Qualitative research places interpretation at the center of activity. What we are looking at is how people interpret and give meaning to their experiences and actions. There is a quote by David Karp that provides insight into this process. In his work, he was looking at depression and had this to say: “I’m not primarily interested in explaining what causes depression or how to cure it because I don’t think anyone can answer those questions. Instead, I’m interested in how depressed individuals make sense of an inherently ambiguous life situation. I’m interested in how a depression consciousness unfolds over time, how people think about psychiatry and medications, and how they deal with family and friends.” (1) He as not gathering quantitative data via, for example, a survey that asked specific questions, but instead was interested in how people interpret what it means to suffer from depression. Quantitative methods simply cannot address that question.
Rossman and Rallis (2) summarize the common features of qualitative research: that it occurs in the natural world, that it has a focus on content, that it may use multiple methods, that it is emergent and that it is interpretive. It is also worth noting that qualitative studies may often lead to quantitative studies as the basis for human belief emerges from the study of how they experience their world. What does it mean to the patient when he or she checks off a score of 6 on a Visual Analogue Scale? If I check a 6 and you check a 6, does it mean the same thing to both of us? This is not a question you can answer using quantitative statistical means.
Liamputtong and Ezzy (3) state that there are three questions which much be answered at the outset of any qualitative study. The first is, what is the theoretical framework within which the study is being conducted. The second is, what is the substantive issue being researched. The final question is, what are the desired outcomes of the study? These are all inter-related questions, and no single one of them has priority over the other two. However, the manner in which the research is conducted relates very much to the framework, and a future entry will look at some of the theoretical frameworks for conducting this interesting form of research.
1. Karp D. Speaking of sadness: depression, disconnection and the meanings of illness. New York, NY; Oxford University Press, 1996
2. Rossman GB, Rallis SF. Learning in the field: an introduction to qualitative research, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA; Sage Publications, 2003
3. Liamputtong P, Ezzy D. Qualitative research methods, 2nd edition. South Melbourne, Australia; Oxford University Press, 2006