The term qualitative research refers here to social research based on field observations analyzed without statistics. The subjects may or may not know that they are being observed for social research purposes.

The degree to which observers participate actively in the lives of the subjects may vary. However, the term participant observation often stands as a synonym for qualitative research, and it implies some involvement in the observed setting.

Qualitative research always takes place in the field, that is, wherever the subject normally conducts their activities. For this reason, qualitative research often goes by the name of field research.

The term field research is somewhat misleading because quantitative research can and frequently does also take place in the field. For example, survey researchers often conduct interviews in their subjects’ homes, and standardized observations may occur on street corners or in schools as part of experimental research.


The situational factors that may require qualitative observation and the techniques of this approach affect both research design and subject sampling.

As a result, we can explore qualitative research in terms not only of construct and inferential statistical validities, but also of internal and external validities. We will consider these validities at the end of the chapter as they apply to qualitative research.

Advantages of the Qualitative Approach: Qualitative research entails direct observation and relatively unstructured interviewing in natural field settings. The researcher attends to the social transactions that occur in the setting and may also collect pertinent documents and artifacts.

Qualitative data collection appears spontaneous and open ended and usually has less structure and planning than quantitative research.


Quantitative researchers sometimes see this flexibility and the tendency of observers to become personally involved in their field setting as threats to reliability and validity.

However, qualitative researchers regard these same features as strengths of the method. The involvement and naturalness of the observers reduces their disruption of the setting and group under study. After getting used to the observer’s presence, the subjects can return to their normal routines.

The observer who looks, listens, and flows with the social currents of the setting can acquire perceptions from different points of view. Interviews with different subjects and observations at different times and places in the same social network should defeat any effort to “fake” behavior.

This approach has the advantage of triangulation, which compares different interviews and perceptions of the same subject or behavior. Faulty understandings, which might elude any single measure, will become apparent in the contrast of divergent vantage points.


Qualitative researchers point to these strengths of non-reactivity (little impact on the natural setting) and triangulation as setting the standard by which to judge other research methods.

Perhaps the quantitative criteria of reliability and validity should not apply to qualitative data. For a more extensive debate about the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative methods, see the exchanges of Becker and Geer versus Trew in McCall and Simmons (1969).

As will be seen, however, a research approach must provide more than valid observations. It must satisfy the other validity criteria that pertain to drawing causal inferences, including those related to its design.



Qualitative research usually consists of passive observations with no intent to manipulate the causal variable. On occasion, however, qualitative designs can take the form of natural experiments. For example, When Prophecy Fails resembles an interrupted time series quasi experiment. Consider the experience of disconfirmation of belief as the independent variable. The believers encountered three such disconfirmations.

If we can understand qualitative research as a variant of experimental or correlation designs, why treat it as a separate class? For one reason, the nature of qualitative research complicates and blurs the design, as you will see later. The second reason, explored in the next section, pertains to the philosophy of knowledge. As will be seen, some qualitative researchers do not share the positivistic views of most quantitative researchers.

To see how the qualitative method blurs research design, consider the timing and nature of the observations or Os is the example. Ordinarily in quantitative research, the measures consist of items j or scales administered at fixed time point(s) to all subjects.

In When Prophecy Fails, the observers wanted to gather data continuously but could not for practical reasons. At the beginning of the study, several different researchers gained entry at varying times to the inner circle of believers in tow different Locations after entry, an observer could monitor the believers only at those times when he or she could join them.


At times, the observers had to leave to record their notes or to sleep. Thus the apparent completeness and regularity of the observations implied by the sequence of Os understates the gaps in the data stream.

Aside from such gaps, the observers varied over time in what their understanding, roles, and fatigue allowed them to see. As participants, their roles changed from curious strangers to full members to potential leaders.

Believers sometimes asked the observers to conduct groups meetings and even wondered if the observers were aliens from Clarion come to judge them. In sometimes-lengthy meetings, the observers no doubt became weary and wavered between boredom and emotional arousal.

More variation in their perceptions came with the growth of the observers’ acquaintance with and comprehension of the people and situations under study. For example, the investigators wanted to measure increases in proselytizing behavior.


But what should or could they consider increased proselytizing behavior? The range and classification of potential proselytizing behaviors grew and crystallized with researchers’ experience in observing the group.

The regularity of the Os in the diagram fails to reflect the actual disordered, dynamic, and uncontrolled measurement process. Thus, although qualitative research may resemble quantitative research designs, it has much less order and is much more prone to validity threats.

Differences from Other Approaches:

On a continuum of researcher’s control, true experiments would fall at the high end and qualitative research at the low end. In true experiments, researchers assign subjects to groups that receive different experiences chosen by the researcher.

In contrast, the qualitative researcher can only visit the subjects in their natural habitat (with their permission) and observe them. Such researchers must constantly adapt their strategy to the rhythm, style and preferences of the subjects.

The most obvious difference between quantitative and qualitative research appears in the system used to report the findings. Tables, figures, statistics appear in the results sections of quantitative studies. In contrast, qualitative research reads like a story written in everyday language.

A stranger enters a group or community, gets acquainted, has experiences and relationships, and then shares the insights gained on reflection.