Qualitative research

About the “What researchers mean by...” series

This research term explanation first appeared in a regular column called “What researchers mean by…” that ran in the Institute for Work & Health’s newsletter At Work for over 10 years (2005-2017). The column covered over 35 common research terms used in the health and social sciences. The complete collection of defined terms is available online or in a guide that can be downloaded from the website.

Published: May 2011

It’s tempting to define “qualitative research” by what it is not. It is not based on statistics or surveys or experiments; that is, it is not quantitative research.

But it’s also important to understand what qualitative research is – an approach used largely in the social sciences to explore social interactions, systems and processes. It provides an in-depth understanding of the ways people come to understand, act and manage their day-to-day situations in particular settings.

To put it simply, quantitative research uses numbers to help us understand “what” is happening (as well as “why” and “how” it is happening). Qualitative research uses words and images to help us understand more about “why” and “how” something is happening (and, sometimes “what” is happening).

Compare, for example, two studies that are both addressing the issue of long-term workers’ compensation claims. One is using quantitative methods to find out what is driving increases in the duration of lost-time claims over the last decade. Using administrative data from a workers' compensation board, the researchers are testing their hypotheses that claim duration may be associated with injury severity, a changing work environment or policy changes.

The other study uses qualitative methods to explore why and how some injured workers remain on workers’ compensation for long periods of time. Based on interviews with injured workers and service providers in Ontario, the study finds that workers with long-term claims often try hard to return to work but encounter many roadblocks beyond their control. These may include seemingly mundane problems such as incomplete medical forms and miscommunication among the workplace parties. Taken together, such challenges prevent workers’ return to work.

How qualitative research is done

Qualitative research collects information that occurs naturally; that is, it doesn’t set up experiments. The main methods for collecting research include:

  • conducting interviews and focus groups, during which people retell their experiences, thoughts and actions;
  • observing people in their own settings;
  • analyzing documents (from government reports to personal diaries); and
  • analyzing conversations (as contained in documents, speeches, interviews, etc.).

With this collected information, qualitative research can be used to:

  • describe the nature of what exists and how it is experienced by those in it (i.e. context); e.g. help us understand the experience of having a long-term claim;
  • explain why things exist as they do; e.g. help us understand the events leading to long-term claims, the circumstances in which long-term claims occur and why they continue to occur;
  • evaluate the effectiveness of interventions that aim to change what exists; e.g. help us understand the quality of any programs put in place to reduce long-term claims; and
  • generate suggestions for ways to improve things, or for potential areas of new research; e.g. help us understand strategies for supporting workers on long-term claims and helping people avoid them to begin with.

Qualitative versus quantitative

Qualitative and quantitative research are often discussed as two camps, with researchers belonging to one or the other. However, this us-versus-them scenario is quickly falling by the wayside. There is a growing understanding that the two types of research share much in common.

Both strive for reliability and validity of their data, and both have developed systematic methods of doing so. As well, both aim to produce results that can be generalized and practically applied to help understand and solve problems.

In fact, the two types of research can be complementary and part of the same “toolkit” when it comes to exploring an issue, as shown in the earlier example of research into long-term claims. The choice isn’t about one being more accurate, more objective or more in-depth than the other, but about what information the researchers are trying to find out.

Source: At Work, Issue 64, Spring 2011: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto