“Qualitative Research” is a collective term. It is applied to a multitude of methods used in various fields. Although the term originated in the social sciences, today many related fields (ranging from market research, to law, literary scholarship, criminology, and even public health) apply methodology that can be subsumed under this concept.
In a general sense, qualitative research has to do with exploring concrete phenomena of how humans behave and the motives that drive them as they can be found in the manifestations of their artifacts, written and oral utterances, or individual or collective actions. In that sense, qualitative research aims at understanding individual issues and cases and, usually, to answer practical questions.
In a more concrete sense–as a form of applied research–qualitative research is the exploration of these phenomena through the act of thorough analysis of these manifestations, i.e. by bringing out into the open and then reflecting on their hidden structures, unspoken motivations, and interrelations between different phenomena. In this sense, it can be said that qualitative research takes place in nearly every work and study environment, literally in all setting where non-quantitative/”unstructured” data is studied and analyzed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the actions and motivations behind it. “Unstructured” information–for example, interview transcripts, addresses, emails, notes, feedback forms, radio and television interviews, even images and videos–is traditionally less formalized and thought of as less rigid than quantitative approaches. However, stringent methodologies have been developed in different fields to provide a common theoretical ground for exploring human expressions that, by their nature, defy simple quantification and purely statistical approaches.
Qualitative research frequently involves the analysis of any unstructured material, including customer feedback forms, reports or audio/video clips. Focus groups, in-depth interviews, content analysis, ethnography, evaluation and semiotics are among the many formal approaches that are used.
Hence, it can be said that qualitative research deals first and foremost with “texts” (in the widest sense), be they considered statements, opinions, artifacts, or unelected utterances, palimpsests, of concrete human expression.
Predominantly, the application of qualitative methods produces information about the particular cases studied (observations). Conclusions about the cases start out as mere informative guesses or hypotheses. Only as a tertiary step can quantitative methods are used to verify or falsify these hypotheses.
Typically, its primary objective can be described as gaining insight into the attitudes, behaviors, value systems, concerns, motivations, aspirations, culture or lifestyles of individuals, groups, or (albeit more rarely) entire populations. The strength of this approach lies clearly in its consideration of concrete manifestations within their particular contexts and in its ability to address complex questions about concrete phenomena.
Qualitative Research Software
Collecting, sorting and analyzing unstructured information is frequently a time-consuming and complex affair, especially when traditional (i.e. manual) methods are employed. The sheer volume of material makes qualitative work in many areas a daunting and decidedly complicated undertaking. The difficulty of identifying themes and extracting meaning grows exponentially in relation to the volume of materials studied.
A special type of software has emerged that addresses this problem. It assists researchers in the collection, management and analysis of primary materials through specialized tools and by providing access to a vast variety of digital data. Contrary to the assumption of some, such programs do not do the thinking for the researcher, but cleverly helps them to manage, shape and make sense of unstructured information.
ATLAS.ti was the first such program, and it still the most widely used software for this purpose. In more ways than one it has set the paradigm for what qualitative research software ought to be able to do. It provides a sophisticated workspace that enables the researcher to work through the information. Its tools for classifying, sorting and arranging information, give the user more time to analyze her materials, to identify themes and complex interrelations, and to develop, state, and formulate meaningful conclusions. Over nearly two decades, ATLAS.ti has maintained its status as the de-facto standard QDA software tool for the social researcher although many of its features have been copied, with varying success, by other manufacturers as well.