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
    1. Introduction
    2. Strategies for developing the 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

Theoretical framework

The theoretical perspective provides the broader lens or orientation through which the researcher views the research topic and guides their overall understanding and approach. The theoretical framework, on the other hand, is a more specific and focused framework that connects the theoretical perspective to the data analysis strategy through pre-established theory.

A useful theoretical framework provides a structure for organizing and interpreting the data collected during the research study. Theoretical frameworks provide a specific lens through which the data is examined, allowing the researcher to identify recurring patterns, themes, and categories related to your research inquiry based on relevant theory.

A theoretical framework provides the theoretical assumptions that can guide your research.

Let's explore the idea of the theoretical framework in greater detail by exploring its place in qualitative research, particularly how it is generated and how it contributes to and guides your research study.

Theoretical framework vs. theoretical perspective

While these two terms may sound similar, they play very distinct roles in qualitative research. A theoretical perspective refers to the philosophical stance informing the methodology and thus provides a context for the research process. These perspectives could be rooted in various schools of thought like postmodernism, constructivism, or positivism, which fundamentally shape how researchers perceive reality and construct knowledge.

On the other hand, the theoretical framework represents the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. It presents a logical structure of connected concepts that help the researcher understand, explain, and predict how phenomena are interrelated. The theoretical framework can pull together various theories or ideas from different perspectives to provide a comprehensive approach to addressing the research problem.

Moreover, theoretical frameworks provide useful guidance as to which research methods are appropriate for your research project. If the theoretical framework you employ is relevant to individual perspectives and beliefs, then interviews may be more suitable for your research. On the other hand, if you are utilizing an existing theory about a certain social behavior, then ethnographic observations can help you more ably capture data from social interactions.

Later in this guide, we will also discuss conceptual frameworks, which help you visualize the essential concepts and data points in the context you are studying. For now, it is important to emphasize that these are all related but ultimately different ideas.

Example of a theoretical framework

Let's look at a simple example of a theoretical framework used to address a social science research problem. Consider a study examining the impact of social media on body image among adolescents. The theoretical perspective might be rooted in social constructivism, based on the assumption that our understanding of reality is shaped by social interactions and cultural context.

The theoretical framework, then, could draw on one or several theories to provide a comprehensive structure for examining this issue. For instance, it might combine elements of "social comparison theory" (which suggests that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others), "self-perception theory" (which posits that individuals develop their attitudes by observing their own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused it), and "cultivation theory" (which suggests that long-term immersion in a media environment leads to "cultivation", or adopting the attitudes and beliefs portrayed in the media).

This framework would provide the structure to understand how social media exposure influences adolescents' perceptions of their bodies, how they compare themselves to images seen on social media, and how these influences may shape their attitudes toward their own bodies.

Other examples of theoretical frameworks

Let's briefly look at examples in other fields to put the idea of "theoretical framework" in greater context.

Political science

In a study investigating the influence of lobbying on legislative decisions, the theoretical framework could be rooted in the "pluralist theory" and "elite theory".

Pluralist theory views politics as a competition among groups, each one pressing for its preferred policies, while elite theory suggests that a small, cohesive elite group makes the most important decisions in society. The framework could combine these theories to examine the power dynamics in legislative decisions and the role of lobbying groups in influencing these outcomes.

Educational research

An educational research study aiming to understand the impact of parental involvement on children's academic success could employ a theoretical framework based on Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory and Epstein's theory of overlapping spheres of influence.

The different theories between political and academic research call for using a different theoretical framework for each study. Photo by CDC.

The ecological systems theory emphasizes the importance of multiple environmental systems on child development, while Epstein's theory focuses on the partnership between family, school, and community. The intersection of these theories allows for a comprehensive examination of parental involvement both in and outside of the school context.

Health services research

In a health services study exploring factors affecting patient adherence to medication regimes, the theoretical framework could draw from the health belief model and social cognitive theory.

The health belief model posits that people's beliefs about health problems, perceived benefits of action and barriers to action, and self-efficacy explain engagement in health-promoting behavior.

The social cognitive theory emphasizes the role of observational learning, social experience, and reciprocal determinism in behavior change. The framework combining these theories provides a holistic understanding of both personal and social influences on patient medication adherence.

Strategies for developing the theoretical framework

Developing a theoretical framework involves a multi-step process that begins with a thorough literature review. This allows you to understand the existing theories and research related to your topic and identify gaps or unresolved puzzles that your study can address.

1. Identify key concepts: These might be the phenomena you are studying, the attributes of these phenomena, or the relationships between them. Identifying these can help you define the relevant data points to analyze.

2. Find relevant theories: Conduct a literature review to search for existing theories in academic research papers that relate to your key concepts. These theories might explain the phenomena you are studying, provide context for it, or suggest how the phenomena might be related. You can build off of one theory or multiple theories, but what is most important is that the theory is aligned with the concepts and research problem you are studying.

3. Map relationships: Outline how the theories you have found relate to one another and to your key concepts. This might involve drawing a diagram or writing a narrative that explains these relationships.

4. Refine the framework: As you conduct your research, refine your theoretical framework. This might involve adding new concepts or theories, removing concepts or theories that do not fit your data, or changing how you conceptualize the relationships between theories.

Remember, the theoretical framework is not set in stone. At the same time, it may start with existing knowledge, it is important to develop your own framework as you gather more data and gain a deeper understanding of your research topic and context.

In the end, a good theoretical framework guides your research question and methods so that you can ultimately generate new knowledge and theory that meaningfully contributes to the existing conversation around a topic.