Celebrating the value of qualitative research

June 2023 | by Viv Niblett

Almost everybody I have worked with in social change has been, at heart, either ‘a qual’ or ‘a quant’. Whether it be our training, past experience or as fundamental as how we view the work, many of us are more comfortable with one of these two families of research evidence. However, this tendency to have a favourite means we sometimes discount the value of the other. I’ve worked with clients keen to get to the ‘real’ picture of their work that sits ‘beyond just the numbers’, as well as those who are moved by an individual’s story but want to know too about the bigger picture.

When push comes to shove, I am ‘a qual’ at heart. I think that the way good qualitative research can connect ideas and concepts, explore variation and difference, and extend our understanding, is essential in social research. Although it has its limitations, where qualitative work shines is in helping us explore the unavoidable complexity of our social world.

Qualitative research is an open space for participants to give their views, experiences and perceptions on the nature of something. And very often we need these views. We might be researching a topic where there isn’t much agreement on its definition, or because we have used a definition but want to explore it in depth. For example, in a study researching non-cognitive skills in schools – an area where language and definition is not consistent – my first question for school staff was how they would define ‘non-cognitive’ skills. Understanding this was critical to exploring how they then worked to develop them.

Similarly, in almost any evaluation that considers outcomes, you might count the extent or size of a change, but qualitative data helps illustrate what that means. In a recent evaluation of an arts programme, we asked families in a focus group if they had enjoyed an activity. In response they talked about enjoyment in many different ways: ‘doing something together’, ‘feeling the texture of materials in my hands’, and ‘escaping from the day to day’. Qualitative data gives us depth of detail, varied language and examples of something so that we can understand it, as well as count it.

In this way qualitative evidence reveals the endless variation that can occur in the world and allows us to factor this into our learning. So often in social change we want to account for the effects of different factors in different sorts of places, different groups of people or in different contexts. For example, hearing the experiences of someone working to deliver a programme in a disadvantaged, rural area in contrast to someone working in bustling city district both extends our understanding of a concept (e.g. effective local delivery), and it allows us to identify insight that is relevant to more situations and contexts.

One of the best things that qualitive research can do is leave space for the unexpected. It’s always necessary to make assumptions when we do research, sometimes well grounded and sometimes less so. So, it can be really valuable to have the open space for people to tell you what you’ve missed out or not thought about enough. Most researchers will remember a time they’ve ventured a theory of an idea to a participant, only to be told by how wrong they are.

We know not to generalise from qualitative evidence, but it is great for exploring a specific context. Secondary data such as household surveys or research studies can be great resources for a general picture, but in social change specifics matter. Qualitative methods can be a practical way of getting to the specific time, place and issue that we’re interested in. Of course, qualitive data isn’t generalisable to a population wider than your sample, but it can offer detailed insights and be a starting point for further research.

The narrative element of qualitative research means participants can help us link ideas and events in nature or over time. This is especially important for programme evaluation, where hearing from those involved is a chance to gain an account of change, and if and how it came about. When we do this, we must remember that even those closely involved can’t be aware of every factor that contributed to a change, but they will always have insight and knowledge that we can triangulate with other evidence to explore complex cause and effect.

Finally, a happy benefit of qualitative work is the active engagement it fosters with the people whose views you are seeking. In some studies, and in methods which draw on co-design and co-production, this process of engagement through qualitative work is as important as the learning and knowledge that results.

To get any of these benefits, qualitative research has to be done well. Good qualitative research is planned and designed to explore a specific question, using an appropriate sample of individuals. Crucially, good qualitative evidence needs to be analysed and reported in a way which doesn’t overclaim or smooth-over the rich variation and depth that these methods generate.

Qualitative data is subjective, and peoples’ views and perceptions can change, be contradictory, poorly expressed or based on faulty memory. Like any source of evidence, they should be triangulated with other sources and presented with their limitations made clear. This is where mixed methods come into their own, bringing the best of both qualitative and quantitative research to build our knowledge bit by bit.

Do consider whether qualitative methods can help in your next evaluation or research project. Be open to how this type of evidence can develop and challenge your assumptions, as well as how it can bring life and specificity to the data you gather – which reflects the real variation out there and in your work.

To stay connected, subscribe to our network and will give you a nudge when we add new content.

We respect your privacy. Please see our Privacy Policy
Scroll to Top