Qualitative Research

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

A doctoral student collecting data for her dissertation visits a third grade classroom where two children labeled autistic are regular members. She goes there several days per week staying approximately four hours each time. She tries to remain as unobtrusive as possible observing the natural class environment and activities as they occur. When she leaves each day she goes to her home computer and writes detailed notes of everything she has seen and heard. In addition, she keeps a diary of her personal reactions and evolving thoughts. After she has been there six weeks, she begins conducting recorded interviews with the teacher and other school staff. She even interviews some of the parents of children in the classroom. Rather than using a questionnaire she asks general questions, leaving room for the respondents to raise issues and to freely express themselves. In conjunction with this interview information she gathers various official documents, student evaluations, and other information related to the class.

This researcher is interested in social relationships and learning in the room especially the experiences of the children labeled disabled. She wants to understand the classroom both from the teacher's point of view and that of other people involved. Although these are her general interests she did not state specific hypotheses or questions before she started. When she finishes the data collection she reads, rereads, and codes her descriptive data. She relies on one of the computer software programs available to help organize and analyze her qualitative date. Then she writes a dissertation about what she has learned.


The researcher is engaging in qualitative research in the classroom. Her comprehensive data collection approach is not the only one qualitative researchers use to study classrooms. Some rely solely on in-depth interviews, others limit their data collection to intense observation, others on first person document analysis. Other techniques exist as well but what those who practice qualitative research in education have in common are the following:

  1. Their data is descriptive (e.g. field notes, interview transcripts).
  2. Their analysis is inductive (the questions and focus are not predetermined but evolve as the data are collected).
  3. Their data are typically collected in natural settings, in classrooms, and in other places teachers and students spend their time. They try to conduct interviews on location and in a conversational style.
  4. Their data are not reduced to numbers and they do not employ advanced statistical procedures. During data analysis some qualitative researchers use frequency counts and other simple quantitative procedures, but, for the most part, their reports are descriptive and conceptual.
  5. Their goal is to understand basic social processes (e.g. how children play and learn in a group) and in developing insights in the form of sensitizing concepts. In addition they try to grasp the view of the world from the point of view of the participants (the teachers, students and others related to the classroom). Their concern is not with prediction and the relationship between discrete variables.


The example of the doctoral student collecting data for her dissertation is an exemplar of qualitative research of classroom learning. Her study contains all of the elements of this kind of research. Not all studies that people refer to as qualitative research incorporate all of these characteristics however. For example, some researchers might start with stated questions, others may emphasize interviews with teachers thereby straying from observations in the classroom. Whether a particular study is called qualitative is a judgment regarding the degree it contains the above elements rather than whether it meets all the criteria. As discussed below, researchers have different ideas about where to draw the line. Thus some researchers call what they do qualitative research, whereas others would not.

Terms previously used and currently associated with this form of research include: fieldwork, naturalistic, ethnographic, symbolic interaction, inner perspective, Chicago School, phenomenological, case study, interpretive, ethno-methodological, ecological and descriptive. These terms are not synonymous with qualitative research. Rather qualitative research is an umbrella for them all. The exact definition of each varies within particular research traditions and from user to user and from time to time. But each refers to approaches with many of the elements that are part of qualitative research as defined above.


Researchers employing the general approach described above have existed since the systematic inquiry began. Academic anthropologists and sociologists have used it since the late 1890s. Typically the former conducted studies in cultures other than their own, in so-called less developed or unindustrialized societies. Sociologists did similar work in Western countries. Although the approach was widely employed, the term qualitative research was not coined until the late 1960s. In 1967 scholars Barney Glaser and Anslem Strauss first used the phrase in the title of a book, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. William Filstead followed in 1970 with his edited collection, Qualitative Methodology. In the late 1960s and early 70s some researchers, including those in education, began a dialogue about the approach outside the academic boundaries of anthropology and sociology.


Two of the earliest researchers to apply qualitative approaches to education in the United States were Margaret Mead and Willard Waller. In the 1940s Mead, an anthropologist, used her fieldwork in less technically developed societies to reflect on the rapidly changing education system in the United States. She examined how what she called little red schoolhouses, city schools, and academies required particular kinds of interaction between teacher and student. She advocated that teachers use first-hand observation to study changes in schools and pupils as a way for them to become better teachers.

When Willard Waller published his work in the 1930s sociology was dominated by quantitative approaches. His book Sociology of Teaching (1932) relied on various kinds of descriptive data to analyze the social world of teachers and their students. He saw schools as people tied together in a complex maze of social interconnections. His book was designed to help teachers develop insight into the social nature of school life as a way of facilitating learning in the classroom.

In 1951 Howard Becker, a sociologist who would become very influential in the development of qualitative approaches to research, wrote his dissertation on the careers of Chicago school teacher and social-class variation in teacher-pupil relations. He used qualitative interviews to collect his data. Becker went on to launch a series of qualitative research studies on various aspects of education and encouraged a number of graduate students to follow his lead.


