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Research Methods

Qualitative Research

Click on the tabbed links above for information on specific types of qualitative research.

Qualitative research focuses on the study of the human experience. It seeks to determine the meaning of situations people find themselves in by observing and gathering accounts, either as individuals, as part of a group, or both.

The following characteristics are commonly found in qualitative research:
           • inductive (rather than deductive) approach
           • numbers or quantitative data are very rarely used
           • findings tend to be presented as a discussion of themes that emerge from the analysis
           • researchers work with relatively small amounts of data that are then studied in great depth

Due to the nature of qualitative study, a key aspect of the research involves ethical responsibility. Namely, researchers must be cognizant of the effects and impacts their research will have on the participants, the community, and society in general. Similarly, another caveat of qualitative research is that its results tend to be context-specific, and thus cannot (and should not) be generalized. However, results from qualitative research can inform and even prompt novel theories that can then be further studied.

Like all methods of research, qualitative has some advantages and disadvantages. Qualitative research can be applied to a wide range of topics, however the consideration of social meanings may not always the most important question to ask about a topic. The lines between the different branches of qualitative research can be blurry or overlap, and often draw on multidisciplinary fields such as phenomenology and narrative. Additionally, due to its reliance on inference and its context-specific results, qualitative research is not often seen as reliable as hard, numerical data. That said, qualitative research incorporates a wide range of data collection techniques that have a long history of use that have garnered credibility and reputation. These pros and cons are considered at both the researcher-level, as well as societal and institutional, and are thus important to keep in mind when considering for your research or study.

Further Reading

Looking for readings on qualitative research within a specific field? Try searching for more resources using the keywords "qualitative research" AND the field of your choice.

Click here or the image above to view sample search results.

Brewer, J. (2003). Qualitative research. In R. L. Miller, & J. D. Brewer, The A-Z of Social Research. London, UK: Sage UK. Retrieved from
Willig, C. (2016). Qualitative research. In L. H. Miller (Ed.), The Sage encyclopedia of theory in psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

Ethnographic research focuses on context and culture, specifically how culture shapes the world people live in. It is the primary methodological tool used in the field of anthropology to study the cultural frameworks and dynamics of contemporary society.

It is standard practice that a researcher often live among the people they are studying, enabling the ethnographer to effectively conduct their research. This research involves the collection and analysis of relevant data concerning individual societies and cultures such as aspects of:
           • the geography and environment
           • the people's technology and techniques of adaptation
           • food practices
           • their values regarding and institution of marriage, family, politics, folklore, religion
           • economy
           • language structure and use
           • social relationships, practices, and roles

Primary methods for fieldwork include:
           • participant observation
           • interviews
           • note-taking and record-keeping
           • taking photographs/making films
           • collecting artifacts

Further Reading

Looking for additional readings on or examples of ethnographic research? Click the image below or here for a list of relevant resources.

Apte, M. L. (2001). Field methods: Ethnographic. In R. Mesthrie, & R. E. Asher (Eds.), Concise encyclopedia of sociolinguistics. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science & Technology. Retrieved from
Sokolovsky, J., & Sokolovsky. (2006). Ethnographic research. In R. Schulz, Encyclopedia of aging (4th ed.). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. Retrieved from

Narrative research (or narrative inquiry) is the study of written or oral accounts to understand experience and the way in which people make meaning of their lives. This methodology places emphasis and value in the not only the knowledge that a person or persons may possess, but in they themselves and their ways of sharing or expressing that knowledge. Prominent in fields such as cognitive science, organizational studies, knowledge theory, sociology, occupational science, and education studies, narrative research exists in the realm of knowledge and information management.

This methodology uses a number of artifacts such as:
           • autobiographies
           • journal writing
           • field notes
           • letters
           • conversation
           • research interview
           • stories passed down across generations of family members
           • documents
           • photographs, memory boxes, and other personal-family-social artifacts
           • life experience

Further Reading

Looking for additional readings on or examples of narrative research? Click the image below or here for a list of relevant resources.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2004). Narrative inquiry: experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco, Calif. : Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Ingraham, C. (2015). Narrative. In K. Tracy (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of language and social interaction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Retrieved from

Phenomenological research is quite similar to narrative research in that the emphasis of the research lies in the experience. How it differs is that narrative research is not interested in the experience itself per se, but rather the mode and manner in which people make sense of that experience. Phenomenological research, on the other hand, keeps its focus on the experience itself, regardless of the method in which the meaning is extracted from it. Phenomenological research recognizes that people are instrumental in extracting meaning from the experience, but remains generally less concerned with the type of data used.

Further Reading

Looking for additional readings on or examples of phenomenological research? Click on the image below or here for relevant resources.

Stein, J. Y. (2016). Narrative Research vs. Phenomenological Research [Online Forum Comment]. Message posted to

Grounded Theory research was conceived in 1967 by American sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss as a way to legitimize qualitative research, which was facing criticism for its highly subjective and unsystematic (and thus, unreliable) nature. Glaser and Strauss recognized the appeal of qualitative research and wished to apply the rigor and objectivity of a scientific approach. Hence, grounded theory research involves the collection and analysis of data. Theories are "grounded" in (rather than imposed on) data, meaning the development and analysis of theories happen after data has been collected, thus hoping to explain observed processes.

Further Reading

Looking for additional readings on or examples of grounded theory research? Click on the image below or here for relevant resources.

Charmaz, K., & Bryant, A. (2008). Grounded theory. In L. M. Given, The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from
Grounded theory. (2008). In K. O'Reilly, Key concepts in ethnography. London, UK: Sage UK. Retrieved from

Case Study research focuses on the choice of study rather than the methodology. Unlike the other methodologies mentioned here, case studies are not meant to be generalized. Rather they are an in-depth observation and analysis of a specific case for its own sake. Case studies seek to provide as complete and extensive an understanding of a phenomena as possible by a total consideration and description of all variables involved.

Case study began as a teaching technique in 1870, but has since then spread to other disciplines such as business, medicine, nursing, and even ethonography. Though case study research design can consist of quantitative methods, it is largely classified as a qualitative research method due to its overall narrative nature.

Consider looking through Writing@CSU for a list of strengths and weaknesses within this design.

Further Reading

Looking for additional readings on or examples of case study research? Click here or the image below for recent resources.

Colorado State University Writing Center. Case studies. Retrieved from
Elechi, O. O., Piper, D., & Morris, S. V. (2014). Case study research. In J. S. Albanese, Wiley series of encyclopedias in criminology and criminal justice: The encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Retrieved from
Jane Thomas, D. (2011). Case study as a method of research. In J. J. Fitzpatrick, Encyclopedia of nursing research (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. Retrieved from