Chapter 2. Psychological Research

2.2. Qualitative Research

There are pros and cons to all of the various types of research design in Psychology. We have already seen that experiments allow us to study cause and effect. However, correlational and quasi-experimental research also have value, because they allow us to study topics we cannot experimentally manipulate (these might include whether people have a large or small income; whether they identify as male, female, non-binary, trans, etc.). However, quantitative methods often reduce complex psychological phenomena to simple processes studied in artificial settings and so it is sometimes difficult to reconcile this with how people behave, think, and feel in real world settings. Qualitative research offers the potential for researchers to contextualize their findings within a broader social, cultural, and historical context, and is gaining more popularity as an alternative methodology in the field of psychology. While quantitative research focuses on generating specific answers to research questions using numbers and statistics, qualitative research aims to provide detailed descriptions of human behavior that help to understand the personal experiences of the research participants.

Young black woman dressed in a business suit
Figure 2.9. Qualitative research seeks to understand the lived experiences of people, such as successful Black women in corporate America.

Qualitative research is not hypothesis driven, and questions tend to be more general, with the goal of understanding what people feel or understand about certain situations in their lives. For example, counseling psychologist, Dr. Aisha Holder and colleagues wanted to understand how successful Black women in senior management positions in corporate America experienced and coped with racism in the work place. They wanted to provide rich, detailed, and contextualized descriptions and so they conducted a qualitative research study where they asked ten participants about their lived experiences (Holder et al. 2015).

Methods of Data Collection

The ways that psychological data is collected varies a lot across studies, and methods used in qualitative studies sometimes overlap with those used in quantitative studies (interviews, archival data, and surveys). However, the data generated in qualitative studies are more complex, because they do not need to be represented by numerical values. Thus, questions are typically more open-ended. For example, in her qualitative research study, psychologist, Luo Lu from Taiwan asked Chinese students to write an essay in response to the prompt: What is happiness? (Lu, 2008). As you can imagine, this generates a lot more data than simply asking people to rate how happy they feel on a numerical scale (Dunn et al., 2008). Qualitative studies are also inherently flexible in their design, researchers frequently adapt their methods and questions in response to new findings as they emerge in the study.


One of the most common ways to gather data in qualitative psychological research is to conduct interviews. Interviews vary in their format; they can be unstructured, structured, or semi-structured. Unstructured interviews consist of asking a few, very broad questions and letting the participants talk as much as possible. In structured interviews, the researchers have a list of questions that they ask in a systematic fashion. Most interviews in qualitative research are semi-structured, which is somewhere in between the two other types of interview. The researcher has a list of scripted questions, but they can ask other follow-up questions about the topics that participants bring up. Dr. Holder and her colleagues used semi-structured interviews in their study of successful business women and their experiences of racism (Holder et al., 2015).

Interviews in qualitative psychology studies are often lengthy and generate a lot of information, researchers frequently record the interviews (with the participants’ permission) and/or make detailed notes on what everyone said. Recordings are later transcribed into text. The researcher might also observe non-verbal cues and behaviors during the interviews, such as changes in tone of voice or body language. As you can imagine, it is very time consuming to collect and analyze interview data and so the total number of participants in a qualitative study using interviews is typically small. Dr. Holder’s research study had 10 participants, but in some studies, there are even fewer. Interviews can be conducted in private with a single individual; but focus groups (where small groups of people are interviewed together) are also popular.


People sitting in a circle talking together in a focus group
Figure 2.10. A focus group.

In focus groups, participants interact with each other and share ideas, which can often make them feel more at ease and open. This can help to generate richer, more comprehensive responses. Consumer psychologists often use focus groups to understand people’s reactions to new products and how they might influence their buying behaviors. However, focus groups may be less appropriate for sensitive topics. In Dr. Holder’s study about racism in the workplace, she conducted individual interviews to ensure that participants  had an increased feeling of privacy and anonymity. Sometimes, researchers conduct both individual interviews and focus groups and compare people’s responses in the two settings. As you know (and will learn more about in the modules on Social Psychology), people often behave differently in groups compared to when they are alone. For example, in their ethnographic study on the views of poor and working class Gen-Xers from various racial backgrounds, Fine and Weis found that White women only reported being victims of domestic violence in individual interviews but not in focus groups (Fine & Weis, 1998).

