manage qualitative data, see the “Further Reading” section at the end of this paper.


In most circumstances, qualitative research involves human beings or the things that human beings produce (documents, notes, etc.). As a result, it is essential that such research be undertaken in a manner that places the safety, security, and needs of participants at the forefront. Although interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires may seem innocuous and “less dangerous” than taking blood samples, it is important to recognize that the way participants are represented in research can be significantly damaging. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the potential participants when designing your research and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are the requests you are making of potential participants reasonable?
  • Are you putting them at unnecessary risk or inconvenience?
  • Have you identified and addressed the specific needs of particular groups?

Where possible, attempting anonymization of data is strongly recommended, bearing in mind that true anonymization may be difficult, as participants can sometimes be recognized from their stories. Balancing the responsibility to report findings accurately and honestly with the potential harm to the participants involved can be challenging. Advice on the ethical considerations of research is generally available from research ethics boards and should be actively sought in these challenging situations.


Pharmacists may be hesitant to embark on research involving qualitative methods because of a perceived lack of skills or confidence. Overcoming this barrier is the most important first step, as pharmacists can benefit from inclusion of qualitative methods in their research repertoire. Partnering with others who are more experienced and who can provide mentorship can be a valuable strategy. Reading reports of research studies that have utilized qualitative methods can provide insights and ideas for personal use; such papers are routinely included in traditional databases accessed by pharmacists. Engaging in dialogue with members of a research ethics board who have qualitative expertise can also provide useful assistance, as well as saving time during the ethics review process itself. The references at the end of this paper may provide some additional support to allow you to begin incorporating qualitative methods into your research.


Qualitative research offers unique opportunities for understanding complex, nuanced situations where interpersonal ambiguity and multiple interpretations exist. Qualitative research may not provide definitive answers to such complex questions, but it can yield a better understanding and a springboard for further focused work. There are multiple frameworks, methods, and considerations involved in shaping effective qualitative research. In most cases, these begin with self-reflection and articulation of positionality by the researcher. For some, qualitative research may appear commonsensical and easy; for others, it may appear daunting, given its high reliance on direct participant– researcher interactions. For yet others, qualitative research may appear subjective, unscientific, and consequently unreliable. All these perspectives reflect a lack of understanding of how effective qualitative research actually occurs. When undertaken in a rigorous manner, qualitative research provides unique opportunities for expanding our understanding of the social and clinical world that we inhabit.

Further Reading

  • Breakwell GM, Hammond S, Fife-Schaw C, editors. Research methods in psychology. Thousand Oaks (CA): Sage Publications Ltd; 1995. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Strauss A, Corbin J. Basics of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks (CA): Sage Publications Ltd; 1998. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Willig C. Introducing qualitative research in psychology. Buckingham (UK): Open University Press; 2001. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Guest G, Namey EE, Mitchel ML. Collecting qualitative data: a field manual for applied research. Thousand Oaks (CA): Sage Publications Ltd; 2013. [ Google Scholar ]
  • Ogden R. Bias. In: Given LM, editor. The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks (CA): Sage Publications Inc; 2008. pp. 61–2. [ Google Scholar ]

This article is the seventh in the CJHP Research Primer Series, an initiative of the CJHP Editorial Board and the CSHP Research Committee. The planned 2-year series is intended to appeal to relatively inexperienced researchers, with the goal of building research capacity among practising pharmacists. The articles, presenting simple but rigorous guidance to encourage and support novice researchers, are being solicited from authors with appropriate expertise.

Previous article in this series:

Bond CM. The research jigsaw: how to get started. Can J Hosp Pharm . 2014;67(1):28–30.

Tully MP. Research: articulating questions, generating hypotheses, and choosing study designs. Can J Hosp Pharm . 2014;67(1):31–4.

Loewen P. Ethical issues in pharmacy practice research: an introductory guide. Can J Hosp Pharm. 2014;67(2):133–7.

Tsuyuki RT. Designing pharmacy practice research trials. Can J Hosp Pharm . 2014;67(3):226–9.

Bresee LC. An introduction to developing surveys for pharmacy practice research. Can J Hosp Pharm . 2014;67(4):286–91.

Gamble JM. An introduction to the fundamentals of cohort and case–control studies. Can J Hosp Pharm . 2014;67(5):366–72.

Competing interests: None declared.

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Article Contents

Introduction, challenging some common methodological assumptions about online qualitative surveys, ten practical tips for designing, implementing and analysing online qualitative surveys, acknowledgements, conflict of interest statement, data availability, ethical approval.

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Methodological and practical guidance for designing and conducting online qualitative surveys in public health

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Samantha L Thomas, Hannah Pitt, Simone McCarthy, Grace Arnot, Marita Hennessy, Methodological and practical guidance for designing and conducting online qualitative surveys in public health, Health Promotion International , Volume 39, Issue 3, June 2024, daae061, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/daae061

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Online qualitative surveys—those surveys that prioritise qualitative questions and interpretivist values—have rich potential for researchers, particularly in new or emerging areas of public health. However, there is limited discussion about the practical development and methodological implications of such surveys, particularly for public health researchers. This poses challenges for researchers, funders, ethics committees, and peer reviewers in assessing the rigour and robustness of such research, and in deciding the appropriateness of the method for answering different research questions. Drawing and extending on the work of other researchers, as well as our own experiences of conducting online qualitative surveys with young people and adults, we describe the processes associated with developing and implementing online qualitative surveys and writing up online qualitative survey data. We provide practical examples and lessons learned about question development, the importance of rigorous piloting strategies, use of novel techniques to prompt detailed responses from participants, and decisions that are made about data preparation and interpretation. We consider reviewer comments, and some ethical considerations of this type of qualitative research for both participants and researchers. We provide a range of practical strategies to improve trustworthiness in decision-making and data interpretation—including the importance of using theory. Rigorous online qualitative surveys that are grounded in qualitative interpretivist values offer a range of unique benefits for public health researchers, knowledge users, and research participants.

Public health researchers are increasingly using online qualitative surveys.

There is still limited practical and methodological information about the design and implementation of these studies.

Building on Braun and Clarke (2013) , Terry and Braun (2017) and Braun et al . (2021) , we reflect on the methodological and practical lessons we have learnt from our own experience with conducting online qualitative surveys.

We provide guidance and practical examples about the design, implementation and analysis processes.

We argue that online qualitative surveys have rich potential for public health researchers and can be an empowering and engaging way to include diverse populations in qualitative research.

Public health researchers mostly engage in experiential (interpretive) qualitative approaches ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ). These approaches are ‘centred on the exploration of participants’ subjective experiences and sense-making’ [( Braun and Clarke, 2021c ), p. 39]. Given the strong focus in public health on social justice, power and inequality, researchers proactively use the findings from these qualitative studies—often in collaboration with lived experience experts and others who are impacted by key decisions ( Reed et al ., 2024 )—to advocate for changes to public health policy and practice. There is also an important level of theoretical, methodological and empirical reflection that is part of the public health researcher’s role. For example, as qualitative researchers actively construct and interpret meaning from data, they constantly challenge their assumptions, their way of knowing and their way of ‘doing’ research ( Braun and Clarke, 2024 ). This reflexive practice also includes considering how to develop more inclusive opportunities for people to participate in research and to share their opinions and experiences about the issues that matter to them.

While in-depth interviews and focus groups provide rich and detailed narratives that are central to understanding people’s lives, these forms of data collection may sometimes create practical barriers for both researchers and participants. For example, they can be time consuming, and the power dynamics associated with face-to-face interviews (even in online settings) may make them less accessible for groups that are marginalized or stigmatized ( Edwards and Holland, 2020 ). While some population subgroups (and contexts) may suit (or require) face-to-face qualitative data collection approaches, others may lend themselves to different forms of data collection. Young people, for example, may be keen to be civically involved in research about the issues that matter to them, such as the climate crisis, but they may find it more convenient and comfortable using anonymized digital technologies to do so ( Arnot et al ., 2024b ). As such, part of our reflexive practice as public health researchers must be to explore, and be open to, a range of qualitative methodological approaches that could be more convenient, less intimidating and more engaging for a diverse range of population subgroups. This includes thinking about pragmatic ways of operationalizing qualitative data collection methods. How can we develop methods and engagement strategies that enable us to gain insights from a diverse range of participants about new issues or phenomenon that may pose threats to public health, or look at existing issues in new ways?

Advancements in online data collection methods have also created new options for researchers and participants about how they can be involved in qualitative studies ( Hensen et al ., 2021 ; Chen, 2023 ; Fan et al ., 2024 ). Online qualitative surveys—those surveys that prioritize qualitative values and questions—have rich potential for qualitative researchers. Braun and Clarke (2013 , p. 135) state that qualitative surveys:

…consist of a series of open-ended questions about a topic, and participants type or hand-write their responses to each question. They are self-administered; a researcher-administered qualitative survey would basically be an interview.

While these types of studies are increasingly utilized in public health, researchers have highlighted that there is still relatively limited discussion about the methodological and practical implications of these surveys ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun et al ., 2021 ). This poses challenges for qualitative public health researchers, funders, ethics committees and peer reviewers in assessing the purpose, rigour and contribution of such research, and in deciding the appropriateness of the method for answering different research questions.

Using examples from online qualitative surveys that we have been involved in, this article discusses a range of methodological and practical lessons learnt from developing, implementing and analysing data from these types of surveys. While we do not claim to have all the answers, we aim to develop and extend on the methodological and practical guidance from Braun and Clarke (2013) , Terry and Braun (2017) and Braun et al . (2021) about the potential for online qualitative surveys. This includes how they can provide a rigorous ‘wide-angle picture’ [( Toerien and Wilkinson, 2004 ), p. 70] from a diverse range of participants about contemporary public health phenomena.

Figure 1 aims to develop and extend on the key points made by Braun and Clarke (2013) , Terry and Braun (2017) and Braun et al . (2021) , which provide the methodological and empirical foundation for our article.

: Methodological considerations in conducting online qualitative surveys.

: Methodological considerations in conducting online qualitative surveys.

Harnessing interpretivist approaches and qualitative values in online qualitative surveys

Online qualitative surveys take many forms. They may be fully qualitative or qualitative dominant—mostly qualitative with some quantitative questions ( Terry and Braun, 2017 ). There are also many different ways of conducting these studies—from using a smaller number of questions that engage specific population groups or knowledge users in understanding detailed experiences  ( Hennessy and O’Donoghue, 2024 ), to a larger number of questions (which may use market research panel providers to recruit participants), that seek broader opinions and attitudes about public health issues ( Marko et al ., 2022a ; McCarthy et al ., 2023 ; Arnot et al ., 2024a ). However, based on our experiences of applying for grant funding and conducting, publishing and presenting these studies, there are still clear misconceptions and uncertainties about these types of  surveys.

One of the concerns raised about online qualitative surveys is how they are situated within broader qualitative values and approaches. This includes whether they can provide empirically innovative, rigorous, rich and theoretically grounded qualitative contributions to knowledge. Our experience is that online qualitative surveys have the most potential when they harness the values of interpretivist ‘Big Q’ approaches to collect information from a diverse range of participants about their experiences, opinions and practices ( Braun et al ., 2021 ). The distinction between positivist (small q) and interpretivist (Big Q) approaches to online qualitative surveys is an important one that requires some initial methodological reflection, particularly in considering the (largely unhelpful) critiques that are made about the rigour and usefulness of these surveys. These critiques often overlook the theoretical underpinnings and qualitative values inherent in such surveys. For example, while there may be a tendency to think of surveys and survey data as atheoretical and descriptive, the use of theory is central in informing online qualitative surveys. For example, Varpio and Ellaway (2021 , p. 343) explain that theory can ‘offer explanations and detailed premises that we can wrestle with, agree with, disagree with, reject and/or accept’. This includes the research design, the approach to data collection and analysis, the interpretation of findings and the conclusions that are drawn. Theory is also important in helping researchers to engage in reflexive practice. The use of theory is essential in progressing online qualitative surveys beyond description and towards in-depth interpretation and explanations—thus facilitating a deeper understanding of the studied phenomenon ( Collins and Stockton, 2018 ; Jamie and Rathbone, 2022 ).

