What is Inductive Reasoning?

If you proceed inductively in your research, you derive a theory from your observations. A quantitative study can follow up an inductive analysis to substantiate an observation to make your hypothesis generally valid.
Joerg Hecker
Jörg Hecker
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Inductive reasoning
  2. Inductive logic
  3. Inductive logic in research
  4. Inductive vs. deductive reasoning
  5. The inductive approach in the research process
  6. Further inquiry

Inductive reasoning - Overview

Inductive reasoning is an analytical approach that involves proposing a generalized conclusion about the world based on the data that you use in your research. Inductive reasoning is a bottom-up approach where researchers construct knowledge and propose new theory.

Figure 1: Inductive reasoning is about generating theory from the ground up, like a building under construction. Photo by Thomas Kinto.

Inductive and deductive reasoning go hand in hand to allow researchers to develop a theoretical understanding of the social world. Let's look more closely at the concept of inductive reasoning and how it applies to research and in ATLAS.ti.

  • Inductive logic
  • Inductive logic in research
  • Inductive vs. deductive reasoning
  • The inductive approach in the research process
  • Further inquiry

Inductive logic

People engage in inductive logic when they make specific observations about a particular phenomenon and draw conclusions based on the substance of those observations. Those conclusions can serve their working theory until other specific observations challenge or contradict their understanding. They must then further develop into a more nuanced, more logical conclusion that accommodates their broadened observations of the world. Ultimately, the inductive method aims to draw a causal inference between related phenomena.

Inductive reasoning examples

Inductive reasoning becomes easier to understand as a bottom-up approach to logic. To take an example from everyday life, if one were to see a cat, notice that it has a tail, and come across other creatures that have tails, then they can reach a generalized conclusion through inductive reference based on their observations: all animals with a tail are cats.

Obviously, this does not mean that the proposed theory is the end of the inductive reasoning process. They can find a dog with a tail, but they would be hard-pressed to call it a cat. As a result, the theory they have developed from previous experience could provide a better explanation. That person would have to conduct new observations of cats and dogs to make a further inductive inference: cats and dogs have tails, but cats have sharper claws. The cycle of inductive reasoning can thus continue indefinitely to develop more robust theories.

Another famous example is that of the black swan. You can inductively conclude that all swans are white if you have only observed white swans so far. This theory must be thrown out when you encounter a black swan. Then you need to revise your theory to account for the new observation.

Figure 2: Inductive reasoning means changing assumptions that all swans are white when you see a black swan.

Inductive logic in research

The role of inductive reasoning in research is not always readily apparent if you only look at experimental research as a means for developing theory. Experimental research depends on deductive reasoning to confirm or dispute an existing theory, while inductive reasoning is best associated with observations. Observation and inductive logic are most appropriate in research inquiries where the existing theory is not sufficiently developed or developed at all, requiring researchers to develop an inductive generalization about the phenomenon they are studying.

Especially in social science research, it's impossible to come to a necessarily true conclusion to the inductive reasoning process. Existing theory is always in constant development due to research through inductive reasoning. As a result, the objectives of the inductive approach are to provide examples that allow researchers to make a general statement about a phenomenon while also opening up new lines of inquiry for future research.

It is also important to note that inductive research need not exist independent of existing theory. The research process always calls for connections to the existing literature to organize and generate knowledge. The main principle in applying inductive reasoning to your research is that the causal inference you establish comes from the data you analyze.

Is inductive analysis qualitative or quantitative?

Inductive reasoning is often associated with qualitative research, where the objective is to describe the aspects of unfamiliar phenomena that are not often quantifiable. Quantitative analysis, on the other hand, tends to rely on deductive reasoning to test existing theory to suggest when established knowledge requires further development.

That said, inductive reasoning skills can be used with quantitative methods to form hypotheses based on the data. The important premise of an inductive approach is that hypotheses are generated from the frequency of a particular phenomenon. This means that patterns that occur in abundance across observations or interviews are more useful in developing theory than anecdotes that occur only once or twice as a special case or exception.

ATLAS.ti, for example, has tools such as Word Cloud to count the frequency of words. If you use a transcript of a speech, you can employ the Word Cloud tool and apply inductive reasoning to make a logical conclusion about a speaker's speech patterns based on the words they use most often.

Figure 3: The Word Cloud tool in ATLAS.ti can help aid inductive reasoning by showing patterns in the data.

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Inductive vs. deductive reasoning

Deductive and inductive research are contrasting but complementary approaches used in scientific work. To clarify the difference, deductive approaches test existing bodies of thought, while inductive methods aim to generate new knowledge and theories. In other words,deductive reasoning works on current facts, while inductive reasoning seeks to create a new set of facts.

To return to the example about cats and dogs, an example of a deductive inference would be one that uses an existing conclusion that all cats have tails and sharp claws. As a result, if someone finds an animal with a tail and sharp claws, they can employ deductive reasoning based on the above conclusion to call that animal a cat. Naturally, the more refined the theories employed, the more a researcher can rely on deductive reasoning.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive and can be combined in the same scientific study. You can, for instance, build a code system starting with some deductively derived concepts, which you enrich throughout the analysis process with codes that you develop from the data inductively. In this sense, inductive and deductive reasoning both contribute to the analysis of your research.

You can use Code Manager in ATLAS.ti to differentiate between the two sets of codes to organize inductive and deductive approaches in the same project. Colors and code groups can help you distinguish between the different kinds of codes you use to conduct your analysis. For more complex research projects, smart codes can also facilitate the organization of your research by identifying segments of data that meet a certain set of criteria based on your codes.

