Section 6.1: Qualitative and Historical Research | Research

Fundamentals of Social Research

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

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For most of this text, only passing mention has been made of qualitative research.  Perusing the social science journals for the past couple of decades may convince the student that all serious research is quantitative and that qualitative research is “research light.”  When well executed, qualitative research is every bit as valuable as quantitative research, and may even be more difficult to conduct. Qualitative research is not easier than quantitative research; it is a different set of methods that allow the researcher to seek answers to different sorts of questions.

Perhaps the reason that students have trouble grasping exactly what qualitative research entails is the fact that quantitative researchers tend to call it a “catchall” category.  That is, the term does not describe a specific set of rigid statistical methods like most of the other research methodologies that have been discussed so far. Researchers steeped in the traditions of quantification often see little value in qualitative research.  This is unfortunate and has potentially stifled some great research idea over the years.

Because the research methods used by historians are much older and follow a different path from the qualitative researcher in the social scientists, we consider historical research separately.  This is not always the case; good arguments can be made that historical research is a specific type of qualitative research. A major difference between the qualitative researcher and the quantities researcher is one of mindset.

The quantitative researcher ponders:  How well do happenings in the real world match up to how I think they happen?  That preexisting notion of how things work is usually guided by some theory or theoretical perspective.  The qualitative research wonders: How do things happen in the real world? Most often, the quantitative research begins with a theory and then seeks to test that theory against reality in a deductive process.  Qualitative researchers start with observations from which conclusions and theories are induced. Thus, we can conceptualize the process of going in opposite directions:

Quantitative Strategy

Develop Theory  Deduce Falsifiable Hypotheses Observe Reality

Qualitative Strategy

Observe Reality Induce Generalizations  Develop Theory

Historical Research

Historical research seeks to understand the past.  Good historical research seeks to go beyond merely listing dates and facts.  It seeks to understand the dynamics of society. Historical research, like other social scientific research, is driven by theories and hypotheses.  Historians use historical evidence as the building blocks to develop theories that explain historical events and patterns. These theories lead to specific hypotheses, which can be evaluated against still further historical evidence.  Historians tend to rely on qualitative methods, but quantification in historical research is not exceedingly rare.

Historical research is the systematic collection and evaluation of data related to past events in order to discover trends and themes that may help explain current events or anticipates future events.

Many practices aimed at fixing social problems are best understood from a historical perspective.  While historical research often precludes the use of the controls that the experimentalist may employ, historians are still very concerned with systematic data collection and analysis.  Issues of racial tension between police and communities, for example, are nothing new. The racial strife of the Civil Rights Revolution of the Warren Court era can provide insight into today’s problems.  In this example, the lesson of history is that procedural mandates by the courts are insufficient to end the problem.

The steps taken by the historical researcher are not that far removed from the methods of the quantitative researcher.  First, the nature of the problem must be specified. The researcher then moves from a research question to a hypothesis concerning the problem.  Data are systematically collected, and then carefully evaluated. Finally, the historian synthesizes these findings in light of the hypothesis. It is worthy of note that the purpose of historical research is to explain, not merely rehash what is already known.  Just as with other methods of social scientific research, the historical researcher strives for objectivity. Historical evidence is often proffered to support a value position held by the writer. This method may be compelling in a persuasive narrative, but it does not constitute true historical research. 

True historical research requires that all relevant data be considered, and the researcher’s conclusions should be the ones that agree most closely with that data.  This suggests that historical researchers avoid topics that they have strong feelings about; it is very difficult to maintain objectivity when emotionally engaged in the subject matter.  As with other types of research, the basic purpose of historical research is the creation of new knowledge. The correction, clarification, and expansion of existing knowledge are also worthy objectives.

History is rather unique in the field of social research methodologies in that new data cannot be generated.  Historians are always limited by existing data. This results in a situation where some very intriguing questions cannot adequately be answered by the researcher.  For the student undertaking a research project, both overbreadth of the research question and lack of sufficient data can be major impediments.

In other types of research studies, a literature review is often followed up by some data gathering procedure—something is measured.  In historical research, reviewing the related literature and the data gathering process are part of the same procedure. In historical research, the idea of “the literature” takes on a much broader meaning.  Historians are prone to use any source of information, and will not rely strictly on journal articles. Because any sort of written record may be useful to the researcher, no index exists. Students may mistakenly believe that historical research is somehow easier than quantitative research because it does not involve large amounts of numerical data or complex statistical procedures.  This is far from the truth.

