Qualitative research is concerned with nonstatistical methods of inquiry and analysis of social phenomena. It draws on an inductive process in which themes and categories emerge through analysis of data collected by such techniques as interviews, observations, videotapes, and case studies. Samples are usually small and are often purposively selected. Qualitative research uses detailed descriptions from the perspective of the research participants themselves as a means of examining specific issues and problems under study.
Qualitative research differs from quantitative research in that the latter is characterized by the use of large samples, standardized measures, a deductive approach, and highly structured interview instruments to collect data for hypothesis testing (Marlow, 1993). In contrast to qualitative research, in quantitative research easily quantifiable categories are typically generated before the study and statistical techniques are used to analyze the data collected. Both qualitative and quantitative research are designed to build knowledge; they can be used as complementary strategies.
Qualitative research is referred to by a variety of terms, reflecting several research approaches. Field research is often used interchangeably with qualitative research to describe systematic observations of social behavior with no preconceived hypotheses to be tested (Rubin & Babbie, 1993). Hypotheses emerge from the observation and interpretation of human behavior, leading to further observations and the generation of new hypotheses for exploration.
Qualitative research is also referred to as naturalistic research or inquiry (Taylor, 1977) into everyday living. Direct observations are made of human behavior in everyday life. Drawing on symbolic interaction theory (Blumer, 1969), naturalistic researchers believe that gaining knowledge from sources that have “intimate familiarity” (Lofland, 1976) with an issue is far better than the “objective” distancing approach that supposedly characterizes quantitative approaches (Haworth, 1984). Zurcher (1983) used this technique as he examined such common occurrences as riding on an airplane or attending a football game.
Ethnography—a term more commonly associated with anthropology and sociology than with social work—is used in qualitative research to describe a field study of a particular site or population undertaken to better understand the culture from the perspective of that population. In ethnographic studies, teams of researchers collect data by observing and interviewing participants over time. Typically, field notes are taken and life histories and case studies are derived from extensive contact with the group under study. Examples of the ethnographic approach include Rainwater (1970) and Liebow (1967). Recently, social work researchers have used participant observation and interviews in such settings as residential treatment centers (Penzerro, 1992) and housing projects (Lein, 1994) to study foster care drift and persistent poverty.
Although social work since its beginnings has been involved with the study of natural occurrences and the interaction between human behavior and the social context, only minor acknowledgment has been made of the contributions of qualitative methodology. Almost since 1915, when Abraham Flexner asserted that social work lacked a core of knowledge derived from the scientific process (Austin, 1978; Bruno, 1958), social work researchers have been striving to demonstrate strict adherence to the objective methods characteristic of the hard sciences, and much social work research has relied on the positivistic approach, using quantitative methods. This situation is exemplified by the Cambridge–Somerville youth delinquency prevention study, in which Powers and Witmer (1951), using traditional social science quantitative methodology, applied an innovative experimental model to assess effectiveness of social services. The study has been cited as a landmark social work research project. Although Powers and Witmer found no significant differences in terms of delinquency records and social adjustment between the treatment and control groups, Witmer, in a supplemental study, used qualitative methodology in intensive case studies and found that some children definitely benefited from the intervention (Zimbalist, 1977). Witmer's use of qualitative methods was an early indicator that qualitative techniques could be used to examine social processes that might be missed by traditional quantitative measures.
Nevertheless, social work continued to emphasize quantitative techniques. Research was heavily influenced by the methodologies of the natural sciences. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, numerous doctoral programs in social work were established, and formal research courses in the scientific method became a major component of the curriculum (Austin, 1978). And as social work strove for greater legitimacy through the development of empirically based theories and proof-oriented models for greater accountability and effectiveness, “discovery-oriented” qualitative research was considered to have little scientific merit (Karger, 1983).
In the late 1970s, Taylor (1977) advocated four alternative approaches to social work research, among them qualitative methods. He asserted that naturalistic inquiry is a perfect technique for a profession that deals not just with the expected and easily measurable but also with the unexpected events that are characteristic of human experiences. Taylor noted that when field researchers use quantitative methods to “increase the precision of observations” (p. 121), qualitative and quantitative approaches complement one another.
