A. Specificities of qualitative research methods


First, qualitative research encompasses all forms of field research performed with qualitative data. “Qualitative” refers to data in non­numeric form, such as words and narratives. There are different sources for qualitative data, such as observations, document analysis, interviews, pictures or video’s, etc. Each of these data-gathering techniques has its particular strengths and weaknesses that have to be reflected upon when choosing for a qualitative research technique. In the social sciences, the use of qualitative data is also closely related to different paradigms trying to develop insight in social reality. Elaboration on these paradigms is however outside the scope of this process note [1].

Second, the aim of qualitative research is developing a “thick description[2]” and “grounded or in-depth understanding” of the focus of inquiry. The benefits of well developed qualitative data-collection are precisely richness of data and deeper insight into the problem studied. They do not only target to describe but help also to get more meaningful explanations on a phenomenon. They are also useful in generating hypotheses (Sofaer, 1999). Types of research questions typically answered by qualitative research are “What is going on? What are the dimensions of the concept? What variations exist? Why is this happening?” (Huston,1998). Qualitative research techniques are primarily used to trace “meanings that people give to social phenomena” and “interaction processes”, including the interpretation of these interactions (Pope, 1995). “They allow people to speak in their own voice, rather than conforming to categories and terms imposed on them by others.” (Sofaer, 1999, p. 1105). This kind of research is also appropriate to investigate social phenomena related to health (Huston,1998).

Third, one of the key strengths of qualitative research is that it studies people in their natural settings rather than in artificial or experimental ones. Since health related experiences and beliefs are closely linked to daily life situations it is less meaningful to research them in an artificial context such as an experiment. Therefore data is collected by interacting with people in their own language and observing them in their own territory (Kirk, 1986) or a place of their own choice. This is also referred to as naturalism. Therefore the term naturalistic methods is sometimes used to denote some, but not all, qualitative research (Pope, 2006). Also this characteristic is not always relevant to the use of QRM at the KCE. For example focus group interviews are usually not performed in the natural setting of the participants, but rather in the setting of a meeting room.

A fourth feature of qualitative research in health care is that it often employs several different qualitative methods to answer one and the same research question (Pope, 2006). This relates partly to what is called triangulation (see here).

Finally, qualitative research is always iterative starting with assumptions, hypotheses, mind sets or general theories which change and develop throughout the successive steps of the research process. It is desirable to make these initial assumptions explicit at the beginning of the process and document the acquired new insights or knowledge at each step.


[1]           For those interested we refer to Denzin and Lincoln, 2008 a, Denzin and Lincoln, 2008 b, Bourgeault et al., 2012 or in Dutch, Mortelmans, 2009

[2]           A “thick description” of a human practice or behavior include not only the focus of the study, but its context as well, such it becomes meaningful to an outsider. The term was introduced in the social science literature by the anthropologist C. Geertz in his essay in 1973