Historical research can be among the most challenging ways of answering questions; the researcher must be a master detective to find relevant data.  Legal documents, handwritten letters, receipts, business records, and personal journals are just a few examples of documents that may contain valuable historical information.  Often this information exists as one of a kind documents, stored in distant libraries and archives. It is not at all uncommon for a historian to travel to different countries to find relevant documents.

When an event under study happened in the recent past, historical researchers can turn to personal interviews with those who lived through the era in question.  Such interviews can be problematic; people may only have been peripherally involved in the incident, may not remember the details of the incident, or may not recall the incident altogether.

As with researchers from the other traditions we have discussed, historical researchers differentiate between primary and secondary sources of information.  Primary sources consist of “first hand” information, such as documents and reports prepared by observers and participants in events. Civil War historians, for example, often cite letters soldiers wrote home during the conflict.  Secondary sources are reference materials such as history texts, encyclopedia articles, and other accounts prepared by those who were not directly involved in the event under study. The rule is to use primary sources whenever possible.  The further removed the text is from an event, the less accurate and complete the data is likely to be.  A common criticism of published historical research is that there is an overreliance on secondary sources.  Although primary sources are to be preferred, it is true that the farther you go back in time, the more likely you are to have to rely on secondary accounts of events.

A major element of historical research is assessing the accuracy of documents.  This process is very similar to the one we used earlier to assess whether a particular source is scholarly or not.  The first step is to consider the knowledge and competence of the author. Was this person in the right time and the right place and of the right disposition to provide an accurate account of events?  A second consideration is the amount of time that passed between the event and when the event was recorded. An account of a police officer written 40 years after the integration of a southern school in the 1960s is not as likely to be as accurate as a letter written by an officer the evening the event took place.

A third factor is one we considered when evaluating other resources:  Bias. Did the author have an “axe to grind?” People often distort reality because of an emotional investment in a particular viewpoint, either intentionally or unintentionally.  Unfortunately, people tend to remember what they want to remember, not was objectively happened. Just as quantitative researchers worry about the internal validity of their data, historical researchers must consider the agreement between sources on certain facts.  If one observer differs markedly from the account of other observers, then the source is suspect. Agreement among several sources can be taken as evidence that facts have been recorded correctly and are thus reliable.

As with the literature review writing process that we have considered at length, the historical researcher must organize and synthesize data.  Conclusions and generalizations must be carefully drawn from the data. So, then, we see that historical research is not about just rehashing facts in chronological order!  Just as with observational research, historical researchers have to be very careful when forming generalizations. The same caveats apply when making causal statements based on historical data.  The key to deciding the quality of historical research is to realize that the controls provided by statistical methods of analysis are replaced by logical analysis. This means that the historical researcher must keep objectivity paramount in the entire research and writing process.         

Qualitative Research

Whereas quantitative researchers primarily use numerical data to answer questions, qualitative researchers use narrative data.  Most often, such data is collected in a naturalistic setting.  That is, variables are observed and recorded as they occur and where they naturally occur.  This is in stark contrast to the laboratory conditions often used by experimental researchers.  For this reason, qualitative research is often used as a synonym for field research or naturalistic research.  Because these methods are frequently used to study cultures, many researchers call qualitative research ethnographic research.  The preference of terminology is largely dependent on the academic discipline of the researcher.  Criminal justice scholars will most often use the heading of this section, qualitative research.            

Recall that early social scientists demanded that the social sciences be as scientifically rigorous as the “hard sciences.”  A part of this movement was an emphasis on quantification. That is, they wanted to reduce everything to numbers because numbers help ensure objectivity.  In recent years, there has been a sort of qualitative revolution. Many scholars are rebelling against quantitative methodologies because they believe them to be too limited to explain many aspects of human cultures and behaviors. These scholars argue that the variables are simply too numerous and too nuanced for mathematical models to explain complex behaviors.  While quantitative methodologies dominate the criminal justice journals, more and more qualitative papers are being written.

A major philosophical reason for this push toward qualitative research is the belief that explanations of human behavior must be holistic.  Holistic is a research term that means viewing social phenomena as being part of complex systems, not as isolated, independent variables.  In other words, the researcher is trying to gain an “in depth” or “complete” picture of a social reality. Because of this broad scope, qualitative research excels at theory generation, as opposed to empirical research, which excels at theory (hypothesis) testing.      

