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Qualitative research is a field of inquiry that crosscuts disciplines and subject matters. There are three major approaches to qualitative research: ethnography (drawn from anthropology); phenomenology (drawn from philosophy) and grounded theory (drawn from sociology). Typically, the research questions addressed by qualitative methods are discovery-oriented, descriptive and exploratory in nature. Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern human behavior. Various aspects of behavior could be based on deeply held values, personal perspectives, experiences and contextual circumstances.

Qualitative research investigates the why and how of decision making, not just what, where, and when. Therefore, the need is for smaller but focused samples rather than large random samples. Qualitative analysis involves categorizing data into patterns as the primary basis for organizing and reporting results. Qualitative researchers typically rely on several methods for gathering information: (1) participation in the setting, (2) direct observation, (3) in depth interviews, (4) focus groups, and (5) analysis of documents and materials.

Although it is common to draw a distinction between qualitative and quantitative aspects of scientific investigation, a mixed-methods approach (a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques) is often used. Qualitative research is, in some cases, instrumental to developing an understanding of a phenomenon as a basis for quantitative research. In other cases, it can inform or enrich our understanding of quantitative results. Similarly, quantitative research may inform, or be drawn upon in the process of qualitative research.