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
    1. Introduction
    2. How do you prepare for qualitative research?
    3. Common theoretical perspectives
    4. Choosing the right perspective
    5. Methodological implications
    6. Future directions
  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

Theoretical perspective

Prior to any qualitative research design, qualitative researchers can choose a theoretical perspective to apply to their study. Qualitative research needs grounding in a specific epistemology to answer research questions and generate the appropriate research findings. The theoretical perspective guides the creation of theoretical frameworks through which to view the research question, and it can inform the methodology, data collection, analysis, and interpretation of the findings.

A theoretical perspective helps the researcher orient their view of the world.

Rationale for a theoretical perspective

Let's explore a few reasons why choosing a theoretical perspective is important.

Provides a framework for understanding the phenomenon

A theoretical perspective helps to provide a framework for understanding the phenomenon under investigation. It can help the researcher to identify relevant concepts and variables and to understand how they might be related to each other.

Choosing a theoretical perspective can be vital for psychological qualitative research, for example, as it shapes the way a researcher approaches and comprehends various mental processes and human behaviors under study. A well-chosen theoretical perspective lays the foundation for the research, informing the selection of research questions, methodology, data collection, and data analysis techniques. Furthermore, it situates the study within the larger context of psychological theories and understanding, ensuring that the research contributes meaningfully to the existing body of knowledge. By adopting an appropriate theoretical perspective, such as cognitive, behavioral, or psychodynamic, the researcher can address potential biases and assumptions, thereby enhancing the credibility, validity, and reliability of the findings in the field of psychology.

Shapes research questions

A theoretical perspective can help to shape the research questions, hypotheses, and objectives that the researcher wants to investigate. The questions that are asked will depend on the theoretical perspective and assumptions being made about the phenomenon.

Guides data collection and data analysis

The theoretical perspective can guide the collection and analysis of data by informing the qualitative methods used to collect data, such as interviews, focus groups, or observations. It can also inform the types of data that are collected and the way in which the data are analyzed.

A good theoretical perspective helps the researcher sort data and organize knowledge. Photo by UX Indonesia.

Increases the credibility of the research

Choosing a theoretical perspective can help to increase the credibility of the research by demonstrating that the researcher has thought carefully about the phenomenon being studied and has situated the study within a relevant theoretical framework. This can increase the rigor of the research and make it more likely to be accepted and understood by the academic community.

Overall, choosing a theoretical perspective is important because it helps the researcher to situate the study within a broader context and provides a framework for understanding the phenomenon under investigation.

Common theoretical perspectives

In qualitative research, theoretical perspectives play a crucial role in guiding the research process and interpreting the findings. This section will provide a brief overview of the major theoretical perspectives in qualitative research, which can be helpful for emerging researchers.


Constructivism is a philosophical and methodological approach that emphasizes the central role of human cognition in constructing knowledge and understanding the world. In qualitative research, constructivism provides a framework for exploring how individuals construct meaning from their experiences, interactions, and the social context in which they live. Constructivism can help researchers adapt to the dynamic nature of human experience and meaning-making.


Interpretivism is a philosophical and methodological approach that emphasizes the importance of understanding the social world through the subjective experiences and interpretations of individuals. In qualitative research, interpretivism provides a framework for exploring the meanings, beliefs, and values that guide people's actions and decision-making in various social contexts.

Symbolic interactionism

A symbolic interactionist perspective seeks to explain social phenomena and human behavior through the effects that social interaction has on our way of thinking and how we understand the world around us. In this sense, lived experience and subjective perception are key to understanding knowledge and have profound influences on the social structure of groups and cultures.

Critical theory

Critical theory seeks to understand and challenge power structures and social inequalities with the goal of promoting social change. Researchers adopting this perspective aim to expose the underlying causes of social problems and empower marginalized groups. They often focus on issues related to race, gender, class, and other forms of social and economic inequality. Conflict perspective, symbolic violence, and hermeneutical injustice are all central to critical theory as they focus on power inequities and their root causes.

Conflict theory

Conflict theory is a perspective rooted in sociological theory that examines society through the lens of power, inequality, and social conflict. It posits that society is characterized by ongoing struggles for resources and control among different groups. Originating from Karl Marx's work, conflict theory emphasizes the social and economic disparities that lead to tensions and conflicts. In qualitative research, conflict theory provides a framework to understand power dynamics, oppression, and social inequality. It prompts researchers to investigate how conflicts shape social interactions, institutions, and norms. Adopting a conflict theory perspective allows qualitative researchers to illuminate power struggles and social injustices, contributing to efforts for social change.

Critical race theory

While scholars like Foucault developed critical theory to understand and explain social institutions and power in a general sense, critical race theory looks at power inequities primarily within the context of race. Critical race theorists seek to expose and challenge the ways in which racism operates in society and to promote racial justice and equality. Critical race theory has been used to analyze a range of different areas, including education, criminal justice, and housing.