Considering the assumptions that online qualitative surveys can only collect ‘thin’ data

The main assumptions about online qualitative surveys are that they can only collect ‘thin’ textual data, and that they are not flexible enough as a data collection tool for researchers to prompt or ask follow-up questions or to co-create detailed and rich data with participants ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Clarke, 2017 ; Braun et al ., 2021 ). While we acknowledge that the type of data that is collected in these types of studies is different from those in in-depth interview studies, these surveys may be a more accessible and engaging way to collect rich insights from a diverse range of participants who may otherwise not participate in qualitative research ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun et al ., 2021 ). Despite this, peer reviewers can question the depth of information that may be collected in these studies. Assumptions about large but ‘thin’ datasets may also mean that researchers, funders and reviewers take (and perhaps expect) a more positivist approach to the design and analytical processes associated with these surveys. For example, the multiple topics and questions, larger sample sizes, and the generally smaller textual responses that online qualitative surveys generate may lead researchers to approach these surveys using more descriptive and atheoretical paradigms. This approach may focus on ‘measuring’ phenomena, using variables, developing thinner analytical description and adding numerical values to the number of responses for different categories or themes.

We have found that assumptions can also impact the review processes associated with these types of studies, receiving critiques from those with both positivist and interpretivist positions. Positivist critiques focus on matters associated with whether the samples are ‘representative’, and the flaws associated with ‘self-selecting convenience’ samples. Critiques from interpretivist colleagues question why such large sample sizes are needed for qualitative studies, seeing surveys as a less rigorous method for gaining rich and meaningful data. For example, we have had reviewers query the scope and depth of the analysis of the data that we present from these studies because they are concerned that the type of data collected lacks depth and does not fully contextualize and explain how participants think about issues. We have also had reviewers request that we should return to the study to collect quantitative data to supplement the qualitative findings of the survey. They also question how ‘representative’ the samples are of population groups. These comments, of course, are not unique to online qualitative surveys but do highlight the difficulty that reviewers may have in placing and situating these types of studies in broader qualitative approaches. With this in mind, we have also found that some reviewers can ask for additional information to justify both the use of online qualitative surveys and why we have chosen these over other qualitative approaches. For example, reviewers have asked us to justify why we have chosen an online qualitative survey and also to explain what we may have missed out on by not conducting in-depth interviews or quantitative or mixed methods surveys instead.

Requests for ‘numbers’ and ‘strategies to minimize bias’

While there is now a general understanding that attributing ‘numbers’ to qualitative data is largely unhelpful and inappropriate ( Chowdhury, 2015 ), there may be expectations that the larger sample sizes associated with online qualitative surveys enable researchers to provide numerical indicators of data. Rather than focusing on the ‘artfully interpretive’ techniques used to analyse and construct themes from the data ( Finlay, 2021 ), we have found that reviewers often ask us to provide numerical information about how many people provided different responses to different questions (or constructed themes), and the number at which ‘saturation’ was determined. Reviewer feedback that we have received about analytical processes has asked for detailed explanations about why attempts to ‘minimize bias’ (including calculations of inter-rater reliability and replicability of data quality) were not used. This demonstrates that peer reviewers may misinterpret the interpretivist values that guide online qualitative surveys, asking for information that is essentially ‘meaningless’ in qualitative paradigms in which researchers’ subjectivity ‘sculpts’ the knowledge that is produced ( Braun and Clarke, 2021a ).

The benefits and limitations of online qualitative surveys for participants, researchers and knowledge users

As well as a ‘wide-angle picture’ [( Toerien and Wilkinson, 2004 ), p. 70] on phenomenon, online qualitative surveys can also: (i) generate both rich and focused data about perceptions and practices, and (ii) have multiple participatory and practical advantages—including helping to overcome barriers to research participation ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun et al ., 2021 ). For researchers , online qualitative surveys can be a more cost-effective alternative ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 )—they are generally more time-efficient and less labour-intensive (particularly if working with market research companies to recruit panels). They are also able to reach a broad range of participants—such as those who are geographically dispersed ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ), and those who may not have internet connectivity that is reliable enough to complete online interviews (a common issue for individuals living in regional or rural settings) ( de Villiers et al ., 2022 ). We are also more able to engage young people in qualitative research through online surveys, perhaps partly due to extensive panel company databases but also because they may be a more accessible and familiar way for young people to participate in research. The ability to quickly investigate new public health threats from the perspective of lived experience can also provide important information for researchers, providing justification for new areas of research focus, including setting agendas and advocating for the need for funding (or policy attention). Collecting data from a diverse range of participants—including from those who hold views that we may see as less ‘politically acceptable’, or inconsistent with our own public health reasoning about health and equity—is important in situating and contextualizing community attitudes towards particular issues.

For participants , benefits include having a degree of autonomy and control over their participation, including completing the survey at a time and place that suits them, and the anonymous nature of participation (that may be helpful for people from highly stigmatized groups). Participants can take time to reflect on their responses or complete the survey, and may feel more able to ‘talk back’ to the researcher about the framing of questions or the purpose of the research ( Braun et al ., 2021 ). We would also add that a benefit of these types of studies is that participants can also drop out of the study easily if the survey does not interest them or meet their expectations—something that we think might be more onerous or uncomfortable for participants in an interview or focus group.

For knowledge users, including advocates, service providers and decision-makers, qualitative research provides an important form of evidence, and the ‘wide-angle picture' [( Toerien and Wilkinson, 2004 ), p. 70] on issues from a diverse range of individuals in a community or population can be a powerful advocacy tool. Online qualitative surveys can also provide rapid insights into how changes to policy and practice may impact population subgroups in different ways.

There are, of course, some limitations associated with online qualitative surveys ( Braun et al ., 2021 ; Marko et al ., 2022b ). For example, there is no ability to engage individuals in a ‘traditional’ conversation or to prompt or probe meaning in the interactive ways that we are familiar with in interview studies. There is less ability to refine the questions that we ask participants in an iterative way throughout a study based on participant responses (particularly when working with market research panel companies). There may also be barriers associated with written literacy, access to digital technologies and stable internet connections ( Braun et al ., 2021 ). They may also not be the most suitable for individuals who have different ways of ‘knowing, being and doing’ qualitative research—including Indigenous populations [( Kennedy et al ., 2022 ), p. 1]. All of these factors should be taken into consideration when deciding whether online qualitative surveys are an appropriate way of collecting data. Finally, while these types of surveys can collect data quickly ( Marko et al ., 2022b ), there can also be additional decision-making processes related to data preparation and inclusion that can be time-consuming.

There are a range of practical considerations that can improve the rigour, trustworthiness and quality of online qualitative survey data. Again, developing and expanding on ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun et al ., 2021 ), Figure 2 gives an overview of some key practical considerations associated with the design, implementation and analysis of these surveys. We would also note that before starting your survey design, you should be aware that people may use different types of technology to complete the survey, and in different spaces. For example, we cannot assume that people will be sitting in front of a computer or laptop at home or in the office, with people more likely to complete surveys on a mobile phone, perhaps on a train or bus on the way to work or school.

: Top ten practical tips for conducting online qualitative surveys.

: Top ten practical tips for conducting online qualitative surveys.

Survey design

Creating an appropriate and accessible structure

The first step in designing an online qualitative survey is to plan the structure of your survey. This step is important because the structure influences the way that participants interact with and participate through the survey. The survey structure helps to create an ‘environment’ that helps participants to share their perspectives, prompt their views and develop their ideas ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ). Similar to an interview study, the structure of the survey guides participants from one set of questions (and topics) to the next. It is important to consider the ordering of topics to enable participants to complete a survey that has a logical flow, introduces participants to concepts and allows them to develop their depth of responses.

Before participants start the survey, we provide a clear and simple lay language summary of the survey. Because many individuals will be familiar with completing quantitative surveys, we include a welcoming statement and reiterate the qualitative nature of the survey, stating that their answers can be about their own experiences:

Thank you for agreeing to take part in this survey about [topic] . This survey involves writing responses to questions rather than checking boxes.

We then clearly reiterate the purpose of the survey, providing a short description of the topic that we are investigating. We state that we do not seek to collect any data that is identifiable, that we are interested in participants perspectives, that there are no right or wrong answers, and that participants can withdraw from the survey at any time without giving a reason.

Similar to Braun et al . (2021) , we start our surveys with questions about demographic and related characteristics (which we often call ‘ participant/general characteristics ’). These can be discrete choice questions, but can also utilize open text—for example, in relation to gender identity. We have found that there is always a temptation with surveys to ask many questions about the demographic characteristics of participants. However, we caution that too many questions can be intrusive for participants and can take away valuable time from open-text questions, which are the core focus of the survey. We recommend asking participant characteristic and demographic questions that situate and contextualize the sample ( Elliott et al ., 1999 ).

We generally start the open-text sections of these surveys by asking broad introductory questions about the topic. This might include questions such as: ‘Please describe the main reasons you drink alcohol ’, and ‘W hat do you think are the main impacts of climate change on the world? ’ We have found that these types of questions get participants used to responding to open-text questions relevant to the study’s research questions and aims. For each new topic of investigation (which are based on our theoretical concepts and overall study aims and research questions), we provide a short explanation about what we will ask participants. We also use tools and text to signpost participant progress through the survey. This can be a valuable way to avoid high attrition rates where participants exit the survey because they are getting fatigued and are unclear when the survey will end:

Great! We are just over half-way through the survey.

We ask more detailed questions that are more aligned with our theoretical concepts in the middle of the survey. For example, we may start with broad questions about a harmful industry and their products (such as gambling, vaping or alcohol) and then in the middle of the survey ask more detailed questions about the commercial determinants of health and the specific tactics that these industries use (for example, about product design, political tactics, public relations strategies or how these practices may influence health and equity). In relation to these more complex questions, it is particularly important that we reiterate that there are no wrong answers and try to include encouraging text throughout the survey:

There are no right or wrong answers—we are curious to hear your opinions .

We always try to end the survey on a positive. While these types of questions depend on the study, we try to ask questions which enable participants to reflect on what could be done to address or improve an issue. This might include their attitudes about policy, or what they would say to those in positions of power:

What do you think should be done to protect young people from sports betting advertising on social media? If there was one thing that could be done to prevent young people from being exposed to the risks associated with alcohol, cigarettes, vaping, or gambling, what would it be? If you could say one thing to politicians about climate change, what would it be?

Finally, we ask participants if there is anything we have missed or if they have anything else to add, sometimes referred to as a ‘clean-up’ question ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ). The following provides a few examples of how we have framed these questions in some of our studies:

Is there anything you would like to say about alcohol, cigarettes, vaping, and gambling products that we have not covered? Is there anything we haven’t asked you about the advertising of alcohol to women that you would like us to know?

