Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Qualitative refers to research that primarily relies on approaches that attempt to gather detailed evidence of social processes, activities and events rather than attempting to measure or enumerate social phenomena.

explanatory context

Qualitative research has been linked with particular schools of sociology, such as the Chicago School, ans some people refer to 'qualitative sociology' or the 'qualitative traidition' as distinct from 'quantitative sociology' or the 'quantitative tradition'. In fact there is no simple dichotomy, as some 'qualitative' sociology is positivistic, some phenomenological and others are guided by critical social research epistemology.


The 'qualitative tradition' in the United States


The 'qualitative tradition' in the United States is usually seen as consisting of three, more-or-less chronologically distinct, but overlapping phases: interactionism, symbolic interactionism, and ethnomethodology. This development is seen as fairly closely linked to the 'Chicago School', especially in its earlier phases, and as underpinned by pragmatism in its various guises. Since the 1960s, the qualitative tradition has become much more fragmented, as various critiques of positivism have developed. These developments are principally inspired by phenomenology or are developments of ethnomethodology. As such, it is difficult to talk of a 'dominant' qualitative approach after the mid-1960s.

Methodologically, the qualitative tradition (from approximately 1900 to 1970) shifted from eclecticism towards a concern with participant observation of interactive processes and, with the advent of ethnomethodology, to close (non-participant) observation of everyday occurences. This qualitative tradition is rooted in a nomothetic approach and has tended to avoid any shift towards phenomenological critique.

From about 1940 (until the 1960s) the qualitative tradition came increasingly under pressure from the so-called quantitative tradition and its concerns with establishing the reliability and validity of research approaches. Indeed, the methodologically dominant quantitative approach in the 1950s and 1960s tended to subsume qualitative sociology under the rubric of quantitative orientations, such that qualitative methodology was accorded the role of 'exploratory stage' in survey research. At best, it held its own as an approach in areas of enquiry impenetrable with the usual quantitative techniques.

There was, of course, a reaction to this subsumption. The work of the later symbolic interactionists tended, on the one hand, to argue for the methodological soundness of ethnography, and on the other reaffirmed the need to understand interactive processes. Ethnomethodology was more 'extreme' in denying the traditional pursuits of sociology.


The above is a schematic account. Reconstructing any tradition is fraught with problems of perpetuating myths. There are many taken-for-granted aspects of the qualitative tradition that have tended to colour accounts of the development of U.S. sociology. Two general areas that effect the reconstruction of the qualitative tradition are the 'qualitative-quantitative debate' and the role of pragmatism in the tradition.

The qualitative-quantitative debate

There are several prevailing ideas about the nature of the quantitative-qualitative debate in American sociology. Overarching all, however, is the orientation of the debate, revolving as it does around the suitability of incorporating the principles of physical science into sociology. It is not, in any way, a debate that concerns a distinction between critical and non-critical sociology. Social critics in the United States (e.g. Mills (1961)) may have condemned the prevailing quantitative tradition and its structural functionalist theoretical ally for failing to go beyond surface appearances but this is an attack that steps outside the boundaries of the quantitative-qualitative debate.

Nonetheless, the qualitative tradition has questioned the suitability of the physical science model, (the 'scientific method') in a variety of ways:

a. the qualitative sociologist's dislike of quantification is because it looses the rich detail of social phenomena

b. the qualitative sociologist's refusal to admit definitive concepts to sociology makes quantitative measurement impractical.

c. the qualitative sociologist's denial of the possibility of identifying causes of social phenomena, because the real social world is too complex, makes measurement of variables an arbitrary or meaningless pursuit

d. the qualitative sociologist's rejection of the possibility or relevence of causal relations in social science dispenses entirely with the 'scientific method'.

Clearly, these represent ascending steps in a rebuttal of nomothetic sociology. However, there is no suggestion that the qualitative tradition adopted a unilateral line at any period of time, nor that its position (even of its major adherents) hardened over time. There are various notions about the wars and battles fought between the quantitative and qualitative traditions and the exponents of particular positions reconstruct these encounters to project their side in the most favourable light. This leads to contradictions and confusions. Some wars are forgotten, other battles given exceptional prominence, and so on. Thus Blumer is seen as a major standard bearer by some historians of sociology, the early Chicago School, by others. Yet others do not seem to distinguish between the two. Howard Becker is sometimes portrayed as the principle mover in a late rearguard action mounted by qualitative sociologists which became, eventually, necessary following the coup in the American Sociological Society in 1935. Others regard this as superficial posturing, the war having already been lost in the case study vs statistics and life history vs attitude scale debates of the 1929-1931 period.

Ethnomethodologists, on the contrary, see the real battle beginning only in the late 1960s when, for the first time, the focus of qualitative sociological enquiry was radically questioned. In short, battle has been joined since sociology became an empirically orientated pursuit in the United States and will probably continue to be joined while a nomological presciption informs all spheres of science.

The reconstruction of the qualitative-quantitative debate has frequently been in combative terms but this tends to exaggerate the division. While certain elements in American sociology have conflicted, there is an enormous middle ground which has tended to avoid such conflict. Eclecticism of method, and a lack of epistemological dogmatism has prevailed rather than rigid adherence to singular orientations. This has been, possibly, at least in part, a function of the distance American sociology (and social psychology) has maintained from its European counte rpart. American sociology has not developed a full fledged phenomenological, structural, hermeneutic or critical-dialectical sociology (with some scattered exceptions, e.g. attempts to develop phenomenology at Buffallo) and has maintained a nomological orientation.

