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
    1. Introduction
    2. What is a literature review?
    3. What does a literature review look like?
    4. How can I conduct a literature review?
    5. How do I analyze a literature review?
    6. How do I write a literature review?
  11. Research question
  12. 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

Literature reviews

The literature review might be among the least romantic parts of research. However, the importance of understanding and synthesizing relevant literature in helping establish the research question for your study cannot be overstated.

Literature reviews might seem overwhelming, but they are necessary to critically evaluate the existing scholarship out there.

What is a literature review?

To emphasize the importance of a literature review, writing a literature review, and incorporating literature reviews in research, let's examine its place in scholarly inquiry.

Foundations of scholarly literature

In mainstream research, a researcher shares their research in a paper that appears in a journal article, book chapter, thesis, or dissertation. Novel and interesting research is more likely to be published as peer-reviewed articles.

A researcher needs to be able to write a literature review that persuades scholars that their work is original and important. Put differently, a literature review is how researchers familiarize themselves with current conversation concerning their research topic and demonstrate that they are contributing something new and interesting to this conversation.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

A good literature review can help you critically evaluate current knowledge and key concepts around current knowledge and key concepts within a particular topic. A researcher should provide an overview of relevant research and demonstrate they understand the knowledge surrounding their inquiry to generate new understanding.

Identifying a research gap

Literature reviews can identify which developments occurred and where a gap or puzzle remains that can be informed by further inquiry. For example, current research may assert that a sufficient amount of sleep benefits athletes in sports like basketball and soccer. At the same time, other researchers have reached the same conclusion in tennis and golf. However, if a researcher believes rugby players might have different sleep needs, there is a gap in the literature if no one has conducted a study specific to rugby.

Various gaps can be uncovered in a literature review. Examples include:

  • A lack of research in a particular context that cannot be explained by existing theory, such as an unexamined geographical area or group of people
  • A focus on certain theories or methodologies while overlooking others that can explain an unresolved puzzle
  • An absence of studies after a certain time period or the occurrence of a significant event that challenges existing assumptions or understanding

Summarizing themes and patterns

Literature reviews can help develop theory by synthesizing and building on existing knowledge. This is an approach to knowledge called synthesis. A literature review helps draw connections across various studies and brings insights that individual papers may not be able to provide.

Writing for your audience

To publish in a peer-reviewed journal, you should also consider how reviewers and readers will see your work to ensure your research gets accepted for publication and is read widely by your target audience.

Reviewers for an academic journal want to know if the author of a paper understands the theories and work in his or her field. Thus, a researcher must summarize the key ideas, theories, and knowledge relevant to the theories or knowledge under discussion. A reviewer may not find the author credible if they do not demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of certain developments central to the research area.

Students may also be asked to report on relevant literature to demonstrate knowledge of the field and critical analysis skills. Well-structured paragraphs and sections convey that you understand your topic and that your approach makes sense. These skills are fundamental in a thesis or dissertation. Students are often expected to write an entire dissertation chapter providing a summary of the existing research and different aspects that can inform further research.

What does a literature review look like?

The shape of your literature review will depend on your research objectives. A written literature review can either be part of a larger research paper or stand alone as its own study.

A literature review section

A typical, original research paper begins with reviewing the literature to justify the novelty and importance of the inquiry being undertaken. For example, imagine that the author wants to examine the study habits of university students heavily engaged in social media. How does the author know other researchers haven't already explored the topic? And if they did, how can the author contribute new and interesting insights to move understanding further?

A background section in a larger paper should summarize the relevant, existing research to answer these questions. By examining studies on study habits and social media use, the author can demonstrate they have thoroughly surveyed the field to determine if and how further research can meaningfully expand understanding.

A stand-alone literature review

A review can also be a full-length paper. As stand-alone papers, they present a secondary analysis of a series of discrete but related studies in which the researcher provides their own interpretations on the overarching topic.

Remember that writing this type of paper is similar to writing a full paper on your own research project, and peer reviewers will evaluate it as such. A full research paper typically requires a description of the research methodology and the author's specific theoretical approach to analyzing the studies. A clear account of how the author conducted the analysis makes the key findings more credible.

