In the Science world, data is often thought of as numbers. To analyse it you do calculations, find p values and produce graphs – quantitative research is a process that’s covered in every science degree. Qualitative research isn’t like that.
I did an undergraduate degree in a Medical Sciences subject, I was taught how to use statistical software packages and how to get programs like Prism to create graphs for me. I was always told that this was quantitative research, and that qualitative research was used in other fields of research. Up until starting my PhD I had no experience of qualitative research whatsoever, but it’s an important method that we can use in the world of scientific research – whether in parallel with quantitative data, or by itself.
I think it’s important to try to shed some light on using qualitative research, particularly for the benefit of other scientists that don’t use it currently, so this week’s blog post is a brief into as to what qualitative research is. Over the next few weeks I’ll be covering further qualitative topics, such as how I do data analysis, what does it mean to code data, and how do I go about that etc. Hopefully this will be interesting both to those that do qualitative research already, and those that don’t.
So, what is qualitative research?
Qualitative research is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, motivations and experiences. It can provide context to quantitative data, it can be used to provide insights into a problem, and it can be used to help develop ideas for future research. Qualitative methods, just like quantitative methods, are varied – there are different types of interviews, document analysis, even analysis of social media conversations from places like Twitter.
With this type of research you’re not trying to find generaliseable results; you’re trying to find out as much about your participant group as possible. The amount of times they reference something doesn’t matter, you work to include every opinion/perception/experience etc that is relevant to the topic you’re researching.
I wish I’d been exposed to qualitative research methods throughout the course of my undergraduate degree; even if you’re doing lab-based science, understanding the different experiences and thoughts of the different stakeholder groups involved is so valuable.
For me, qualitative research has been one of the most enjoyable parts of my PhD project so far. It has helped me to understand the nuances of the problem with recruitment to trials, it’s taught me that every person’s experience of trials recruitment will be slightly different – though there are themes threading throughout each of those experiences.
Pop back next week for an insight into what goes into qualitative data analysis, and confirmation that listening back to my own voice has been the most cringe-worthy experience of my PhD to date.