Qualitative Research Methods, Types & Examples

Let's look at the various qualitative research approaches and methods that help you gather data and further your research agenda.
Susanne Friese
Product specialist, trainer and author of the book "Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti"
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
life history
  1. Qualitative research methods
  2. When is qualitative research useful?
  3. What are the different approaches to qualitative research?
  4. What are the most common qualitative research methods?
  5. How do I code qualitative data?

Qualitative research methods - Overview

ATLAS.ti can provide qualitative data analysis that is easy, fast, and efficient. It is a powerful tool for all researchers who conduct qualitative research of any kind. As a result, it will definitely benefit you to understand qualitative research methods and their connection to data analysis in ATLAS.ti.

  • When is qualitative research useful?
  • What are the different approaches to qualitative research?
  • What are the most common qualitative research methods?
  • How can I conduct qualitative data analysis?
  • How do I code qualitative data?

When is qualitative research useful?

Qualitative research methods often contrast with quantitative research methods, which are usually found in the hard sciences such as biology and chemistry. Both orientations are used in the social sciences and behavioral sciences methodology as they contribute to a deep understanding of scientific knowledge. Quantitative research methods measure a particular phenomenon, while qualitative research methods describe it.

Think of how people might choose a smartphone and how many choices there are. A quantitative approach would be to consider the phone's weight, storage size (e.g., how many photos or songs it can hold), and battery life. Customers can decide by comparing the numbers of different models.

On the other hand, qualitative approaches can be represented by the customers' decisions regarding how easy it is to operate a smartphone or how visually appealing a smartphone is. These determinations are challenging to characterize numerically, requiring more extended descriptions to allow people to make reasonable comparisons.

Conducting social research methodology in qualitative research can gather data on and answer questions about complex social processes that are difficult to quantify. Conceptualization of these processes can benefit from theoretical development through inquiry that relies on qualitative methods.

What are the different approaches to qualitative research?

The qualitative data collection methods that researchers choose depend on their qualitative inquiry. Qualitative studies take on many forms, with the most common approaches listed below.

Action research

In action research, the focus is on a social problem rather than any theoretical interests. It is a reflective process of progressive problem-solving led by individuals working with others in teams.

Figure 1: Community volunteer contexts are great venues for change through the action research method. Photo by Dario Valenzuela.

The aim is to promote change by engaging participants in the process of sharing knowledge. It contains, among other elements, qualitative research methods that involve collecting data in the field through observation and participation.

Case study research

A case study is based on an in-depth investigation of a single individual, group, or event to explore causation and find underlying principles. It may involve the collection of documents such as archival records, interviews, notes from direct observations and participant observations, and physical artifacts.

Ethnographic research

Ethnography is a multi-method qualitative approach that studies behavior in naturally occurring settings. The purpose is to provide a detailed description of everyday life and practice. Ethnographic research methodscollect data from what people say, what they do, and what the researcher sees within natural settings.

An ethnographic understanding is developed by closely exploring several sources like participant observation, observation, interviews, and other artifacts like photographs and documents. The results of an ethnographic study are summaries of observed activities, typifications, or the identification of patterns and regularities.

Historical research

Biographical research is an approach to research that elicits and analyzes a person's biography or life history. It consists of an extended, written account or narrative of a person's life.

Qualitative researchers collect data through narrative interviews, historical records, and personal artifacts. Of interest is the entire life story regarding its genesis and how it is constructed in the present.

Figure 2: Photos can contribute to data collection in the qualitative research process. Photo by Roman Kraft.

Grounded theory research

Grounded theory is an inductive form of qualitative research introduced by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss. Instead of conducting qualitative research with an existing theory in mind, researchers analyze data to create the theory.

In grounded theory, there is a recursive cycle between data collection and analysis. The initial data analysis process shapes continuing data collection, which further contributes to analysis, and so on. Qualitative methodology employs grounded theory out of necessity in research areas where the theoretical understanding of a concept is undeveloped or underdeveloped. Researchers using qualitative methods should consider grounded theory when the data collected thus far is insufficient to provide in-depth insights.

Narrative research

Narrative research is about stories of life experiences. Study participants are asked to give a detailed account of themselves and their story. Other forms of data include life histories, journals, diaries, memoirs, biographies, and any other knowledge that can contribute to a narrative. The analysis aims to gain insights into a person's understanding of the meaning of events in their lives.