Considering the impact of the length of the survey on responses

The length of the survey (both the number of questions and the time it takes an individual to complete the survey) is guided by a range of methodological and practical considerations and will vary between studies ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ). Many factors will influence completion times. We try to give individuals a guide at the start of the survey about how long we think it will take to complete the survey (for example, between 20 and 30 minutes). We highlight that it may take people a little longer or shorter and that people are able to leave their browser open or save the survey and come back to finish it later. For our first few online qualitative surveys, we found that we asked lots of questions because we felt less in control of being able to prompt or ask follow-up questions from participants. However, we have learned that less is more! Asking too many questions may lead to more survey dropouts, and may significantly reduce the textual quality of the information that you receive from participants ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Clarke, 2017 ). This includes considering how the survey questions might lead to repetition, which may be annoying for participants, leading to responses such as ‘like I’ve already said’ , ‘I’ve already answered that’ or ‘see above’ .

Providing clear and simple guidance

When designing an online qualitative survey, we try to think of ways to make participation in the survey engaging. We do not want individuals to feel that we are ‘mining’ them for data. Rather we want to demonstrate that we are genuinely interested in their perspectives and views. We use a range of mechanisms to do this. Because there is no opportunity to verbally explain or clarify concepts to participants, there is a particular need to ensure that the language used is clear and accessible ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Clarke, 2017 ). If language or concepts are complex, you are more likely to receive ‘I don’t know’ responses to your questions. We need to remember that participants have a range of written and comprehension skills, and inclusive and accessible language is important. We also never try to assume a level of knowledge about an issue (unless we have specifically asked for participants who are aware and engaged in an issue—such as women who drink alcohol) ( Pitt et al ., 2023 ). This includes avoiding highly technical or academic language and not making assumptions that the individuals completing the survey will understand concepts in the same way that researchers do ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ). Clearly explaining concepts or using text or images to prompt memories can help to overcome this:

Some big corporations (such as the tobacco, vaping, alcohol, junk food, or gambling industries) sponsor women's sporting teams or clubs, or other events. You might see sponsor logos on sporting uniforms, or at sporting grounds, or sponsoring a concert or arts event.

At all times, we try to centre the language that we use with the population from which we are seeking responses. Advisory groups can be particularly helpful in framing language for different population subgroups. We often use colloquial language, even if it might not be seen as the ‘correct’ academic language or terminology. Where possible, we also try to define theoretical concepts in a clear and easy to understand way. For example, in our study investigating parent perceptions of the impact of harmful products on young people, we tried to clearly define ‘normalization’:

In this section we ask you about some of the perceived health impacts of the above products on young people. We also ask you about the normalisation of these products for young people. When we talk about normalisation, we are thinking about the range of factors that might make these products more acceptable for young people to use. These factors might include individual factors, such as young people being attracted to risk, the influence of family or peers, the accessibility and availability of these products, or the way the industry advertises and promotes these products.

Using innovative approaches to improve accessibility and prompt responses

Online qualitative surveys can include features beyond traditional question-and-answer formats ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ). For example, we often use a range of photo elicitation techniques (using images or videos) to make surveys more accessible to participate in, address different levels of literacy, and overcome the assumption that we are not able to ‘prompt’ responses. These types of visual methodologies enable a collaborative and creative research experience by asking the participant to reflect on aspects of the visual materials, such as symbolic representations, and discuss these in relation to the research objectives ( Glaw et al ., 2017 ). The combination of visual images and clear descriptions helps to provide a focus for responses about different issues, as well as prompting nuanced information such as participant memories and emotions ( Glaw et al ., 2017 ). We use different types of visuals in our studies, such as photographs (including of the public health issues we’re investigating); screenshots from websites and social media posts (including newspaper headlines) and videos (including short videos from social media sites such as TikTok) ( Arnot et al ., 2024b ). For example, when talking about government responses to the climate crisis, we used a photograph of former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison holding a piece of coal in the Australian parliament to prompt participants’ thinking about the government’s relationship with fossil fuels and to provide a focal point for their answer. However, we would caution against using any images that may be confronting for participants or deliberately provocative. The purpose of using visuals must always be in the interests of the participants—to clarify, prompt and reflect on concepts. Ethics committees should carefully review the images used in surveys to ensure that they have a clear purpose and are unlikely to cause any discomfort.

Survey implementation

Thinking carefully about your criteria for recruitment

Determining the sample size of online qualitative studies is not an exact science. The sample sizes for recent studies have ranged from n = 46 in a study about pregnancy loss ( Hennessy and O’Donoghue, 2024 ), to n = 511 in a study with young people about the climate crisis ( Arnot et al ., 2023b ). We follow ‘rules of thumb’ [( Braun and Clarke, 2021b ), p. 211] which try to balance the needs of the research and data richness with key practical considerations (such as funding and time constraints), funder expectations, discipline-specific norms and our knowledge and experience of designing and implementing online qualitative surveys. However, we have found that peer reviewers expect much more justification of sample sizes than they do for other types of qualitative research. Robust justification of sample sizes are often needed to prevent any ‘concerns’ that reviewers may raise. Our response to these reviews often reiterates that our focus (as with all qualitative research) is not to produce a ‘generalisable’ or ‘representative’ sample but to recruit participants who will help to provide ‘rich, complex and textured data’ [( Terry and Braun, 2017 ), p. 15] about an issue. Instead of focusing on data saturation, a contested concept which is incongruent with reflexive thematic analysis in particular ( Braun and Clarke, 2021b ), we find it useful to consider information power to determine the sample size for these surveys ( Malterud et al ., 2016 ). Information power prioritizes the adequacy, quality and variability of the data collected over the number of participants.

Recruitment for online qualitative surveys can be influenced by a range of factors. Monetary and time constraints will impact the size and, if using market research company panels, the specificity of participant quotas. Recruitment strategies must be developed to ensure that the data provides enough information to answer the research questions of the study. For our research purposes, we often try to ensure that participants with a range of socio-demographic characteristics are invited to participate in the sample. We set soft quotas for age, gender and geographic location to ensure some diversity. We have found that some population subgroups may also be recruited more easily than others—although this may depend on the topic of the survey. For example, we have found that quotas for women and those living in metropolitan areas may fill more quickly. In these scenarios, the research team must weigh up the timelines associated with recruitment and data collection (e.g. How long do we want to run data collection for? How much of our budget can be spent on achieving a more equally split sample? Are quotas necessary?) versus the purpose and goals of the research (i.e. to generate ideas rather than data representativeness), and the study-specific aims and research questions.

There are, of course, concerns about not being able to ‘see’ the people that are completing these surveys. There is an increasing focus in the academic literature on ‘false’ respondents, particularly in quantitative online surveys ( Levi et al ., 2021 ; Wang et al ., 2023 ). This will be an important ongoing discussion for qualitative researchers, and we do not claim to have the answers for how to overcome these issues. For example, some individuals may say that they meet the inclusion criteria to access the survey, while others may not understand or misinterpret the inclusion criteria. There is also a level of discomfort about who and how we judge who may be a ‘legitimate’ participant or not. However, we can talk practically about some of the strategies that we use to ensure the rigour of data. For example, we find that screening questions can provide a ‘double-check’ in relation to inclusion criteria and can also help with ensuring that there is consistency between the information an individual provides about how they meet the inclusion criteria and subsequent responses. For example, in a recent survey of parents of young people, a participant stated that they were 18 years old and were a parent to a 16-year-old and 15-year-old. Their overall responses were inconsistent with being a parent of children these ages. Similarly, in our gambling studies, people may tick that they have gambled in the last year but then in subsequent questions say they have not gambled at all. This highlights the importance of checking data across all questions, although it should be noted that time and cost constraints associated with comprehensively scanning the data for such responses are not always feasible and can result in overlooking these participants.

Ensuring that there are strategies to create agency and engage participants in the research

One of the benefits of online qualitative surveys compared to traditional quantitative surveys is the scope for participants to explain their answers and to disagree with the research team’s position. An indication that participants are feeling able to do this is when they are asked for any additional comments at the end of the survey. For example, in a survey about women’s attitudes towards alcohol marketing, the following participant concluded the survey by writing: ‘I think you have covered everything. I think that you need to stop shaming women for having fun’. Other participants demonstrate their engagement and interest in the survey by reaffirming the perspectives they have shared throughout the survey. For example, in a study with young people on climate, participants responded at the end that ‘it’s one of the few things I actually care about’ , while another commented on the quality of the survey questions, stating, ‘I think this survey did a great job with probing questions to prompt all the thoughts I have on it’ .

We also think that online qualitative surveys may lead to less social desirability in participants’ responses. Participants seem less wary about communicating less politically correct opinions than they may do in a face-to-face interview. For example, at times, participants communicate attitudes that may not align with public health values (e.g. supporting personal responsibility, anti-nanny state, and neoliberal ideologies of health and wellbeing), that we rarely see communicated to us in in-depth interview or focus group studies. We would argue that these perspectives are valuable for public health researchers because they capture a different community voice that may not otherwise be represented in research. This may show where there is a lack of support for health interventions and policy reforms and may indicate where further awareness-raising needs to occur. These types of responses also contribute to reflexive practice by challenging our assumptions and positions about how we think people should think or feel about responses to particular public health issues. Examples of such responses from our surveys include:

"Like I have already said, if you try to hide it you will only make it more attractive. This nanny-state attitude of the elite drives me crazy. People must be allowed to decide for themselves."

Ethical issues for participants and researchers

Researchers should also be aware that some of the ethical issues associated with online qualitative surveys may be different from those in in-depth interviews—and it is important that these are explained in any ethical consideration of the study. Providing a clear and simply worded Plain Language Statement (in written or video form) is important in establishing informed consent and willingness to participate. While participants are given information about who to contact if they have further questions about the study, this may be an extra step for participants, and they may not feel as able to ask for clarification about the study. Because of this, we try to provide multiple examples of the types of questions that we will ask, as well as providing downloadable support details (for example, for mental health support lines). A positive aspect of surveys is that participants are able to easily ignore recruitment notices to participate in the study. They are also able to stop the survey at any time by exiting out of the browser if they feel discomfort without having to give a reason in person to a researcher.

While the anonymous nature of the survey may be empowering for some participants ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun et al. , 2021 ), it can also make it difficult for researchers to ascertain if people need any further support after completing the survey. Participants may also fill in surveys with someone else and may be influenced about how they should respond to questions (with the exception of some studies in which people may require assistance from someone to type their responses). Because of the above, some researchers, ethics committees and funders may be more cautious about using these studies for highly sensitive subjects. However, we would argue that the important point is that the studies follow ethical principles and take the lack of direct contact with participants into the ethical considerations of the study. It is also important to ensure that platforms used to collect survey data are trusted and secure. Here, we would argue that universities have an obligation to investigate and, where possible, approve survey providers to ensure that researchers are using platforms that meet rigorous standards for data and privacy.

It is also important to note that there may be responses from participants that may be challenging ( Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun and Clarke, 2021 ). Online spaces are rife with trolling due to their anonymous nature, and online surveys are not immune to this behaviour. Naturally, this leads to some silly responses—‘ Deakin University is responsible for all of this ’, but researchers should also be aware that the anonymity of surveys can (although in our experience not often) lead to responses that may cause discomfort for the researchers. For example, when asked if participants had anything else to add to a climate survey ( Arnot et al ., 2024c ), one responded ‘ nope, but you sure asked a lot of dumbass questions’ . Just as with interview-based studies, there must be processes built into the research for debriefing—particularly for students and early career researchers—as well as clear decisions about whether to include or exclude these types of responses when preparing the dataset for analysis and in writing up the results from the survey.

