Throwing an eye over the definition provided by oxford dictionary will make easier to understand the meaning of the term qualitative method. The word “method” refers to “a particular procedure for accomplishing or approaching something, especially a systematic or established one”. On the other hand, if we claim the same source for the word qualitative it means “relating to, measuring, or measured by the quality of something rather than its quantity”.
In other words, a qualitative method is a particular procedure for approaching something systematically in order to measure it by the quality rather than the quantity. The mere definition of the term is usually made in opposition to “quantitative method” which essentially refers to a procedure to describe something regarding the size. But above all, a qualitative method is about text. The “closed-ended question” usually set in survey questionnaires are replace for “open-ended question” that ask the respondent to suply text responses.
It is important to add that the qualitative methods are originally rooted into social science, it is, psychology, economy, sociology, anthropology but also management science. Although social science´s approach was in its origin more akin to the quantitative method, several scientists noticed, since the end of the XIX century, the limitation of the quantitative approach to the study of human and social behavior. The central argument has been that the application of a survey and experiment research squemata does not take sufficiently into account the differences between human beings and the object from the natural sciences.
On the contrary, qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews or observation were considered more appropriate to understand the human behavior. Curiously, it was a polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski, who first applied, at the beginning of XX century, what is considered the oldest qualitative method: “participant observation“. By mean this method, he conducted several fieldworks in order to analyze patterns of exchange in aboriginal communities, mainly in Africa and Australia. He remains the hallmark of ethnographic research today.
Perhaps, quantitative approach is still dominant, but the truth is that the qualitative one has also experienced a great development up to date, giving room for many theoretical and empirical positions. Apart from participant observation, other methods as focus group, in-depth interviews and ethnography are an essential part of today´s social science and, specially, regarding market research industry.
Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited.
Mella, O. (1998). Naturaleza y orientaciones teórico-metodológicas de la investigación cualitativa. Santiago: CIDE, 51.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Oxford dictionaries http://oxforddictionaries.com/