Qualitative Research

The federal laws that IRBs use to protect research participants were written with biomedical research and more quantitative kinds of social science research (such as experiments) in mind, and are not particularly well-equipped to respond to certain kinds of qualitative research, especially fieldwork (also known as ethnographic research). The very definition of research provided by the Office of Human Research Protections, for example, focuses on generalizability, language that does not necessarily describe the goal of all qualitative research. (Qualitative research may provide insight into larger social patterns or provide detailed descriptions of a social group that could have applicability in a different social setting or be transferable to a different situation without necessarily being “generalizable” in the same way that, say, a biomedical finding would be.)

However, IRB laws do not exclude qualitative research from their coverage, and in fact some IRB language specifically includes research methods that can fall into qualitative categories, such as interviews or surveys. This IRB subpage discusses important differences between quantitative and qualitative research, comments briefly on one area of complexity for ethnographers in particular, and provides some suggestions for qualitative researchers (especially ethnographers) interacting with the IRB.

Qualitative research as discussed here is an approach to collecting information rather than a particular set of methods. Surveys, for example, may have both closed/ended (usually quantitative) and open-ended questions so it is not helpful to consider a survey either a quantitative or a qualitative research method, since it can be both. Similarly, interviews would be considered qualitative research when they are in-depth and open-ended in nature, but interviews can also function like surveys and focus on closed-ended questions.

As an approach to collecting information about people, qualitative research generally differs from quantitative research in the following ways:

  • Qualitative research tends to be inductive, meaning that ideas, explanations or theories emerge as information is gathered, and that those ideas, explanations or theories arise as a result of reflecting on the information. Quantitative research tends to be deductive, meaning that a hypothesis is designed and tested; the ideas, explanations or theories come before the information gathering and inform it. Where qualitative research is emergent, quantitative research is predictive. Surprises are often the most useful part of qualitative research in ways that they are not in quantitative research.
  • Qualitative research often involves extensive description of human actions and interactions with an intent to understand what people think they are doing and why, whereas quantitative research often measures behavior, beliefs, or other human phenomena in an attempt to find causal explanations.
  • Relationships are central to qualitative research in exactly the way that formal processes, instruments, and equipment are central to quantitative research. It is the relationship, the rapport between the researcher and the people participating in the research, that enables the researcher to collect useful information.
  • The notion of sampling can be quite different in the two kinds of research. Because qualitative research does not have the same generalizability goals as quantitative research, samples do not need to be large or representative and may not even be understood as “samples” from a larger “population” or “universe.” Qualitative research can lead to valuable findings about human beings and doings even when focused on a relatively small number of people representing all or part of a single community.
  • Qualitative research carried out using a grounded theory approach to theory-building eventually reaches a point of theoretical saturation, the point at which the researcher realizes that while she may be hearing new stories, she is no longer gaining new insights. Theoretical saturation is not defined by the number of people who participated in the study but by clarity on the researcher’s part that his questions have been answered sufficiently.

Ethnographic research in particular differs from quantitative research in some additional ways:

  • Ethnographic research studies people in their natural contexts and does not try to isolate them from those contexts or control those contexts, as quantitative research often does. Understanding the context is part of understanding the people in ethnographic research.
  • Because ethnographic research is naturalistic and holistic in the sense just described, it deals with the messy, sometimes informal, complexities of real lives and does not seek to simplify, control, formalize, or “clean up” those lives.
  • Ethnographic research makes sense of people and their ideas, values, actions, communities, and institutions from within their own situations and interpretations of those situations. (This is often, but not always, true of other kinds of qualitative research.)
  • In ethnographic research, the researcher is understood to be the “data collection instrument,” whereas in quantitative research the researcher uses data collection instruments (surveys, computers, etc.) Ethnographic research provides useful information about people when a researcher can use their direct personal experience in the field as a point of reflection and observation that leads them to more deeply or perceptively understand the social or cultural circumstance in which they find themselves. The point above about relationships being at the core of qualitative research in general may hold even more true for fieldwork.
  • Where quantitative research aims to provide an objective, value-neutral account of some aspect of humanity, ethnographic research is understood to be inherently subjective because the personhood of the researcher cannot help but inform the research and its findings. Two researchers studying the same community (even at the same time) might not come away with the same insights. This reality does not necessarily make either set of insights wrong or inaccurate.