Observational Data Collection

Data about behavior can also be collected by observation—watching and recording how people (or animals) behave in natural settings in their everyday lives—this type of research is often referred to as field research. This differentiates between studies where researchers collect data in a research lab. Observations in field settings can occur in one of two ways. During naturalistic observation, the researchers try to be as unobtrusive as possible, and collect data without influencing the situation. For example, researchers might be interested in learning more about the dynamics of bullying and peer relationships in young children. They want to observe how young children play together in a pre-school setting, but they don’t want to change the dynamics of the group by sitting in the same room as the children. The researchers might set up an adjoining room with a two-way mirror, so that they can see and record the children’s behavior, but the children cannot see or hear them. Alternatively, a researcher may use participant observation, where they become a participant in the culture or context they are observing. For example, in 1973, psychologist, David Rosenhan conducted a qualitative research study where he and a few others went to psychiatric institutions and pretended to be mentally ill. They told the doctors that they had been hearing voices. After they were admitted as patients, they then recorded their experiences of the ward, patients, and staff in their notebooks (Rosenhan, 1973). Once admitted they told staff that they no longer heard voices, and behaved normally. However, their behavior was often interpreted by staff in the context of their diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Other forms of qualitative data collection

Psychological data can also be collected using surveys. In qualitative research, the questions are open-ended, for example, “What makes you happy? “ allowing for extensive, individualized responses. Surveys are also used in quantitative research, but they consist of closed-ended questions that can be coded numerically (like the rating scale that Dr. Dunn’s team used to ask people “How happy do you feel?”). Psychologists may also use archival data in both qualitative or quantitative studies. Archival data are records of people’s lives that were collected by other entities, for other purposes. They can include public health records, census and other population data, records of births, deaths, and marriages, medical and police records, real estate transactions, newspaper stories, films, videos, art work, music, and personal items, such as letters, diaries, emails, and social media. For example, Sanger and Veach (2008) conducted an archival study where they analyzed suicide notes to try and understand more about social interactions among people who commit suicide.

Data Analysis in Qualitative Studies

As you have already seen, the ways that data in qualitative and quantitative studies are collected is often somewhat similar (surveys, interviews, archives, observation). However, it is the way that data are analyzed and reported that really sets the two approaches apart. For example, researchers using qualitative techniques are acutely aware of their influence on the research process and often disclose positionality and identity as part of their research article. There are many different ways to analyze qualitative data. Researchers frequently use a coding system to look for recurring patterns and often provide rich and detailed descriptions of their participants’ behavior in real-world contexts. This might include quotes from participants, as well as descriptions of their feelings and actions. This is often referred to as “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). Some qualitative studies use the phenomenological approach, which aims to richly portray their participants lived experiences using thick descriptions, moreover, it does not try to explain why people behave the way they do. Dr. Holder’s study of Black women managers employed a phenomenological approach where they used thick descriptions to convey their participants’ experiences of racism in the workplace and the many different ways that they coped with it.

Grounded Theory

Another approach in qualitative research analysis is called grounded theory; researchers collect data and then develop a theory or an interpretation that is based on, or “grounded in” those data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). First, the researchers identify ideas that are repeated throughout the data. They then organize these ideas into a smaller number of broader themes. Finally, they interpret the data by writing a theoretical narrative of these themes. This narrative focuses on the subjective experience of the participants and is usually supported by quotes. For example, Yosso and colleagues interviewed Latinx students attending three elite predominantly White academic higher education institutions about their academic aspirations, perceptions of campus climate, experiences of racism and coping mechanisms. They found that Latinx students experienced a good deal of racism on campus, which organized into three main types: racial jokes, interpersonal microaggressions (being excluded or insulted by White students), and institutional microaggressions (lack of representation among faculty and staff and no institutional support for Latinx students). Another theme was that Latinx students felt empowered to deal with the negative environment by banding together and supporting each other. The researchers interpreted their data within the context of critical race theory, which posits that racism is embedded systemically within society and institutions, like universities (Yosso et al., 2009).


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Introduction to Psychology (A critical approach) Copyright © 2021 by Jill Grose-Fifer; Rose M. Spielman; Kathryn Dumper; William Jenkins; Arlene Lacombe; Marilyn Lovett; and Marion Perlmutter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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