Section 6.1: Qualitative and Historical Research

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When we talk about research, we’re really talking about a way to answer questions. You’ve probably heard about experiments, surveys, and maybe even something called “quantitative research.” But there’s another type that’s super important, and it’s called “qualitative research.”

What is Qualitative Research?

So, what’s the deal with qualitative research? It’s a way for researchers to explore and understand the meaning behind certain behaviors, emotions, and interactions. Unlike quantitative research, which focuses on numbers and statistics (like how many people prefer video games to sports), qualitative research is all about descriptions and experiences (like why people prefer video games to sports).

Some people might think that qualitative research is not as serious or tough as quantitative research, but that’s not true! It’s just as challenging and valuable—it’s just looking for different types of answers to different types of questions.

Why Some People Get Confused

You might wonder why there’s confusion about qualitative research. Well, it’s often because it’s not about counting or measuring things in a traditional way. Some researchers who love numbers might not see the full value of studying people’s stories or experiences. They might see it as a “catchall” category, which is a bit unfair.

How is Historical Research Different?

Historical research is like a cousin to qualitative research. It has been around for ages and has its own way of looking at the past to answer questions. Some might argue that it’s a special kind of qualitative research because it also looks at stories and not just numbers.

The Mindset of Researchers

Imagine a researcher as a detective. A quantitative researcher is like a detective who has a specific idea of who the culprit in a mystery might be. They’re trying to see if the clues match their guess. They start with a theory and then look at the real world to see if things add up.

On the other hand, a qualitative researcher is like a detective who comes to the scene with an open mind. They look around, gather information, and let the clues lead them to conclusions.

So, both types of research are like detectives working in different ways to solve mysteries—quantitative researchers test their guesses against the world, and qualitative researchers let the world reveal its own story.

Quantitative Strategy

Develop Theory  Deduce Falsifiable Hypotheses Observe Reality

Qualitative Strategy

Observe Reality Induce Generalizations  Develop Theory

Historical Research

Historical research isn’t just about memorizing dates and names. It’s like being a time detective, trying to really understand what happened in the past and why. Good historical research digs deep—it’s about figuring out how past societies worked and what made people tick.

Theories and Evidence in History

Historians are a bit like scientists. They have theories and hypotheses about the past. They use evidence, like letters, photos, and other records, to build their cases and test their ideas. It’s not all about storytelling; there’s a lot of careful thinking and analyzing that goes into it.

Why Historical Research Matters

Think about the issues we face today, like the relationships between communities and the police. By looking back at events like the Civil Rights Movement, we can learn lessons that help us understand and maybe even solve problems today. History isn’t just old news—it’s a guide to the present and the future.

Steps of the Historical Detective

The way historians work isn’t too different from other researchers. They start by pinpointing what they want to find out. Then they form a hypothesis—a smart guess about their question. After that, it’s all about gathering data, analyzing it, and seeing if their guess holds up. They’re not just repeating what’s already known; they’re uncovering new insights and truths.

The Challenge of Being Objective

Here’s a tricky part: Historians have to be really careful not to let their personal feelings color their work. They need to look at all the evidence, even if it goes against what they believe or feel. Their goal is to find the most truthful explanation of the past, not just to tell a compelling story.

The Limitations of Historical Data

Historians face a unique challenge—they can’t make new data. They’re stuck with whatever evidence has survived over time. This can make some questions hard, or even impossible, to answer. If a student is researching history, they need to be careful not to bite off more than they can chew and to make sure there’s enough evidence out there.

The Hunt for Information

Unlike other researchers, historians don’t just look at recent journal articles. They dive into all kinds of records—diaries, letters, old receipts, you name it. And sometimes, they have to go on real-life adventures, traveling to far-off places just to find that one piece of the puzzle.

The Power of Primary Sources

In historical research, firsthand accounts are like gold. These primary sources are the most direct peek into the past we can get. Secondary sources, like textbooks, are useful, but they’re a step removed from the action. Historians always aim for those primary sources first for the most accurate picture.

Verifying the Facts

Historians also have to be super detectives when it comes to figuring out if a document is legit. They ask: Was the author really there? How long after the event was this written? And, big one, was the author biased? All these questions help them determine if their sources are trustworthy.

Crafting the Story

Finally, historians have to take all this data and tell the story of the past in a way that’s true to what they’ve found. It’s not about creating a nice tale; it’s about making sense of the evidence and sharing those discoveries with others. They take all those facts and build a narrative that teaches us something new.

🔍 Reflect: Why do you think it’s crucial for historians to be objective in their research? How might their personal feelings or biases affect the way they interpret historical data?


