Qualitative research is a method of inquiry employed in many different academic disciplines, traditionally in the social sciences, but also in market research and further contexts. Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of decision making, not just what, where, when. Hence, smaller but focused samples are more often used than large samples.
In the conventional view, qualitative methods produce information only on the particular cases studied, and any more general conclusions are only propositions (informed assertions). Quantitative methods can then be used to seek empirical support for such research hypotheses.
Qualitative researchers face many choices related to data collection ranging from grounded theory practice, narratology, storytelling, classical ethnography, or shadowing. Qualitative methods are also loosely present in other methodological approaches, such as action research or actor-network theory. The most common method is the qualitative research interview, but forms of the data collected can also include group discussions, observation and reflection field notes, various texts, pictures, and other materials.
Qualitative research often categorizes data into patterns as the primary basis for organizing and reporting results. Qualitative researchers typically rely on the following methods for gathering information: Participant Observation, Non-participant Observation, Field Notes, Reflexive Journals, Structured Interview, Semi-structured Interview, Unstructured Interview, and Analysis of documents and materials.
The ways of participating and observing can vary widely from setting to setting. Participant observation is a strategy of reflexive learning, not a single method of observing. In participant observation researchers typically become members of a culture, group, or setting, and adopt roles to conform to that setting. In doing so, the aim is for the researcher to gain a closer insight into the culture’s practices, motivations and emotions. It is argued that the researchers’ ability to understand the experiences of the culture may be inhibited if they observe without participating.
The data that is obtained is streamlined to a definite theme or pattern .This is further worked on and alternative research hypothesis is generated which finally provides the basis of the research statement.
Some distinctive qualitative methods are the use of focus groups and key informant interviews. The focus group technique involves a moderator facilitating a small group discussion between selected individuals on a particular topic. This is a particularly popular method in market research and testing new initiatives with users/workers.
In fields that study households, a much debated topic is whether interviews should be conducted individually or collectively (e.g. as couple interviews).
One traditional and specialized form of qualitative research is called cognitive testing or pilot testing which is used in the development of quantitative survey items. Survey items are piloted on study participants to test the reliability and validity of the items.
There are several different research approaches, or research designs, that qualitative researchers use.  In the academic social sciences, the most frequently used qualitative research approaches include the following:
- Basic/generic/pragmatic qualitative research, which involves using an eclectic approach taken up to best match the research question at hand.
- Ethnographic Research, . This method is also called “ethnomethodology” or “methodology of the people”. An example of applied ethnographic research is the study of a particular culture and their understanding of the role of a particular disease in their cultural framework.
- Grounded Theory is an inductive type of research, based or “grounded” in the observations or data from which it was developed; it uses a variety of data sources, including quantitative data, review of records, interviews, observation and surveys.
- Phenomenology describes the “subjective reality” of an event, as perceived by the study population; it is the study of a phenomenon.
- Philosophical Research is conducted by field experts within the boundaries of a specific field of study or profession, the best qualified individual in any field of study to use an intellectual analysis, in order to clarify definitions, identify ethics, or make a value judgment concerning an issue in their field of study their lives.
- Critical Social Research, used by a researcher to understand how people communicate and develop symbolic meanings.
- Ethical Inquiry, an intellectual analysis of ethical problems. It includes the study of ethics as related to obligation, rights, duty, right and wrong, choice etc.
- Foundational Research, examines the foundations for a science, analyzes the beliefs, and develops ways to specify how a knowledge base should change in light of new information.
- Historical Research allows one to discuss past and present events in the context of the present condition, and allows one to reflect and provide possible answers to current issues and problems. Historical research helps us in answering questions such as: Where have we come from, where are we, who are we now and where are we going?