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Use and purpose of qualitative methods in psychology

Qualitative research has been defined as "the interpretative study of a specified issue or problem in which the researcher is central to the sense that is made" (Parker, 1999, p.2). It transports the psychology researcher away from quantitative, numerical approaches of cause and effect towards an understanding of subjective experience (Howitt, 2010). Indeed, it has been argued that lived experiences cannot be quantified and that to understand the experience of an individual or population, the underlying context and meaning that accompanies subjective experiences needs to be explored (Clark, 2010).

There are a number of qualitative research methods available to psychology researchers, with their ultimate aim being to illuminate social and psychological phenomenon in the natural setting. The appropriate qualitative research method to adopt depends on the research question, with the most frequently utilised including grounded theory, discourse analysis, ethnography, and phenomenology, among others Each of these will be critiqued in order to illustrate the use and purpose of qualitative methods in psychology.

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Grounded Theory is a bottom-up method of conducting research, focusing on the interpretive process by analysing "the actual production of meanings and concepts used by social actors in real settings" (Gephart, 2004, p.457). The developers of Grounded Theory, Glaser and Strauss (1967), posited that new theory could be developed by comparing "the daily realities (what is actually going on) of substantive areas" (p.239) with the interpretations made by individuals within those realities. Thus, the focus of Grounded Theory is on developing hypotheses and theory from such data. A system of analysis is used by the researcher that provides a framework for systematically examining the data and creating 'codes' for key concepts, categories, and themes. The idea is that the researcher enters the analysis with no preconceptions of categories or theories, as well as no hypotheses. In other words, the developed theory has been 'grounded' in the data. It has been termed the 'paradigm of choice' among many qualitative researchers (Miller and Fredericks, 1999) as it is more popular than any other form of qualitative research method amongst health professionals (Morse 2008).

In contrast to other methodologies, which traditionally analyse data at the end of data collection, Grounded Theory involves continuous and simultaneous data collection and analysis in the search of theory. A constant process of comparison is involved in Grounded Theory, with comparisons between data and established knowledge developing theory. Questions of the data are asked and tested to make links with established knowledge (Goulding, 1999).

The strength within Grounded Theory is the accumulation of original and unique findings, as well as the generation of hypotheses. However, this strength has also gained critique, with some believing that the method elicits the obvious patterns within a dataset, whilst missing the subtle, contextual details underlying individual narratives and social interactions (Layder, 1993). Layder also argues that 'grounding' theory places limitations on the data, as does categorising and coding data. This has been likened to 'forcing' data into categories, which arguably diminishes the original qualities of the narrative (Thomas and James, 2006).

Grounded Theory has also been criticised for claiming objectivity, with some arguing that it is impossible to enter research with no preconceptions or expectations (Thomas and James, 2006). Qualitative research is largely about interpretative enquiry and yet much of the criticism directed towards Grounded Theory is that it places restrictions on the interpretation of data. Nevertheless, in terms of the use and purpose of Grounded Theory in psychology, its widespread appeal comes from allowing the researcher to become immersed in the data in a way that provides detailed insight into psychological phenomenon. The method has also been praised for its dedication to transparency and rigour (Suddaby, 2006).

Discourse Analysis

Discourse Analysis is the exploration of language and the meanings and intentions that are independent of the speaker or writer. Researchers who utilise this method approach the social world as a text, or a system of texts which can be 'read' by in order to explore the psychological processes that lie within the text (Parker, 1999). As highlighted by MacLure, 2003), "analysing texts involves much more than attending to whatever is 'in' those texts . . . The point . . . is not to get the text to lay bare its meanings (or its prejudices), but to trace some of the threads that connect that text to others" (p.43).

Researchers who utilise this method of analysis examine conversations, documents, videos, and many other textual formats, under the premise that language is not simply a neutral means of describing the world, but that discourse is about constructing the social world. By selecting fragments, or quotes, from transcribed texts that are concerned with the topic under investigation, relevant themes can be identified and examined in terms of how ideas, thoughts, feelings, and subjective experiences are 'constructed.' Consistency and inconsistency within the transcript, as well as an interpretation of the potential implications of the discourse can illuminate the phenomena under investigation and increase understanding of a particular topic. The data is not generalisable, but this is an accepted limitation of the method, with discourse being perceived as designed for the particular context in which it was elicited (Gill, 2000).

One of the implications of this research method is the potential bias evident in transcribing taped discourse. It has been argued that the same interaction can be transcribed and interpreted differently depending on the theoretical approach taken by the researcher (Ochs, 1979). It is also questionable whether non-verbal language, such as body language, eye contact, and facial expression, can be captured through text. Furthermore, if interview or focus group data is used, the research setting will inevitably alter discourses. Therefore, it has been suggested that Discourse Analysis requires reflexivity by the researcher, whereby they remain aware of their own influence over the research process and outcome (Edwards, 1992).