The importance of piloting the survey

Because of the lack of ability to explain and clarify concepts, piloting is particularly important ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ; Braun et al. , 2021 ) to ensure that: (i) the technical aspects of the survey work as intended; (ii) the survey is eliciting quality responses (with limited ‘nonsensical’ responses such as random characters); (iii) the survey responses indicate comprehension of the survey questions; and (vi) there is not a substantial number of people who ‘drop-out’ of the study. Typically, we pilot our survey with 10% of the intended sample size. After piloting, we often change question wording, particularly to address questions that elicit very small text responses, the length of the survey and sometimes refine definitions or language to ensure increased comprehension. Researchers should remember that changes to the survey questions may need to be reviewed by ethics committees before launching the full survey. It is important to build in time for piloting and the revision of the survey to ensure you get this right as once you launch the full survey, there is no going back!

Survey analysis and write-up

Preparing the dataset

Once launching the full survey, the quality of data and types of responses you receive in these types of surveys can vary. There is very limited transparency around how the dataset was prepared (more familiar to some as ‘data cleaning’) in published papers, including the decisions about which (if any) participants (or indeed responses) were excluded from the dataset and why. Nonsensical responses can be common—and can take a range of forms ( Figure 3 ). These can include random numbers or letters, a chunk of text that has been copied and pasted from elsewhere, predictive text or even repeat emojis. In one study, we had a participant quote the script of The Bee Movie in response to questions.

: Visual examples of nonsensical responses in online qualitative surveys.

: Visual examples of nonsensical responses in online qualitative surveys.

Part of our familiarization with the dataset [Phase One in Braun and Clarke’s reflexive approach to thematic analysis ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Braun et al ., 2021 )] includes preparing the dataset for analysis. We use this phase to help make decisions about what to include and exclude from the final dataset. While a row of emojis in the data file can easily be spotted and removed from the dataset, sometimes responses can look robust until you read, become familiar and engage with the data. For example, when asked about what they thought about collective climate action ( Arnot et al ., 2023a , 2024c ), some participants entered random yet related terms such as ‘ plastic ’, or repeated similar phrases across multiple questions:

“ why do we need paper straws ”, “ paper straws are terrible ”, “ papers straws are bad for you ”, “ paper straws are gross .”

Participants can also provide comprehensive answers for the first few questions and then nonsensical responses for the rest, which may also be due to question fatigue [( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ), p. 138]. Therefore, it is important to closely go through each participant’s response to ensure they have attempted to provide bone-fide responses. For example, in one of our young people and climate surveys ( Arnot et al ., 2023a , 2024c ), one participant responded genuinely to the first half of the survey before their quality dropped dramatically:

“I can’t even be bothered to read that question ”, “ why so many questions ”, “ bro too many sections. ”

Some market research panel providers may complete an initial quality screen of data. However, this does not replace the need for the research teams’ own data preparation processes. Researchers should ensure they are checking that responses are coherent—for example, not giving information that contradicts or is not credible. In our more recent studies, we have increasingly seen responses cut and pasted from ChatGPT and other AI tools—providing a new challenge in assessing the quality of responses. If you are seeing these types of responses, it might be an opportunity to think about the style and suitability of the questions being asked. For example, the use of AI tools might suggest that people are finding it difficult to answer questions or may feel that they have to present a ‘correct’ answer. We would also note that because of the volume of data in these surveys, the preparation of data involves multiple members of the team. In many cases, decisions need to be made about participants who may not have provided authentic responses across the survey. The research team should make clear in any paper their decisions about their choices to include or exclude participants from the study. There is a careful balancing act that can require assessing the quality of the participants’ responses across the whole dataset to determine if the overall quality of responses contributes to the research.

Navigating the volume of data and writing up results

Finally, discussions about how to navigate the volume of data that these types of studies produce could be a standalone paper. In general, principles of reflexive practices apply to the analysis of data from these studies. However, as a starting point, here are a few considerations when approaching these datasets.

We would argue that online qualitative surveys lend themselves to some types of analytical approaches over others—for example, reflexive thematic analysis, as compared to grounded theory or interpretive phenomenological analysis (though it can be used with these) ( Braun and Clarke, 2013 ; Terry and Braun, 2017 ).

While initial familiarization, coding and analysis can focus on specific questions and associated responses, it is important to analyse the dataset as a whole (or as clusters associated with particular topics) as participants may provide relevant data to a topic under multiple questions ( Terry and Braun, 2017 ). We initially focus our coding on specific questions or a group of survey questions under a topic of investigation. Once we have developed and constructed preliminary themes from the data associated with these clusters of questions, we then move to looking at responses across the dataset as we review themes further.

Researchers should think carefully about how to manage the data—which may not be available as ‘individual participant transcripts’ but rather as a ‘whole’ dataset in an Excel spreadsheet. Some may prefer qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) to manage and navigate data. However, many of us find that Excel (and particularly the use of labelled Tabs) is useful in grouping data and moving from codes to constructing themes.

As with all rigorous qualitative research, coding and theme development should be guided by the research questions. A clear record of decision-making about analytical choices (and being reflexive about these) should be kept. In any write-up, we would recommend that researchers are clear about which survey questions they used in the analysis [researchers could consider providing a supplementary file of some or all of the survey questions—see, for example Hennessy and O’Donoghue (2024) ].

In writing up the results, researchers should still seek to present a rich description of the data, as demonstrated in the presentation of results in the following papers ( Marko et al ., 2022a , 2022b ; McCarthy et al ., 2023 ; Pitt et al ., 2023 ; Hennessy and O’Donoghue, 2024 ). We have found the use of tables with additional examples of quotes as they relate to themes and subthemes can be a practical way of providing the reader with further examples of the data, particularly when constrained by journal word count limits [see, for example, Table 2 in Arnot et al ., (2024c) ]. However, these tables do not replace a full and complete presentation of the interpretation of the data.

This article offers methodological reflections and practical guidance around online qualitative survey design, implementation and analysis. While online qualitative surveys engage participants in a different type of conversation, they have design features that enable the collection of rich data. We recognize that we have much to learn and that while no survey of ours has been perfect, each new experience with developing and conducting online qualitative surveys has brought new understandings and lessons for future studies. In recognizing that we are learning, we also feel that our experience to date could be valuable for progressing the conversation about the rigour of online qualitative surveys and maximizing this method for public health gains.

H.P. is funded through a VicHealth Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. S.M. is funded through a Deakin University Faculty of Health Deans Postdoctoral Fellowship. G.A. is funded by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. M.H. is funded through an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship Award [GOIPD/2023/1168].

The pregnancy loss study was funded by the Irish Research Council through its New Foundations Awards and in partnership with the Irish Hospice Foundation as civil society partner [NF/2021/27123063].

S.T. is Editor in Chief of Health Promotion International, H.P. is a member of the Editorial Board of Health Promotion International, S.M. and G.A. are Social Media Coordinators for Health Promotion International, M.H. is an Associate Editor for Health Promotion International. They were not involved in the review process or in any decision-making on the manuscript.

The data used in this study are not available.

Ethical approval for studies conducted by Deakin University include the climate crisis (HEAG-H 55_2020, HEAG-H 162_2021); parents perceptions of harmful industries on young people (HEAG-H 158_2022); women and alcohol marketing (HEAG-H 123_2022) and gambling (HEAG 227_2020).

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What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

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  • Published: 27 February 2019
  • Volume 42 , pages 139–160, ( 2019 )

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qualitative research design according to authors

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  • Ugo Corte 3  

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What is qualitative research? If we look for a precise definition of qualitative research, and specifically for one that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature is meager. In this article we systematically search, identify and analyze a sample of 89 sources using or attempting to define the term “qualitative.” Then, drawing on ideas we find scattered across existing work, and based on Becker’s classic study of marijuana consumption, we formulate and illustrate a definition that tries to capture its core elements. We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. This formulation is developed as a tool to help improve research designs while stressing that a qualitative dimension is present in quantitative work as well. Additionally, it can facilitate teaching, communication between researchers, diminish the gap between qualitative and quantitative researchers, help to address critiques of qualitative methods, and be used as a standard of evaluation of qualitative research.

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qualitative research design according to authors

What is Qualitative in Research

Unsettling definitions of qualitative research, what is “qualitative” in qualitative research why the answer does not matter but the question is important.

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.

If we assume that there is something called qualitative research, what exactly is this qualitative feature? And how could we evaluate qualitative research as good or not? Is it fundamentally different from quantitative research? In practice, most active qualitative researchers working with empirical material intuitively know what is involved in doing qualitative research, yet perhaps surprisingly, a clear definition addressing its key feature is still missing.

To address the question of what is qualitative we turn to the accounts of “qualitative research” in textbooks and also in empirical work. In his classic, explorative, interview study of deviance Howard Becker ( 1963 ) asks ‘How does one become a marijuana user?’ In contrast to pre-dispositional and psychological-individualistic theories of deviant behavior, Becker’s inherently social explanation contends that becoming a user of this substance is the result of a three-phase sequential learning process. First, potential users need to learn how to smoke it properly to produce the “correct” effects. If not, they are likely to stop experimenting with it. Second, they need to discover the effects associated with it; in other words, to get “high,” individuals not only have to experience what the drug does, but also to become aware that those sensations are related to using it. Third, they require learning to savor the feelings related to its consumption – to develop an acquired taste. Becker, who played music himself, gets close to the phenomenon by observing, taking part, and by talking to people consuming the drug: “half of the fifty interviews were conducted with musicians, the other half covered a wide range of people, including laborers, machinists, and people in the professions” (Becker 1963 :56).

Another central aspect derived through the common-to-all-research interplay between induction and deduction (Becker 2017 ), is that during the course of his research Becker adds scientifically meaningful new distinctions in the form of three phases—distinctions, or findings if you will, that strongly affect the course of his research: its focus, the material that he collects, and which eventually impact his findings. Each phase typically unfolds through social interaction, and often with input from experienced users in “a sequence of social experiences during which the person acquires a conception of the meaning of the behavior, and perceptions and judgments of objects and situations, all of which make the activity possible and desirable” (Becker 1963 :235). In this study the increased understanding of smoking dope is a result of a combination of the meaning of the actors, and the conceptual distinctions that Becker introduces based on the views expressed by his respondents. Understanding is the result of research and is due to an iterative process in which data, concepts and evidence are connected with one another (Becker 2017 ).

Indeed, there are many definitions of qualitative research, but if we look for a definition that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature across the broad field of social science is meager. The main reason behind this article lies in the paradox, which, to put it bluntly, is that researchers act as if they know what it is, but they cannot formulate a coherent definition. Sociologists and others will of course continue to conduct good studies that show the relevance and value of qualitative research addressing scientific and practical problems in society. However, our paper is grounded in the idea that providing a clear definition will help us improve the work that we do. Among researchers who practice qualitative research there is clearly much knowledge. We suggest that a definition makes this knowledge more explicit. If the first rationale for writing this paper refers to the “internal” aim of improving qualitative research, the second refers to the increased “external” pressure that especially many qualitative researchers feel; pressure that comes both from society as well as from other scientific approaches. There is a strong core in qualitative research, and leading researchers tend to agree on what it is and how it is done. Our critique is not directed at the practice of qualitative research, but we do claim that the type of systematic work we do has not yet been done, and that it is useful to improve the field and its status in relation to quantitative research.

The literature on the “internal” aim of improving, or at least clarifying qualitative research is large, and we do not claim to be the first to notice the vagueness of the term “qualitative” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ). Also, others have noted that there is no single definition of it (Long and Godfrey 2004 :182), that there are many different views on qualitative research (Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11; Jovanović 2011 :3), and that more generally, we need to define its meaning (Best 2004 :54). Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ), for example, as well as Nelson et al. (1992:2 cited in Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11), and Flick ( 2007 :ix–x), have recognized that the term is problematic: “Actually, the term ‘qualitative research’ is confusing because it can mean different things to different people” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :10–11). Hammersley has discussed the possibility of addressing the problem, but states that “the task of providing an account of the distinctive features of qualitative research is far from straightforward” ( 2013 :2). This confusion, as he has recently further argued (Hammersley 2018 ), is also salient in relation to ethnography where different philosophical and methodological approaches lead to a lack of agreement about what it means.