In the 1980s, debate about the use of quantitative methods as the preeminent social work strategy was ongoing (Haworth, 1984; Hudson, 1982; Karger, 1983; Reid, 1987). As social workers tried to meet the requirements of logical positivists for experimental designs with objective measures, it was found that many research questions that did not fit neatly into a quantitative research design were not investigated (Heineman, 1981). Some researchers acknowledge that qualitative strategies are appropriate for exploratory or preliminary inquiry into a topic. Others suggest that once there is an organized body of scholars who use a well-delineated qualitative methodology, more serious attention will be given to the qualitative approach (Karger, 1983).
Although debate continues in the 1990s, and the paradigm of scientific inquiry in social work is still primarily viewed to mean quantitative methodology, the merits of qualitative methods are now being acknowledged by most authors of leading social work research texts (Babbie, 1989; Chambers, Wedel, & Rodwell, 1992; Grinnell, 1988; Marlow, 1993; Rubin & Babbie, 1993; Sherman & Reid, 1994), and some qualitative techniques are covered in the research courses of a growing number of schools of social work.
ADVANTAGES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
A number of advantages of qualitative methodologies for social work have been noted in the literature. Descriptive, inductive, and unobtrusive techniques for data collection are viewed as compatible with the knowledge and values of the social work profession (Epstein, 1988). For situations in which social workers are faced with issues and problems that are not amenable to quantitative examination, qualitative methods have been advocated (Sherman & Reid, 1994). The social–psychological bases of qualitative research suggest that it is compatible with the person-in-environment paradigm of social work practice (Epstein, 1988; Taylor, 1977).
Gilgun (1994) suggested that qualitative approaches are similar in method to clinical social work assessments. Clinicians rely on interviews to gather data on a client's issues in the context of the environment. A clinician goes over a series of hunches and working hypotheses that are based on observations made through ongoing contact with the client. Qualitative researchers, like clinicians, are trained to look at each case individually, without imposing preconceived notions or attempting to generalize to all clients having a particular problem. Qualitative researchers maintain field notes and documents on their research (Gilgun, 1994; Marlow, 1993), just as clinicians keep running accounts of contact with a client in the form of process recordings or case records.
In studies of social processes of complex human systems such as families, organizations, and communities, qualitative methodology may be the most appropriate research strategy (Reid, 1987). Scholars of the family now extol the benefits of qualitative methodologies in gaining Verstehen (Weber, 1947), or understanding, of the dynamic processes, meanings, communication patterns, experiences, and individual and family constructions of reality (Daly, 1992). Field settings and social service agencies provide unique opportunities for the qualitative study of social processes.
Qualitative approaches also have the advantages of flexibility, in-depth analysis, and the potential to observe a variety of aspects of a social situation (Babbie, 1986). A qualitative researcher conducting a face-to-face interview can quickly adjust the interview schedule if the interviewee's responses suggest the need for additional probes or lines of inquiry in future interviews. Moreover, by developing and using questions on the spot, a qualitative researcher can gain a more in-depth understanding of the respondent's beliefs, attitudes, or situation. During the course of an interview or observation, a researcher is able to note changes in bodily expression, mood, voice intonation, and environmental factors that might influence the interviewee's responses. Such observational data can be of particular value when a respondent's body language runs counter to the verbal response given to an interview question.
DESIGNS, PROCEDURES, AND ANALYSES
Qualitative research is theory generating. The development of theory from data is based on Glaser and Strauss's (1967) process of constant comparisons. Because theory derived from this approach is “discovered, developed, and provisionally verified through systematic data collection and analysis of data” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 23), it is known as grounded theory. Although the grounded theory approach was developed by sociologists, it is used by qualitative researchers in social work to systematically investigate an issue and to organize data.
Glaser and Strauss (1967) identified two types of grounded theory: substantive and formal. Substantive grounded theory is developed when hypotheses are based on one area of inquiry. Formal grounded theory is developed when hypotheses apply across several areas of research inquiry with different sample populations and settings (Gilgun, 1992).