Feminist theory

Feminist theory aims to understand and challenge gender-based power inequalities and promote the social, political, and economic equality of all genders. This perspective emphasizes the need to understand the experiences of women and other marginalized genders, as well as the ways in which gender intersects with other social categories like race and class.

Theoretical perspectives like critical theory and feminist theory explore themes of power in the social sciences. Photo by VO Noticias.


Postmodernism questions the existence of objective truths and universal narratives, arguing that knowledge is always contextual and contingent. Researchers adopting a postmodern perspective often emphasize the plurality of perspectives, the fragmentation of identities, and the instability of meaning. This approach encourages researchers to critically examine their own assumptions and the power dynamics that influence the research process.


Post-structuralism critiques the idea that there are fixed, stable structures that determine meaning and reality. Instead, this perspective emphasizes the complexity, fluidity, and multiple interpretations of social phenomena by challenging theoretical assumptions about the world around us. Researchers adopting a post-structuralist approach often focus on the role of language, discourse, and power in shaping our understanding of the world.

Grounded theory

Grounded theory is an inductive research approach that aims to generate theories grounded in empirical data. Researchers using this perspective collect and analyze data concurrently, allowing the emerging theory to guide the research process. This approach emphasizes the development of conceptual categories and the relationships between them rather than focusing on the testing of pre-existing theories.

These theoretical perspectives are not mutually exclusive and can be combined or adapted to suit the specific research context and goals. By understanding and choosing an appropriate theoretical perspective, researchers can ensure a more coherent and rigorous research process, as well as more meaningful and valid interpretations of their data.

Choosing the right perspective

Selecting an appropriate theoretical perspective is a crucial step in conducting qualitative research, as it shapes the researcher's approach to data collection, analysis, and interpretation. The choice of a theoretical perspective should be informed by the research question, the study's goals, and the researcher's epistemological and ontological assumptions. Here are some key factors to consider when choosing a theoretical perspective for qualitative research:

- Research question and objectives: The research question and objectives should guide the choice of a theoretical perspective. Consider which perspective best aligns with the goals of the study and is most likely to help you address the research question effectively. For example, if your study aims to explore power dynamics and social inequalities, a critical theory or feminist theory perspective may be appropriate.

- Epistemological and ontological assumptions: Your epistemological (how we know what we know) and ontological (the nature of reality) assumptions influence your choice of a theoretical perspective. Reflect on your beliefs about the nature of knowledge and reality, and consider which perspective aligns with these assumptions and the goals of your study. For instance, if you approach knowledge as something that is subjective and contingent, you may lean towards a constructivist, interpretivist, or postmodernist perspective.

- Theoretical and personal interests: Your own theoretical interests and personal experiences may also influence your choice of a theoretical perspective. Consider your background, academic discipline, and areas of expertise, as well as your personal values, experiences, and interests. Choosing a perspective that resonates with your own interests and experiences can help ensure a more engaged and passionate research process.

- Study population and context: The study population and context should also be taken into account when selecting a theoretical perspective. Consider the characteristics of your participants, the setting of the study, and the broader social, cultural, and historical context in which the research takes place. Some perspectives may be more appropriate for specific populations, settings, or contexts, while others may be more applicable across a range of situations.

- Methodological implications: The choice of a theoretical perspective has implications for the research methods and techniques you will employ. Consider which perspective best aligns with the methodological approach you plan to use and is likely to yield the most valuable insights. For example, if you plan to use narrative inquiry or discourse analysis, a postmodernist or post-structuralist perspective may be suitable.

- Flexibility and openness: While it is essential to choose a theoretical perspective that aligns with your research question, goals, and assumptions, it is also important to remain flexible and open to new insights and perspectives that may emerge during the research process. Be prepared to revisit and refine your theoretical perspective as you collect and analyze data, incorporating new ideas and perspectives as appropriate.

By carefully considering all these factors, researchers can select a perspective that will guide and enrich their research process and findings. To understand how these different aspects can be aligned, it is also helpful to pay attention to these when reading other studies published in your area.

Methodological implications

As mentioned previously, choosing from the various theoretical perspectives can guide your research inquiry and study design. Let's look more closely at the influences that the right perspective can have on your research methodology.


Theoretical perspectives hold various implications for sampling strategies. Each prioritizes different considerations when selecting participants or cases for study. Researchers should align their sampling strategy with the chosen theoretical perspective to ensure that the selected participants or cases are relevant to the research focus and theoretical framework. For instance, a critical theory perspective may prioritize purposeful sampling to include marginalized or underrepresented voices, while a phenomenological perspective may prioritize maximum variation sampling to capture diverse experiences.

Data collection methods

The theoretical perspective adopted influences the selection of data collection methods in qualitative research. Different perspectives emphasize different types of data and data collection techniques. Researchers need to consider how their chosen theoretical perspective guides the selection and application of appropriate data collection methods to effectively address their research questions. For example, an ethnographic perspective may prioritize participant observation, interviews, and field notes to capture rich contextual data, while a feminist perspective may emphasize the use of narratives and life histories to explore power dynamics.