Others (e.g. Hammersley 2018 ; Fine and Hancock 2017 ) have also identified the treat to qualitative research that comes from external forces, seen from the point of view of “qualitative research.” This threat can be further divided into that which comes from inside academia, such as the critique voiced by “quantitative research” and outside of academia, including, for example, New Public Management. Hammersley ( 2018 ), zooming in on one type of qualitative research, ethnography, has argued that it is under treat. Similarly to Fine ( 2003 ), and before him Gans ( 1999 ), he writes that ethnography’ has acquired a range of meanings, and comes in many different versions, these often reflecting sharply divergent epistemological orientations. And already more than twenty years ago while reviewing Denzin and Lincoln’ s Handbook of Qualitative Methods Fine argued:

While this increasing centrality [of qualitative research] might lead one to believe that consensual standards have developed, this belief would be misleading. As the methodology becomes more widely accepted, querulous challengers have raised fundamental questions that collectively have undercut the traditional models of how qualitative research is to be fashioned and presented (1995:417).

According to Hammersley, there are today “serious treats to the practice of ethnographic work, on almost any definition” ( 2018 :1). He lists five external treats: (1) that social research must be accountable and able to show its impact on society; (2) the current emphasis on “big data” and the emphasis on quantitative data and evidence; (3) the labor market pressure in academia that leaves less time for fieldwork (see also Fine and Hancock 2017 ); (4) problems of access to fields; and (5) the increased ethical scrutiny of projects, to which ethnography is particularly exposed. Hammersley discusses some more or less insufficient existing definitions of ethnography.

The current situation, as Hammersley and others note—and in relation not only to ethnography but also qualitative research in general, and as our empirical study shows—is not just unsatisfactory, it may even be harmful for the entire field of qualitative research, and does not help social science at large. We suggest that the lack of clarity of qualitative research is a real problem that must be addressed.

Towards a Definition of Qualitative Research

Seen in an historical light, what is today called qualitative, or sometimes ethnographic, interpretative research – or a number of other terms – has more or less always existed. At the time the founders of sociology – Simmel, Weber, Durkheim and, before them, Marx – were writing, and during the era of the Methodenstreit (“dispute about methods”) in which the German historical school emphasized scientific methods (cf. Swedberg 1990 ), we can at least speak of qualitative forerunners.

Perhaps the most extended discussion of what later became known as qualitative methods in a classic work is Bronisław Malinowski’s ( 1922 ) Argonauts in the Western Pacific , although even this study does not explicitly address the meaning of “qualitative.” In Weber’s ([1921–-22] 1978) work we find a tension between scientific explanations that are based on observation and quantification and interpretative research (see also Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 ).

If we look through major sociology journals like the American Sociological Review , American Journal of Sociology , or Social Forces we will not find the term qualitative sociology before the 1970s. And certainly before then much of what we consider qualitative classics in sociology, like Becker’ study ( 1963 ), had already been produced. Indeed, the Chicago School often combined qualitative and quantitative data within the same study (Fine 1995 ). Our point being that before a disciplinary self-awareness the term quantitative preceded qualitative, and the articulation of the former was a political move to claim scientific status (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ). In the US the World War II seem to have sparked a critique of sociological work, including “qualitative work,” that did not follow the scientific canon (Rawls 2018 ), which was underpinned by a scientifically oriented and value free philosophy of science. As a result the attempts and practice of integrating qualitative and quantitative sociology at Chicago lost ground to sociology that was more oriented to surveys and quantitative work at Columbia under Merton-Lazarsfeld. The quantitative tradition was also able to present textbooks (Lundberg 1951 ) that facilitated the use this approach and its “methods.” The practices of the qualitative tradition, by and large, remained tacit or was part of the mentoring transferred from the renowned masters to their students.

This glimpse into history leads us back to the lack of a coherent account condensed in a definition of qualitative research. Many of the attempts to define the term do not meet the requirements of a proper definition: A definition should be clear, avoid tautology, demarcate its domain in relation to the environment, and ideally only use words in its definiens that themselves are not in need of definition (Hempel 1966 ). A definition can enhance precision and thus clarity by identifying the core of the phenomenon. Preferably, a definition should be short. The typical definition we have found, however, is an ostensive definition, which indicates what qualitative research is about without informing us about what it actually is :

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2)

Flick claims that the label “qualitative research” is indeed used as an umbrella for a number of approaches ( 2007 :2–4; 2002 :6), and it is not difficult to identify research fitting this designation. Moreover, whatever it is, it has grown dramatically over the past five decades. In addition, courses have been developed, methods have flourished, arguments about its future have been advanced (for example, Denzin and Lincoln 1994) and criticized (for example, Snow and Morrill 1995 ), and dedicated journals and books have mushroomed. Most social scientists have a clear idea of research and how it differs from journalism, politics and other activities. But the question of what is qualitative in qualitative research is either eluded or eschewed.

We maintain that this lacuna hinders systematic knowledge production based on qualitative research. Paul Lazarsfeld noted the lack of “codification” as early as 1955 when he reviewed 100 qualitative studies in order to offer a codification of the practices (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). Since then many texts on “qualitative research” and its methods have been published, including recent attempts (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ) similar to Lazarsfeld’s. These studies have tried to extract what is qualitative by looking at the large number of empirical “qualitative” studies. Our novel strategy complements these endeavors by taking another approach and looking at the attempts to codify these practices in the form of a definition, as well as to a minor extent take Becker’s study as an exemplar of what qualitative researchers actually do, and what the characteristic of being ‘qualitative’ denotes and implies. We claim that qualitative researchers, if there is such a thing as “qualitative research,” should be able to codify their practices in a condensed, yet general way expressed in language.

Lingering problems of “generalizability” and “how many cases do I need” (Small 2009 ) are blocking advancement – in this line of work qualitative approaches are said to differ considerably from quantitative ones, while some of the former unsuccessfully mimic principles related to the latter (Small 2009 ). Additionally, quantitative researchers sometimes unfairly criticize the first based on their own quality criteria. Scholars like Goertz and Mahoney ( 2012 ) have successfully focused on the different norms and practices beyond what they argue are essentially two different cultures: those working with either qualitative or quantitative methods. Instead, similarly to Becker ( 2017 ) who has recently questioned the usefulness of the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research, we focus on similarities.

The current situation also impedes both students and researchers in focusing their studies and understanding each other’s work (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). A third consequence is providing an opening for critiques by scholars operating within different traditions (Valsiner 2000 :101). A fourth issue is that the “implicit use of methods in qualitative research makes the field far less standardized than the quantitative paradigm” (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 :9). Relatedly, the National Science Foundation in the US organized two workshops in 2004 and 2005 to address the scientific foundations of qualitative research involving strategies to improve it and to develop standards of evaluation in qualitative research. However, a specific focus on its distinguishing feature of being “qualitative” while being implicitly acknowledged, was discussed only briefly (for example, Best 2004 ).

In 2014 a theme issue was published in this journal on “Methods, Materials, and Meanings: Designing Cultural Analysis,” discussing central issues in (cultural) qualitative research (Berezin 2014 ; Biernacki 2014 ; Glaeser 2014 ; Lamont and Swidler 2014 ; Spillman 2014). We agree with many of the arguments put forward, such as the risk of methodological tribalism, and that we should not waste energy on debating methods separated from research questions. Nonetheless, a clarification of the relation to what is called “quantitative research” is of outmost importance to avoid misunderstandings and misguided debates between “qualitative” and “quantitative” researchers. Our strategy means that researchers, “qualitative” or “quantitative” they may be, in their actual practice may combine qualitative work and quantitative work.

In this article we accomplish three tasks. First, we systematically survey the literature for meanings of qualitative research by looking at how researchers have defined it. Drawing upon existing knowledge we find that the different meanings and ideas of qualitative research are not yet coherently integrated into one satisfactory definition. Next, we advance our contribution by offering a definition of qualitative research and illustrate its meaning and use partially by expanding on the brief example introduced earlier related to Becker’s work ( 1963 ). We offer a systematic analysis of central themes of what researchers consider to be the core of “qualitative,” regardless of style of work. These themes – which we summarize in terms of four keywords: distinction, process, closeness, improved understanding – constitute part of our literature review, in which each one appears, sometimes with others, but never all in the same definition. They serve as the foundation of our contribution. Our categories are overlapping. Their use is primarily to organize the large amount of definitions we have identified and analyzed, and not necessarily to draw a clear distinction between them. Finally, we continue the elaboration discussed above on the advantages of a clear definition of qualitative research.

In a hermeneutic fashion we propose that there is something meaningful that deserves to be labelled “qualitative research” (Gadamer 1990 ). To approach the question “What is qualitative in qualitative research?” we have surveyed the literature. In conducting our survey we first traced the word’s etymology in dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks of the social sciences and of methods and textbooks, mainly in English, which is common to methodology courses. It should be noted that we have zoomed in on sociology and its literature. This discipline has been the site of the largest debate and development of methods that can be called “qualitative,” which suggests that this field should be examined in great detail.

In an ideal situation we should expect that one good definition, or at least some common ideas, would have emerged over the years. This common core of qualitative research should be so accepted that it would appear in at least some textbooks. Since this is not what we found, we decided to pursue an inductive approach to capture maximal variation in the field of qualitative research; we searched in a selection of handbooks, textbooks, book chapters, and books, to which we added the analysis of journal articles. Our sample comprises a total of 89 references.

In practice we focused on the discipline that has had a clear discussion of methods, namely sociology. We also conducted a broad search in the JSTOR database to identify scholarly sociology articles published between 1998 and 2017 in English with a focus on defining or explaining qualitative research. We specifically zoom in on this time frame because we would have expect that this more mature period would have produced clear discussions on the meaning of qualitative research. To find these articles we combined a number of keywords to search the content and/or the title: qualitative (which was always included), definition, empirical, research, methodology, studies, fieldwork, interview and observation .

As a second phase of our research we searched within nine major sociological journals ( American Journal of Sociology , Sociological Theory , American Sociological Review , Contemporary Sociology , Sociological Forum , Sociological Theory , Qualitative Research , Qualitative Sociology and Qualitative Sociology Review ) for articles also published during the past 19 years (1998–2017) that had the term “qualitative” in the title and attempted to define qualitative research.

Lastly we picked two additional journals, Qualitative Research and Qualitative Sociology , in which we could expect to find texts addressing the notion of “qualitative.” From Qualitative Research we chose Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2014, and from Qualitative Sociology we chose Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2017. Within each of these we selected the first article; then we picked the second article of three prior issues. Again we went back another three issues and investigated article number three. Finally we went back another three issues and perused article number four. This selection criteria was used to get a manageable sample for the analysis.

The coding process of the 89 references we gathered in our selected review began soon after the first round of material was gathered, and we reduced the complexity created by our maximum variation sampling (Snow and Anderson 1993 :22) to four different categories within which questions on the nature and properties of qualitative research were discussed. We call them: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Qualitative Research, Fieldwork, and Grounded Theory. This – which may appear as an illogical grouping – merely reflects the “context” in which the matter of “qualitative” is discussed. If the selection process of the material – books and articles – was informed by pre-knowledge, we used an inductive strategy to code the material. When studying our material, we identified four central notions related to “qualitative” that appear in various combinations in the literature which indicate what is the core of qualitative research. We have labeled them: “distinctions”, “process,” “closeness,” and “improved understanding.” During the research process the categories and notions were improved, refined, changed, and reordered. The coding ended when a sense of saturation in the material arose. In the presentation below all quotations and references come from our empirical material of texts on qualitative research.

