Qualitative research is a broad term that refers to research methods most commonly used in fields such as sociology, anthropology, ethnography and other human and social sciences. Though qualitative studies do produce compelling research, the qualitative approach is not without its limitations.
Perhaps the strongest objection to qualitative research is that the quality of the research depends too greatly on the individual researcher. Because the researcher designs the type of questions she will ask, she can inadvertently influence the results due to her own personal beliefs. For example, in a 2011 New York Times science article, John Tierney reports on the research of Jonathan Haidt, who identifies implicit political biases of professional researchers working in the field of social psychology that become what Haidt calls “sacred values.” These values exert influence on how researchers in social psychology conduct and report on their qualitative research. One way to work against built-in bias is to recognize it in your research report.
Challenge to Repeat
Because qualitative research is so inextricably entwined with the individual researcher, it is extremely challenging for other researchers to repeat qualitative studies. This makes it hard to confirm or deny the results of the original study. For example, in the field of education, one of the challenges of repeating qualitative study is that different elements of the original study can’t be repeated; the teachers and students will all be different, as will the school and classroom environment, the methods of teaching and the styles of learning. One way educational researchers work to overcome the challenge of repeatability is to distinguish, in their reports, between repeatable practices and the nonrepeatable results that emerged from those practices.
Perceived Lack of Rigor
Quantitative research can demonstrate rigor by including a wide variety of numerical and statistical data, while the rigor of qualitative research is harder to demonstrate because it often involves the qualitative analysis of qualitative data. For example, in literary studies, researchers apply interpretive models to texts such as poems or novels. A literary researcher can apply a wide variety of interpretive models and can apply a single interpretive model in multiple ways to a variety of texts. Therefore, it’s difficult to generate a unifying set of criteria for determining whether that researcher’s work is truly rigorous. One way researchers fight against this perceived lack of rigor is to generate sets of criteria against which the rigor of field-specific qualitative research can and should be judged.
When the researcher is applying qualitative models of analysis to qualitative or numerical data, the research process can be long and tedious because the researcher must carefully pore over the data in detail while she crafts her analysis. For example, to write a comprehensive historical account, a historian must examine hundreds of primary historical records and secondary historical accounts. Even after spending all this time and energy examining records and accounts, the historian has no guarantee that she has covered everything. One way to compensate for the time-consuming problem of qualitative research is to promote qualitative research projects, such as writing historical accounts, as team based or collaborative.