Qualitative Methods

2. Introduction

The main strength of qualitative research is its ability to study phenomena which are simply unavailable elsewhere.

Imagine you want to study ambulance crews’ responses to emergency calls. One way to do this would be to examine statistics giving the time which such crews take to get to an emergency. However, such statistics may not tell the whole story. For instance, when does the timing of the emergency services’ response begin (when the caller picks up the phone or when the ambulance crew receives the information from the operator)? And isn’t it also important to examine how operators and ambulance services grade the seriousness of calls? If so, qualitative research may be needed to investigate how statistics are collected, e.g. when timing starts and what locally counts as a ‘serious’ incident. Note that this is not just an issue of the statistics being biased (which quantitative researchers recognize) but of the inevitable (and necessary) intrusion of commonsense judgments into practical decision-making (Garfinkel,1967).

Many of these points are represented in Table 1.

Table 1

Some Criticisms of Quantitative Research

1 Quantitative research can amount to a quick fix, involving little or no contact with people or the field.
2 Statistical correlations may be based upon 'variables' that, in the context of naturally-occurring interaction, are arbitrarily defined.
3 After the fact speculation about the meaning of correlations can involve the very commonsense processes of reasoning that science tries to avoid (see Cicourel,1964:14, 21).
4 The pursuit of 'measurable' phenomena can mean that unperceived values creep into research by simply taking on board highly problematic and unreliable concepts such as 'discrimination' or 'empathy.'
5 While it is important to test hypotheses, a purely statistical logic can make the development of hypotheses a trivial matter and fail to help in generating hypotheses from data as attempted in grounded theory.

Five main forms of data collection have characterized qualitative health research:

  1. Observation
  2. Interviews and focus groups
  3. Analysis of documents
  4. Videos of health-related behaviour
  5. Audio-recorded communication

The aims of each method are discussed subsequently with the exception of audio-recorded communication.

Garfinkel, E. (1967) Studies in ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Cicourel, A. (1964) Method and measurement in sociology, New York: Free Press.