Few important qualitative studies in education appeared prior to the 1960s. Quantitative methods continued to dominate research about schools and classrooms. Change began in the sixties as qualitative research began finding a small but enthusiastic following. During this decade the nation began focusing on educational problems, especially de facto segregation and the underachievement of minority students in the classroom. Civil rights leaders and other concerned citizens demanded that people take into account what teaching and learning was actually like in the classroom. Popular journalistic accounts of school life and autobiographical writings by teachers which documented the lack of learning in ghetto schools grabbed the attention of the public. In 1968 Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, his poignant account of his first year of teaching in a ghetto school in Boston, won a National Book Award. People wanted to know more about what was actually going on in schools.

Educational researchers began practicing qualitative strategies themselves in the 1960s rather than depending upon sociologists and anthropologists. Federal agencies began to see the promise in this research approach and started to fund qualitative research. A number of these studies addressed inequality in schools. In 1963 Project True at Hunter College in New York City relied on interviews to examine the experiences of new teachers in urban schools and school integration (Eddy, 1967; Fuchs, 1969). Other researchers recognized that education had failed poor children and that this chronic problem needed to be studied in new ways. Eleanor Leacock focused her influential inquiry on the effect of school authorities on student behavior and learning. Jules Henry studied racism in elementary schools in St. Louis. It was through this project that Ray Rist, an important practitioner of qualitative research, started his career. His book, Urban School: Factory for Failure, a systematic observational study of learning in one classroom, was widely read by policymakers and researchers alike.


The 1960s were both the launching period of qualitative studies and the time that qualitative research emerged as a field. Prior to the 1960s courses in qualitative research were uncommon. Instruction in the method was mainly in anthropology and sociology through apprenticeships with professors engaged in research projects. A well-developed literature on the theories underlying the method and how to do it had not developed. In the late 1960s and early 1970s such a literature began to emerge and courses began to be offered. In 1966 Severyn Bruyn published The Human Perspective in Sociology, a comprehensive theoretical methodological treatise on the qualitative tradition. His book was followed by Glaser and Strauss's Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, which for the first time presented the logic behind qualitative analysis. In 1971 Rosalie Wax published one of the first qualitative methods books, Doing Fieldwork: Warning and Advice. The literature grew. The early 1970s also saw courses in the approach being offered for the first time. Additionally, a literature began appearing in education and in other professional schools that addressed the research dilemmas inherent in classrooms and in other places where human service professionals practiced their trade.

The 1970s and 1980s saw qualitative research flower in education. Not only did well established educational research journals start regularly publishing articles that employed qualitative research, but also new journals favoring the approach first appeared. Book publishers welcomed titles on qualitative research and special sessions at meetings of professional educational researchers were devoted to the subject. Organizations emphasizing the qualitative approach arose and conferences devoted to the approach became regular features of educational researchers' calendars.


Not all educational researchers embraced qualitative research during the 1970s and 1980s, however. Some professors and other researchers who were trained in quantitative approaches applied their method's criteria for good research to the encroaching approach and found it wanting. They resisted the movement, opposed its widespread use, and were skeptical about its contribution. The 1970s and 1980s became a time—at least at some universities and within some professional groups— of debate and conflict. Although a number of researchers trained in the quantitative tradition began integrating the qualitative approach into their work, others regarded the different methods as competing and in some universities became identified as being in one camp or another— qualitative verses quantitative. By the end of the 1980s, doctoral students trained with broader ideas about research began entering the field of educational research and staunch detractors of the qualitative approach began to mellow. By this time there was an armistice of sorts with some researchers preferring one approach over the other and others attempting to integrate the two. Still others switched back and forth, choosing to adjust their approaches to the problems at hand.


Although by the late 1980s and early 1990s the qualitative/quantitative debate had subsided, the qualitative researcher faced other issues and changes that continued being reformulated each decade. Some researchers trained in quantitative approaches who became practitioners of qualitative research as well as qualitative researchers responding to critics who wanted more structure in their research developed more rigid research designs. Authors such as Miles and Huberman advocated formal data collection protocols and standardized data analysis procedures in their work. They championed the development and use of computer software programs to do more thorough and systematic data analysis. Not all qualitative researchers were comfortable with these efforts and charged that such formalization of the method robbed it of its strengths, the discovery of new ways of thinking.

