10 Distinctive Qualities of Qualitative Research

Unique attributes of qualitative research

Researchers conduct qualitative research because they acknowledge the human condition and want to learn more, and think differently, about a research issue than what is usual from mostly numerical quantitative survey research data.  Not surprisingly, the unique nature of qualitative inquiry is characterized by a distinctive set of attributes, all of which impact the design of qualitative research one way or the other.  The 10 unique attributes of qualitative research* are the:

  1. Absence of “truth” With all the emphasis in qualitative research on reality and the human condition, it might be expected that qualitative inquiry is in the business of garnering “the truth” from participants.  Instead of “truth,” the qualitative researcher collects information from which some level of knowledge can be gained.  The researcher does not acquire this information and knowledge in a vacuum but rather in a context and, in this way, the research data are a product of various situational factors.  For this reason, qualitative researchers do not talk about the “truth” of their findings but rather the “plausibility” of their interpretations. Plausibility is derived from achieving accuracy in the data collection process, accuracy in the absence of absolute “truth.”
  2. Importance of context A relevant factor in the elusiveness of “truth” is the central and significant role context plays in qualitative research.  Whether it be the physical environment or mode by which an in-depth interview (IDI), group discussion, or observation is conducted the outcomes in qualitative research hinge greatly on the contexts from which we obtain this data.
  3. Importance of meaning Although the goal of all research is to draw meaning from the data, qualitative research is unique in the dimensionality of this effort.  Qualitative researchers derive meaning from the data by way of multiple sources, evaluating any number of variables such as: the context, the language, the impact of the participant-researcher relationship, the potential for participant bias, and the potential for researcher bias. Several articles in Research Design Review discuss the importance of meaning, including “Words Versus Meanings.”
  4. Researcher-as-instrument Along with the emphases on context, meaning, and the potential for researcher subjectivity, qualitative research is distinguished by the fact it places the researcher at the center of the data-gathering phase and, indeed, the researcher is the instrument by which information is collected.  The closeness of the researcher to the research participants and subject matter instills an in-depth understanding which can prove beneficial to a thorough analysis and interpretation of the outcomes; however, this intimacy heightens concerns regarding the researcher’s ability to collect (and interpret) data in an objective, unbiased manner. Mitigating these effects is discussed here.
  5. Participant-researcher relationship Closely associated with the idea that the researcher is the tool by which data are gathered is the important function of the participant-researcher relationship in qualitative research and its impact on research outcomes.  This relationship is at the core of IDIs, group discussions, and participant observation, where participants and researchers share the “research space” within which certain conventions for communicating (knowingly or not) may be formed and which, in turn, shapes the reality the researcher is capturing in the data. A discussion of this attribute along with two other unique attributes — importance of context and importance of meaning — can be found here.
  6. Skill set required of the researcher Qualitative research requires a unique set of skills from the researcher, skills that go beyond the usual qualities of organization, attention to detail, and analytical abilities that are necessary for all researchers.  Techniques to build rapport with participants and active listening skills are only two examples.  Qualitative researchers also need a special class of analytical skills that can meet the demands of contextual, multilayered analysis (see below) in qualitative inquiry where context, social interaction, and numerous other inter-connected variables contribute to the realities researchers take away from the field. Qualitative research involving multiple methods requires a special set of skills, as discussed in “Working with Multiple Methods in Qualitative Research: 7 Unique Researcher Skills.”
  7. Flexibility of the research design A defining characteristic of qualitative research is the flexibility built into the research design.  For instance, it is not until a focus group moderator is actually in a group discussion that he or she understands which topical areas to pursue more than others or the specific follow-up (probing) questions to interject.  And, a participant observer has little control over the activities of the observed and, indeed, the goal of the observer is to be as unobtrusive and flexible as possible in order to capture the reality of the observed events.
  8. Types of issues or questions effectively addressed by qualitative research Qualitative research is uniquely suited to address research issues or questions that might be difficult, if not impossible, to investigate under more structured, less flexible research designs.  Qualitative inquiry effectively tackles: sensitive or personal issues such as domestic violence and sexual dysfunction; intricate topics such as personal life histories; nebulous questions such as “Is the current school leadership as effective as it could be?”; and contextual issues such as in-the-moment decision-making.  Similarly, qualitative research is useful at gaining meaningful information from hard-to-reach or underserved populations such as children of all ages, subcultures, and deviant groups.
  9. Contextual, multilayered analysis Without a doubt, the analysis of qualitative data does not follow a straight line, where point ‘A’ leads to point ‘B’, but rather is a multilayered, involved process that continually builds upon itself until a meaningful, contextually-derived, and verifiable interpretation is achieved.  The interconnections, possible inconsistencies, and interwoven contextual input reaped in qualitative research demand that researchers embrace the tangles of their data from many sources.  A large contributor to the complexity of the analytical process is the inductive method.  Qualitative researchers typically analyze their outcomes from the inside out, deriving their interpretations from the themes they construct from the data gathered. Qualitative Data Analysis is a compilation of 16 articles discussing various facets of qualitative analysis.
  10. Unique capabilities of online and mobile qualitative research Online and mobile technology offer unique enhancements to qualitative research design.  In large part, this technology has shifted the balance of power from the researcher to the online or mobile participant who is given greater control of the research process by way of more flexibility, convenience, and ways to respond in greater detail and depth to the researcher’s questions.

* Adapted from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller, M. R. & Lavrakas, P. J., 2015. New York: Guilford Press).


    1. For an alternative approach to qualitative research design, see my book–JA Maxwell, Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach (SAGE publications, 3rd ed., 2011).


    2. For more on qualitative research design, see my book Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach (3rd ed., Joseph Maxwell, SAGE Publications, 2013); there are reviews on Amazon.com.


  1. This is a really nice summary. The one point I would add is that qualitative research is much better than quantitative research at identifying the processes by which events or outcomes occur. Quantitative research is very good at showing WHETHER A influenced B, but can tell us very little about HOW it did so. Qualitative methods can get inside the “black box” of experimental and statistical designs and reveal the mechanisms (mental as well as physical) that caused the result. See J.Maxwell, “Causal explanation, qualitative research, and scientific inquiry in education,” Educational Researcher 33(2), 3-11, March 2004.


    1. Thank you for this addition, and my apologies for not responding sooner. I have read your paper in Educational Researcher as well as your very good book “A Realist Approach for Qualitative Research.” I agree wholeheartedly with your discussions of a process approach to causation, and the idea that social and cultural contexts are essential to understanding “causal mechanisms.” This is the important role that qualitative methods play and, as you say, why we are comfortable identifying causation from single case studies.

      Let me add that I also appreciate your long discussion of validity in your 2012 book, including the three distinctions you make, e.g., separating accounts of phenomena from the accounts of meaning that can only come from individuals’ “conceptual framework.”

      Thanks, again. And, again, sorry for the delay.


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