The Basic Understanding of Qualitative Research


One common dichotomy in research method, always having a nest in most people head, is either qualitative research or quantitative research as the two have very different research approaches. The most popular assumption is that qualitative research’s challenge is in data collection process and the quantitative research’s challenge is in research instrument arrangement. Another assumption is qualitative research needs longer time to be conducted or finished than quantitative research. Thus, quantitative is easier (although everyone who hates mathematics avoids it) which is always chosen because computer can do the quantifying (SPSS or Excel), without considering the research types or purposes. When I was involved in this class for the first time, my friends told me that they will take qualitative research because it is easier to be conducted than quantitative (there is not calculation, formulation, and so on). This gives me an assumption that they choose an approach based on the easiness which is promised by each approaches. What they (or we) have to do is considering the research type and its purposes before deciding what approach will be used. Some topics are feasible to be researched, elaborated and analyzed by employing either qualitative or quantitative method, in which is determined by the purposes of the research. This phenomenon perhaps as consequence of the lack of understanding on what qualitative and quantitative approach is itself. This short essay aims at giving a basic understanding on qualitative approach. Let alone, this essay also elaborates the potential value of this approach, especially conducted in language teaching research area.
To start this essay, let me share with you about the basic understanding of research. Etymologically, the word “Research” consists of two word, Re and Search. From this we can draw a tentative assumption that “Research” morphologically is similar to “Search again”. What is searched is the answer or solution of problems which have been searched by other researchers. In science, everything is changing or tentative. Science does not start everything with absolute truth; science is a careful analytical method that always presents discoveries in the concept of “if…, then….” (My translation) (Nasution, 1987:4). Therefore, research utilizes scientific method to provide empirical legitimacy has always been done and continued by the other researchers either to support the current findings; or to negate the current findings; or to offer new findings.
Terminologically, research is a systematic attempt to provide answer to questions (Tuckman, 1978:1). A research needs to be conducted when we want to solve and answer questions systematically, or to test or measure the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a finding in the form of a model, strategy, tool, and so on. You can answer some daily questions without conducting a research, but research is needed if the question needs to be solved systematically. Thus, the difference between research and non-research is “research is systematic” and “non-research is not systematic”. Other characteristics of research, other than what have been mentioned above, are logical, empirical, reductive, replicable and transmittable (Tuckman, 1978:11-12).

Qualitative Research: Basic Understanding
Suppose that you want to conduct a research on your youngest brother’s language acquisition, and you decide to do the research by using qualitative approach, your research will be qualitative research. Why do you choose qualitative approach? One of the most probable reasons is language acquisition process cannot be explained and analyzed by means of calculation as in your mind, your youngest brother’s learning of speaking is a natural process. And when you want to conduct a research on the effectiveness of cooperative learning to improve your students’ speaking skill (if you are a teacher or lecturer), you perhaps choose quantitative approach because you want to investigate the relationship between cooperative learning model and students’ speaking skill and it can be done by calculating the pre-test score and post-test score. In your mind, the relationship is a mechanical process and can be elaborated by numbers. These possibilities give you short explanation that research purpose will determine what kind of approach will be used and how it forms your research type.
Based on the example above, obviously it is understood that qualitative approach is far from quantification, number or calculation, while on the contrary; qualitative approach is a research procedure that produces descriptive data in term of words, either written or spoken from people (respondents or objects) and their perceivable attitudes (Bogdan and Taylor in Moleong, 2008). Because qualitative approach uses words to interpret phenomena, then qualitative research is sometimes called interpretive approach.
There is an important things need to be known that although the definition above state that qualitative research using words or explain phenomena by using words, it does not mean that there is not measurement in qualitative research. Sometimes perhaps the researcher wants to measure frequency of words produced by a speaker, it will use some statistic procedures. This cannot be perceived as “two approaches are applied in one research”, but this research is used quantitative method to support his or her in order to interpret phenomena. It can be said that “two methods (quantitative and qualitative method) can be blended in a research”, but not blending the approach. If you find someone say “I use two approaches in this research” thus you can interpret that he means that “I use two methods in this research” (Prasetyo & Jannah, 2008:27) because his research possibly contains the both qualitative and quantitative data. Thus, the data what makes a researcher use qualitative method or quantitative method, but approach used is determined by the type and purpose of the research.
Qualitative approach, according to William (in Moleong) is data collection in a natural background (remember the example given before) by using natural method and is done by researcher who is interested naturally (Moleong, 2008:5). This definition gives us a view that qualitative approach priors natural background and natural method. It means that natural process, like language acquisition in one side, cannot be viewed as a mechanical process and cannot be interpreted by using robotic tools like computer (SPSS and Microsoft Office Excel) or other statistical tools. The simple reason I can give perhaps there are many factors, reasons, or / and causes which cannot be measured by computation but can be understood and can be clearly explained by using words. From this point of view, qualitative researcher possibly assumes that number cannot represent some natural phenomena and make it clearly understood by people.
Qualitative researches involve a researcher describing kind of characteristics of people and events or phenomena without comparing events in term of measurement or amounts, multi-method in focus involving an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter (Thomas, 1991:1). It means that the qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret phenomena in terms of the meaning people bring to them. The distinction between both qualitative and quantitative approach above is hoped give you an understandable view about what qualitative approach is.
For further understanding about what qualitative research is, there are some additional theories that show some particular aspect of qualitative research. For the example William (In Moleong, 2008) stated that qualitative research is a data collection on the natural background, by using natural method. Lincoln (1987) is also in line with William, they emphasize the naturalistic in the research. Qualitative research also can be identified by the research characteristics, particularly in term or data analysis. When a research tries to understand a phenomenon or people perception, experiences of the participants, and then the assessment of the participants’ achievement is ongoing assessment and the data is collected by using open interview, the research can be characterized as qualitative research (Emilia, 2008:190-191)
Qualitative research is used to gain insight into people’s attitudes, behaviors, value systems, concerns, motivations, aspirations, culture or lifestyles (
Although there is still some debate, the general consensus is that qualitative research is a naturalistic, interpretative approach concerned with understanding the meanings which people attach to actions, decisions, beliefs, values and the like within their social world, and understanding the mental mapping process that respondents use to make sense of and interpret the world around them (Ritchie and Lewis, 2003)
The benefits of qualitative pre-field testing include: improved reliability of responses, improved validity of responses, reduced non-response (both unit and item), reduced processing error and need for imputation, improved cost efficiency, reduced respondent burden (
To make it clearer, here are the characteristics of qualitative research, and please keep in mind that a research is called qualitative research if the approach used is qualitative approach. Thus, research type is determined by the approach used.