Under the grounded theory approach, cases are selected by a sampling process in which the researcher identifies new cases that are similar to previous cases. When these cases generate no new insights, the process is repeated with newly selected cases that yield different insights, again until no new insights are noted.
Gilgun (1990) suggested these steps:
1. identification of area under investigation
2. literature review
3. selection of parameters of study
4. collection of data
5. comparison of patterns of first case with those of second case
6. development of working hypothesis as common patterns emerge across interviews
7. formulation of additional questions and modification of questions, based on analysis
8. continuation of theoretical sampling
9. review of relevant literature when patterns appear to stabilize
10.linking of relevant literature to the empirically grounded hypotheses
11.testing of theoretical formulations derived from preceding step
12.revision of theoretical formulations as needed to fit empirical patterns in each subsequent step. (p. 11)
The process ends when the researcher reaches “theoretical saturation,” the point at which no new data are emerging (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Through this procedure emerging theories are grounded in data and are linked to other theories and research (Gilgun, 1992).
When cases do not fit into the common pattern (“negative” cases), researchers typically assess each to determine whether the case is a result of expected variation, the researcher's failure to consider the total range of behavior or situations that might fit a particular category, or truly exceptional (Marlow, 1993). In the presentation of findings, “negative” cases and common patterns are illustrated.
Structured interviews. Limited time and financial resources may lead some qualitative researchers to pursue other data collection techniques, such as a structured interview schedule with open-ended questions. Drawing on the theoretical and research literature, such questions may be formulated and organized in advance to address a specific research topic. Studies of adoption dissolution, for example, might include questions posed to adoptive parents that focus on such themes as parental motivation for adoption, knowledge of the child's past, initial attitudes toward the child, use of therapeutic resources, development of problematic behavior, and factors leading to dissolution. Interviewers are expected to take field notes or to keep a field diary of observations made during the interview.
Data reduction. Interview questions and responses are typically tape-recorded and then transcribed verbatim before analysis is begun. Transcription is extremely time-consuming (Marlow, 1993). Due to the large amount of data that can be generated in qualitative research, a data reduction process must be used to aid analysis. This procedure includes organizing the data; identifying emerging themes, categories, and patterns; and testing hypotheses against the data. Either “indigenous” or “analyst-constructed” typologies may be constructed. In indigenous categories, the language of respondents is used to label types of processes (Marshall & Rossman, 1989; Patton, 1990). For example, in a qualitative study of the development of emotional disturbance in adopted adolescents, researchers used “elbow babies”—the language of the participants—to classify infants who pushed away from close contact with family members. Ongoing analysis of data revealed other instances of this phenomenon (McRoy, Grotevant, & Zurcher, 1988).
In analyst-constructed categories, the researcher attaches a label to observed recurring events. For example, in Matocha's (1992) qualitative study of the needs of caregivers of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) patients, four categories or domains of needs of caregivers were identified: physical, spiritual, social, and economic. Matocha's case study data focused on each of these identified categories.
Narrative descriptions. Narrative descriptions of data collected through interviews, observations, and case records are also used in qualitative analysis. Narrative descriptions may be developed in the form of case studies of a particular interviewee or agency for use in social work practice or program evaluation (Marlow, 1993).
Content analysis is often used in qualitative and quantitative research methods. Some researchers view content analysis as a technique to quantify manifest (surface-level) descriptive data (Allen-Meares, 1985), in which categories are developed, content is coded, and category counts are conducted. Hollis (1972), studying communications in social work interviews, categorized specific statements according to type of communication. Qualitative content analysis typically does not transform the content into numeric patterns. Instead, recurrent themes, and typologies and illustrations of particular issues, are used.
