Qualitative methods are commonly used in MSF: for assessing needs, understanding problems or evaluating interventions. However, a lot of scepticism exists regarding the validity of qualitative data, not least because they are often applied with uncertainty and unsystematically.

The Evaluation Units frequently apply qualitative research methods for both evaluation and socio-cultural research. We would like to encourage the use of qualitative methods in MSF programmes. The Vienna Evaluation Unit in particular, offers training sessions on qualitative methods and also provides support for qualitative study design.


Qualitative methods are needed to understand the behaviour and perceptions of affected communities.


Unlike quantitative methods, which provide measurable answers to questions such as how many, how often, etc., qualitative research answers the questions of why and how. The purpose is to learn about aspects of the social world and to generate new understandings that can be used by the social world.


Qualitative information can be useful before, during or after an intervention.


Before the start of a programme, qualitative methods are used to identify needs and vulnerabilities of the target population. During a project, patient satisfaction, health seeking behaviour, reasons for success or failure (in particular cultural dimensions of misunderstandings) can be assessed. Quantitative data may be explained through qualitative methods (reasons for use or non-use, for defaulters, etc.). Evaluations after an intervention frequently require a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods.


Qualitative research takes place in the natural world.


Researchers go to the people wherever possible in order to interview them in their everyday worlds. They try to understand how people make sense of their worlds through multiple interactive and humanistic methods: talking, looking, listening and reading.


Researchers are sensitive to their personal biographies and how they shape their studies.


Qualitative research is interpretive: the qualitative researcher assumes that understanding (analysing and interpreting) and representing (interpreting and writing about) what has been learned are filtered through her/his own personal biography.


Recommendations for further reading

  • Bloor, Michael and Fiona Wood (2006): Keywords in qualitative methods. A vocabulary of research concepts. Sage Publications, New York.
  • Burgess, Robert G. (1984): An introduction to field research. George Allen & Unwin, London, Boston, Sydney.
  • Corbin, Juliet and Anselm Strauss (2008): Basics of qualitative research. Sage Publications, 3rd edition, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Singapore.
  • Coreil, Jeannine (1995): Group interview methods in community health research. In: Medical Anthropology 16,3; pp. 193-210.
  • Flick, Uwe (2009): An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications, 4th edition, London.
  • Green Judith and Nicki Thorogood (2004): Qualitative methods for health research. Sage Publications, London.
  • Holloway, Immy ed. (2005): Qualitative research in health care. Open University Press, Berkshire.
  • Janesick, Valerie J. (1998): "Strechting” exercises for qualitative research. Sage Publications, London.
  • Padgett, Deborah K. (2008): Qualitative methods in social work research. Sage Publications, London.
  • Patton, Michael Q. (2002): Qualitative research & evaluation methods. Sage Publications, 3rd edition, Thousand Oaks, California.
  • Rossman, Gretchen B. and Sharon F. Rallis (1998): Learning in the field. An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications, London.