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In terms of the use and purpose of Discourse Analysis in psychology, despite the critique of the method, its key strength is that it can reveal previously unacknowledged aspects of human behaviour. This makes it a particularly advantageous technique within social psychology. In particular, it has been used for empowering marginalised groups by enabling their discourses to be explored (Morgan, 2010).


Ethnography requires that the researcher merge within the social context of the individual or group under investigation in order to accurately interpret subjective experiences (Mitra, 2010). The purpose is to uncover social or normative patterns via overt or covert observation, in combination with other forms of data collection such as interviews. A key strength of adopting an ethnographic approach is that it uses a variety of methods for data collection, including observation, group work, and interviews (Creswell, 2007). This enhances the reliability of findings through a process of methodological triangulation (Casey and Murphy, 2009). It also provides insight into real-time processes as they emerge over time, increasing ecological validity (Evans and Lambert, 2008). On the other hand, it could be argued that the subjectivity of the researcher's interpretation of the data reduces the internal and external validity of findings. It is also a time-consuming approach and challenging in terms of gaining access to such situations.

Ethnography also poses an array of ethical dilemmas, which Fine (2009) has placed into three 'conceptual clusters.' Classic virtues are the concealment of research goals in order to increase the acceptance of the researcher within the group. Technical skills refer to selective observations and note taking, as well as human error in misunderstanding some of the observations being documented. Finally, the Ethnographic Self refers to the potential inaccuracy of the acquired data since claims of objectivity and the reporting of facts are questionable; arguably, the researcher cannot enter the studied environment free from preconceptions. These ethical dilemmas can deter researchers from adopting this approach, however, the method does have a valid use and purpose within psychology. In particular, ethnography provides the researcher with an opportunity to explore the phenomenological complexity of social processes, so that associations and differences can be observed as and how they unfold (Adler and Adler, 1994). It is a useful method for documenting routine daily lives, exploring cultural groups, and making visible the lives of those not normally shown (Fetterman, 1998).


The phenomenological approach was designed specifically to explore the 'lived experiences' of individuals and communities. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) in particular aims to explore the processes through which individuals make sense of their experiences (Chapman and Smith, 2002; Smith et al., 1997). It is concerned with the meanings those experiences hold for individuals and groups and thus aims to explore personal perceptions as opposed to attempting to produce an objective account. While trying to gain insight into personal worlds, IPA acknowledges that this cannot be directly achieved and that access is dependent on the researcher's own thoughts throughout the interpretative process; reflexivity is a key component of IPA.

Semi-structured interviews, which have been described as the 'gold standard' data collection tool in IPA (Smith and Osborn, 2003), are analysed systematically, with interesting or significant data being noted and any themes identified and labelled. Emerging themes are organised into super-ordinate (i.e. prominent) and subordinate (i.e. less prominent) themes, along with supporting quotations from the transcript (Biggerstaff and Thompson, 2008). The identification of recurrent themes across transcripts enables some generalisations to be made.

Whilst this method of analysis is rigorous and systematic, it is also extremely time-consuming. Hence, studies utilising IPA tend to comprise small purposive samples (Smith and Osborn, 2003). In this respect, IPA differs from other qualitative methodologies, such as Grounded Theory, as the aim is to select participants in order to clarify a particular research question, and to develop a full interpretation of the data (Touroni and Coyle, 2002). Furthermore, while IPA is an inductive approach, with no hypothesis, it does not purport to enter the research with no preconceptions. Although bias cannot be eliminated, researchers utilising this method have a number of strategies for reducing bias. Cross-validation of identified themes post-interview via correspondence with interviewees to confirm their satisfaction with any interpretations is one such strategy. The term 'interpretative phenomenological analysis' is thus used to demonstrate the joint contributions of both the participant and the researcher in the creation of the final narrative (Osborn and Smith, 1998).

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In terms of the use and purpose of IPA in psychology, it is advocated for examining previously unexplored phenomenon that lacks a theoretical basis (Reid, Flowers, and Larkin, 2005). Furthermore, the emphasis on sense-making by both participant and researcher indicates a focus on cognition and a theoretical agreement with cognitive psychology (Smith and Osborn, 2007). It can also be utilised within clinical psychology due to its focus on mental processes (Fiske and Taylor, 1991).


Qualitative research methods are primarily open-ended and exploratory, designed to create hypotheses rather than test them. Their value lies in the examination of social and psychological phenomenon in the natural setting. The benefits of this approach are that examining phenomena in context enhances the identification of meanings, processes, and relationships that might be fundamental in understanding the concept being explored. It also allows richer data that captures real life experiences. There are, indeed, a number of limitations in the qualitative approach, in particular that it lacks the rigour of quantitative methodology. Nevertheless, without a qualitative component to the discipline of psychology, the field would remain restricted to information on cause and effect and be lacking that which is the very essence of psychology - the human experience.

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