Sociological qualitative methods
Social reality “from the native’s point of view”
Superficial observation is often tempted to reduce the main difference between qualitative and quantitative sociological methods to their capacity of quantifying social reality by covering smaller or larger segments of the population. However, the specificity of the qualitative methods does not stem from and is not limited to such technical details. The major differentiation is the epistemological character which derives from the embeddedness of qualitative methods into the inductive, rather than to the deductive paradigm of empirical research.
Qualitative methods are grounded in the post-positivist approach to social reality, building on the assumption that layers of reality cannot be fully understood without exploring the individual and collective meanings attached to them by social actors. Weber’s conception of verstehen, Geertz’ interpretive approach, the phenomenological school, as well as the grounded theory inform the epistemological stance of qualitative sociological inquiries. Instead of searching for universal laws of society, social scientists relying on qualitative methods aim at revealing both the meanings of reality and the collective process of negotiating and constructing these complex sets of meanings.
While quantitative endeavours are situated on the structural levels of society, qualitative studies focus on individual and collective actions, as well, as on the interpretations of these actions. Nevertheless, the individualist paradigm does not question the social character of people’s behaviours. On the contrary, the micro perspective makes it possible to reveal the complex processes of contributing to, being determined by and challenging social structures at the same time. The emic perspective that characterises most qualitative social investigations refers to their commitment to describe and understand social actors within their local contexts and cultures, building on their own, ‘insider’ concepts.
At HETFA we use a wide range of qualitative methods: structured, semi-structured and in-depth interviews, focus-group interviews, (participant) observation, discourse analysis, as well as several forms of participatory methods (e.g. foresight scenarios). So far, in most cases qualitative studies were either meant to complement survey data or they constituted the core empirical endeavours of case studies or evaluative projects. As a rule, the individual level perspective was crucial to understand the meanings, the motivations and the micro level effects of larger scale social phenomena.