Analysis – What is Qualitative Research?

In this section we describe the four categories we identified in the coding, how they differently discuss qualitative research, as well as their overall content. Some salient quotations are selected to represent the type of text sorted under each of the four categories. What we present are examples from the literature.

Qualitative and Quantitative

This analytic category comprises quotations comparing qualitative and quantitative research, a distinction that is frequently used (Brown 2010 :231); in effect this is a conceptual pair that structures the discussion and that may be associated with opposing interests. While the general goal of quantitative and qualitative research is the same – to understand the world better – their methodologies and focus in certain respects differ substantially (Becker 1966 :55). Quantity refers to that property of something that can be determined by measurement. In a dictionary of Statistics and Methodology we find that “(a) When referring to *variables, ‘qualitative’ is another term for *categorical or *nominal. (b) When speaking of kinds of research, ‘qualitative’ refers to studies of subjects that are hard to quantify, such as art history. Qualitative research tends to be a residual category for almost any kind of non-quantitative research” (Stiles 1998:183). But it should be obvious that one could employ a quantitative approach when studying, for example, art history.

The same dictionary states that quantitative is “said of variables or research that can be handled numerically, usually (too sharply) contrasted with *qualitative variables and research” (Stiles 1998:184). From a qualitative perspective “quantitative research” is about numbers and counting, and from a quantitative perspective qualitative research is everything that is not about numbers. But this does not say much about what is “qualitative.” If we turn to encyclopedias we find that in the 1932 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there is no mention of “qualitative.” In the Encyclopedia from 1968 we can read:


Some, like Alford, divide researchers into methodologists or, in his words, “quantitative and qualitative specialists” (Alford 1998 :12). Qualitative research uses a variety of methods, such as intensive interviews or in-depth analysis of historical materials, and it is concerned with a comprehensive account of some event or unit (King et al. 1994 :4). Like quantitative research it can be utilized to study a variety of issues, but it tends to focus on meanings and motivations that underlie cultural symbols, personal experiences, phenomena and detailed understanding of processes in the social world. In short, qualitative research centers on understanding processes, experiences, and the meanings people assign to things (Kalof et al. 2008 :79).

Others simply say that qualitative methods are inherently unscientific (Jovanović 2011 :19). Hood, for instance, argues that words are intrinsically less precise than numbers, and that they are therefore more prone to subjective analysis, leading to biased results (Hood 2006 :219). Qualitative methodologies have raised concerns over the limitations of quantitative templates (Brady et al. 2004 :4). Scholars such as King et al. ( 1994 ), for instance, argue that non-statistical research can produce more reliable results if researchers pay attention to the rules of scientific inference commonly stated in quantitative research. Also, researchers such as Becker ( 1966 :59; 1970 :42–43) have asserted that, if conducted properly, qualitative research and in particular ethnographic field methods, can lead to more accurate results than quantitative studies, in particular, survey research and laboratory experiments.

Some researchers, such as Kalof, Dan, and Dietz ( 2008 :79) claim that the boundaries between the two approaches are becoming blurred, and Small ( 2009 ) argues that currently much qualitative research (especially in North America) tries unsuccessfully and unnecessarily to emulate quantitative standards. For others, qualitative research tends to be more humanistic and discursive (King et al. 1994 :4). Ragin ( 1994 ), and similarly also Becker, ( 1996 :53), Marchel and Owens ( 2007 :303) think that the main distinction between the two styles is overstated and does not rest on the simple dichotomy of “numbers versus words” (Ragin 1994 :xii). Some claim that quantitative data can be utilized to discover associations, but in order to unveil cause and effect a complex research design involving the use of qualitative approaches needs to be devised (Gilbert 2009 :35). Consequently, qualitative data are useful for understanding the nuances lying beyond those processes as they unfold (Gilbert 2009 :35). Others contend that qualitative research is particularly well suited both to identify causality and to uncover fine descriptive distinctions (Fine and Hallett 2014 ; Lichterman and Isaac Reed 2014 ; Katz 2015 ).

There are other ways to separate these two traditions, including normative statements about what qualitative research should be (that is, better or worse than quantitative approaches, concerned with scientific approaches to societal change or vice versa; Snow and Morrill 1995 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ), or whether it should develop falsifiable statements; Best 2004 ).

We propose that quantitative research is largely concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ); the analysis concerns the relations between variables. These categories are primarily not questioned in the study, only their frequency or degree, or the correlations between them (cf. Franzosi 2016 ). If a researcher studies wage differences between women and men, he or she works with given categories: x number of men are compared with y number of women, with a certain wage attributed to each person. The idea is not to move beyond the given categories of wage, men and women; they are the starting point as well as the end point, and undergo no “qualitative change.” Qualitative research, in contrast, investigates relations between categories that are themselves subject to change in the research process. Returning to Becker’s study ( 1963 ), we see that he questioned pre-dispositional theories of deviant behavior working with pre-determined variables such as an individual’s combination of personal qualities or emotional problems. His take, in contrast, was to understand marijuana consumption by developing “variables” as part of the investigation. Thereby he presented new variables, or as we would say today, theoretical concepts, but which are grounded in the empirical material.

Qualitative Research

This category contains quotations that refer to descriptions of qualitative research without making comparisons with quantitative research. Researchers such as Denzin and Lincoln, who have written a series of influential handbooks on qualitative methods (1994; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ; 2005 ), citing Nelson et al. (1992:4), argue that because qualitative research is “interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and sometimes counterdisciplinary” it is difficult to derive one single definition of it (Jovanović 2011 :3). According to them, in fact, “the field” is “many things at the same time,” involving contradictions, tensions over its focus, methods, and how to derive interpretations and findings ( 2003 : 11). Similarly, others, such as Flick ( 2007 :ix–x) contend that agreeing on an accepted definition has increasingly become problematic, and that qualitative research has possibly matured different identities. However, Best holds that “the proliferation of many sorts of activities under the label of qualitative sociology threatens to confuse our discussions” ( 2004 :54). Atkinson’s position is more definite: “the current state of qualitative research and research methods is confused” ( 2005 :3–4).

Qualitative research is about interpretation (Blumer 1969 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ), or Verstehen [understanding] (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ). It is “multi-method,” involving the collection and use of a variety of empirical materials (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Silverman 2013 ) and approaches (Silverman 2005 ; Flick 2007 ). It focuses not only on the objective nature of behavior but also on its subjective meanings: individuals’ own accounts of their attitudes, motivations, behavior (McIntyre 2005 :127; Creswell 2009 ), events and situations (Bryman 1989) – what people say and do in specific places and institutions (Goodwin and Horowitz 2002 :35–36) in social and temporal contexts (Morrill and Fine 1997). For this reason, following Weber ([1921-22] 1978), it can be described as an interpretative science (McIntyre 2005 :127). But could quantitative research also be concerned with these questions? Also, as pointed out below, does all qualitative research focus on subjective meaning, as some scholars suggest?

Others also distinguish qualitative research by claiming that it collects data using a naturalistic approach (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2; Creswell 2009 ), focusing on the meaning actors ascribe to their actions. But again, does all qualitative research need to be collected in situ? And does qualitative research have to be inherently concerned with meaning? Flick ( 2007 ), referring to Denzin and Lincoln ( 2005 ), mentions conversation analysis as an example of qualitative research that is not concerned with the meanings people bring to a situation, but rather with the formal organization of talk. Still others, such as Ragin ( 1994 :85), note that qualitative research is often (especially early on in the project, we would add) less structured than other kinds of social research – a characteristic connected to its flexibility and that can lead both to potentially better, but also worse results. But is this not a feature of this type of research, rather than a defining description of its essence? Wouldn’t this comment also apply, albeit to varying degrees, to quantitative research?

In addition, Strauss ( 2003 ), along with others, such as Alvesson and Kärreman ( 2011 :10–76), argue that qualitative researchers struggle to capture and represent complex phenomena partially because they tend to collect a large amount of data. While his analysis is correct at some points – “It is necessary to do detailed, intensive, microscopic examination of the data in order to bring out the amazing complexity of what lies in, behind, and beyond those data” (Strauss 2003 :10) – much of his analysis concerns the supposed focus of qualitative research and its challenges, rather than exactly what it is about. But even in this instance we would make a weak case arguing that these are strictly the defining features of qualitative research. Some researchers seem to focus on the approach or the methods used, or even on the way material is analyzed. Several researchers stress the naturalistic assumption of investigating the world, suggesting that meaning and interpretation appear to be a core matter of qualitative research.

We can also see that in this category there is no consensus about specific qualitative methods nor about qualitative data. Many emphasize interpretation, but quantitative research, too, involves interpretation; the results of a regression analysis, for example, certainly have to be interpreted, and the form of meta-analysis that factor analysis provides indeed requires interpretation However, there is no interpretation of quantitative raw data, i.e., numbers in tables. One common thread is that qualitative researchers have to get to grips with their data in order to understand what is being studied in great detail, irrespective of the type of empirical material that is being analyzed. This observation is connected to the fact that qualitative researchers routinely make several adjustments of focus and research design as their studies progress, in many cases until the very end of the project (Kalof et al. 2008 ). If you, like Becker, do not start out with a detailed theory, adjustments such as the emergence and refinement of research questions will occur during the research process. We have thus found a number of useful reflections about qualitative research scattered across different sources, but none of them effectively describe the defining characteristics of this approach.

Although qualitative research does not appear to be defined in terms of a specific method, it is certainly common that fieldwork, i.e., research that entails that the researcher spends considerable time in the field that is studied and use the knowledge gained as data, is seen as emblematic of or even identical to qualitative research. But because we understand that fieldwork tends to focus primarily on the collection and analysis of qualitative data, we expected to find within it discussions on the meaning of “qualitative.” But, again, this was not the case.

Instead, we found material on the history of this approach (for example, Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ; Atkinson et al. 2001), including how it has changed; for example, by adopting a more self-reflexive practice (Heyl 2001), as well as the different nomenclature that has been adopted, such as fieldwork, ethnography, qualitative research, naturalistic research, participant observation and so on (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ; Gans 1999 ).

We retrieved definitions of ethnography, such as “the study of people acting in the natural courses of their daily lives,” involving a “resocialization of the researcher” (Emerson 1988 :1) through intense immersion in others’ social worlds (see also examples in Hammersley 2018 ). This may be accomplished by direct observation and also participation (Neuman 2007 :276), although others, such as Denzin ( 1970 :185), have long recognized other types of observation, including non-participant (“fly on the wall”). In this category we have also isolated claims and opposing views, arguing that this type of research is distinguished primarily by where it is conducted (natural settings) (Hughes 1971:496), and how it is carried out (a variety of methods are applied) or, for some most importantly, by involving an active, empathetic immersion in those being studied (Emerson 1988 :2). We also retrieved descriptions of the goals it attends in relation to how it is taught (understanding subjective meanings of the people studied, primarily develop theory, or contribute to social change) (see for example, Corte and Irwin 2017 ; Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 :281; Trier-Bieniek 2012 :639) by collecting the richest possible data (Lofland et al. 2006 ) to derive “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973 ), and/or to aim at theoretical statements of general scope and applicability (for example, Emerson 1988 ; Fine 2003 ). We have identified guidelines on how to evaluate it (for example Becker 1996 ; Lamont 2004 ) and have retrieved instructions on how it should be conducted (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ). For instance, analysis should take place while the data gathering unfolds (Emerson 1988 ; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007 ; Lofland et al. 2006 ), observations should be of long duration (Becker 1970 :54; Goffman 1989 ), and data should be of high quantity (Becker 1970 :52–53), as well as other questionable distinctions between fieldwork and other methods:

Field studies differ from other methods of research in that the researcher performs the task of selecting topics, decides what questions to ask, and forges interest in the course of the research itself . This is in sharp contrast to many ‘theory-driven’ and ‘hypothesis-testing’ methods. (Lofland and Lofland 1995 :5)

But could not, for example, a strictly interview-based study be carried out with the same amount of flexibility, such as sequential interviewing (for example, Small 2009 )? Once again, are quantitative approaches really as inflexible as some qualitative researchers think? Moreover, this category stresses the role of the actors’ meaning, which requires knowledge and close interaction with people, their practices and their lifeworld.

