20.2.1  Definition of qualitative research

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 (Denzin 1994). Qualitative research is intended to penetrate to the deeper significance that the subject of the research ascribes to the topic being researched. It involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter and gives priority to what the data contribute to important research questions or existing information.


Within health care an understanding of the value of evidence from qualitative research to systematic reviews must consider the varied and diffuse nature of evidence (Popay 1998b, Pearson 2005). Qualitative research encompasses a range of philosophies, research designs and specific techniques including in-depth qualitative interviews; participant and non-participant observation; focus groups; document analyses; and a number of other methods of data collection (Pope 2006). Given this range of data types, there are also diverse methodological and theoretical approaches to study design and data analysis such as phenomenology; ethnography; grounded theory; action research; case studies; and a number of others. Theory and the researchers’ perspective also play a key role in qualitative data analysis and in the bases on which generalizations to other contexts may be made.


Within the empirical sciences, the standing of a given theory or hypothesis is entirely dependent upon the quantity and character of the evidence in its favour. It is the relative weight of supporting evidence that allows us to choose between competing theories. Within the natural sciences, knowledge generation involves testing a hypothesis or a set of hypotheses by deriving consequences from it and then testing whether those consequences hold true by experiment and observation.


Health professionals seek evidence to substantiate the worth of a very wide range of activities and interventions and thus the type of evidence needed depends on the nature of the activity and its purpose. For many research questions, for example, those about parental beliefs and childhood vaccination (Mills 2005a, Mills 2005b), qualitative research is an appropriate and desirable methodology.