4.2 Definitions and Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research aims to uncover the meaning and understanding of phenomena that cannot be broken down into measurable elements. It is based on naturalistic, interpretative and humanistic notions.5 This research method seeks to discover, explore, identify or describe subjective human experiences using non-statistical methods and develops themes from the study participants’ stories.5 Figure 4.1 depicts major features/ characteristics of qualitative research. It utilises exploratory open-ended questions and observations to search for patterns of meaning in collected data (e.g. observation, verbal/written narrative data, photographs, etc.) and uses inductive thinking (from specific observations to more general rules) to interpret meaning.6 Participants’ voice is evident through quotations and description of the work.6 The context/ setting of the study and the researcher’s reflexivity (i.e. “reflection on and awareness of their bias”, the effect of the researcher’s experience on the data and interpretations) are very important and described as part of data collection.6 Analysis of collected data is complex, often involves inductive data analysis (exploration, contrasts, specific to general) and requires multiple coding and development of themes from participant stories.6

flow chart of characteristics of qualitative research
Figure 4.1 Characteristics of Qualitative Research by Bunmi Malau-Aduli and Faith Alele, used under a CC BY NC 4.0 licence

Reflexivity- avoiding bias/Role of the qualitative researcher

Qualitative researchers generally begin their work with the recognition that their position (or worldview) has a significant impact on the overall research process.7 Researcher worldview shapes the way the research is conducted, i.e., how the questions are formulated, methods are chosen, data are collected and analysed, and results are reported. Therefore, it is essential for qualitative researchers to acknowledge, articulate, reflect on and clarify their own underlying biases and assumptions before embarking on any research project.7 Reflexivity helps to ensure that the researcher’s own experiences, values, and beliefs do not unintentionally bias the data collection, analysis, and interpretation.7 It is the gold standard for establishing trustworthiness and has been established as one of the ways qualitative researchers should ensure rigour and quality in their work.8 The following questions in Table 4.1 may help you begin the reflective process.9

Table 4.1: Questions to aid the reflection process

Questions Explanations
What piques my interest in this subject? You need to consider what motivates your excitement, energy, and interest in investigating this topic to answer this question
What exactly do I believe the solution is? Asking this question allows you to detect any biases by honestly reflecting on what you anticipate finding. The assumptions can be grouped/classified to allow the participants’ opinions to be heard.
What exactly am I getting out of this? In many circumstances, the “pressure to publish” reduces research to nothing more than a job necessity. What effect does this have on your interest in the subject and its results? To what extent are you willing to go to find information?
What do my colleagues think of this project—and me? You will not work in a vacuum as a researcher; you will be part of a social and interpersonal world. These outside factors will impact your perceptions of yourself and your job.

Recognising this impact and its possible implications on human behaviour will allow for more self-reflection during the study process.

Philosophical underpinnings to qualitative research

Qualitative research uses an inductive approach and stems from interpretivism or constructivism and assumes that realities are multiple, socially constructed, and holistic.10 According to this philosophical viewpoint, humans build reality through their interactions with the world around them.10 As a result, qualitative research aims to comprehend how individuals make sense of their experiences and build meaning in their lives.10 Because reality is complex/nuanced and context-bound, participants constantly construct it depending on their understanding. Thus, the interactions between the researcher and the participants are considered necessary to offer a rich description of the concept and provide an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.11


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An Introduction to Research Methods for Undergraduate Health Profession Students Copyright © 2023 by Faith Alele and Bunmi Malau-Aduli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.