Introduction to qualitative methods

This text was first put up on our Swedish sister site. It has been revised many times since first appearing in
1998. This page will present an English revised version of the Swedish text. The work with this is still
under construction. However, the table of contents provides a hint of the coming content.

The four continents on the world map of philosophy of science (click to enlarge)

Qualitative methods does not use figures and numbers. Hence, they don’t use any kind of statistics. Qualitative methods are based on observations (empiricism) and use a holistic approach. Hence, it is better to use the term empiric-holistic paradigm (=empiric-holistic approach) rather than the ambiguous “qualitative methods” (see figure to the right). This is elaborated upon further down.

Research methods used within the empiric-holistic paradigm (“qualitative methods”) is more or less rooted in the philosophy of science. Hence, awareness of philosophy of science is considered more important when using qualitative methods compared to using statistics. Phenomenology and hermeneutics are example of methods with a strong link to philosophy of science. It might be worth mentioning that phenomenology and hermeneutics can refer both to an empiric-holistic method and to a specific philosophical orientation.

Common concepts

Let us start by explaining some words commonly used:

  • Epistemology is a major branch of philosophy, which, among other things, is about how we go when we develop new knowledge. Epistemology states there are four major types of paradigms.
  • Paradigm (=theoretical frame = perspective). The world map of philosophy of science (figure above) shows four major different paradigms. Paradigms are the  spectacles through which we see the world. Each paradigm embraces different methods that share the basic principles of this paradigm. The empiric-holistic paradigm, containing qualitative methods, is one of these four major different paradigms in philosophy of science.
  • Method (Analytical method). Multiple different methods are used within each paradigm. Within the empiric-atomistic paradigm we have lots of different statistical methods. This page provides an overview of the different methods we have within the empiric-holistic paradigm.
  • Data collection techniques (= data collection methods). To avoid confusion between “methods” I prefer to talk about “data collection techniques” rather than “data collection methods”.

Qualitative methods is an ambiguous concept

(Under construction)

More about why qualitative methods is an ambiguous concept - read only if you are really interested

The link between underpinning theory and empiric-holistic approaches

Research methods within the empiric-holistic (“qualitative”) paradigm has its roots more or less in philosophy, sociology and anthropology (se figure below). Phenomenology and hermeneutics are example of approached having a very strong link to philosophy of science and more specifically to the life world perspective first described by Edmund Husserl.

(* The figure above is adapted from Evelyn Hermansson at Gothenburg University, Sweden)

Some analytical methods have a strong link to underpinning theories while others have a less pronounced link and furthermore some, like content analysis, has almost no link. Hence, content analysis is often referred to as a method without underpinning theory.

Differences and similarities between methods

(Under construction)

Choosing the best approach – the chicken or the egg?

(Under construction)

Classification and overview of qualitative methods

(Under construction)

  1. Rationalistic-holistic approach (The lower left quadrant in the figure above. The reality is not observed.)
    (This is part of philosophical research and not directly an empiric-holistic approach. However, it is traditionally often used by researchers engaging in qualitative research.)

    1. Analysis of concepts (“What is the significance / meaning of the concept…?”)
  2. Empiric-holistic approach (The upper left quadrant in the figure above. The reality is observed.)
    1. Methods focusing on language and communication between humans.
      1. Content or process analysis (“What does the choice of words and the organization of the conversation tell us about this group of people?”)
      2. Ethnoscience (“What can be inferred about people’s world-view from their choice and use of words?”)
    2. Methods focusing on repeating events / themes / patterns in human life. These methods are looking for patterns describing the lives people live. They focus on human actions or the forms, patterns and structures forming daily life.
      1. Grounded theory (“What is the pattern describing what is happening…?”)
      2. Phenomenography (“What are the different ways to perceive…?”)
      3. Ethnography (“How do people in this culture perceive and manage…?”)
      4. Content analysis (What is the pattern emerging around…?)
      5. Critical research / Feminist Research (“What are the social phenomenons linked to…?)
      6. (Action research)
    3. Methods searching for meaning in peoples experiences or written texts. These methods have a life-world perspective trying to describe how people experience and interpret the world around them. They aim to acquire a deeper description, interpretation and understanding of peoples experiences.
      1. Hermeneutics (Allows interpretation to be incorporated into emerging patterns of meaning. Acknowledge and allows some degree of interpretation / subjectivity from the researcher.)
      2. Phenomenology (Does not allows interpretation to be incorporated into emerging patterns of meaning. Tries to be “objective”.)
      3. Content analysis (What is the pattern emerging around…?)
      4. Life stories

(Under construction)

You should cite this article if you use its information in other circumstances. An example of citing this article is:
Ronny Gunnarsson. Introduction to qualitative methods [in Science Network TV]. Available at: Accessed June 23, 2017.

Comments are closed.