The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

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Learn the essential building blocks of qualitative research: key definitions, research design, data collection methods, and important ethical considerations.
Team ATLAS.ti
The Experts Behind the #1 Qualitative Data Analysis Software
  1. Introduction and overview
  2. What is qualitative research?
  3. What is qualitative data?
  4. Examples of qualitative data
  5. Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  6. Mixed methods
  7. Qualitative research preparation
  8. Theoretical perspective
  9. Theoretical framework
  10. Literature reviews
  11. Research question
  12. Conceptual framework
    1. Introduction
    2. Understanding conceptual frameworks
    3. Selecting and developing your framework
    4. Variables in a conceptual framework
  13. Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
  14. Data collection
  15. Qualitative research methods
  16. Interviews
  17. Focus groups
  18. Observational research
  19. Case studies
  20. Surveys
  21. Ethnographical research
  22. Ethical considerations
  23. Confidentiality and privacy
  24. Bias
  25. Power dynamics
  26. Reflexivity

Conceptual framework: Definition and theory

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks ultimately go hand in hand, but while there is significant overlap with theoretical perspectives and theoretical frameworks, understanding the essential differences is important when designing your research project.

Strong conceptual frameworks bring the variables of your study into focus.

Let's explore the idea of a conceptual framework, provide a few common examples, and discuss how to choose a framework for your study. Keep in mind that a conceptual framework will differ from a theoretical framework and that we will explore these differences in the next section.

Understanding conceptual frameworks

In this section, we'll delve into the intricacies of conceptual frameworks and their role in qualitative research. They are essentially the scaffolding on which you hang your research questions and analysis. They define the concepts that you'll study and articulate the relationships among them.

Developing conceptual frameworks in research

At the most basic level, a conceptual framework is a visual or written product that explains, either graphically or in narrative form, the main things to be studied, the key factors, variables, or constructs, and any presumed relationships among them. It acts as a road map guiding the course of your research, directing what will be studied, and helping to organize and analyze the data.

The purpose of a conceptual framework

A conceptual framework serves multiple functions in a research project. It helps in clarifying the research problem and purpose, assists in refining the research questions, and guides the data collection and analysis process. It's the tool that ties all aspects of the study together, offering a coherent perspective for the researcher and readers to understand the research more holistically.

Relation between theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks

Theoretical perspectives offer overarching philosophies and assumptions that guide the research process, while conceptual frameworks are the specific devices that are derived from these perspectives to operationalize the study. If a theoretical perspective is the broad philosophical underpinning, a conceptual framework is a pragmatic approach that puts that philosophy into practice in the context of the study.

For instance, if you're working from a feminist theoretical perspective, your conceptual framework might involve specific constructs like gender roles, power dynamics, and societal norms, as well as the relationships between these constructs. The conceptual framework would be the lens through which you examine and interpret your data, guided by your theoretical perspective.

Symbolic interactionism as a conceptual framework illustrates how people use shared symbols and personal interpretations. Photo by Aleks Marinkovic.

Critical theory

Critical theory is a theoretical perspective that seeks to confront social, historical, and ideological forces and structures that produce and constrain social problems. The corresponding conceptual framework might focus on constructs like power relations, historical context, and societal structures. For instance, a study on income inequality might have a conceptual framework involving constructs of socioeconomic status, institutional policies, and the distribution of resources.

Feminist theory

Feminist theory emphasizes the societal roles of gender and power relationships. A conceptual framework derived from this theory might involve constructs like gender roles, power dynamics, and societal norms. In a study about gender representation in media, a feminist conceptual framework could involve constructs such as stereotyping, representation, and societal expectations of gender.

Feminist theory is an example of a framework that interrogates gender and power relationships. Photo by

Selecting and developing your framework

Choosing and developing your conceptual framework is a pivotal process in your research design. This framework will help guide your study, inform your methodology, and shape your analysis.

Factors to consider when choosing a framework

Your conceptual framework should be derived from and align with your chosen theoretical perspective, but there are other considerations as well. It should resonate with your research question, problem, or purpose and be applicable to the specific context or population you are studying. You should also consider the feasibility of operationalizing the constructs in your framework.

When selecting a conceptual framework, consider the following questions:

1. How does this framework relate to my research topic?
2. Can I use this framework to effectively address my research question(s)?
3. Does this framework resonate with the population and context I'm studying?
4. Can the constructs in this framework be feasibly operationalized in my study?

Steps in developing a conceptual framework

Developing your conceptual framework involves a few key steps:

1. Identify key constructs: Based on your theoretical perspective and research question(s), what are the main constructs or variables that you need to explore in your study?
2. Clarify relationships among constructs: How do these constructs relate to each other? Are there presumed causal relationships, correlations, or other types of associations?
3. Define each construct: Clearly define what each construct means in the context of your study. This might also involve operationalizing each construct or defining the indicators you will use to measure or identify each construct.
4. Create a visual representation: It is often extremely helpful to create a visual representation of your conceptual framework to illustrate the constructs and their relationships. Map out the relationships among constructs to develop a holistic understanding of what you want to study.

Visualizing your conceptual framework can help identify relationships between the constructs in your study. Photo by Husniati Salma.

Remember, your conceptual framework is not set in stone. You can start creating your conceptual framework based on your literature review and your own critical reflections. As you proceed with your study, you might need to refine or adapt your conceptual framework based on what you're learning from your data. Developing a robust framework is an iterative process that requires critical thinking, creativity, and flexibility.

Variables in a conceptual framework

A strong conceptual framework includes variables that refer to the constructs or characteristics that are being studied. They are the building blocks of your research study. It might be helpful to think about how the variables in your conceptual framework could be categorized as independent and dependent variables, which respectively influence and are influenced within the research study.

Independent variables and dependent variables

An independent variable is the characteristic or condition that is manipulated or selected by the researcher to determine its effect on the dependent variable. For example, in a study exploring the impact of classroom size on student engagement, classroom size would be the independent variable.

The dependent variable is the main outcome that the researcher is interested in studying or explaining. In the example given above, student engagement would be the dependent variable, as it's the outcome being observed for any changes in response to the independent variable (classroom size). In essence, defining these variables can help you identify the cause-and-effect relationships in your study. While it might be difficult to know beforehand exactly which variables will be important and how they relate to one another, this is a helpful thought exercise to flesh out potential relationships among variables you may want to study.

Relationships among variables

Within a conceptual framework, the dependent and independent variables are listed in addition to their proposed relationships to each other. The ways in which these variables influence one another form the crux of the propositions or assumptions that guide your research.

In a conceptual framework based on the theoretical perspective of constructivism, for instance, the independent variable might be a teaching method (as constructivists would argue that methods of instruction can shape learning), and the dependent variable could be the depth of student understanding. The proposed relationship between these variables might be that student-centered teaching methods lead to a deeper understanding, which would guide the data collection and analysis such that this proposition could be explored.

However, it is important to note that the terminology of independent and dependent variables is more typical of quantitative research, in which independent and dependent variables are operationalized in hypotheses that will be tested based on pre-established theory. In qualitative research, the relationships between variables are more fluid and open-ended because the focus is often more on understanding the phenomenon as a whole and building a contextualized understanding of the research problem. This can involve including new or unexpected variables and interrelationships that emerge during the study, thus extending previous theory or understanding that didn’t initially predict these relationships.

Thus, in your conceptual framework, rather than solely focusing on identifying independent and dependent variables, consider how various factors interact and influence one another within the context of your study. Your conceptual framework should provide a holistic picture of the complexity of the phenomenon you are studying.