When qualitative methods are used in evaluating the effectiveness of social work practice, a purposive sampling approach may be taken in which one or a few cases are selected for intensive interviewing and analysis. Qualitative interviews can augment single-subject studies by exploring variables other than a specific intervention that might have affected the client outcome. Similarly, in program evaluation studies, qualitative methods allow the researcher to focus on the process of “how something happens” rather than on just the “outcomes or results” that would be more characteristic of quantitative designs. Program evaluation studies involving qualitative approaches focus on participants' perceptions and their experiences in the program (Bogdan & Taylor, 1990; Patton, 1990; Rubin & Babbie, 1993).
Naturalistic evaluation, which is now often referred to as constructivism (Chambers et al., 1992), emphasizes multiple constructions of reality in the evaluation process of social programs. It involves an interactive approach in which the “direction of inquiry is shaped through involvement with the participants” (p. 293). The research design and process emerge through interaction with participants in the setting. Although a conceptual base may guide the evaluation, grounded theory, based on the data, emerges through consideration of multiple realities and perspectives.
ISSUES IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
Reliability and Validity
Among the most cited criticisms of qualitative research are the presumed lack of reliability and validity of its findings. In regard to field research, critics question the ability of qualitative research to replicate observations (reliability) or to obtain correct answers or correct impressions of the phenomenon under study (validity) (Kirk & Miller, 1986). Other criticisms concern the reactive effects of the observer's or the interviewer's presence on the situation being studied and selective perception or bias on the part of the researcher. Also of concern has been the researcher's inability to observe all factors that might influence the situation under study (McCall & Simmons, 1969; Schaffir & Stebbins, 1991). For example, agency time, staff, and financial constraints may limit an agency's ability to provide the researcher with the opportunity to review the entire range of cases pertaining to a particular topic.
Qualitative researchers have addressed these issues in several ways. Purposive sampling, based on reviews of the literature and knowledge of the subject area, has been used to select cases under study, rather than as an attempt to observe or collect data from all respondents, who may be affected by the phenomena under study. Individual bias has been addressed by using teams of researchers to read cases or make observations. To ensure validity of interviews or observations, some qualitative researchers use the technique of “member validation,” in which the respondent is given a copy of the observations or interview to provide feedback (Schaffir & Stebbins, 1991).
Although quantitative researchers are likely to address threats to validity through such techniques as random selection of participants and the use of controls, qualitative researchers are more likely to address validity throughout the data collection and analysis processes. As qualitative researchers review more cases, seeking common themes and patterns and testing emerging hypotheses, they are in essence working to ensure validity (Maxwell, 1992).
Qualitative researchers also confront issues of reliability and validity through triangulation—the use of different strategies to approach the same topic of investigation. Some researchers use multiple measures of the same phenomenon. For example, to measure self-concept, investigators may use a standardized instrument such as the Harter Self-Perception Profile (Harter, 1985) as well as the Twenty-Statements Test (Kuhn & McPartland, 1954), an open-ended measure. Observations of multiple comparison groups, cross-site analyses, and acquisition of multiple viewpoints of the sample phenomena are all techniques used to improve the reliability of findings (Jick, 1983). In data analysis, coding teams with high interrater reliability scores are used to code each interview and thus improve reliability of findings (Miles & Huberman, 1984).
Due to the subjective nature of data collection, interpretation, and analysis in qualitative research, there appear to be more ethical dilemmas and concerns with confidentiality associated with this method than with quantitative research. A qualitative researcher interviewing female-headed families on welfare, for example, may gather data on unreported financial support from fathers. Despite assurances of confidentiality, participating families may feel at risk when they reveal such support to the researcher. It is the researcher's ethical responsibility to maintain confidentiality, but there have been cases in which research data have been subpoenaed. Despite attempts to protect respondents through the use of pseudonyms, identities sometimes may be decoded.
The security of sensitive and potentially identifiable research materials contained on computer disks, in mainframes, and on paper is a persistent issue. When several people are involved in text analysis and the development of coding schemes, or in grant-funded projects that require databases to be made available to other researchers to conduct secondary analyses of computer-generated or stored data, there are risks associated with the confidentiality of data. The issue of who has rights to the data has not been resolved (Fielding & Lee, 1992).