Data analysis techniques

Data analysis is also impacted by the chosen theoretical perspective. For example, theoretical perspectives inform the selection of analytical frameworks, coding schemes, and interpretation strategies. Researchers should align their data analysis techniques with the theoretical perspective to ensure that the analysis captures the nuances and insights relevant to the research questions. For instance, a poststructuralist perspective may employ discourse analysis to deconstruct power relations and discursive formations, while a grounded theory perspective may employ constant comparative analysis to develop theoretical categories.

Interpretation and findings

Theoretical perspectives shape the interpretation of findings and the construction of knowledge in qualitative research. Researchers must consider how their chosen theoretical perspective guides the interpretation of findings and contributes to the generation of meaningful and contextually situated knowledge. Each perspective offers different lenses through which researchers interpret their data and generate insights. For example, a postcolonial perspective may draw attention to the colonial legacies and power imbalances embedded in the research findings. In contrast, a phenomenological perspective may focus on the lived experiences and subjective meanings.

It is crucial for researchers to recognize that methodological implications are not rigid prescriptions but flexible guidelines. Researchers should adapt and refine their methodological choices based on the specific research context, research questions, and theoretical perspective, considering the strengths and limitations of each approach.

Future directions

Emerging trends and advancements in theoretical perspectives offer exciting opportunities for researchers to innovate and expand the boundaries of qualitative research. These future directions push the boundaries of traditional theoretical perspectives, exploring new avenues of inquiry and addressing contemporary challenges. This section presents ideas for potential innovations in theoretical perspectives, highlighting areas where qualitative researchers can make significant contributions.

Intersectionality and complex systems thinking

Incorporating intersectionality and complex systems thinking into theoretical perspectives can enhance the understanding of multifaceted social phenomena. Intersectionality recognizes the interconnections between various social categories such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, acknowledging the unique experiences and oppressions that result from their overlapping effects. Complex systems thinking explores the dynamic relationships and feedback loops that shape social systems. By integrating these perspectives, researchers can develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexities and interdependencies within social phenomena.

Global and transnational perspectives

With increasing globalization, researchers can explore theoretical perspectives that transcend national boundaries. Global and transnational perspectives emphasize the interconnectedness of societies, cultures, and institutions across the globe. These perspectives can shed light on global social issues, transnational identities, and the effects of global processes on local contexts. Researchers can adopt theoretical lenses that capture the complexities of global interdependencies, migration, diaspora, and cross-cultural encounters, facilitating a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary social dynamics.

Digital and technological transformations

Advancements in digital technologies have transformed social interactions, communication, and access to information. Researchers can explore theoretical perspectives that incorporate digital and technological dimensions. This includes studying the impact of digital platforms, social media, virtual communities, and artificial intelligence on social structures, power dynamics, identity formation, and social movements. By integrating digital and technological aspects into theoretical frameworks, researchers can better understand the evolving nature of social life in the digital age.

Environmental and ecological perspectives

Given the pressing environmental challenges, researchers can adopt theoretical perspectives that place emphasis on the environment and ecological systems. Environmental and ecological perspectives consider the intricate relationships between humans, their environments, and the natural world. By integrating these perspectives, researchers can explore the sociocultural dimensions of environmental issues, climate change, sustainability, and the interactions between human societies and the natural environment. These perspectives encourage a holistic understanding of social and ecological systems, paving the way for innovative research that addresses urgent environmental concerns.

Critical data studies and ethical implications

As data collection and analysis become increasingly prevalent in society, researchers can engage with critical data studies to examine the societal and ethical implications of data practices. Critical data studies explore issues such as data surveillance, privacy, algorithmic bias, and the power dynamics embedded in data-driven decision-making. By integrating critical perspectives into theoretical frameworks, researchers can investigate how data practices shape social structures, inequalities, and the lived experiences of individuals and communities. This approach encourages reflexivity and ethical considerations in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data.

Participatory and community-based approaches

To foster more inclusive and empowering research processes, researchers can embrace participatory and community-based approaches within theoretical perspectives. These approaches involve engaging participants and communities as active collaborators, valuing their lived experiences and knowledge. By integrating participatory and community-based practices, researchers can address power imbalances, amplify marginalized voices, and co-create knowledge that is meaningful and relevant to the communities under study. This empowers participants as agents of change and ensures research findings contribute to tangible positive outcomes.

While this discussion may seem to go far afield, embracing future directions in theoretical perspectives offers opportunities for qualitative researchers to innovate and contribute to advancing the field. By incorporating approaches such as intersectionality, complex systems thinking, global perspectives, digital transformations, environmental considerations, critical data studies, or participatory research, researchers can explore new dimensions of social phenomena, address contemporary challenges, and engage in socially relevant research.

These innovations allow for a more comprehensive understanding of complex social dynamics, foster ethical and inclusive research practices, and generate knowledge that can contribute to positive societal change. As the research landscape continues to evolve, qualitative researchers can seize these future directions to push the boundaries of theoretical perspectives, deepen our understanding of the social world, and ultimately make meaningful contributions to academic scholarship and societal well-being.