Section 5.5: Qualitative Designs

Decorative Page Banner stating the title of this text: Fundamentals of Social Research by Adam J. McKee

When you dive into the world of research, you’ll notice some studies are like reading a story, filled with people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. These are called qualitative studies. Unlike a math test filled with numbers, qualitative research is more about words and meanings.

What’s It All About?

Imagine you’re reading an article that’s full of detailed descriptions, stories, and ideas but doesn’t have many graphs or numbers. That’s a big clue you’re looking at qualitative research. It’s like a detective novel, where every word can be a clue to understanding the big picture.

But hold on, don’t get it mixed up with fiction or jokes you might read on websites like The Onion. Qualitative research is serious business—it’s still scientific, even without all the numbers and charts.

The Scientific Touch

Just because qualitative research is wordy doesn’t mean it’s just someone’s opinion. Researchers follow strict rules to collect stories and information systematically. They’re like chefs following a recipe to make sure the dish turns out just right. They gather evidence from real-life observations, interviews, or documents to answer questions about how and why people behave the way they do.

The Big Difference

So, what sets qualitative research apart from quantitative research (the kind with all the numbers)? It’s all in the approach. Instead of measuring things with scales and statistics, qualitative researchers look for patterns and themes. They try to get into the shoes of the people they’re studying to see the world from their perspective.

Qualitative Designs

In the world of research, figuring out what all the information means can sometimes feel like putting together a puzzle without the picture on the box. This is especially true for qualitative research, where you’re looking for patterns—sort of like finding all the edge pieces first.

Spotting the Patterns

Researchers working with qualitative data are detectives of a sort. They don’t have fancy statistical gadgets to help them. Instead, they have to be extra observant to notice the patterns and themes in the information they gather. Imagine you’re sorting through a giant box of Lego bricks, trying to find pieces that look alike or fit together—that’s what these researchers do with the stories and experiences they collect.

The Creative Side

Qualitative research is not so black-and-white. There’s room for creativity because the researcher decides how to interpret the information. It’s more flexible than quantitative research, which has very strict rules because it relies on numbers.

From Observations to Theories

Qualitative research often starts with an open mind rather than a clear hypothesis. Researchers let their systematic observations guide them. They may notice certain behaviors or attitudes repeating and start to see a pattern. This can lead them to come up with new theories, kind of like noticing that a certain piece of the Lego structure keeps falling off and figuring out a new way to build it stronger.

Common Threads in Qualitative Studies

Even though qualitative research can be pretty diverse, there are a few things that most of these studies have in common:

  • Stories as Data: They present data as a detailed story, giving you the full picture of what they discovered.
  • Making Categories: Researchers create categories or themes to make sense of all the different pieces of information.
  • Logical Thinking: They use logical reasoning to analyze the data, ensuring their conclusions make sense.
  • Guessing Games: Sometimes they propose hypotheses—educated guesses—about what they think is going on.
  • Checking the Facts: They also try to validate, or double-check, the data to make sure their interpretations are correct.

Case Studies: A Closer Look

A lot of qualitative research is about describing something in detail. These descriptions are often called case studies. Think of a case study as a biography of a person or a diary of an event—it tells you the story from start to finish, with all the interesting details in between.

Types of Qualitative Designs

Diving into qualitative research is like starting an exploration—it’s all about gathering stories, experiences, and insights. This journey begins with collecting data, which isn’t just about jotting down numbers or checking off boxes. Instead, it involves capturing the rich, detailed narratives that people share.

The Different Paths of Exploration

There are several paths a researcher can take when conducting qualitative research. Each path, or design, has its unique way of collecting and analyzing data, kind of like choosing between interviewing people, observing them, or digging through old letters and diaries.

The Six Main Types of Qualitative Research

While there are a bunch of ways to do qualitative research, they mainly fit into six categories. Each category is like a different tool in a detective’s kit—useful in its own way for uncovering the truth.

1. Phenomenological Studies

Imagine you’re gathering the most intriguing stories from your friends about their experiences at a new school. You’re not just asking them about their class schedule or their grades, but you’re diving deeper into their feelings, their surprises, and the unexpected adventures they’ve had. That’s the essence of phenomenological research—it’s all about exploring the rich, personal experiences that shape people’s lives.

When researchers embark on phenomenological studies, they become like attentive listeners around a campfire, absorbing the vivid tales that each person tells. They might ask someone, “Tell me, what was it like that first morning you woke up in a place where everything was unfamiliar?” By doing so, they’re trying to capture the essence of that person’s experience, to understand the emotional rollercoaster of moving to an entirely new environment. This could involve the nerves, the excitement, or the challenges faced when trying to fit into a new community.

The key here is for researchers to put aside their own judgments or personal experiences. They must create a space where the story unfolds naturally, authentically, and without bias. It’s not about what the researchers expect to hear, but about what the participants truly feel and think. It’s like clearing off a desk to make room for a new, unwritten book to lay open, ready for its first words. Researchers use these stories to stitch together a tapestry that represents the lived experiences of individuals, offering a window into the complex, often poignant aspects of human life. This way, they contribute to our understanding of what it means to face and adapt to life’s big changes, one personal story at a time.

2. Historical Studies

Picture yourself as a detective in the world of history, with a time machine at your disposal. Historical studies are your way to traverse the centuries, unraveling the mysteries of days gone by. Researchers in this field don’t just recite a list of dates and events. Instead, they’re like puzzle-solvers, looking to piece together how yesterday’s happenings shape today and influence tomorrow.

In this quest, old documents, letters, and even artifacts become treasure maps. These historians are on a hunt for primary sources—the golden tickets of authenticity that ensure the stories they tell are as true to the original events as possible. They might sift through a dusty chest of personal diaries to understand the life of a pioneer woman or examine ancient tools to comprehend early human industries.

