Qualitative market research can add significant depth and scope to research and market access projects. Where quantitative market research provides a statistical overview of consumer thought and behaviour, qualitative market research can deliver in-depth summaries of what consumers are thinking, their attitudes and opinions, and explore the very motivations driving consumer activity. Qualitative research is therefore an ideal approach for deriving insight into payer and prescriber activities and the factors influencing their behaviour.

My personal interest in qualitative research methods stems from a year of postgraduate qualitative study wherein I used narrative inquiry, a highly collaborative and phenomenological qualitative research method, to explore the ongoing experiences of breast cancer survivors.

Whilst qualitative research methods in market research can be very useful, variations in method and a lack of theoretical foundations can detract from the significance of the findings and reduce their client value(1). For market researchers new to qualitative research it is important to have a good understanding of the different qualitative methods available and their philosophical underpinnings. With this in mind, there are three core research methodologies from the fields of sociology, anthropology and philosophy, and these are grounded theory, ethnography and phenomenology respectively(1–3).

Grounded Theory

As a method, grounded theory is the identification and sorting of categories which emerge from the data and the subsequent formation of a theory which is grounded in the data (4). Grounded theory is a popular research methodology, aspects of which (coding and memo-writing) are largely adopted across the qualitative research spectrum (5). In market research grounded theory has been used for approximately 20 years, predominantly in experiential consumer behaviour studies(1).

Grounded theory is a particularly useful methodology for those new to the field, the logical development of codes into categories and categories into theory is an ideal starting point and one that recommends a less than comprehensive knowledge of previous theories. Furthermore, grounded theory is particularly useful for analysing previously unstudied phenomenon and the development of new theoretical bases (6), such as pioneering investigations into healthcare practitioner prescribing behaviour (7–10). Market researchers conducting grounded theory research will likely appreciate grounded theory as it requires less intensive preparations compared to other methods; however, the practice of collecting and analysing data until no new points of enquiry emerge (known as “theoretical saturation”(4)), can make it difficult to produce client proposals with accurate data collection timelines.


Like grounded theory, market researchers have been applying the principles of ethnography to market research for two decades, particularly in studies focused on understanding consumer behaviour and “getting beneath the surface”(11). Ethnography thoroughly investigates consumer lives, their connections and webs of meaning. As a method, ethnography can be time consuming and expensive, it requires total immersion of the researcher in the life of the consumer through multiple mediums including unstructured interviews and periods of consumer observation(12). In the healthcare sector ethnography has been used to explore a wide variety of scenarios including physician-patient relationships(13, 14), prescribing behaviour(15, 16) and clinical trials(17).

The intensive nature of traditional ethnography means that is not always feasible, particularly for researchers who are unable to enter and establish rapport in participant communities. This has led to the development of quasi-ethnographic techniques (18, 19) and virtual ethnography where online activity and consumption behaviour is monitored externally (20).


Finally, we have phenomenology, a methodology applied regularly to studies of human experience, where experience is considered subjective and dependent on the greater context of a person’s life world. From a phenomenological perspective consumer behaviour is shaped by pre-understandings related to other aspects of their lives, such as their physical environment, personal relationships and past experiences (2, 21).

Phenomenology is well placed to examine consumer health discourse because of the emphasis on “informed, goal-directed activity” (21) such as purchasing behaviour. By adopting a phenomenological approach market research can explore the underlying meaning of consumer experiences and how they relate to their extensive lives, details which are not made implicit by other methods(1). In particular, phenomenology is used to explore co-occurrence of medical conditions (22), therapy adherence (23, 24) and drug misuse(25, 26).

A great deal of emphasis is placed on not asking leading questions, and as result phenomenological interviews can be very unstructured, ideally comprising a central participant monologue. Like in grounded theory, it can be difficult to provide clients with accurate timelines for a phenomenology study as researchers avoid going straight to the point. Despite this, phenomenology remains a popular approach for exploring consumer health experiences.


We have considered three popular qualitative research methodologies and their applications in pharmaceutical and health market research. Historically, taking a qualitative stance has yielded significant commercial benefits ranging from an improved understanding of consumer identities, motivations and belief systems to unearthing original information on medical device interactions and relationships (1, 27). Hardly the new kid on the block, qualitative market research is established and here to stay.


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