Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Research Process Guide

Step 6b: Determining Research Methodology - Qualitative Design

As opposed to the numerical data that is foundational, qualitative design is built on non-numerical data used to understand, construct and describe phenomena or experiences, collective or individual. Originating with the Chicago school, qualitative design has its roots firmly in anthropology and social justice, particularly for historically disenfranchised groups (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). There have been evolving definitions of qualitative design over the last half century, however. Denzin and Lincoln’s (2011) most recent definition touches on important developments within the field:

          Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world….[and] consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that
          make the world visible….[such practices as]…fieldnotes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings and memos to the self.…
          Qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempt to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings
          people bring to them. (p.3)

In qualitative research, the research is largely based on inductive reasoning, beginning with assumptions (not theory) and use interpretative and theoretical frameworks that inform their study and use the natural setting to to collect data on the people and places the phenomena occurs (Creswell & Poth, 2018).

So, simply put, qualitative design is:

  1. Naturalistic
  2. Descriptive
  3. Concerned with process
  4. Inductive
  5. Meaning-driven

It is important to note that, unlike quantitative design, the point of qualitative research is NOT to generalize across populations, but to understand the lived experience of individuals or groups within a particular cultural or social setting, system, environment or institution.

Review of the Philosophical Assumptions in Research

In qualitative research, you as the researcher are the principal instrument of inquiry. This is especially significant when considering then acknowledging your philosophical assumptions as a researcher. It is important to ask yourself (Creswell & Poth, 2018):

  1. What is reality? (Ontology)
  2. How is reality known? (Epistemology)
  3. How are values of the research expressed? (Axiology)
  4. How is research conducted? (Methodology)

What are interpretative frameworks (or lenses) for Qualitative Design?

Above in the conceptual/ theoretical framework section, there is a robust discussion of conceptual vs. theoretical frameworks. It would be important to review that section. Additionally, the philosophical assumptions of a qualitative researcher are equally important and can be reviewed in the corresponding section. However, to build on the lenses discussed in previous sections, some interpretative frameworks rooted in social science as they are specifically applied to qualitative research are (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Miles et al., 2018):

  1. Postpositivism, in qualitative research, is the closest lens to the scientific experimental worldview. Postpostivist researchers believe that their research has elements of reductionism, logic, cause and effect and a robust data analysis, resembling quantitative research.
  2. Social Constructivism as a lens often described as interpretivism, is a lens where the researcher is seeking to understand the world in which they live and work. The social constructivist researcher believes in making meaning of the experiences of individuals or groups and that there are varied and multiple meanings of reality. Looking at participants’ perspectives through a subjective lens, the researcher will often negotiate the meaning of participants’ experience through social or historical perspectives.
  3. Transformational lenses deal with the principle that knowledge is not neutral and it reflects the power and social relationships in society, therefore the purpose is to construct knowledge and aid marginalized people to improve society. The transformational lens allows the researcher to study and expose issues like oppression, suppression, domination, alienation and by doing so, provide a voice to those historically marginalized people and theoretically improve their lives. This is often referred to as participatory action research.
  4. Postmodernism builds on the transformationalist framework in that it calls on changing the ways of thinking by acknowledging that knowledge must be situated within the conditions of the world and in multiple perspectives of class, race, gender, and other marginalized group affiliations. The “metanarratives” of these groups hold true regardless of the social conditions and calls for a deconstruction of language, both written and spoken, in order to unearth hidden power differentials, hierarchies, oppositions, contradictions and inconsistencies (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011).
  5. Pragmatism is, as previously mentioned, focused on the outcomes of research, “what works” and solutions to problems, rather than why things are the way they are (postpositivism). Principally, this lens is concerned with the truth all the time, but acknowledges there are many methods to explore the truth, rather than subscribing to one correct method.