To achieve this goal of in-depth understanding of a social phenomenon, researchers use a variety of different methods.  This variety of data gathering strategies often results in what are called “multimethod” studies. The most common methods are participant observation coupled with extensive informal interviewing.  Relevant documents are frequently examined as well.

The Logic of Qualitative Research

Recall that most quantitative research is deductive.  This means that we move from a clearly established hypothesis to gathering data designed to test that hypothesis.  Such hypotheses are usually derived from a particular theoretical perspective. Another way to look at this is that the researcher is moving from a general rule to specific examples of the rule working or the rule not working.

Deductive Logic:  Reasoning from the General to the Specific

With the deductive approach, the researcher begins by specifying a theory. From the theory, the researcher generates hypotheses about what should happen in real world observations. To test the theory, the researcher collects data to see whether what was hypothesized actually happens. If it does happen, then the researcher’s data provides support for the theory. The direction of reasoning is often referred to as “top down” because it moves from theory (the general) to data (the specific).

Qualitative research is often considered to be primarily inductive.  Through extensive observation, the researcher attempts to figure out why people behave the way that they do.  Another way to look at this is that the researcher is moving from observations of social phenomena (that is, specific examples) toward a generalized rule.  The result of a qualitative study is a suggestion as to what is going on in some facet of the social world.

Inductive logic:  Reasoning from the Specific to the General

With the inductive approach, the researcher begins by examining social phenomena (data collection). From the data, the researcher attempts to identify larger categories of phenomena (i.e., variables and constructs), and to understand the relationships among them. In other words, the researcher uses the data to build theory. The direction of reasoning is often referred to as “bottom up” because it moves from the data (the specific) to theory (the general).

Some qualitative research is purely descriptive; it seeks to describe how the social world is.  Some of this research, however, contributes directly to the development of theory. Because such theories are developed based on actual observations in the field, they are often called grounded theory.

These differences in underlying logic dictate that the questions asked by quantitative researchers are much more specific than those asked by qualitative researchers.  In making the decision as to which type of research to conduct, the research must understand what is already known about a particular phenomenon. Very broad questions, then, lend themselves to qualitative research.  If a question is very broad and the theory around it is not well developed, then there is not enough information to develop specific, testable hypotheses. Because the underlying logic of qualitative research is different than quantitative research, the steps that researchers take when conducting a study are somewhat different as well.  The table below summarizes some of the major differences:

Qualitative vs. Quantitative


Gain insight into a social phenomenon through the intensive collection of narrative data. To explain, predict, and control social phenomenon through the systematic collection of numerical data.


Inductive, subjective, holistic, process-oriented Deductive, objective, focused, outcome-oriented

Hypothesis Characteristics

Evolving and based on study data. Based on theory and stated prior to data collection.

Review of Related Literature

Somewhat limited; does not affect study outcomes much. Expansive; significantly effects the study outcomes.


Uncontrolled; As close as possible to the natural environment where the phenomenon normally takes place. Controlled as much as possible; A laboratory is the ultimate way to control “environmental” variables.

Data Collection Characteristics

Nonstandardized, narrative, and ongoing. Standardized, numerical, all at once.

Data Collection Methods

Informal interviews, field notes, participant observation, document collection Nonparticipant observation, formal interviews, tests, scales, questionnaires


Purposive and small; the goal is depth of understanding. Systematic and large; the goal is generalizability.


Flexible and unspecified; uses historical, ethnographic, and case study methods. Inflexible and rigid; specified in advance of data collection.  Uses descriptive, correlational, causal-comparative, and experimental methods.

Data Analysis

Words; involves analysis and synthesis of ideas Numbers; involves statistical analysis of measurements and evaluation of numerical relationships

Data Interpretation

Context is important and generalizations are very tentative. Generalizations are important and specified within a predetermined mathematical probability.

  Synthesis of the Data

With quantitative methods, descriptive statistics are used to organize and simplify the data.  Hypotheses are tested using inferential statistics. For the qualitative researcher, the strategy is seldom so clear-cut.  With quantitative research, you end up with a nice set of tables that easily summarize many, many data points. With qualitative research, the researcher is left to ponder “What do I do with all of these words?”  The qualitative researcher’s strategy is to look for trends, patterns, and categories. This process is essentially the same as the one we outlined for conducting a literature review. The major difference lies in what you are synthesizing; in a literature review, you are summarizing important scholarly works.  In qualitative research, you are analyzing the data you collected. Modern researchers are greatly aided in this process by the advent of computer software designed to help sort and organize narrative data.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  07/25/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

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