Section 5.5: Qualitative Designs | Research


Fundamentals of Social Research

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.


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Qualitative research is easily identified in the literature because qualitative articles consist mostly of words, and there will be little in the way of numerical tables and statistical procedures.  The presence of words should not lead one to confuse qualitative research with onion essays and other non-scientific writing. Qualitative research will still have all of the major characteristics of a scientific research despite the absence of numbers.  True qualitative research will seek to answer questions about social phenomena using a predefined, systematic set of procedures. Evidence is still collected, and the findings of the study are based on that evidence (as opposed to a preexisting opinion on the matter).  The major difference between qualitative studies and quantitative studies is the way in which data are collected, organized, and analyzed.

Qualitative Designs

The primary task of the research in analyzing qualitative data is looking for patterns of similarities and differences.  Without statistical tools to aid in this process, qualitative research is often more difficult to conduct that quantitative research.  Much is left up to the discretion of the researcher rather than the more rigid rules found in statistical analyses. A key characteristic of qualitative research is that it tends to be inductive rather than deductive.  Systematic observation leads the researcher to notice patterns of relationships, and this, in turn, drives the development of theory.

There are several different qualitative designs that the researcher can choose from, but there are some elements that are common to most qualitative studies:

  1.  The data are presented as a descriptive narrative.
  2.  The researcher constructs categories or themes.
  3.  The researcher carries out a logical analysis of the data.
  4.  The researcher proposes hypotheses.
  5.  The researcher attempts to validate the data.

The core of most qualitative studies is description.  Such descriptive accounts are often called case studies.

Types of Qualitative Designs

An important first step in conducting qualitative research is the collection of data.  This can be done in several ways. The type of data collected impacts the analytical method used by the researcher.  When data are gathered as words rather than numerical measurements, the study is said to be qualitative rather than quantitative (numbers based).  There are a limited number of strategies for gathering and analyzing qualitative data. Qualitative designs can fall into six basic categories. Note that naming conventions may not be the same across academic disciplines and you may encounter these with slightly different labels.

Phenomenological Studies.  Phenomenological studies examine human experiences through the descriptions provided by the people involved with a phenomenon of interest. These experiences are called lived experiences. The goal of phenomenological studies is to describe the meaning that experiences have for the study’s participants.  Meaning can rarely be quantified (measured as numbers), so this type of research revolves around themes. This type of research is most often used to study areas in which there is little knowledge, making quantitative studies impractical or impossible.  While subjects may sometimes be asked to write about their experiences, the most common data collection technique in this type of study is the interview. Phenomenological research would ask a question such as, “What is it like for a mother to live with a son on death row?” Perhaps the most difficult aspect of conducting phenomenological studies is putting aside the researcher’s feelings, beliefs, and biases.  This process of setting the researcher’s self aside and viewing the phenomenon from the subject’s point of view is often called bracketing.

Historical Studies.  Historical studies concern the location, evaluation, and synthesis of data from the past. It is a common mistake among non-historians to assume that historical research seeks merely to record facts from the past.  It does this, but it also seeks to do much more. Historical research also seeks to relate past events to the present and the future. When well done, the process of historical research is fundamentally the same as the other types of scientific research we have discussed.  The problem of interest is carefully identified, the literature is reviewed, and research questions are framed. Finally, as with the other types of social research, the data are collected and analyzed. What makes history rather different from other types of social research is the nature of the data that is subjected to analysis.  The data for historical research are usually found in documents, but relics and artifacts (physical evidence) are not uncommon.

Documents may include a wide range of printed material that can be time-consuming and difficult to decipher.  The sources of historical data are frequently referred to as primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are those that provide firsthand information or direct evidence. Secondary sources are secondhand information (or sometimes third or fourth hand).  Historians always prefer primary sources and use them whenever possible.  Just as the legal system prohibits hearsay evidence, historians fear that accuracy is lost at each retelling of an event.

Case Studies.  Case studies are in-depth examinations of people (or groups of people). A case study could also examine an institution, such as rural law enforcement in the United States. Case studies involving a single individual are often referred to as single subject designs.  The case method has a long history, and has been used successfully across the social and behavioral science disciplines.   In medicine, case studies have frequently been concerned with a particular disease. Very similar methods have been used by psychologists and social workers to document particular diseases and other problems in clients.  Note that the term case study is very broad in its implications; A case study may be considered as either quantitative or qualitative. This distinction ultimately rests on the purpose of the study and the design chosen by the researcher.  Researchers may collect data in case studies through many different means. Diverse techniques such as questionnaires, interviews, observations, and written accounts by the subjects have all been used successfully.

Ethnographic Studies.  Ethnographic studies involve the collection and analysis of data about cultural groups. Ethnography, then, can be defined as the systematic process of observing, detailing, describing, documenting, and analyzing the ways of life of a culture to grasp the ways of life or patterns of behavior of the people in their familiar environment.  Agar (1986) described ethnography as “encountering alien worlds and making sense of them” (p. 12). His point was that ethnographers try to show how actions in one group make sense from the point of view of another group. In this type of research, the researcher often lives with the people and becomes a part of their culture and way of life. The researcher seeks to experience firsthand the people’s rituals and customs. The definition of culture can change in scope, depending on the study.  An entire cultural group may be studied, or a subgroup may be the focus. For example, the term culture may be used in the broad sense to mean all police officers in the United States, or in a narrower sense to mean a single metropolitan department.

Grounded Theory Studies.  Grounded theory is a qualitative research technique developed by sociologists Glaser and Strauss in 1967. Grounded theory studies are studies in which the researcher gathers data, analyzes the data, and then a theory is developed that is grounded in that data.  This type of study is interesting because it reverses the usual order of things.  Grounded theorists use both inductive and deductive logic in the development of their theories.  One of the hallmarks of this type of research is the common use of purposive samples rather than probability samples.  The researcher is looking to find participants that are willing to shed light on the phenomenon of interest. Critics of this method see this as a flaw because the generalizability of the results is called into question by the sampling method used.

Action Research Studies. Action research is a type of qualitative research that seeks new actions and behaviors designed improve performance and closely examine the effects of the actions that were taken.  This type of research most often takes place in some professional context, and is designed to enhance the performance of the professionals working in that environment.  In action research, the proposed solution to a practice problem is implemented as a part of the research process. So, unlike with other forms of research, change happens very rapidly.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  07/25/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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