Qualitative research has a rich tradition in the study of human social behaviour and cultures. Its general aim is to develop concepts which help us to understand social phenomena in, wherever possible, natural rather than experimental settings, to gain an understanding of the experiences, perceptions and/or behaviours of individuals, and the meanings attached to them. The effective application of qualitative methods to other disciplines, including clinical, health service and education research, has a rapidly expanding and robust evidence base. Qualitative approaches have particular potential in psychiatry research, singularly and in combination with quantitative methods. This article outlines the nature and potential application of qualitative research as well as attempting to counter a number of misconceptions.