Pragmatism and the qualitative tradition

The guiding philosophy behind the American qualitative tradition of sociology has been pragmatism. Pragmatism has been described as the only American philosophy. Unfortunately it is not so easy to define what this philosophy is, those numbered amongst its exponents proffer extermely varied philophies (e.g. Bridgman and Mead) and its core elements are hard to pin down. The figures usually identified as of key importance among pragmatists, at least as far as sociology is concerned, are James, Cooley, Dewey, Mead and Peirce. Of these Mead is usually identified as having provided the fullest development of the pragmatic position and provided the basis for social psychology.

Mead, it has been argued, has been responsible for the development of qualitative sociology via his work at Chicago and his influence on others, notably Blumer. This line of descent is often (although not universally) seen as the 'purest' line of a pragmatically informed sociology. What has emerged is a series of reconstructions of the links between the qualitative tradition and pragmatic philosophy in which different elements of pragmatism are accentuated and different philosophers thereby accorded the major role.

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines:

Qualitative Research: Empirical research in which the researcher explores relationships using textual, rather than quantitative data. Case study, observation, and ethnography are considered forms of qualitative research. Results are not usually considered generalizable, but are often transferable.

Wilmot (2005, p. 1) wrote that the term qualitative is an overarching category covering a wide range of approaches and methods:

Qualitative research aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of the people being studied. It aims not to impose preordained concepts; hypotheses and theory are generated during the course of conducting the research as the meaning emerges from the data. Statistical inference is not the objective, although within government, results are used to inform policy and therefore some form of generalisation or transferability is implicit.

Denzin and Lincoln (1994, p. 2) write that:

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials—case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts—that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. Accordingly, qualitative researchers deploy a wide range of unconnected methods, hoping always to get a better fix on the subject matter at hand.

In the second edition Denzin and Lincoln (2000, p. 4–5) revise their earlier statement:

Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices transform the world. They turn the world into a series of representations, including field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. ... This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or to interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.

The Atlas.ti site (2002–13) states:

Qualitative research and qualitative data analysis are often used for policy and program evaluation research since it can answer certain important questions more efficiently and effectively than quantitative approaches. This is particularly the case for understanding how and why certain outcomes were achieved (not just what was achieved) but also answering important questions about relevance, unintended effects and impact of programs such as: Were expectations reasonable? Did processes operate as expected? Were key players able to carry out their duties? Were there any unintended effects of the program? Qualitative approaches have the advantage of allowing for more diversity in responses as well as the capacity to adapt to new developments or issues during the research process itself. While qualitative analysis of data can be expensive and time-consuming to conduct, many fields of research employ qualitative techniques that have been specifically developed to provide more succinct, cost-efficient and timely results.

First, cases for qualitative data analysis can be selected purposefully, according to whether or not they typify certain characteristics or contextual locations. Secondly, the role or position of the researcher in qualitative data analysis is given greater critical attention. This is because in qualitative data analysis the possibility of the researcher taking a 'neutral' or transcendental position is seen as more problematic in practical and/or philosophical terms. Hence qualitative researchers are often exhorted to reflect on their role in the research process and make this clear in the analysis. Thirdly, while qualitative data analysis can take a wide variety of forms it tends to differ from quantitative research in the focus on language, signs and meaning as well as approaches to analysis that are holistic and contextual, rather than reductionist and isolationist. Nevertheless, systematic and transparent approaches to the analysis of qualitative data are almost always regarded as essential for rigor. For example, many qualitative methods require researchers to carefully code data and discern and document themes in a consistent and reliable way. Perhaps the most traditional division in the way qualitative and quantitative research have been used in the social sciences is for qualitative methods to be used for exploratory (i.e., hypothesis-generating) purposes or explaining puzzling quantitative results, while quantitative methods are used to test hypotheses. This is because establishing content validity—do measures measure what a researcher thinks they measure?—is seen as one of the strengths of qualitative data analysis. While quantitative methods are seen as providing more representative, reliable and precise measures through focused hypotheses, measurement tools and applied mathematics. By contrast, qualitative data analysis is usually difficult to graph or display in mathematical terms.

associated issues

Qualitative data

Qualitative data is any data that is used for research purposes that is in text, verbal, visual form and cannot be sensibly reduced to a numerical measurement. Numerical data is referred to as quantitative data.

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 1.12 on the unhelpfulness of simplistic dichotomies

Researching the Real World Section 1.12 on observation research


Atlas.ti, 2002–13, 'Qualitative analysis of data', available at, accessed, 23 June 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 3 February 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S., (Eds.) 1994, Handbook of Qualitative Research, London, Sage.

Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S., (Eds.) 2000, Handbook of Qualitative Research, Second edition, Thousand Oaks CA, Sage.

Wilmot. A., 2005, 'Designing sampling strategies for qualitative social research: with particular reference to the Office for National Statistics’ Qualitative Respondent Register', available at services/dcm/downloads/AW_Sampling.pdf, no longer available at this address 28 June 2013.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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