The deception of respondents by researchers is an ethical issue in ethnographic studies. For instance, in some studies of people living in homeless shelters, a researcher has become a participant, interacting with residents while giving them the impression that the researcher too is homeless. Some researchers have responded to the ethical issue in this type of data gathering by taking on the role of participant-as-observer, in which the identities of the researchers are known to the respondents (Rubin & Babbie, 1993).
Qualitative methods are particularly appropriate for use with people who are more comfortable responding in an interview format than to a standardized survey questionnaire. Davis (1986) suggested that the gender of respondents should be a consideration in selecting a research strategy because many women may prefer qualitative research techniques to quantitative approaches because they prefer opportunities to discuss subjects in context.
Myers (1977) suggested that some members of ethnic groups, low-income populations, or others who may be socially distant from the researcher are more likely to participate in the in-depth interviews characteristic of qualitative research than to complete a structured questionnaire or survey. To enhance the validity of results in research with diverse populations, research questions must be clearly constructed and must not be subject to different cultural interpretations. Also, due to the subjective nature of qualitative research it is important for the researcher to continually engage in self-examination to be certain that his or her own biases and stereotypes are not influencing the interpretation of the findings. Conversely, because qualitative analysis allows researchers to explore in depth all factors that might affect a particular issue, this strategy permits sensitive consideration of the complexities of human diversity (Marlow, 1993).
Use of Computers
Recent advances in computer technology let qualitative researchers rapidly and efficiently gather, enter, and retrieve data. Some qualitative researchers take computer notebooks to the field, in which they enter notes directly (Babbie, 1986; Pfaffenberger, 1988). Although many word-processing packages and database managers allow for simple word or phrase searches, specific qualitative analysis programs for text retrieval, such as Ethnograph, ZyIndex, or Word Cruncher, create word lists, count frequency of occurrences, create indexes, and attach key words to words in text (Tesch, 1992).
Some qualitative researchers use computer programs to do a reliability check during data analysis. For example, after completing a personal search of a document for specific words or issues, a computer program is used to double-check the accuracy of the original analysis. Despite the advantages of computerized analysis, qualitative researchers engaged in theory construction must also undertake ongoing exploration of the data to identify patterns and categories that may be used as key words for computer searches.
FUTURE OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
Qualitative research methodology is receiving growing acceptance in the social work research community. Qualitative methods are becoming particularly popular among researchers working on family issues. A Qualitative Family Research Network was formed in the late 1980s, and an increasing number of social workers and family researchers exchange ideas on qualitative methodologies (Gilgun, 1990). Another indicator of the growing acceptance of qualitative research in social work practice is the recently established journal Research on Social Work Practice, which seeks manuscripts based on qualitative studies as well as on a combination of qualitative and quantitative research.
Clearly, quantitative and qualitative methodologies have different strengths and weaknesses, and the strategy taken should depend on the nature of the question being investigated. In many instances, both qualitative and quantitative approaches can be used in the same study. For example, standardized measures might be used to collect data in conjunction with open-ended interview questions. It is possible to code interview data using both qualitative and quantitative techniques and to report the results of both the qualitative and quantitative analyses of the same data set (McRoy et al., 1988). Qualitative strategies need not be limited to small-scale studies. Daly (1992) reported a technique for applying grounded theory principles in the design and analysis of a large national survey on adoption trends.
The close compatibility of qualitative research methods with social work practice techniques is likely to lead to greater use of qualitative strategies in practice evaluation. As more social work researchers network and refine and publish qualitative studies that clearly specify the techniques used, qualitative methodology is likely to receive even greater acceptance among social workers.
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Ruth G. McRoy, PhD, CSW-ACP, is Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Professor in Services to Children and Families, University of Texas School of Social Work, Austin, TX 78712.
For further information see
Agency-Based Research; Ethical Issues in Research; Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Design; Intervention Research; Interviewing; Meta-analysis; Person-in-Environment; Program Evaluation; Psychometrics; Psychosocial Approach; Recording; Research Overview; Survey Research.
descriptive validity reliability