Making Sense of the Human Experience with Qualitative Research

The following is a modified excerpt of the introduction to Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 1-2).

Human beings engage in some form of “qualitative research” all the time. This is because there is not a context in which humans engage that does not require some process of taking in (i.e., gathering) information from the environment and developing that information into an interpretive nugget that can then be used to make sense of and react to particular situations. Humans do this so routinely that they are rarely aware of the information-gathering stages they process, or even their constant and natural proclivities to do so. Although some human beings may be more successful at processing contextual information than others, humans generally do not consciously think about the quality of the information they take in and the quality of the decision-making processes they apply to that information as they go through their daily lives.

As a formal method of inquiry, qualitative research—with its emphasis on the individual and the role that context and relationships play in forming thoughts and behaviors—is at the core of what it means to conduct research with human subjects. Qualitative research assumes that the answer to any single research question or objective lies within a host of related questions or issues pertaining to deeply seeded aspects of humanity. A qualitative inquiry into breast cancer treatment, for example, might begin by asking “How do women cope with breast cancer treatment?”, from which the researcher considers any number of relevant personal issues around “coping” and then addresses further and deeper questions, such as “What is the quality of life among women undergoing breast cancer treatment?”, “How do various aspects of this quality of life compare to life before their cancer treatment, before breast surgery, and before breast cancer diagnosis?”, “What words do women use to describe their life experiences and what is the relevance (personal meaning) of these word choices?”, “Which people in these women’s lives have the most impact on their ability to cope?”, and “How strong is their motivation to continue treatment and what is the biggest contributor to this motivation?”

Qualitative research is about making connections. It is about understanding that good research involving human beings cannot be anything but complex, and that delving beyond the obvious or the expedient is a necessary tactic in order to understand how one facet of something adds meaning to some other facet, both of which lead the researcher to insights on this complexity. A purpose of qualitative research, then, is to “celebrate the moment”—the in-depth interview, the group discussion, the observation, or the life story—and the intricacies revealed from that moment. Qualitative research celebrates the fact that the complexities and intricacies—the connections—revealed at any one moment may or may not exist in another moment in time, reflecting the ever-changing reality of being human. Qualitative research embraces this reality and, in so doing, savors the nuances inherent in what people say, what they do, and how they think. Identifying, connecting, and finding meaning in these often vague, fleeting qualities of human reality comprise what it means to conduct a qualitative research study.

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