These aspects of qualitative research and especially ethnography do not fit easily with either the laws or the cultures of IRBs, which have been designed to review standardized, structured research. Qualitative research is most successful when it is relationship-driven and can be fluid and flexible in its response to changing situations. In contrast, IRBs are rule-driven and therefore can be experienced as rigid and inflexible by qualitative researchers.

The IRB cares broadly about six ethical aspects of research with people:

  • The likelihood and magnitude of harm faced by people participating in research;
  • The capacity of research participants to consent to participate in the research, meaning that they must have the necessary information, be able to comprehend the information, and be free to choose either to participate or not to participate in the research;
  • Protecting people in vulnerable groups who may not be fully free or able to refuse to participate in research;
  • Deception used in research to collect information from people under incomplete or false pretenses;
  • The researcher’s ability to keep the participants’ identities confidential; and
  • The right of participants to privacy, or their own control over what information about them becomes public and in what contexts.

All forms of research must struggle with potential challenges to these ethical issues; quantitative research has more than enough history of ethical failures, which is why there are now IRBS in the first place. However, ethnography’s relationship-driven focus on the complexities of life lived in situ by people and communities can complicate some of these issues.

To take just one of the above categories, informed consent can become particularly delicate and challenging in some fieldwork situations in ways that do not hold for experiments, online surveys, or even in-depth interviews. Because ethnography involves insights, theories, and explanations developing emergently over time, it can be hard to say at the outset exactly what the researcher is trying to learn or what risks of harm the participants may face. Depending on the context, community or society, different people, or people in different roles, may be authorized to give consent – not just for themselves but for their families or communities. Even the assumption that participants understand what “research” is, means, or requires may not be equally appropriate for all fieldwork settings. The three main components of informed consent (information, comprehension, voluntariness) may turn out to look quite different depending on the context.

The current IRB Chair, Amanda Udis-Kessler, trained as a qualitative sociologist and has substantial experience with carrying out in-depth interview research and some experience with carrying out ethnographic research. Amanda offers qualitative researchers (and particularly ethnographers) the following suggestions for interacting with the IRB:

  • Use your commitment to relationship-driven research to build a relationship with the IRB. Ask questions early on, provide updates as projects change, and know that the IRB’s goal is to support your research while making sure that it stays within certain legal and ethical bounds. (For example, IRB laws permit waiving the documentation of informed consent in some circumstances; see if you can obtain such a waiver if appropriate to your situation.)
  • Know that the IRB cares about the same six issues (discussed above) as they arise in qualitative research while appreciating the ways in which those issues might look different and might require additional ethical commitments. For example, ethnographers can build part of their relational ethics around not making promises to the communities they study that they cannot legally keep, as well as around keeping the promises they do make. This ethical commitment can inform how ethnographers:
    • Address consent,
    • Prevent harm that would be caused or exacerbated by the research,
    • Determine what information will and will not be shared outside the community,
    • Protect those who are not fully able to refuse to participate, and
    • Avoid deceiving community members.
  • Frame the ethical commitments that you bring to the research (and share with the IRB) in ways that are nimble enough for the complexities of ethnography. The ethical underpinnings of IRB laws tend toward deontology, or duty-based ethics (though with a consequentialist element). Both deontological and consequentialist ethics focus on good or right actions (things done or avoided). For research in which ethical choices will be situationally driven, such as ethnography, virtue ethics become more important. It is as important for the researcher to be virtuous in certain regards (such as being trustworthy) as it is for them to have parameters about how they will and won’t behave. Consider using your IRB application to think out some of these issues and, if you are a student, consider setting up a meeting with the IRB Chair to discuss this topic.
Report an issue - Last updated: 04/28/2021