Qualitative research methods are a group of techniques designed to allow the researcher to understand phenomena in their natural setting. A wide range is used, including: focus groups; interviews; observation; and discourse analysis, techniques which may be used within research strategies such as case study or action research. Qualitative studies in the anaesthetic setting have been used to define excellence in anaesthesia, explore the reasons behind drug errors, investigate the acquisition of expertise, and examine incentives for hand-hygiene in the operating theatre. Understanding how and why people act the way they do is essential in the advancement of anaesthetic practice, and rigorous, well-designed qualitative research can generate useful data and important insights. Meticulous social scientific methods, transparency, reproducibility and reflexivity are markers of quality in qualitative research. Tools such as the Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research checklist and the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme are available to help authors, reviewers and readers unfamiliar with qualitative research assess its merits.