Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

How to read a paper: Papers that go beyond numbers (qualitative research)

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 September 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:740
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, senior lecturera (⇑,
  2. Rod Taylor, senior lecturerb
  1. a Unit for Evidence-Based Practice and Policy, Department of Primary Care and Population Sciences, University College London Medical School/Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, Whittington Hospital, London N19 5NF
  2. b Exeter and Devon Research and Development Support Unit, Postgraduate Medical School, Wonford, Exeter EX2 5EQ
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Greenhalgh

What is qualitative research?

Epidemiologist Nick Black has argued that a finding or a result is more likely to be accepted as a fact if it is quantified (expressed in numbers) than if it is not.1 There is little or no scientific evidence, for example, to support the well known “facts” that one couple in 10 is infertile, or that one man in 10 is homosexual. Yet, observes Black, most of us are happy to accept uncritically such simplified, reductionist, and blatantly incorrect statements so long as they contain at least one number.

Researchers who use qualitative methods seek a deeper truth. They aim to “study things in their natural setting, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them,”2 and they use “a holistic perspective which preserves the complexities of human behaviour.”1

Summary points

Qualitative methods aim to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them

Qualitative research may define preliminary questions which can then be addressed in quantitative studies

A good qualitative study will address a clinical problem through a clearly formulated question and using more than one research method (triangulation)

Analysis of qualitative data can and should be done using explicit, systematic, and reproducible methods

Questions such as “How many parents would consult their general practitioner when their child has a mild temperature?” or “What proportion of smokers have tried to give up?” clearly need answering through quantitative methods. But questions like “Why do parents worry so much about their children's temperature?” and “What stops people giving up smoking?” cannot and should not be answered by leaping in and measuring the first aspect of the problem that we (the outsiders) think might be important. Rather, we need to listen to what people have to say, …

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