Qualitative Research

Narrative Data: The Storytelling of Science

Qualitative research is the art of uncovering the rich, complex stories behind human behavior and social phenomena. Instead of crunching numbers, qualitative researchers listen to people’s stories and observe their behaviors in real life—right where they happen.

Natural Settings: The Real-World Laboratory

The world is the qualitative researcher’s lab. They dive into the natural environments where life’s drama unfolds, rather than observing from the artificial confines of a lab. This hands-on approach is why some people use terms like ‘field research’ or ‘naturalistic research’ interchangeably with qualitative research.

Culture Explorers: The Ethnographers

In their quest to understand cultures, qualitative researchers often wear the hat of ethnographers, immersing themselves in the day-to-day lives of the people they study. Depending on who’s doing the research, you might hear different names for this work, but they’re all about getting to the heart of human experiences.

Shifting Tides: From Numbers to Narratives

Once upon a time, social scientists wanted to be just like the “hard science” folks—measuring everything with numbers to keep it objective. But there’s been a revolution. More and more researchers argue that the rich tapestry of human life can’t be captured by numbers alone. These scholars are making a strong case for the power of words and observations to fill in the picture.

The Holistic Approach: Seeing the Big Picture

For qualitative researchers, it’s all about the big picture. They believe you can’t understand human behavior by looking at pieces in isolation. Instead, they see social events as part of larger systems—like a giant puzzle they’re trying to solve, piece by piece.

Building Theories: The Creative Side of Research

While numbers are great for testing theories, stories and observations are where new theories begin. Qualitative research is a breeding ground for new ideas about how societies work because it takes a deep dive into the complex ways people interact with each other and their environments.

Tools of the Trade: The Qualitative Toolkit

To get the full story, qualitative researchers have a whole toolbox of methods at their disposal. They might join the community they’re studying, watching and learning from the inside. They might have long, detailed chats with people to get their perspectives. And they often dig into letters, photos, and any other documents that can give them insights.

🔍 Reflect: Bold What are some challenges you think qualitative researchers might face when trying to maintain objectivity? How might their presence in the natural environment of their subjects influence the data they collect?

Deciphering the Logic of Qualitative Research

Deductive Reasoning: The “Top Down” Approach

Quantitative research often follows a deductive path. This approach is like constructing a building from the blueprint down to the bricks. Researchers start with a broad theory and narrow it down to specific hypotheses, which they then test with data. It’s a logical staircase from the general principles down to specific instances.

Deductive Logic in Steps:

  1. Theory Specification: Select a theory as a starting point.
  2. Hypothesis Generation: Make predictions based on the theory.
  3. Data Collection: Gather evidence to test these predictions.
  4. Confirmation/Refutation: See if the real-world data matches the theory.

Inductive Reasoning: The “Bottom Up” Approach

Qualitative research flips the script, embracing an inductive strategy. Picture a sculptor carving a statue from a block of marble, finding the form as they go. Researchers immerse themselves in the details—specific behaviors or events—and from these observations, they extract broader patterns, categories, and ultimately theories. This method is more exploratory, more like a journey from the specific to the general.

Inductive Logic in Steps:

  1. Data Collection: Dive into the social world and gather observations.
  2. Pattern Identification: Look for recurring themes and categories.
  3. Theoretical Development: Formulate a general theory based on these patterns.
  4. Grounded Theory Formation: Develop a theory that’s rooted in observed data.

Descriptive and Theoretical Qualitative Research

While some qualitative research is content to simply paint a picture of the social landscape, other studies aim higher, seeking to construct new theories. These theories are termed grounded theory because they’re firmly planted in the reality observed by the researcher.

The Interplay of Questions and Logic

The specificity of questions a researcher asks is influenced by the research approach. Quantitative research often has very pointed, precise questions, while qualitative research deals with broader, more open-ended inquiries. The choice between these methods depends on the depth of understanding currently available about a subject.

Choosing the Path: Specificity vs. Exploration

If a research question is vast and the existing theory is like an unfinished map, qualitative research steps in to chart the unknown territories. Without enough detail for sharp hypotheses, qualitative researchers opt for a broad lens to capture more of the landscape.

🔍 Reflect: Bold Consider the research approach best suited to a study on the effects of social media on teenage communication skills. Would you start with a hypothesis based on existing theory (deductive), or would you observe and then form a theory (inductive)? How would your approach influence the depth and direction of your research?

Qualitative vs. Quantitative


Gain insight into a social phenomenon through the intensive collection of narrative data. To explain, predict, and control social phenomenon through the systematic collection of numerical data.