How can I conduct a literature review?

You need not read all of the available theoretical and empirical scholarship to identify recurring central themes or important trends. A review merely samples the most relevant studies to generate key insights after summarizing sources.

Conducting a literature review requires reading what many authors have written. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez.

Put simply, the researcher needs to collect written studies. There is no minimum number of required studies that constitute a good literature search, as it varies depending on the topic, the research question, and the amount of discussion that already exists on your subject.

In general, relevant sources include academic journals and monographs. Journals are easily searchable via library databases and online search engines like Google Scholar, which may even lead you to downloadable PDFs of full articles. Scholars may also make their papers available on websites like and ResearchGate.

Look for scholars who are well-known in their field. One quick way to identify key experts in your area is to search for highly cited papers and researchers. They can provide fundamental theories and findings critical to your review and link to previous, useful literature.

It's also important to emphasize recent studies in your collection. Especially in the social sciences, developments within the last five years may have opened up new insights or approaches that are important to consider. Later studies may have already challenged or refuted older papers, diminishing their potential contribution to your inquiry.

Other sources of research can include conference proceedings, university bulletins, unpublished theses, and any other publication available for other scholars to read. You may also incorporate records from cultural sources, theoretical discussions in presentations, or newspaper articles.

Keep in mind, however, that scholars take peer-reviewed publications like journal articles more seriously. On the other hand, if you are studying an underdeveloped topic with few published studies, you can consider other information sources to demonstrate a need for further research and discussion on your specific topic.

How do I analyze a literature review?

A good analysis should have a deliberate methodological approach. In other words, a review is more than just a report of relevant research from scholarly articles. A researcher writing a literature review needs to synthesize the existing knowledge and key debates from the collected studies.

Thematic review

Simply put, a thematic literature review aims to identify key themes or concepts that frequently appear in the collected studies. If your inquiry revolves around study tools, for example, what tools appear to be studied more often than others? Perhaps technology like computers and tablets appear often in studies, while newer devices such as virtual reality headsets and other wearable technology are given less focus.

Understanding what topics have already been studied in abundance can help you make an argument about what researchers should explore next. Prominent themes provide a helpful guide for identifying important trends and turning points in research.

As a result, your literature review can benefit from an annotated bibliography, which is a systematic organization of the research papers in your analysis. Many bibliographies include summaries of each study and a checklist of data points (e.g., does the study mention computers, handheld devices, or wearable technology?) to provide a visualization of your analysis.

Quantitative analysis

As mentioned earlier, identifying gaps or unresolved puzzles is a common rationale for writing a literature review. Examples of knowledge gaps include underexplored aspects of theory, lack of discussion in particular contexts, and underutilized research methods.

A quantitative analysis of the literature can help illustrate these gaps. For example, you can argue for a methodological gap among your collected studies. In a set of 40 papers, if 25 involve studies based on interviews and another 10 are based on surveys, you can argue that further observational research is necessary.

How do I write a literature review?

Writing a literature review involves discussing your collected studies by describing prominent themes, theoretical or empirical aspects that are missing or underexplored, or a combination of both. Remember that a key goal is to demonstrate your knowledge of the most recent and important developments in the field.

Examine the thematic codes in your project to determine which themes are most apparent and which elements remain underexamined. You can use these code frequencies in your written report to explain the extent or absence of theoretical development in the field (e.g., "Bus transportation is mentioned in only 7% (14 times) of the collected literature, demonstrating a lack of research on what people think about using buses for commuting.").

The goal of the writing process is not to exhaustively detail every study but to describe the most apparent trends or missing information. Select 3-5 themes that arise from the codes and describe each in detail, citing studies from the collected literature as key examples.

Writing literature reviews requires thorough, critical analysis. Photo by Scott Graham.

From a presentation of these themes, you can make an assertion about the need for novel research inquiry. Using the identified themes to represent a coherent whole, analyze and identify the overlooked areas of research that your own work can address.

Ultimately, most scholarly research is published based on whether that research contributes something novel and interesting to the current conversation around the topic. As a result, a rigorous literature review presents multiple sources of significant studies revolving around the same research topic. It presents a compelling argument about what such studies have yet to explore.