Qualitative Research

  • Donald E. Polkinghorne


Qualitative research refers to the group of inquiry approaches developed to produce knowledge about the experiential realm of human beings. The focus of these approaches is on describing and understanding the meanings people attach to their encounters with other people, their cultural environment, and material objects. Qualitative research holds that the organization and content of the human experiential realm more closely resembles that of natural language rather than numbers. Qualitative studies generate data in the form of participant descriptions of their experiences and use literary analytic procedures to produce higher-order descriptions and understandings of the investigated experience. Qualitative studies produce a different kind of knowledge than quantitative studies. Its studies are concerned to examine the depth and fullness of its topic of interest. Because of the kind of knowledge produced by qualitative research, it is grounded in a different ontological and epistemological base than quantitative research. Understanding and practicing qualitative research requires that students do not simply transfer quantitative research principles to qualitative studies, but approach gaining competency in qualitative research from within its own perspective. There are two levels of competency in qualitative research – the basic level and the expert level. Basic level competency includes knowledge about qualitative research including its philosophy of knowledge, its area of study, the tools and techniques it uses, and its traditions. A student who achieves a basic level competency should be able to read and understand a qualitative research report. Expert level competency is an advance beyond the basic level in that, in addition to understanding, it concerns mastery of the skills needed to conduct a qualitative study. These are practice skills and include mastery of in-depth qualitative interviewing and observation, mastery of analytic skills of data in linguistic form, and mastery of communicating results transparently. Mastery of expert competency is achieved by advancement through various stages of skill development to reach a level of expertise. A student who has achieved expert competency should be able to conduct a worthy qualitative study.

The term qualitative research refers to a collection of linguistically based social science research approaches that focus on the study of the human experiential realm. The modern-day practice of qualitative research can be traced to its emergence in the 1970s as part of a reform movement in the social sciences (Schwandt, 2000). The reformers were interested in studying the meanings and values through which people understood and made sense of their encounters with the world, with others, and with themselves. They held that the then current mainstream social science methods, with their commitment to a numeric form of data and to statistical analyses, were inadequate for understanding human existence as it was experienced by persons. The reformers proposed that a research approach that was language-based, rather than numeric-based, would allow for deeper and more nuanced knowledge of human experience. In their development of language-based research, the reformers retrieved and revised earlier attempts at such a research, for example, anthropological field studies and University of Chicago symbolic interaction studies. In the decades since 1970, qualitative- or linguistic-based research has become an important component in the repertoire of social science inquiry methods.


Qualitative Study Qualitative Research Qualitative Approach Numeric Form Qualitative Researcher 
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© Springer Science+Business Media LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald E. Polkinghorne
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Southern California-Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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