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.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  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
  13. Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
    1. Introduction
    2. Revisiting theoretical frameworks
    3. Revisiting conceptual frameworks
    4. Differences between conceptual and theoretical frameworks
    5. Examples of theoretical and conceptual frameworks
    6. Developing frameworks for your study
  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 vs. theoretical framework

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are both essential components of research, guiding and structuring the research. Although they are closely related, the conceptual and theoretical framework in any research project serve distinct purposes and have different characteristics. In this section, we provide an overview of the key differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks.

The theoretical framework and conceptual framework are separate concepts that ultimately go together.

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are foundational components of any research study. They each play a crucial role in guiding and structuring the research, from the formation of research questions to the interpretation of results.

While both the theoretical and conceptual framework provides a structure for a study, they serve different functions and can impact the research in distinct ways depending on how they are combined. These differences might seem subtle, but they can significantly impact your research design and outcomes, which is why it is important to think through each one of them.

The right theoretical framework and conceptual framework brings your research into greater focus. Photo by Josh Calabrese.

The theoretical framework describes the broader lens through which the researcher views the topic and guides their overall understanding and approach. It connects the theoretical perspective to the data collection and data analysis strategy and offers a structure for organizing and interpreting the collected data.

On the other hand, the conceptual framework describes in detail and connects specific concepts and variables to illustrate potential relationships between them. It serves as a guide for assessing which aspects of the data are relevant and specifying how the research question is being answered. While the theoretical framework outlines how more abstract-level theories shape the study, the conceptual framework operationalizes the empirical observations that can be connected to theory and broader understanding.

Understanding these differences is crucial when designing and conducting your research study. In this chapter, we will look deeper at the distinctions between these types of frameworks, and how they interplay in qualitative research. We aim to provide you with a solid understanding of both, allowing you to effectively utilize them in your own research.

Revisiting theoretical frameworks

Theoretical frameworks play a central role in research, serving as the bedrock of any investigation. This section offers a refresher on the essential elements and functions of theoretical frameworks in research.

A theoretical framework refers to existing theory, concepts, and definitions that you use to collect relevant data and offer meaningful empirical findings. Providing an overall orientation or lens, it guides your understanding of the research problem and directs your approach to data collection and analysis.

Your chosen theoretical framework directly influences your research questions and methodological choices. It contains specific theories or sets of assumptions drawn from relevant disciplines—such as sociology, psychology, or economics—that you apply to understand your research topic. These existing models and concepts are tools to help you organize and make sense of your data.

The theoretical framework also plays a key role in crafting your research questions and objectives. By determining the theories that are relevant to your research, the theoretical framework shapes the nature and direction of your study. It's essential to note, however, that the theoretical framework's role in qualitative research is not to predict outcomes. Instead, it offers a broader structure to understand and interpret your data, enabling you to situate your findings within the broader academic discourse in a way that makes your research findings meaningful to you and your research audience.

Revisiting conceptual frameworks

Conceptual frameworks, though related to theoretical frameworks, serve distinct functions within research. This section reexamines the characteristics and functions of conceptual frameworks to provide a better understanding of their roles in qualitative research.

A conceptual framework, in essence, is a system of concepts, assumptions, and beliefs that supports and informs your research. It outlines the specific variables or concepts you'll examine in your study and proposes relationships between them. It's more detailed and specific than a theoretical framework, acting as a contextualized guide for the collection and interpretation of empirical data.

The main role of a conceptual framework is to illustrate the presumed relationships between the variables or concepts you're investigating. These variables or concepts, which you derive from your theoretical framework, are integral to your research questions, objectives, and hypotheses. The conceptual framework shows how you theorize these concepts are related, providing a visual or narrative model of your research.

A conceptual framework draws connections between the variables and concepts you're investigating. Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko.

A study's own conceptual framework plays a vital role in guiding the data collection process and the subsequent analysis. The conceptual framework specifies which data you need to collect and provides a structure for interpreting and making sense of the collected data. For instance, if your conceptual framework identifies a particular variable as impacting another, your data collection and analysis will be geared towards investigating this relationship.

Differences between conceptual and theoretical frameworks

Though interconnected, theoretical and conceptual frameworks have distinct roles in research and contribute differently to the research. This section will contrast the two in terms of scope, purpose, their role in the research process, and their relationship to the data analysis strategy and research question.

