Qualitative research is a general term that includes several types of qualitative research methods that are employed, in order to provide an adequate explanation for certain phenomena and satisfying answers to the questions that such phenomena may raise. Any particular situation is characterized by certain interactions which are unique to that situation. In such a situation the roles of the various types of qualitative research methods is to provide the researcher with an in-depth analysis of the situation and a meaningful interpretation of the role of those involved in that situation. In other words, qualitative research, does not aim to merely describe a series of events, but rather to understand the nature of the experience that people have of that events.
There are basically four types of qualitative research methods: grounded theory, ethnography, phenomenology, and case study research. Grounded theory is a qualitative method that uses first-hand information (and second-hand sometimes) as the grounds upon which the researcher can base his inferences so that he builds a new theory. Let’s take as an example the famous ‘Newton and the apple story’. Newton is said to have been sitting under an apple tree thinking about the mysteries of the universe, when he saw an apple falling from the tree and hitting the ground. Supposedly this was enough to infer the idea of gravity. The only empirical (first-hand) evidence he had was that at one moment the apple was hanging from the tree and the next moment he watched that same apple crashing onto the ground. Based solely on that, Newton went on to logically infer that there must be some kind of force that is pulling the apple towards the ground, that force being gravity (and he was a right, or at least that’s what we think up until now). In plain wards, grounded theory seeks to explain how and why something functions the way it does, based on empirical evidence and the power of inference.
Phenomenology, on the other hand, tries to shed light on the structures of consciousness so that we can get a better grasp of the nature of subjective experience. It is not really preoccupied with ‘why something happened the way it did’, but rather ‘how and why it was perceived the way it was perceived by the human mind’.
The third major approach to qualitative research is ethnography, which focuses on the cultural perception of an event. How social norms affect people’s judgment and how people’s judgment in turn shape cultural norms. Ethnography places special emphasis on societal values and beliefs, the practices that confirm those values, as well as language, which essentially gives life to a culture (since it functions as the main tool to understand ‘reality’).
The last of the four types of qualitative research methods is case study research, which examines a person or a situation separately from others. This type of research method is often employed by psychologists and psychiatrists, when they are dealing with a patient whose case presents unprecedented characteristics.
No one can really say grounded theory, for example, is better that the other three types of qualitative research methods (and no one should), since all types of qualitative research methods offer a unique perspective and shed light on a situation from a different angle.