Iona, our newest 1+3 EDIT Lab student discusses what qualitative research is, why we need it and what we can we learn from it.
What is qualitative research?
In a world increasingly full of statistics, graphs and numbers, qualitative research provides a different way to understand our lives and the world around us. Quantitative research, including most of the research done in the EDIT lab, uses information that has been converted into numbers. This data is then analysed to understand relationships between variables. For example, if we wanted to investigate depression, we might ask participants to rate their symptoms on a scale from 1 to 10. Qualitative research, on the other hand, uses words, images, behavioural observations, or anything else non-numeric to understand how people experience a phenomenon or make sense of the world. In this case, we might investigate depression by asking participants to describe their experiences or symptoms.
Qualitative research rejects the idea that there is a single objective reality which contains a single truth, and instead aims to understand the social and psychological world through the individual perspectives of people across different contexts. Open-ended questions are used to collect rich, detailed data which is used to make context-specific interpretations about patterns and differences in people’s experiences. Flexibility is valued so that emerging themes can be explored further, and researcher subjectivity is embraced as a resource for interpretation.
So, whilst quantitative research can help us understand general patterns, averages and norms across a population, qualitative research can provide insight into what that really means for an individual or group of people in their everyday life.
Why are qualitative methodologies useful in mental health research?
Mental health problems are an inherently personal and subjective experience. Thoughts and feelings cannot be directly measured by someone else, which means that researchers rely on an individual’s ability to interpret and describe their own internal psychological experiences. Quantitative questionnaires are an excellent way to understand mental health in large samples, particularly when measuring prevalence or severity, but each respondent needs to match up their experiences to those presented to them in a predetermined list. Qualitative methods allow people to express their experiences in their own words, which creates space for different ways of understanding and describing mental health experiences. This could potentially inform future quantitative research which might collect information in using different words or phrases, or changes to the response options to better reflect people’s lived experiences.
Qualitative approaches are also useful for exploratory research. When there is little previous research to build on, understanding the relevant lived experiences of people with mental health problems can be a good starting point. Asking open-ended questions can generate unexpected themes and ideas, which can easily be investigated further due to the built-in flexibility and iteration of qualitative approaches.
Finally, qualitative research is a crucial tool for innovating and improving mental health interventions and services. The latest MRC-NIH guidelines go as far as saying that purely quantitative approaches are rarely adequate. Understanding patients’ perspectives on which aspects of an intervention or service worked (or didn’t work), and why, is incredibly useful. For example, such feedback can help to evaluate whether interventions deliver improvements in mental health in real-life contexts, above and beyond efficacy seen in randomised control trials.
Qualitative research can therefore help us understand what mental health really means to people and can provide insights which can guide future research questions and improvements in interventions or services.
What can quantitative researchers learn from qualitative research?
Qualitative researchers are encouraged to reflect on how their personal beliefs, experiences and values have influenced their decisions (a process known as reflexivity). In all types of research, our own beliefs can shape which questions we think are important, which groups of people we think should be studied, and the ways we interpret our results. By embracing researcher subjectivity and reflexivity, quantitative researchers can acknowledge and address the impact of their beliefs on their research. This may encourage more transparent and intentional decision-making and reduce researcher bias.
Additionally, quantitative and qualitative methods can be used at the same time in mixed methods designs. Mixed-methods research can benefit from the advantages of both approaches and examine common patterns arising from both qualitative and quantitative investigations. Working in this way also has the added of advantage of enabling researchers to build multidisciplinary skills.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. SAGE.
Jamieson, M. K., Govaart, G. H., & Pownall, M. (2022, February 23). Reflexivity in quantitative research: a rationale and beginner’s guide. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/xvrhm
Shorten, A., & Smith, J. (2017). Mixed methods research: Expanding the evidence base. Evidence-Based Nursing, 20(3), 74–75. https://doi.org/10.1136/eb-2017-102699
Skivington, K., Matthews, L., Simpson, S. A., Craig, P., Baird, J., Blazeby, J. M., Boyd, K. A., Craig, N., French, D. P., McIntosh, E., Petticrew, M., Rycroft-Malone, J., White, M., & Moore, L. (2021). A new framework for developing and evaluating complex interventions: Update of Medical Research Council guidance. BMJ, 374, n2061. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n2061