Characteristics of Qualitative Research
Naturalistic: qualitative research is performed on the natural background because natural ontology expects the existence of realities (data) as a whole which cannot be understood if they are separated from the context.
Human (researcher) as the instrument: in qualitative research, the researcher is the data collector or even the instrument itself (Sugiyono, 2008:222). This research states that human is the only one who can interact with respondent and able to understand the relationships of realities in the research field.

Use qualitative method: the methods used in this research are observation, interview and document analysis.
Inductive: This research analyzes data inductively because inductive process more appropriate with plural realities and it makes correlation between the researcher and respondent more explicit.
Grounded Theory: qualitative method expects the tuition direction of substantive theory from data because a priory theory cannot include the plural events that may be dealt. Grounded theory is more responsive to the contextual values.
Descriptive: The data collected are words, pictures and not numbers.
Process is more important than product: qualitative research more focus on the process than product or result. Researched parts’ relationship will be clearer if they are observed in the process.
Special criteria for data validity: Qualitative research requires valid, reliable and objective data. Actually, all research approach requires them.
Tentative design: Research design is more flexible and useable in every research field.
Agreed conclusion: Interpretation result is dealt by respondents or data sources (my translation) (Moleong, 2008:8-13)
Qualitative research usually employs five main methods, namely: observation, interviewing, ethnographic fieldwork, discourse analysis and textual analysis (Travers, 2001:2)

Qualitative Data and Data Collection
According to Lofland and Lofland (in Moleong, 2008) the main data in qualitative research is words and action or attitude. Other data sources are documents, pictures and statistics. Qualitative researcher uses some techniques to collect the data through interview, observation, voice recording, picture taking, or movie recording; although in qualitative paradigm the researcher is the instrument, sometime questionnaire and response forms is useful for collecting data (Krueger, 1997:56). Based on the theories above, it can be concluded that qualitative research use “humanistic” instrument to collect the data such as voice, attitude, behavior, experiences. Questionnaire is also used in qualitative data to measure respondents’ perception or knowledge. The technique most used is interview and observation.

Potential Value of Qualitative Research in the Language Education Area
Language acquisition is a natural process and it is developed by natural practice and interaction whether from social interaction (in this case, Yule stated that linguistics interaction is in accordance with social interaction)(Yule, 2006), material interaction (material from electronic or printed media such as TV, paper, magazine, book and song). Language acquisition, according to Skinner is a process of habit formation (Griffiths, 2008:282).
Based on those, language acquisition as a natural process (natural here is meant as the background of the phenomena of language acquisition) must to be approached by using an approach that positions naturalistic as the most important aspect in the system.
Potential value of qualitative research is its power to interpret or analyze natural (language) phenomena such as stimuli, emotion, intention and reason, which cannot be measured or compared by using computer or other robotic tool. Although quantitative approach also has important role in language phenomena research, but quantitative research performance more focus on the mechanic phenomena of language competence development. However, each approach or research is used in accordance with the purposes of the research itself.
Reasons to employ qualitative research in language education research may vary for every researcher. If we return to the language acquisition and its development process as natural process, by referring to Creswell “Select a qualitative study because of the nature of research question… choose a qualitative approach in order to study individuals in their natural setting” (1997:17) and by considering that as natural process, the researched object cannot be separated by its context or setting. It is obviously explain that qualitative research is highly suggested in language research, either in education area or non-education area.

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