Figure 3: Books like memoirs and biographies can contribute to the perspectives gathered through narrative research methods. Photo by Patrick Tomasso.

Phenomenological research

Phenomenologyis a research methodology that has its roots in philosophy, focusing on the lived experience of individuals. Phenomenological researchers are interested in the nature or meaning of something; their questions are about the essence and not about appearance. Comparable to hermeneutical analysis, the researcher tries to understand the other person's perspective and experience.

In addition, there is a strong emphasis on the researcher's personal experience of the research process itself. A constant question is how the researcher is affected by the experience. Data are collected through various means: observation, interviews, focus groups, diaries, videos, and written descriptions by subjects.

Which approach to qualitative methods is best?

Naturally, a grounded theory approach is an appropriate choice for your research design when there is little theory to guide the analysis of a phenomenon and the data collection itself. For research in areas that have more guiding theory to help you, you can consider an approach like ethnography or case study research, depending on the scope of data you wish to collect. Finally, if the phenomenon you are studying is well-documented, historical research may be more appropriate for your inquiry.

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What are the most common qualitative research methods?

Any research method that produces unstructured data is considered a qualitative research method. However, three types of qualitative methods are commonly used today to conduct data collection.


The simplest way to study a phenomenon is to look at it. Research conducted through direct observation involves collecting data in field notes, recordings of audio and video, and images for data analysis.

This means that researchers can turn most forms of information into data that qualitative methods can analyze. The illustrative examples qualitative research methods generate can help research audiences understand observed phenomena more clearly. ATLAS.ti can help with this process by allowing qualitative researchers to code the major forms of data, including images and audio.

Figure 4: Coding pictures in ATLAS.ti. Qualitative methods often involve analysis of non-textual data.


Qualitative researchers conduct in-depth interviews to explore people's perspectives about a particular phenomenon. A research design using interviews benefits from a theoretical sampling of participants to intentionally narrow the scope of interviews to a set of participants most relevant to the inquiry (e.g., a sampling of expecting mothers in an interview study about perspectives on child-rearing).

Focus groups

A focus group is a group interview mainly used in market research. The aim is to inquire about people's perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, a service, a concept, an advertisement, or a packaging idea. In-depth interviews such as these are called focus groups because the participants are focused on a given topic and are selected based on whether they have something to say about the issue.

Figure 5: An example of a focus group, a popular method of data collection. Photo by Dylan Gillis.

Outside of market research, qualitative researchers also conduct focus groups when they want to observe how people interact with each other in a controlled setting. How people discuss their opinions and perspectives in groups is an essential inquiry in sociology and linguistics that focus groups can help explore.

How do I choose the best qualitative research method?

Think about what you want to study about a particular topic or concept. If your topic is education, are you interested in what happens in education, what people think about it, or how people talk about it? Observations can tap into the experiences within a particular context, while interviews and focus groups shed light on people's opinions.

Also, keep in mind that the use of multiple qualitative research methods can provide a deeper exploration of a concept than the use of one method alone. A good research design for an in-depth qualitative study can even apply quantitative research methods in what is called mixed methods research to examine a phenomenon from different angles.

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Figure 6: Viewing and coding PDFs in ATLAS.ti, which can be useful for document analysis.

How do I code qualitative data?

The coding process may seem intensive and convoluted, but it can be summarized simply as a means to provide a way to more quickly draw meaning from large sets of unstructured data. Coding is also a flexible qualitative method regardless of the types of qualitative data in your project.

Think about what you believe are the essential aspects of your project - perhaps these aspects come from your research question or something you noticed in your data. Then label each aspect with a word or a short phrase for simpler understanding later. These words or phrases comprise the codes that you can then use to label your text.

As you examine and code your data, new insights might come to mind, requiring you to add new codes to your project. While this is a time-consuming endeavor, the ultimate goal is to make your data more compact and easier to read until the patterns and themes of your research are clear for you and your research audience.

Once you have coded your project, ATLAS.ti offers several ways to query your data. Frequently used tools are the Code Co-occurrence Table and the Code-Document Table. Results can be visualized and saved in various forms as a basis for new queries, such as identifying types and typologies in the data.

You can also use these queries to conduct quantitative studies on your data. ATLAS.ti can export your results into Microsoft Excel for deeper analysis, allowing you to supplement your qualitative research with quantitative methods.

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