Introduction qualitative research


The field of qualitative research is very broad, with many different theoretical approaches and research methods. This guideline aims to offer you a short introduction to this field and to make you attentive towards some important aspects. Many references for further reading are offered, as well as several examples of qualitative research.

Overall, qualitative studies mostly aim to answer questions about the ‘what’, ‘how’ of ‘why’ of a phenomenon, instead of questions on ‘how many’ or ‘how much’. These studies are mainly about the nature of a phenomenon and perceptions or experiences of respondents. Qualitative research methods are particularly appropriate if you want to study the meaning of interactions, processes, behaviours, feelings, attitudes and experiences or if you want to give a detailed in-depth description of a situation or a case.

It is strongly advised to read this complete guideline before starting a qualitative study, because an important feature of qualitative research is that it is an iterative process. This means that data collection and analysis take place simultaneously and the researcher can also go back to the previous phase. The analysis of the material starts as soon as the first data have been collected. In a way, this analysis guides subsequent data collection. The researcher starts with a few global insights or sensitizing concepts that provide an initial frame for the initiation of the search process. After having become acquainted with the field, these insights or preliminary concepts can become important focus points for the research questions, and finally focused work can be undertaken using the specific research questions.

The novice qualitative researcher, with little prior knowledge of social science theory, is advised to read Green & Thorogood (2010). They give an introduction to qualitative methods in health research and describe the designing, conducting and writing stage: Green, J. & Thorogood N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third edition. London: Sage Publications.

Differences between qualitative and quantitative research 

For researchers familiar with quantitative research, it is important to realize there are some fundamental differences between qualitative and quantitative research. For an overview of different research paradigms, see this figure. 

Mixed methods research

In mixed methods research, qualitative and quantitative research is combined. For example, qualitative research can be used to gain more insight into a relatively unknown phenomenon or topic and this can be used to develop a survey to quantify the results. Or qualitative research can help to get a better understanding of quantitative results. According to Creswell and Clark (2011) mixed methods ‘focuses on collecting, analyzing, and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or series of studies. Its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone.’