Qualitative Research

Qualitative Research

What is a qualitative research?

Qualitative research is an umbrella term for a disparate range of philosophies, approaches, practices and techniques. It generally relies on using specific research methods like interviewing, focus groups, observation, audio or videoing recording or document analysis in order to explore – in as much detail as possible – a specific phenomenon. It can focus on generating accounts about what people experience, the meanings they give to a particular experiences, alongside detailed descriptions of the actions, interactions and activities they actually undertake. People trained to undertake qualitative research often come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including health services research, health psychology, medical anthropology and medical sociology. Qualitative research is often used to support and enhance the findings from other more quantitative approaches. For example, in recent years, many funders expect to see qualitative research employed to support all aspects of randomised controlled trials – from development to implementation. In such designs, qualitative research can assist not only in terms of informing the development of an intervention and the trial procedures most suitable for assessing the intervention, but also contribute to understanding the results and outcomes of the trial as obtained using more quantitative methods.

Why you may want to include qualitative research methods

Qualitative research can be used to support many aspects of the research process, including:

  • informing the intervention development of new health care interventions – for example, exploring through interviews or focus groups, the key aspects that patients, health professionals or other stakeholders would feel are essential for a new intervention to be effective or useful.
  • informing research design and processes within a project or for a planned subsequent project – for example, audio-recording trial recruitment consultation or interviewing people in order to understand patients’ willingness to be randomised.
  • gaining understanding of patients’ (and in some cases, carers’, family members’ or significant others’) experiences about an issue – for example using serial interviews to understand the evolving experience of participation in a trial or the impact of the intervention on their lives, or interviewing people about their experiences of living with an illness.
  • gaining understanding of health and social care professionals’ experiences about an issue – for example, observing or interviewing them about the day-to-day work of delivering a trial-related intervention or a specific aspect of care.

What expertise can a qualitative advisor offer?

  • offer guidance around whether qualitative research might be relevant and useful for your research project, and how it might fit alongside other approaches if appropriate.
  • give you advice about the appropriate research design, potential ethical issues and the resources you would need to undertake qualitative research.
  • help you discover the relevant published qualitative research that might support your application.

What to think about before a meeting with a qualitative advisor

  • the sensitivity of the research topic

RDS NE Qualitative Research Team Lead: Jan Lecouturier

Useful Resources


Barbour R (2001) ‘Checklists for improving rigour in qualitative research: A case of the tail wagging the dog?’ British Medical Journal 322, 1115-7.

Finlay L (2006) ‘”Rigour”, “Ethical integrity” or ‘”Artistry”? Reflexively reviewing criteria for evaluating qualitative research’ British Journal of Occupational Therapy 69 (7) 319-26,

Pope C and Mays N (eds) 2006 Qualitative Research in Health Care (3rd edn) London: BMJ books.