It is clear that field studies – which are seen by some as the “gold standard” of qualitative research – are nonetheless only one way of doing qualitative research. There are other methods, but it is not clear why some are more qualitative than others, or why they are better or worse. Fieldwork is characterized by interaction with the field (the material) and understanding of the phenomenon that is being studied. In Becker’s case, he had general experience from fields in which marihuana was used, based on which he did interviews with actual users in several fields.

Grounded Theory

Another major category we identified in our sample is Grounded Theory. We found descriptions of it most clearly in Glaser and Strauss’ ([1967] 2010 ) original articulation, Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ) and Charmaz ( 2006 ), as well as many other accounts of what it is for: generating and testing theory (Strauss 2003 :xi). We identified explanations of how this task can be accomplished – such as through two main procedures: constant comparison and theoretical sampling (Emerson 1998:96), and how using it has helped researchers to “think differently” (for example, Strauss and Corbin 1998 :1). We also read descriptions of its main traits, what it entails and fosters – for instance, an exceptional flexibility, an inductive approach (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :31–33; 1990; Esterberg 2002 :7), an ability to step back and critically analyze situations, recognize tendencies towards bias, think abstractly and be open to criticism, enhance sensitivity towards the words and actions of respondents, and develop a sense of absorption and devotion to the research process (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :5–6). Accordingly, we identified discussions of the value of triangulating different methods (both using and not using grounded theory), including quantitative ones, and theories to achieve theoretical development (most comprehensively in Denzin 1970 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Timmermans and Tavory 2012 ). We have also located arguments about how its practice helps to systematize data collection, analysis and presentation of results (Glaser and Strauss [1967] 2010 :16).

Grounded theory offers a systematic approach which requires researchers to get close to the field; closeness is a requirement of identifying questions and developing new concepts or making further distinctions with regard to old concepts. In contrast to other qualitative approaches, grounded theory emphasizes the detailed coding process, and the numerous fine-tuned distinctions that the researcher makes during the process. Within this category, too, we could not find a satisfying discussion of the meaning of qualitative research.

Defining Qualitative Research

In sum, our analysis shows that some notions reappear in the discussion of qualitative research, such as understanding, interpretation, “getting close” and making distinctions. These notions capture aspects of what we think is “qualitative.” However, a comprehensive definition that is useful and that can further develop the field is lacking, and not even a clear picture of its essential elements appears. In other words no definition emerges from our data, and in our research process we have moved back and forth between our empirical data and the attempt to present a definition. Our concrete strategy, as stated above, is to relate qualitative and quantitative research, or more specifically, qualitative and quantitative work. We use an ideal-typical notion of quantitative research which relies on taken for granted and numbered variables. This means that the data consists of variables on different scales, such as ordinal, but frequently ratio and absolute scales, and the representation of the numbers to the variables, i.e. the justification of the assignment of numbers to object or phenomenon, are not questioned, though the validity may be questioned. In this section we return to the notion of quality and try to clarify it while presenting our contribution.

Broadly, research refers to the activity performed by people trained to obtain knowledge through systematic procedures. Notions such as “objectivity” and “reflexivity,” “systematic,” “theory,” “evidence” and “openness” are here taken for granted in any type of research. Next, building on our empirical analysis we explain the four notions that we have identified as central to qualitative work: distinctions, process, closeness, and improved understanding. In discussing them, ultimately in relation to one another, we make their meaning even more precise. Our idea, in short, is that only when these ideas that we present separately for analytic purposes are brought together can we speak of qualitative research.


We believe that the possibility of making new distinctions is one the defining characteristics of qualitative research. It clearly sets it apart from quantitative analysis which works with taken-for-granted variables, albeit as mentioned, meta-analyses, for example, factor analysis may result in new variables. “Quality” refers essentially to distinctions, as already pointed out by Aristotle. He discusses the term “qualitative” commenting: “By a quality I mean that in virtue of which things are said to be qualified somehow” (Aristotle 1984:14). Quality is about what something is or has, which means that the distinction from its environment is crucial. We see qualitative research as a process in which significant new distinctions are made to the scholarly community; to make distinctions is a key aspect of obtaining new knowledge; a point, as we will see, that also has implications for “quantitative research.” The notion of being “significant” is paramount. New distinctions by themselves are not enough; just adding concepts only increases complexity without furthering our knowledge. The significance of new distinctions is judged against the communal knowledge of the research community. To enable this discussion and judgements central elements of rational discussion are required (cf. Habermas [1981] 1987 ; Davidsson [ 1988 ] 2001) to identify what is new and relevant scientific knowledge. Relatedly, Ragin alludes to the idea of new and useful knowledge at a more concrete level: “Qualitative methods are appropriate for in-depth examination of cases because they aid the identification of key features of cases. Most qualitative methods enhance data” (1994:79). When Becker ( 1963 ) studied deviant behavior and investigated how people became marihuana smokers, he made distinctions between the ways in which people learned how to smoke. This is a classic example of how the strategy of “getting close” to the material, for example the text, people or pictures that are subject to analysis, may enable researchers to obtain deeper insight and new knowledge by making distinctions – in this instance on the initial notion of learning how to smoke. Others have stressed the making of distinctions in relation to coding or theorizing. Emerson et al. ( 1995 ), for example, hold that “qualitative coding is a way of opening up avenues of inquiry,” meaning that the researcher identifies and develops concepts and analytic insights through close examination of and reflection on data (Emerson et al. 1995 :151). Goodwin and Horowitz highlight making distinctions in relation to theory-building writing: “Close engagement with their cases typically requires qualitative researchers to adapt existing theories or to make new conceptual distinctions or theoretical arguments to accommodate new data” ( 2002 : 37). In the ideal-typical quantitative research only existing and so to speak, given, variables would be used. If this is the case no new distinction are made. But, would not also many “quantitative” researchers make new distinctions?

Process does not merely suggest that research takes time. It mainly implies that qualitative new knowledge results from a process that involves several phases, and above all iteration. Qualitative research is about oscillation between theory and evidence, analysis and generating material, between first- and second -order constructs (Schütz 1962 :59), between getting in contact with something, finding sources, becoming deeply familiar with a topic, and then distilling and communicating some of its essential features. The main point is that the categories that the researcher uses, and perhaps takes for granted at the beginning of the research process, usually undergo qualitative changes resulting from what is found. Becker describes how he tested hypotheses and let the jargon of the users develop into theoretical concepts. This happens over time while the study is being conducted, exemplifying what we mean by process.

In the research process, a pilot-study may be used to get a first glance of, for example, the field, how to approach it, and what methods can be used, after which the method and theory are chosen or refined before the main study begins. Thus, the empirical material is often central from the start of the project and frequently leads to adjustments by the researcher. Likewise, during the main study categories are not fixed; the empirical material is seen in light of the theory used, but it is also given the opportunity to kick back, thereby resisting attempts to apply theoretical straightjackets (Becker 1970 :43). In this process, coding and analysis are interwoven, and thus are often important steps for getting closer to the phenomenon and deciding what to focus on next. Becker began his research by interviewing musicians close to him, then asking them to refer him to other musicians, and later on doubling his original sample of about 25 to include individuals in other professions (Becker 1973:46). Additionally, he made use of some participant observation, documents, and interviews with opiate users made available to him by colleagues. As his inductive theory of deviance evolved, Becker expanded his sample in order to fine tune it, and test the accuracy and generality of his hypotheses. In addition, he introduced a negative case and discussed the null hypothesis ( 1963 :44). His phasic career model is thus based on a research design that embraces processual work. Typically, process means to move between “theory” and “material” but also to deal with negative cases, and Becker ( 1998 ) describes how discovering these negative cases impacted his research design and ultimately its findings.

Obviously, all research is process-oriented to some degree. The point is that the ideal-typical quantitative process does not imply change of the data, and iteration between data, evidence, hypotheses, empirical work, and theory. The data, quantified variables, are, in most cases fixed. Merging of data, which of course can be done in a quantitative research process, does not mean new data. New hypotheses are frequently tested, but the “raw data is often the “the same.” Obviously, over time new datasets are made available and put into use.

Another characteristic that is emphasized in our sample is that qualitative researchers – and in particular ethnographers – can, or as Goffman put it, ought to ( 1989 ), get closer to the phenomenon being studied and their data than quantitative researchers (for example, Silverman 2009 :85). Put differently, essentially because of their methods qualitative researchers get into direct close contact with those being investigated and/or the material, such as texts, being analyzed. Becker started out his interview study, as we noted, by talking to those he knew in the field of music to get closer to the phenomenon he was studying. By conducting interviews he got even closer. Had he done more observations, he would undoubtedly have got even closer to the field.

Additionally, ethnographers’ design enables researchers to follow the field over time, and the research they do is almost by definition longitudinal, though the time in the field is studied obviously differs between studies. The general characteristic of closeness over time maximizes the chances of unexpected events, new data (related, for example, to archival research as additional sources, and for ethnography for situations not necessarily previously thought of as instrumental – what Mannay and Morgan ( 2015 ) term the “waiting field”), serendipity (Merton and Barber 2004 ; Åkerström 2013 ), and possibly reactivity, as well as the opportunity to observe disrupted patterns that translate into exemplars of negative cases. Two classic examples of this are Becker’s finding of what medical students call “crocks” (Becker et al. 1961 :317), and Geertz’s ( 1973 ) study of “deep play” in Balinese society.

By getting and staying so close to their data – be it pictures, text or humans interacting (Becker was himself a musician) – for a long time, as the research progressively focuses, qualitative researchers are prompted to continually test their hunches, presuppositions and hypotheses. They test them against a reality that often (but certainly not always), and practically, as well as metaphorically, talks back, whether by validating them, or disqualifying their premises – correctly, as well as incorrectly (Fine 2003 ; Becker 1970 ). This testing nonetheless often leads to new directions for the research. Becker, for example, says that he was initially reading psychological theories, but when facing the data he develops a theory that looks at, you may say, everything but psychological dispositions to explain the use of marihuana. Especially researchers involved with ethnographic methods have a fairly unique opportunity to dig up and then test (in a circular, continuous and temporal way) new research questions and findings as the research progresses, and thereby to derive previously unimagined and uncharted distinctions by getting closer to the phenomenon under study.

Let us stress that getting close is by no means restricted to ethnography. The notion of hermeneutic circle and hermeneutics as a general way of understanding implies that we must get close to the details in order to get the big picture. This also means that qualitative researchers can literally also make use of details of pictures as evidence (cf. Harper 2002). Thus, researchers may get closer both when generating the material or when analyzing it.

Quantitative research, we maintain, in the ideal-typical representation cannot get closer to the data. The data is essentially numbers in tables making up the variables (Franzosi 2016 :138). The data may originally have been “qualitative,” but once reduced to numbers there can only be a type of “hermeneutics” about what the number may stand for. The numbers themselves, however, are non-ambiguous. Thus, in quantitative research, interpretation, if done, is not about the data itself—the numbers—but what the numbers stand for. It follows that the interpretation is essentially done in a more “speculative” mode without direct empirical evidence (cf. Becker 2017 ).