While some qualitative researchers moved toward more structure and accountability another group of scholars went in the opposite direction. People traditionally associated with the humanities (i.e., historical, literary, and philosophical scholars) began to embrace the label of qualitative research. A number of influential books such as James Clifford and George Marcus's Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography and J. Van Maaen's Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography, discussed the interpretive nature of qualitative research and how its writing was a product of the author's predispositions and characteristics. Rather than trying to control the author's predilections, a new brand of scholars embraced their own point of view and abandoned the goal of objectivity. They tended to de-emphasize rigorous data collection and concerned themselves less with the empirical world than did more traditional qualitative researchers. In addition to welcoming the humanities into the realm of qualitative research, some qualitative researchers embraced feminist, post-structural, conflict, and critical theory for the underpinnings of their work. Some more traditional qualitative researchers joined their ranks. This group of researchers became much more theory driven than traditional qualitative researchers had been. They also became less data based.

Thus starting in the early 1990s and continuing into the 21st century, qualitative research was pulled in many directions, some of them antagonistic. These movements led some to question whether the term qualitative research had expanded so much that the phrase had lost its meaning. While some cheered the expansion of the field, others thought that qualitative research should return to the basics, to just the elements included in the definition provided above in this entry.


Although general acceptance of qualitative research as defined here exists, some in the field of education continued to express concerns about its use. Qualitative researchers and skeptics would agree that one drawback of the approach is the time it takes to do a good study. Qualitative research is labor intensive; it takes hundreds of hours in the field to collect the data, and data analysis is complex and vexing.

More serious concerns among critics involve the topics of researcher bias and the generalizability of qualitative findings. Qualitative researchers use less standardized instruments and codified procedures than do quantitative researchers. The former approach resembles a craft in which the outcomes are dependent on the skills of the researcher to establish rapport, collect, and then analyze descriptive data. Researchers vary considerably in their talent, interests, points of view, and political disposition. In addition, few external checks on the researcher's data collection and analysis procedures exist. The descriptive data do not readily lend themselves to outside review. Because the data are filtered through the human instrument critics argue that the approach is wrought with observer effect and so its integrity is undermined.

Since most qualitative research involves small samples or studies of one particular classroom or school, critics question whether what is found can be generalized. They point out, for example, that third grade classes vary so much from place to place and time to time, what is found in a case study of one class tells people little about other classrooms. They point to the danger of thinking that because a person knows one third grade well that person understands third grade classes in general.

Sufficient room is not present here to detail how advocates of qualitative research respond to questions of researcher bias and generalizability. Qualitative researchers acknowledge the unstructured nature of the inquiry and the influence the researcher might have on the outcome. In addressing bias, some point to the careful procedures they have built into the various stages of their research projects. As already indicated, some qualitative researchers, to the consternation of others, have attempted to become even more systematic and formal in their approach, thereby abandoning the evolving design that is characteristic of traditional qualitative studies. Others say the bias that critics are concerned with is overstated. After all, they say, just because other forms of research use instruments and more formal procedures does not mean that the researcher's point of view is not built into the researcher's studies. Further, they point out, in most qualitative studies the researcher carefully states his or her perspective and the concerns that drove the project, a practice that quantitative researchers do not follow.

How do qualitative researchers address the criticism that their findings are idiosyncratic and cannot be generalized? They take the position that critics do not understand the basic premise and logic of the approach. Rather than carrying out rigorous sampling, testing hypotheses, and coming up with a precise list of facts and findings that can be applied across settings and populations, qualitative researchers concern themselves with the dynamics of basic social processes and are interested in developing sensitizing concepts and grounded theory. They believe that behavior is not random and idiosyncratic. If they discover a process or develop a concept in one setting it has to exist in other places. They do not assume that it occurs in all places, for example, called third grade classrooms. Part of the analysis is speculating about other settings in which their findings might apply. Further, they say that if people are interested in generalizability as traditionally defined, it can be checked by additional studies.

Qualitative research comes in many forms and is widely practiced as a part of educational research. Once new and controversial, it has become a regular part of the curriculum for those studying for advanced degrees in education. While it will never replace quantitative approaches, it contributes a different kind of information and understanding to what researchers know about learning in the classroom.


Becker, H. S. (1952). Social-class variations in teacher-pupil relationships, Journal of Educational Sociology, 25, 251–265.

Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (2007). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theories and methods (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bruyn, S. (1966). The human perspective in sociology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Clifford, J., & Marcus, G.E. (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkley: University of California Press.

Eddy, E. (1967). Walk the white line. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Filstead, W. (Ed.). (1970). Qualitative methodology. Chicago: Markham.

Fuchs, E. (1969). Teachers talk. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

Henry, J. (1963). Culture against man. New York: Random House.

Kozol, J. (1967). Death at an early age: The destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston Public Schools. New York: Bantam.

Leacock, E. (1969). Teaching and learning in city schools. New York: Basic Books.

Mead, M. (1942). An anthropologist looks at looks at the teacher's role. Educational Method, 21, 219–223.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded source book (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rist, R. (1973). Urban school: Factory for failure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the field: On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waller, W. (1932). Sociology of teaching. New York: Wiley.

Wax, R. (1971). Doing fieldwork: Warning and advice. Chicago: University of Chicago.

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