Figure 4: The Code Manager in ATLAS.ti can help you reach a logical conclusion about the most frequent patterns in your research.

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The inductive approach in the research process

The research process can often be divided into data collection and data analysis. Especially in qualitative research, coding is the intermediary step that facilitates analysis, leading to general conclusions that develop broader theories.

Data collection

Inductive reasoning can be applied to most methods of data collection. That said, qualitative research methods that call for observations or interactions with research participants allow the researcher to employ inductive reasoning during data collection.

Imagine an interview project to determine the effects of social media usage. In initial interviews with people, the researcher may notice that many respondents mention physical effects like eye strain or lack of sleep. When the researcher believes there is a connection, they may adjust the questions they ask respondents to find more evidence of this causal relationship.

Similarly, with observations, a researcher employs inductive reasoning when they notice something that occurs frequently. For example, they might notice that people using smartphones in public tend to get in more accidents (e.g., bumping into others, tripping over objects). As a result, they can adjust their observations by going to crowded places where it is more likely people using smartphones might suffer more accidents.


An inductive reasoning approach to qualitative data analysis requires looking at your project to identify examples that will ultimately serve as the premises for your proposed theory. The theory can be further developed after identifying patterns and adjusting the focus to look for more evidence of or exceptions to those patterns.

Figure 5: Generate codes based on what emerges from the data to exercise inductive reasoning.

In ATLAS.ti, the logical process employing an inductive approach starts with looking at your data. What patterns seem apparent? Give each pattern a short but descriptive label that forms one of your codes. Codes are short because they help summarize large segments for quick understanding or to categorize discrete segments in separate areas of your research project.

These codes can be created directly in Code Manager, but if you look at many observations, you may find it easier to create codes while reading the data. As you read through your project, you can create new codes and then apply them to segments of data that are called quotations. Quotations given the same code can be said to be related to each other by the same broader pattern, thus establishing connections between different data segments with the same code.

As an example of this relationship, imagine you are coding a set of documents that contain people's schedules in everyday life. These schedules might mention activities such as "tennis practice," "doctor's appointment," and "movie night with partner." Looking at these schedules, you might want to apply codes such as "fun activities" and "important tasks" to these items to get a sense of how often each category of activity occurs in people's everyday routines.

Coding your data can be a time-consuming process, but required when applying inductive reasoning to your research data. Traditionally, researchers code one document at a time, line by line. In ATLAS.ti, tools like the Text Search function can quicken the coding process by allowing researchers to search for a specific word or phrase in their project and code segments containing their desired search term. If a particular code can be represented by a certain word or phrase, the Text Search tool can allow you to organize the relevant data in one place for quick and easy coding.

Figure 6: Apply codes with the Text Search function in ATLAS.ti to aid inductive reasoning.

Incidentally, the Text Search function also works with deductive reasoning, particularly when existing theories can be associated with particular words or phrases you can look for in your project. Whatever the approach, ATLAS.ti can help you save time in coding your research.

Data analysis

Once your data has been coded, you can look at the Code Manager to examine which codes have been used the most. This will aid the inductive reasoning process by identifying what occurs the most often in your data.

Not only can you apply inductive reasoning through the occurrence of codes, but also the co-occurrence of codes as well. Keep in mind that quotations can contain multiple codes and that quotations with different codes can overlap. When text is associated with more than one code, those codes co-occur with each other. Researchers can use that co-occurrence to infer relationships between different phenomena.

ATLAS.ti has a tool called Code Co-Occurrence table, where you can examine codes generated through inductive reasoning and identify potential relationships between those codes. The Code Co-Occurrence table lists the frequencies for different pairs of codes that you specify in ATLAS.ti.

Drawing conclusions

Codes based on inductive reasoning must frequently occur throughout the data to be considered valid premises for your proposed theory. In contrast, an anecdotal generalization, or a conclusion not based on an abundance of examples from the data, is prone to exceptional or negative cases that signal a need for further theoretical development. Theories built on singular anecdotes or insufficient evidence are thus ill-suited for deductive reasoning in future research because they are unreliable as premises guiding confirmatory theoretical analysis.

In ATLAS.ti, an anecdotal generalization can arise from codes applied to only a few quotations rather than codes applied more frequently. Likewise, codes employed in large numbers of quotations show the greatest potential contribution to theory.

Similarly, frequencies of code co-occurrence represent potential relationships between patterns that are potentially useful to theoretical development. The frequency counts for codes and code co-occurrences can all be exported into Microsoft Excel using ATLAS.ti's export functions. By exporting these counts into a spreadsheet, researchers can then run further statistical analysis on their project.

Further inquiry

The inductive vs. deductive reasoning debate dominates a significant portion of the discussion regarding qualitative analysis. However, abductive reasoning is the third type of reasoning that also warrants some attention. Abductive reasoning may seem similar to inductive reasoning in that you can develop an argument based on the information available in your research. However, inductive reasoning generates a conclusion based solely on the observations you make in your research, while abductive reasoning involves making the most likely conclusion based on what you know.

Theories built on inductive reasoning are often followed up by quantitative research to confirm the research through statistical generalizations. Generally, any research that employs deductive reasoning can be used to support inductive inferences, but quantitative research at scale is useful in confirming the applicability of theory across large populations or multiple contexts.

Regardless of the reasoning or methodology employed, all good research has the capability of generating, strengthening, and extending theory when it incorporates sound, transparent analysis. ATLAS.ti can facilitate the analytical process of research by making the coding process faster and more intuitive so that researchers can spend more time conducting analysis.

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