Improved Understanding

While distinction, process and getting closer refer to the qualitative work of the researcher, improved understanding refers to its conditions and outcome of this work. Understanding cuts deeper than explanation, which to some may mean a causally verified correlation between variables. The notion of explanation presupposes the notion of understanding since explanation does not include an idea of how knowledge is gained (Manicas 2006 : 15). Understanding, we argue, is the core concept of what we call the outcome of the process when research has made use of all the other elements that were integrated in the research. Understanding, then, has a special status in qualitative research since it refers both to the conditions of knowledge and the outcome of the process. Understanding can to some extent be seen as the condition of explanation and occurs in a process of interpretation, which naturally refers to meaning (Gadamer 1990 ). It is fundamentally connected to knowing, and to the knowing of how to do things (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ). Conceptually the term hermeneutics is used to account for this process. Heidegger ties hermeneutics to human being and not possible to separate from the understanding of being ( 1988 ). Here we use it in a broader sense, and more connected to method in general (cf. Seiffert 1992 ). The abovementioned aspects – for example, “objectivity” and “reflexivity” – of the approach are conditions of scientific understanding. Understanding is the result of a circular process and means that the parts are understood in light of the whole, and vice versa. Understanding presupposes pre-understanding, or in other words, some knowledge of the phenomenon studied. The pre-understanding, even in the form of prejudices, are in qualitative research process, which we see as iterative, questioned, which gradually or suddenly change due to the iteration of data, evidence and concepts. However, qualitative research generates understanding in the iterative process when the researcher gets closer to the data, e.g., by going back and forth between field and analysis in a process that generates new data that changes the evidence, and, ultimately, the findings. Questioning, to ask questions, and put what one assumes—prejudices and presumption—in question, is central to understand something (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ; Gadamer 1990 :368–384). We propose that this iterative process in which the process of understanding occurs is characteristic of qualitative research.

Improved understanding means that we obtain scientific knowledge of something that we as a scholarly community did not know before, or that we get to know something better. It means that we understand more about how parts are related to one another, and to other things we already understand (see also Fine and Hallett 2014 ). Understanding is an important condition for qualitative research. It is not enough to identify correlations, make distinctions, and work in a process in which one gets close to the field or phenomena. Understanding is accomplished when the elements are integrated in an iterative process.

It is, moreover, possible to understand many things, and researchers, just like children, may come to understand new things every day as they engage with the world. This subjective condition of understanding – namely, that a person gains a better understanding of something –is easily met. To be qualified as “scientific,” the understanding must be general and useful to many; it must be public. But even this generally accessible understanding is not enough in order to speak of “scientific understanding.” Though we as a collective can increase understanding of everything in virtually all potential directions as a result also of qualitative work, we refrain from this “objective” way of understanding, which has no means of discriminating between what we gain in understanding. Scientific understanding means that it is deemed relevant from the scientific horizon (compare Schütz 1962 : 35–38, 46, 63), and that it rests on the pre-understanding that the scientists have and must have in order to understand. In other words, the understanding gained must be deemed useful by other researchers, so that they can build on it. We thus see understanding from a pragmatic, rather than a subjective or objective perspective. Improved understanding is related to the question(s) at hand. Understanding, in order to represent an improvement, must be an improvement in relation to the existing body of knowledge of the scientific community (James [ 1907 ] 1955). Scientific understanding is, by definition, collective, as expressed in Weber’s famous note on objectivity, namely that scientific work aims at truths “which … can claim, even for a Chinese, the validity appropriate to an empirical analysis” ([1904] 1949 :59). By qualifying “improved understanding” we argue that it is a general defining characteristic of qualitative research. Becker‘s ( 1966 ) study and other research of deviant behavior increased our understanding of the social learning processes of how individuals start a behavior. And it also added new knowledge about the labeling of deviant behavior as a social process. Few studies, of course, make the same large contribution as Becker’s, but are nonetheless qualitative research.

Understanding in the phenomenological sense, which is a hallmark of qualitative research, we argue, requires meaning and this meaning is derived from the context, and above all the data being analyzed. The ideal-typical quantitative research operates with given variables with different numbers. This type of material is not enough to establish meaning at the level that truly justifies understanding. In other words, many social science explanations offer ideas about correlations or even causal relations, but this does not mean that the meaning at the level of the data analyzed, is understood. This leads us to say that there are indeed many explanations that meet the criteria of understanding, for example the explanation of how one becomes a marihuana smoker presented by Becker. However, we may also understand a phenomenon without explaining it, and we may have potential explanations, or better correlations, that are not really understood.

We may speak more generally of quantitative research and its data to clarify what we see as an important distinction. The “raw data” that quantitative research—as an idealtypical activity, refers to is not available for further analysis; the numbers, once created, are not to be questioned (Franzosi 2016 : 138). If the researcher is to do “more” or “change” something, this will be done by conjectures based on theoretical knowledge or based on the researcher’s lifeworld. Both qualitative and quantitative research is based on the lifeworld, and all researchers use prejudices and pre-understanding in the research process. This idea is present in the works of Heidegger ( 2001 ) and Heisenberg (cited in Franzosi 2010 :619). Qualitative research, as we argued, involves the interaction and questioning of concepts (theory), data, and evidence.

Ragin ( 2004 :22) points out that “a good definition of qualitative research should be inclusive and should emphasize its key strengths and features, not what it lacks (for example, the use of sophisticated quantitative techniques).” We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. Qualitative research, as defined here, is consequently a combination of two criteria: (i) how to do things –namely, generating and analyzing empirical material, in an iterative process in which one gets closer by making distinctions, and (ii) the outcome –improved understanding novel to the scholarly community. Is our definition applicable to our own study? In this study we have closely read the empirical material that we generated, and the novel distinction of the notion “qualitative research” is the outcome of an iterative process in which both deduction and induction were involved, in which we identified the categories that we analyzed. We thus claim to meet the first criteria, “how to do things.” The second criteria cannot be judged but in a partial way by us, namely that the “outcome” —in concrete form the definition-improves our understanding to others in the scientific community.

We have defined qualitative research, or qualitative scientific work, in relation to quantitative scientific work. Given this definition, qualitative research is about questioning the pre-given (taken for granted) variables, but it is thus also about making new distinctions of any type of phenomenon, for example, by coining new concepts, including the identification of new variables. This process, as we have discussed, is carried out in relation to empirical material, previous research, and thus in relation to theory. Theory and previous research cannot be escaped or bracketed. According to hermeneutic principles all scientific work is grounded in the lifeworld, and as social scientists we can thus never fully bracket our pre-understanding.

We have proposed that quantitative research, as an idealtype, is concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ). Variables are epistemically fixed, but can vary in terms of dimensions, such as frequency or number. Age is an example; as a variable it can take on different numbers. In relation to quantitative research, qualitative research does not reduce its material to number and variables. If this is done the process of comes to a halt, the researcher gets more distanced from her data, and it makes it no longer possible to make new distinctions that increase our understanding. We have above discussed the components of our definition in relation to quantitative research. Our conclusion is that in the research that is called quantitative there are frequent and necessary qualitative elements.

Further, comparative empirical research on researchers primarily working with ”quantitative” approaches and those working with ”qualitative” approaches, we propose, would perhaps show that there are many similarities in practices of these two approaches. This is not to deny dissimilarities, or the different epistemic and ontic presuppositions that may be more or less strongly associated with the two different strands (see Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ). Our point is nonetheless that prejudices and preconceptions about researchers are unproductive, and that as other researchers have argued, differences may be exaggerated (e.g., Becker 1996 : 53, 2017 ; Marchel and Owens 2007 :303; Ragin 1994 ), and that a qualitative dimension is present in both kinds of work.

Several things follow from our findings. The most important result is the relation to quantitative research. In our analysis we have separated qualitative research from quantitative research. The point is not to label individual researchers, methods, projects, or works as either “quantitative” or “qualitative.” By analyzing, i.e., taking apart, the notions of quantitative and qualitative, we hope to have shown the elements of qualitative research. Our definition captures the elements, and how they, when combined in practice, generate understanding. As many of the quotations we have used suggest, one conclusion of our study holds that qualitative approaches are not inherently connected with a specific method. Put differently, none of the methods that are frequently labelled “qualitative,” such as interviews or participant observation, are inherently “qualitative.” What matters, given our definition, is whether one works qualitatively or quantitatively in the research process, until the results are produced. Consequently, our analysis also suggests that those researchers working with what in the literature and in jargon is often called “quantitative research” are almost bound to make use of what we have identified as qualitative elements in any research project. Our findings also suggest that many” quantitative” researchers, at least to some extent, are engaged with qualitative work, such as when research questions are developed, variables are constructed and combined, and hypotheses are formulated. Furthermore, a research project may hover between “qualitative” and “quantitative” or start out as “qualitative” and later move into a “quantitative” (a distinct strategy that is not similar to “mixed methods” or just simply combining induction and deduction). More generally speaking, the categories of “qualitative” and “quantitative,” unfortunately, often cover up practices, and it may lead to “camps” of researchers opposing one another. For example, regardless of the researcher is primarily oriented to “quantitative” or “qualitative” research, the role of theory is neglected (cf. Swedberg 2017 ). Our results open up for an interaction not characterized by differences, but by different emphasis, and similarities.

Let us take two examples to briefly indicate how qualitative elements can fruitfully be combined with quantitative. Franzosi ( 2010 ) has discussed the relations between quantitative and qualitative approaches, and more specifically the relation between words and numbers. He analyzes texts and argues that scientific meaning cannot be reduced to numbers. Put differently, the meaning of the numbers is to be understood by what is taken for granted, and what is part of the lifeworld (Schütz 1962 ). Franzosi shows how one can go about using qualitative and quantitative methods and data to address scientific questions analyzing violence in Italy at the time when fascism was rising (1919–1922). Aspers ( 2006 ) studied the meaning of fashion photographers. He uses an empirical phenomenological approach, and establishes meaning at the level of actors. In a second step this meaning, and the different ideal-typical photographers constructed as a result of participant observation and interviews, are tested using quantitative data from a database; in the first phase to verify the different ideal-types, in the second phase to use these types to establish new knowledge about the types. In both of these cases—and more examples can be found—authors move from qualitative data and try to keep the meaning established when using the quantitative data.

A second main result of our study is that a definition, and we provided one, offers a way for research to clarify, and even evaluate, what is done. Hence, our definition can guide researchers and students, informing them on how to think about concrete research problems they face, and to show what it means to get closer in a process in which new distinctions are made. The definition can also be used to evaluate the results, given that it is a standard of evaluation (cf. Hammersley 2007 ), to see whether new distinctions are made and whether this improves our understanding of what is researched, in addition to the evaluation of how the research was conducted. By making what is qualitative research explicit it becomes easier to communicate findings, and it is thereby much harder to fly under the radar with substandard research since there are standards of evaluation which make it easier to separate “good” from “not so good” qualitative research.

To conclude, our analysis, which ends with a definition of qualitative research can thus both address the “internal” issues of what is qualitative research, and the “external” critiques that make it harder to do qualitative research, to which both pressure from quantitative methods and general changes in society contribute.

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Financial Support for this research is given by the European Research Council, CEV (263699). The authors are grateful to Susann Krieglsteiner for assistance in collecting the data. The paper has benefitted from the many useful comments by the three reviewers and the editor, comments by members of the Uppsala Laboratory of Economic Sociology, as well as Jukka Gronow, Sebastian Kohl, Marcin Serafin, Richard Swedberg, Anders Vassenden and Turid Rødne.

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