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What Are Qualitative Surveys?

By Nicky Sutton
Updated May 16, 2024
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Qualitative surveys contain a series of predetermined questions that are asked to individuals for the purpose of collecting data. Qualitative surveys differ from quantitative surveys that are concerned, for example, with “how many” individuals exhibit certain characteristics rather than “why” they are exhibiting them. They are performed on a cross section of the population in order to collect descriptions and opinions on variables such as reasons and motivations behind peoples’ behaviors.

Surveys involving qualitative research examine why and how people behave and think as they do, as opposed to quantitative research which is concerned with how many people have particular characteristics. Research of a qualitative nature is not concerned with “how many” but with generating hypothesis about the reasons behind actions and occurrences. Qualitative research is often used in the social sciences and market research as a means of understanding behaviors at individual, group and sometimes population levels.

Qualitative surveys are usually conducted on a representative cross section of the population of interest; the participants must meet the criteria for inclusion in the study. For example, a survey of college students will be performed on a cross sectional sample from the college student population, and ensure that participants within the sample possess a representative set of characteristics similar to the college student population as a whole. The individuals are then asked a predetermined set of questions. By their nature, surveys generally have a rigid structure so that results can be easily grouped and compared.

For a qualitative survey to be successful, questions are open ended, for example, asking why participants have certain behaviors or how they complete a task, rather than closed questioning that result in only yes or no answers. A qualitative survey aims to gain a wealth of respondents’ opinions. It can be performed as a one to one interview, in the seclusion of an interview room, and responses noted down or tape recorded. Often qualitative responses are lengthy due to the open nature of the questions and peoples’ propensity to express how they feel and think. In this case the interviewer should be trained on how to keep surveys on track and to minimize the depth of information collected.

Performing qualitative surveys in public places can be difficult because of the potential to elicit in-depth expressions and opinions; hence they should be kept short, to only a few questions. The interviewer might risk potential respondents being reluctant to participate at all. Qualitative data is notoriously difficult to analyze due to the breath of different responses often collected. The number of surveys performed should therefore be limited and used mainly to generate hypotheses to structure questions in a quantitative survey or used to structure further, more in-depth qualitative research such as focus groups or case studies.

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