    Some interpretative frameworks rooted in social justice are (Creswell & Poth, 2018, Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007):
  6. Critical Theory perspectives are concerned with empowering human beings to transcend the constraints placed on them by race, gender, class, gender and other affiliations within systems or societal constructs. In these studies, researchers need to acknowledge their own power and privilege and use this theory to guide social action. The researcher is termed “the critical teacher” through inquiry reveals how systemically groups are marginalized, critiques previous research for or bias inaccurate interpretations of the lived experiences of those groups, and what actions to take to improve the plight of marginalized groups within the system. Some of the most used critical theories are (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Bodgan & Biklen, 2007):
    • Feminist Critical Theory - purpose is to conduct research that is transformative for women.
    • Queer Theory - purpose is to convey the experiences and voices of those who have been suppressed due to sexual identity.
    • Critical Race Theory - purpose is to address the inequities and power in society through inquiry, discussion and engagement, using theory to interpret social actions.
    • Disability Theory - purpose is to address the meaning of inclusion, recognizing disabilities as a difference not a defect.

Five Kinds of Qualitative Approaches  

The decision of which qualitative approach to use and which framework to use are usually determined by your research questions and are decided at the same time.

There are several different approaches to qualitative research, each approach has a specific purpose. You can narrow down your research approach by trying to understand what each approach entails and aims to understand. They are:

  1. Narrative Research
  2. Ethnographic Research
  3. Grounded Theory
  4. Phenomenological Research or Phenomenology
  5. Case Study Research

Narrative Research

This research is based on exploring an individual and their life. It is often a longitudinal study over many years and is a deep dive into the lives of the participant(s) in order to construct a narrative about the participant. Narrative research usually only deals with one or two people (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007).  

Approach: Explores situations, scenarios and processes.

Data Collection: The researcher collects data from one or two subjects longitudinally.

          Interviews, letters, texts, documents, etc.

Data Analysis: Story-telling, content review, and thematic analysis (meaning-making).

Reporting Results: In-depth narration of events or situations.

Ethnographic Research

Ethnography is concerned with describing and interpreting culture-sharing groups, as well as shared patterns groups. Drawing largely on anthropology and sociology, it uses primarily observations and interviews to find themes within and across cultural experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007).  

Approach: Describes or interprets social grouping or cultural situations.

Data Collection: Interviews, focus groups, observations, and active participation.

Data Analysis: Description and interpretation of data and theme development.

Reporting Results: Detailed reporting of interpretative data.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory deals with developing a theory grounded in data collected from the field. It is largely concerned with studying a process or action involving many individuals. The researcher states the rationale for furthering the theory, and usually, 20-60 participants' interviews are analyzed in order to advance the theory (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Miles et al., 2018).  

Approach: Investigates procedures.

Data Collection: Interviews, focus groups,  and questionnaires.

Data Analysis: Data coding, categorization of themes, and description of implications.

Reporting Results: Theory and theoretical models.


Phenomenological approach to qualitative research is concerned with understanding participants’ shared experiences of a particular phenomenon and describing those experiences through meaning, description and search for the “essence” of the experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018, p. 105).

Approach: Seeks to understand and explain experiences.

Data Collection: Interviews, focus groups, surveys, and observations.

Data Analysis: Description of experiences, examination of meaning and theme development.

Reporting Results: Contextualization and reporting of experiences.

Case Study

This approach is concerned with developing an in-depth description and analysis of a case or multiple cases. This is a departure from phenomenology, in that the “case” is a unique experience people in “a bounded system” or a “unit of inquiry” (i.e., the case) (Creswell & Poth, 2018, p.107; Yin, 2018, p. xx). The case is a novel program, unique experience, or unduplicated situation.  

Approach: Examination of episodic events with a focus on answering “how” questions.

Data Collection: Interviews, focus groups, observations, document content, and physical inspection.

Data Analysis: Detailed description of development of themes and description of narratives.

Reporting Results: In-depth study of what can be learned from case or cases.


Bogdan, R., & Biklen, S. K. (2007). Qualitative research for education. (5th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (5th ed.). Sage.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. (4th ed.). Sage.

Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2018). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook. Sage.

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications. Sage.