Qualitative research is the ability to answer complex social questions by using inductive reasoning. The social sciences often utilize qualitative research to reasonably answer how or why human or societal actions or behaviors exist. Qualitative research is often supplemented or countered by quantitative research, which uses deductive, empirical research tools to find a scientific answer to a social or human action.
Qualitative research combines an array of focuses and objectives to research. Most qualitative research is descriptive and inductive in nature. Qualitative research assumes that the social world and human behavior has no fixed or observable measurement. Thus, rational descriptions of each social situation must be made in order to appreciate and answer research problems. This can best be seen when compared to the scientific method. The scientific method is utilized mostly in quantitative research, where a hypothesis is tested by experiments and observation. Unlike quantitative research or the scientific method, qualitative research entails collecting data and creating an explanation from that data.
The field of history is arguably an academic discipline which relies exclusively on qualitative research. However, the method of historical analysis is used for any discipline in the social sciences. Historians argue and postulate the reasons for certain events based upon researched evidence. This evidence is often from primary sources, such as interviews or government records. The historian then argues that Event A occurred because of several reasons or actions done by historical actors. Often, a historian can postulate future events based upon the dominant trends in history.
Participant observation is mostly seen in anthropological or cultural studies. Here, the qualitative research method includes the researcher working and living alongside the research subjects. For example, a researcher might want to study how inner city homeless teenagers live. In the study, a researcher might interview the teenagers daily or live in the shelters or environments that the teenagers rest and socialize in. This gives a researcher inside information on the daily life and thinking of a research subject.
Phenomenology is a philosophical study of experience. Phenomenology is used in the social sciences to see how people experience the same event or action in different ways. A popular example to elaborate on this point is a car accident. If you ask all witnesses to the car accident what happened, the results and explanations may be different. Phenomenological studies help researchers see how many people from across different backgrounds view and experience the world around them.