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Qualitative research

What is qualitative research?

A precise definition for qualitative research is difficult to pin down. There is a lot of debate in the literature as to its exact meaning and scope.

However the differences between qualitative and quantitative research can be highlighted by five different distinctions:

  1. Qualitative research uses words or images as the data collected whereas quantitative research uses numbers.
  2. Qualitative research is associated with small-scale studies (with relatively few participants) as opposed to quantitative research which is associated with larger-scale studies. Qualitative research is looking in-depth at some phenomenon as opposed to quantitative research which aims to collect a large amount of data to be able to generalise and for reliability.
  3. Qualitative research tends to take a holistic perspective (seeing the issues in context and considering all the complex inter-relationships) whereas quantitative research tends to look at specific variables.
  4. Qualitative research is associated with data analysis throughout the data collection process (i.e. it is iterative and on-going) but quantitative research concentrates on data analysis after it has been collected.
  5. Qualitative research is associated with the researcher being directly involved in their research (i.e. it emphases the importance of the researcher in the research process and how this will effect the data collected and its analysis). Quantitative research relies on the researcher being more detached and objective.

(Taken from Denscombe, M. (2021 ) The good research guide: research methods for small-scale social research projects. 7th edn. London: Open University Press,  pp.47-9).

Wheel of research:


This tool designed by Savin-Baden and Major (2013) can help researchers to identify the essential choice moments when planning their research. It helps show how these work together to build up and plan your research.

Savin-Baden, M. and Howell, C. M. (2013) Qualitative research: the essential guide to theory and practice. London: Routledge.

SAGE Research Methods