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
    1. Introduction
    2. How do you prepare for qualitative research?
    3. Qualities of good study design
    4. Components of qualitative research
  8. Theoretical perspective
  9. Theoretical framework
  10. Literature reviews
  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

Qualitative research preparation

Robust qualitative data collection and qualitative data analysis rely on thorough preparation, which can adequately guide your choice of theories and qualitative research methods. Conducting qualitative research requires consideration of important theoretical and methodological elements before the study can be considered rigorous and trustworthy. With that in mind, this section will preview the subsequent sections exploring the essential components of a qualitative study.

Qualitative research requires careful planning and robust study design.

How do you prepare for qualitative research?

Quantitative research design is arguably more straightforward than qualitative research design. Studies that require statistical analyses, for example, can rely on clear pre-established processes and rely on statistical analysis programs to produce results. On the other hand, qualitative research methodology depends on what assumptions are made about the topic and object of inquiry. As a result, qualitative researchers have to deeply consider the epistemology informing the study design before deciding on qualitative research methods or what the qualitative research data will look like.

Qualities of good study design

The traditional "paradigm wars" over whether quantitative research is better than qualitative research or vice versa presented numerous critiques that have, ironically, been good for qualitative researchers in the long run. These critiques have called on researchers to critically consider their theoretical assumptions and methodology in a manner that has allowed them and their peers to distinguish a rigorous study from a poorly designed one. More specifically, study design is important in qualitative research for several reasons:

  • Flexibility: Qualitative research often involves exploring complex, multifaceted phenomena that cannot be easily measured or quantified. As a result, the research design must be flexible enough to accommodate new insights or emerging themes as they arise during the data collection and data analysis.

  • Emphasis on context: Qualitative research often emphasizes the importance of context in shaping individual experiences and social phenomena. As a result, the research design must be sensitive to the specific cultural, social, and historical contexts in which the research is conducted.

  • Subjectivity: Qualitative research often acknowledges the role of the researcher's own subjectivity in shaping the research process and findings. As a result, the research design must account for the researcher's own biases and perspectives and strive to minimize their impact on the research process.

  • Richness and depth of data: Qualitative research often aims to produce rich, detailed data that can provide a deep understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. As a result, the research design must be tailored to produce data that is rich in detail and depth, such as through in-depth interviews or participant observation.

  • Importance of interpretation: Qualitative research often involves interpreting data and identifying patterns or themes that emerge from the data. As a result, the research design must be structured in a way that allows for systematic analysis and interpretation of data.

Overall, study design is important in qualitative research because it allows the researcher to tailor the research process to the unique characteristics of the phenomenon under investigation and to produce rich, detailed data that can provide a deep understanding of the phenomenon. By emphasizing context, subjectivity, and interpretation, qualitative research can produce nuanced, complex insights that may not be captured through quantitative research methods.

Components of qualitative research

Just as quantitative research methods commonly adhere to the scientific process, a rigorous qualitative research process has essential components that require consideration for scholars to think of a study as credible and trustworthy. These components guide a research project toward appropriate theories, methods, and analytical strategies. After all, you might like to conduct a focus group if it is your favorite qualitative method, but do your research questions call for using focus groups? Do the theoretical foundations embedded in your research make focus groups an appropriate data collection strategy? Do you have a comprehensive theoretical framework to adequately capture the insights you need from focus group data?

All the key elements in a qualitative study are interconnected. Photo by Alvaro Reyes.

Knowing the answers to these questions is crucial for presenting a credible and persuasive study. With that in mind, here are the necessary elements typically found in qualitative research:

Theoretical perspective

The theoretical perspective is the philosophical stance or worldview that underlies the researcher's approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest. This perspective can shape the entire course of the study, from defining the research question to selecting the methodology, analyzing the data, and interpreting the findings. It often involves broad assumptions about society and human behavior, and it can be informed by theories from a variety of disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, or anthropology. For example, a researcher with a constructivist perspective may seek to understand how individuals construct their own realities. In contrast, a researcher with a postmodern perspective may focus on the power dynamics and social constructions that shape people's experiences.

Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework is the lens through which the research question is viewed and examined. It is the application of a specific theoretical perspective to the phenomenon under investigation. It may involve one or multiple theories or models, which provide a conceptual structure for interpreting and understanding the research data. The theoretical framework guides the development of research questions and hypotheses, and it shapes the design of the study, including the data collection and analysis methods. Importantly, the theoretical framework also provides a basis for making logical inferences and generalizations from the research findings. For example, a researcher studying the impact of social media on body image might draw on social comparison theory to frame their investigation.

Literature review

The literature review is a rigorous and systematic examination of the body of knowledge that has been published on a particular topic. It provides an understanding of the current state of knowledge, identifies key concepts and variables relevant to the research question, and uncovers gaps or inconsistencies in the existing literature that the current research can address. It involves a careful selection and critical appraisal of studies, with the aim of understanding the strengths and limitations of previous research. In addition to summarizing and synthesizing the findings of previous studies, the literature review should also discuss how the current study fits within the broader research context. For instance, in the case of research on social media's impact on body image, the literature review might highlight different aspects of the issue that have been studied, such as the role of peer comparison, the impact of influencers, and the effect of different types of social media platforms.

The literature review is an essential component in preparing a qualitative research study. Photo by Susan Q Yin.

Research question

The research question is a specific question or set of questions that the research aims to answer. The research question is typically informed by the theoretical perspective, theoretical framework, and literature review. The question you pursue will determine which qualitative methods are appropriate for your research, or it may even steer you toward quantitative methods. A study that investigates customer perspectives may warrant surveys or focus groups. An analysis of discourses may rely on a detailed coding process or content analysis methods to measure the use of certain expressions or words. An inquiry about cultural processes can call for an ethnographic research method for collecting qualitative data in the field for thorough understanding.

Conceptual framework

The conceptual framework serves as a roadmap for the research process, providing a clear picture of the proposed study. It's a researcher's individual interpretation of how the key parts of the study — the variables or concepts — are expected to relate to each other. This framework typically includes a set of concepts or variables that are directly related to the research question, as well as a set of propositions or hypotheses about how these concepts or variables are interconnected. While the conceptual framework may draw from multiple theoretical perspectives, it is tailored specifically to the research question at hand and the specific context of the study.

For example, in a study on the impact of online learning on student performance, the conceptual framework may include variables such as the frequency of online classes, student engagement, access to technology, and academic achievement. It might propose that a higher frequency of online classes and greater access to technology lead to increased student engagement, which in turn boosts academic performance. The conceptual framework also guides the data collection and analysis process, helping researchers to stay focused on the research objectives and to interpret their findings in a meaningful way. It ensures a systematic and rigorous approach to the research, and it provides a framework for reporting the research findings and for discussing their implications. Importantly, a well-developed conceptual framework can also make the research more credible and understandable to others, and it can help to identify potential limitations and areas for future research.