Scope and purpose of theoretical and conceptual frameworks

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks differ fundamentally in their scope. Theoretical frameworks provide a broad and general view of the research problem, rooted in established theories. They explain phenomena by applying a particular theoretical lens. Conceptual frameworks, on the other hand, offer a more focused view of the specific research problem. They explicitly outline the concrete concepts and variables involved in the study and the relationships between them.

While both frameworks guide the research process, they do so in different ways. Theoretical frameworks guide the overall approach to understanding the research problem by indicating the broader conversation the researcher is contributing to and shaping the research questions.

Conceptual frameworks provide a map for the study, guiding the data collection and interpretation process, including what variables or concepts to explore and how to analyze them.

Study design and data analysis

The two types of frameworks relate differently to the research question and design. The theoretical framework often inspires the research question based on previous theories' predictions or understanding about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework then emerges from the research question, providing a contextualized structure for what exactly the research will explore.

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks also play distinct roles in data analysis. Theoretical frameworks provide the lens for interpreting the data, informing what kinds of themes and patterns might be relevant. Conceptual frameworks, however, present the variables concepts and variables and the relationships among them that will be analyzed. Conceptual frameworks may illustrate concepts and relationships based on previous theory, but they can also include novel concepts or relationships that stem from the particular context being studied.

Finally, the two types of frameworks relate differently to the research question and design. The theoretical framework basically differs from the conceptual framework in that it often inspires the research question based on the theories' predictions about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework, on the other hand, emerges from the research question, providing a structure for investigating it.

Examples of theoretical and conceptual frameworks

Using case studies, we can effectively demonstrate the differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Let’s take a look at some real-world examples that highlight the unique role and function of each framework within a research context.

Consider a study exploring the impact of classroom environments on student learning outcomes. The theoretical framework might be grounded in Piaget's theory of cognitive development, which offers a broad lens for understanding how students learn and process information.

Within this theoretical framework, the researcher formulates the conceptual framework. The conceptual framework identifies specific variables to study such as classroom layout, teacher-student ratio, availability of learning materials, and student performance as the dependent variable. It then outlines the expected relationships between these variables, such as proposing that a lower teacher-student ratio and well-equipped classrooms positively impact student performance.

Robust research in cognitive development requires a specific theoretical framework. Photo by CDC.

Another study might aim to understand the factors influencing the job satisfaction of employees in a corporate setting. The theoretical framework could be based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, interpreting job satisfaction in terms of fulfilling employees' physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs.

From this theoretical perspective, the researcher constructs the conceptual framework, identifying specific variables such as salary (physiological needs), job security (safety needs), teamwork (social needs), recognition (esteem needs), and career development opportunities (self-actualization needs). The conceptual framework proposes relationships among these variables and job satisfaction, such as higher salaries and more recognition being related to higher job satisfaction.

A conceptual framework for job satisfaction explores the relationship between variables like salary and job security. Photo by Arlington Research.

Developing frameworks for your study

After understanding the unique roles and functions of these types of frameworks, you might ask: How do I develop them for my study? It's essential to remember that it's not a question of choosing one over the other, as both frameworks can and often do coexist within the same research project.

The choice of a theoretical and a conceptual framework often depends on the nature of your research question. If your research question is more exploratory and requires a broad understanding of the problem, a theoretical framework can provide a useful lens for interpretation. However, your conceptual framework may end up looking rather different to previous theory as you collect data and discover new concepts or relationships.

Consider the nature of your research problem as well. If you are studying a well-researched problem and there are established theories about it, using a theoretical framework to interpret your findings in light of these theories might be beneficial. But if your study explores a novel problem or aims to understand specific processes or relationships, developing a conceptual framework that maps these specific elements could prove more effective.

A robust research project allows you to expand theories and modify existing frameworks. Photo by Teemu Paananen.

Your research methodology could also inform your choice. If your study is more interpretive and aims to understand people's experiences and perceptions, a theoretical framework can outline broader concepts that are relevant to approaching your study. Your conceptual framework can then shed light on the specific concepts that emerged in your data. By carefully thinking through your theoretical and conceptual frameworks, you can effectively utilize both types of frameworks in your research, ensuring a solid foundation for your study.