You may have been wondering why I had not discussed qualitative research in this series. The un-glamorous answer is that while qualitative research helps to inform practice, it doesn’t actually use statistics as we think about them.
Statistics lives in the world of numbers, and is used in research that is called quantitative — basically because it counts things. But qualitative research isn’t about counting things. It is about openly exploring an area to gain perspective rather than statistical significance.
So while quantitative studies as people to complete surveys and provide blood samples for testing, qualitative studies ask people open ended questions or observe how they perform a task. This type of information is useful in a few different contexts.
One example is in early stages of research, before much is known about the problem being addressed. A common example is understanding different approaches to health in sub-populations to help identify sources of disparity. While counting the number of people with health insurance may give you a measure of “access,” interviewing people without health insurance helps you understand why certain people are falling through the holes in the system. You need both types of research because they work together to help identify problems and solutions.
The differences don’t stop there. Remember we talked about the importance of sample sizes to quantitative studies? In qualitative studies the rules about sample size are different because you are not looking at distributions of means. Instead your sample would reflect the number of people needed to reach what is called “saturation.” This means when you talk to new people you no longer get new information.
To get a feel for the differences, I’ve included links to two studies you may find interesting.
Pay attention to the results, as this will give you an idea of what you can learn from qualitative research.