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What is Qualitative Research? - Definition, Sources & Examples

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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Qualitative research takes a deeper look at non-numerical data. Explore the definition and examples of qualitative research, as well as the sources such as artifacts, observations, and interviews. Updated: 09/23/2021

Qualitative Research

Imagine that your town has implemented a gun buyback program. The city offers to buy used guns from people, even if those guns are illegal. There are no questions asked. The city hopes that this program will reduce the number of guns on the street and the amount of gun violence. You're skeptical that the program will work. How could you figure out whether it does or not?

There are two types of research that you could do to figure out whether the gun buyback program actually works to reduce violence. Qualitative research involves looking in-depth at non-numerical data. Think of the word 'quality' when you think of qualitative data - you are taking a deep, quality look at a phenomenon.

Compare qualitative research to quantitative research, which looks at patterns in numeric data. For example, if you want to study whether a gun buyback program helps reduce gun violence, you could look at crime rates before and after the program was implemented. That would be quantitative research.

But, you could also talk to people who had been convicted of a violent crime involving gun violence and ask them questions about why the program didn't work for them and what conditions they think it could work for. This is qualitative research. Let's look closer at where researchers get their data for qualitative research.

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  • 0:07 Qualitative Research
  • 1:29 Artifacts
  • 2:56 Observations
  • 5:18 Interviews
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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One way that psychologists get qualitative data is through examining artifacts and pre-existing data, like archival records. Archival records are historical records. A quantitative example of archival records is the crime rates that we looked at when we were taking a quantitative approach to whether the gun buyback program works or not.

Archival records can be qualitative, too. For example, what if you had access to court documents, including transcripts of court cases in which the defendant is accused of gun violence? You could read through those transcripts and look for clues as to why they chose guns and what methods would work and would not work to prevent them from participating in gun violence.

Archival records can sometimes overlap with artifacts, which are cultural objects that give researchers insight into a culture. For example, the diary of a man who used to have several illegal guns but sold them through the buyback program could give you valuable insight into why it worked for him. His diary is an example of both an artifact and an archival record.

On the other hand, the two do not always overlap. You might decide to look at a popular video game, which depicts graphic gun violence, that was designed by someone in your town. You could look at the game before the buyback program and then the new version released after the buyback program to see if it changed. The video game is an artifact but not an archival record.


Artifacts and archival records are just two examples of sources for qualitative research. Observations are another key source for many researchers. There are many types of observation. One type of observation that is sometimes used in qualitative research is participant observation, which occurs when a researcher interacts (or participates) in the very situation that they are observing. Sometimes this is done with the subjects' knowledge, and sometimes it is done covertly.

For example, let's say that you decide to see if selling a gun at the buyback program will actually reduce the likelihood that the person will commit a crime. So, when someone sells a gun at the program, you introduce yourself and ask if you can follow him around and observe him for your research. He agrees, and so you shadow him to see if he ends up committing a crime. You stay at his house and eat at his dining room table.

Since the guy knows that you're observing him, you are doing overt observation. And, because you are becoming part of his inner circle of friends, you are participating in the process. So, you are doing overt participant observation.

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