Inductive, subjective, holistic, process-oriented Deductive, objective, focused, outcome-oriented

Hypothesis Characteristics

Evolving and based on study data. Based on theory and stated prior to data collection.

Review of Related Literature

Somewhat limited; does not affect study outcomes much. Expansive; significantly effects the study outcomes.


Uncontrolled; As close as possible to the natural environment where the phenomenon normally takes place. Controlled as much as possible; A laboratory is the ultimate way to control “environmental” variables.

Data Collection Characteristics

Nonstandardized, narrative, and ongoing. Standardized, numerical, all at once.

Data Collection Methods

Informal interviews, field notes, participant observation, document collection Nonparticipant observation, formal interviews, tests, scales, questionnaires


Purposive and small; the goal is depth of understanding. Systematic and large; the goal is generalizability.


Flexible and unspecified; uses historical, ethnographic, and case study methods. Inflexible and rigid; specified in advance of data collection.  Uses descriptive, correlational, causal-comparative, and experimental methods.

Data Analysis

Words; involves analysis and synthesis of ideas Numbers; involves statistical analysis of measurements and evaluation of numerical relationships

Data Interpretation

Context is important and generalizations are very tentative. Generalizations are important and specified within a predetermined mathematical probability.

Understanding the Synthesis of Data in Research

The Quantitative Data Symphony

In the realm of quantitative research, data synthesis is like a classical music score — precise, structured, and composed using the mathematical notes of descriptive statistics to organize data, and inferential statistics to confirm or reject hypotheses. The end product? A suite of neat, accessible tables summarizing a multitude of data points like a well-orchestrated symphony.

The Qualitative Data Mosaic

On the flip side, qualitative research resembles a vast mosaic. Each piece of data — or in this case, words — is like a unique tile. The researcher’s task? To arrange these tiles to form coherent patterns and themes. The process is intricate and sometimes overwhelming, leading to the inevitable question: “What do I do with all of these words?”

The Craft of Trends, Patterns, and Categories

The qualitative researcher’s strategy is akin to an artist searching for form within chaos. They meticulously look for trends (recurring themes), patterns (relationships and structures), and categories (classifications). These are the strokes that paint the bigger picture of the data narrative.

Literature Review vs. Qualitative Data Analysis

The process bears resemblance to conducting a literature review. Yet, there’s a crucial distinction — the synthesis focus. A literature review compiles scholarly writings, creating a foundation of what’s known. Qualitative data analysis, however, involves interpreting raw data to forge new understanding.

The Role of Technology

In modern qualitative research, computer software has become the researcher’s right hand. These digital tools assist in sorting, categorizing, and organizing narrative data, allowing for a more systematic approach to understanding the nuanced stories within the data.

🔍 Reflect: Imagine you’ve gathered a multitude of interviews on personal experiences during a historical event. How might software aid in finding commonalities or unique perspectives? Would the digital organization of narratives shape the insights you derive, and if so, how?


Understanding Qualitative Research

Qualitative research seeks to understand the ‘why’ behind human behaviors, experiences, and emotions, rather than focusing on ‘how many’ as seen in quantitative research. It’s a valuable, in-depth approach often misunderstood due to its descriptive nature, contrasting with the numerical focus of quantitative studies. Researchers in this field act like open-minded detectives, gathering narrative data and observing reality to develop new theories.

The Essence of Historical Research

Historical research delves into understanding past events to inform the present and future. Historians work like scientists, forming hypotheses and scrutinizing evidence like letters and photos to reveal new insights. Objectivity is crucial in historical research to avoid bias, and the reliance on surviving evidence poses unique challenges for historians who often seek out primary sources to reconstruct the past accurately.

Decoding Research Methodologies

The qualitative research methodology adopts an inductive approach, starting from specific observations and building up to general theories. This ‘bottom-up’ strategy contrasts with the ‘top-down’ deductive reasoning of quantitative research that begins with a general theory and narrows down to specific hypotheses.

The Interplay Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research

The comparison between qualitative and quantitative research highlights their distinct paths: the former is inductive, subjective, and holistic, while the latter is deductive, objective, and focused. The selection of a research method deeply influences the specificity and exploration depth of a study, with qualitative research favoring a broader lens for exploration.

Synthesizing Qualitative Data

Qualitative data analysis is likened to creating a mosaic, where each piece of narrative information is arranged to form a comprehensive pattern, revealing the overarching themes of the research. This artistic arrangement of data showcases the uniqueness of qualitative research, emphasizing context and tentative generalizations.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  11/06/2023

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