Imagine the care and excitement as they handle a centuries-old document, the delicate parchment holding echoes of decisions that may have shifted the course of nations. By delving into these primary sources, researchers aim to transport us back in time, giving us a front-row seat to the unfolding drama of human history. And when they emerge from the archives, they don’t just bring back a chronicle of what happened; they bring insights that can illuminate our path forward, helping us learn from the triumphs and missteps of our predecessors.

It’s as if these historians can draw a line from a medieval battlefield to modern political strategies, showing us how the echoes of the past still resonate in today’s world. By connecting these dots, historical studies provide us with a deeper understanding of the human saga, teaching us not only where we’ve been but potentially guiding us toward where we’re going.

3. Case Studies

Imagine you’ve got a magnifying glass, and with it, you’re focusing intently on one colorful, intricate part of a giant mural. That’s what researchers do when they conduct case studies. They’re not trying to tell the story of an entire wall; they’re diving into the fine details of one distinct section to understand its unique beauty and complexity.

In the realm of social research, case studies allow researchers to zero in on a specific person, a unique group of individuals, or a particularly interesting scenario. It’s similar to crafting an in-depth biography or producing a documentary that captures the nuances of someone’s life. Researchers become deeply familiar with their subjects, sometimes developing such detailed profiles that they feel like characters in a novel—except everything is real.

They might spend days poring over someone’s personal diaries to uncover the emotions and thoughts behind their actions. They could conduct hours of interviews, where every anecdote paints a stroke in the larger portrait of the person’s life. Researchers use these various tools to assemble a comprehensive understanding of their subject, much like filmmakers choose the right angles, lighting, and script to tell a character’s story compellingly.

Through this process, case studies provide a vivid, close-up view of phenomena that might otherwise be lost in broader research. Like expert photographers, researchers using case studies can bring into focus the fine textures of individual experiences, adding depth and clarity to our understanding of the social world. They offer us a window into the lives of others, presenting the complexities of a single case with such richness that we can often draw broader insights about the human experience.

4. Ethnographic Studies

Now, let’s embark on an immersive journey—one that takes us into the heart of a community or culture, where the lines between observer and participant blur. This is the essence of ethnographic studies, a method of research that’s like an extended stay in a world different from your own, where the goal is to understand another way of life from the inside out.

In ethnographic studies, researchers do much more than just observe from a distance. They might pack their bags and move into a remote village, or they could spend their days in bustling city neighborhoods that are cultural melting pots. The researchers engage directly with the people they’re studying, often living alongside them, partaking in their daily rituals, and experiencing their traditions as an insider rather than an outsider.

Imagine a researcher waking up at dawn in a rainforest tribe, joining the morning hunt, participating in community gatherings, and learning the language as they go. Or consider a social scientist in a vibrant urban district, absorbing the rhythm of street life, the ebb and flow of daily commerce, and the intimate realities of what it means to belong to that community.

Through these experiences, researchers gain a profound understanding of the social fabric of the culture they’re studying. They don’t just observe how people live; they experience the texture of daily life, the patterns that are woven into the community’s fabric, and the unspoken rules that guide social interactions. This deep-dive approach allows researchers to paint a vivid and authentic picture of a community’s culture, one that reveals the complexities and nuances that might otherwise remain hidden to an outsider’s eye.

By living the life of their subjects, ethnographic researchers can offer us a rare and valuable perspective. They provide insights that challenge our assumptions and broaden our worldview, showing us the diversity and richness of human societies. In doing so, they don’t just tell us about different cultures—they help us feel the pulse of these communities in a way that facts and figures alone never could.

5. Grounded Theory Studies

Grounded theory studies turn the traditional approach to research on its head. In this upside-down world, researchers dive into the deep end with their data first—collecting observations, interviews, and artifacts—without a predefined theory in hand. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without having the picture on the box; the researchers look at all the pieces they have and start fitting them together to reveal an image that no one has seen before.

This method can be a bit of a hot topic in the research community because it breaks from the conventional route. Normally, researchers begin with a theory and then seek out data to test it. But grounded theory says, “Let’s see what the world is telling us before we decide what we think about it.” It’s about discovery, letting the patterns and themes emerge naturally from the wealth of information gathered during the study.

Imagine a researcher with a mountain of interviews from dozens of people. As they sift through the stories and experiences shared in these conversations, certain ideas start to pop up repeatedly—patterns begin to emerge. These recurring themes are like clues in a detective story, leading the researcher closer to understanding the bigger picture. From these clues, a new theory starts to take shape, one that is rooted firmly in the actual experiences and realities of the subjects involved.

Grounded theory is particularly powerful because it’s built from the ground up, with the foundation laid by the raw, unfiltered complexities of real life. Critics might worry about the objectivity of this approach since it doesn’t start with a hypothesis that can be systematically tested. However, supporters argue that it offers a fresh perspective, generating theories that are deeply connected to what’s actually happening on the ground, rather than what researchers expect to find. This method doesn’t just create theories; it uncovers the truths that are already there, waiting to be found.

6. Action Research Studies

Imagine you’re part of a team that wants to make your university’s cafeteria a healthier and happier place. You’ve got ideas, but how do you know which one will truly make a difference? This is where action research comes into play—it’s a dynamic form of study that combines research with real-world action to create positive change.

In action research, the researchers are not distant observers. Instead, they are active participants, working on the front lines to implement new ideas and strategies. They might introduce a new recycling program, try out different ways to serve meals or create spaces where students can share feedback about their dining experience. Then, they closely monitor what happens. This isn’t research tucked away in a lab; it’s happening live, with immediate results unfolding before everyone’s eyes.

The cycle of action and observation is continuous. After trying out an action, researchers collect data on its impact, like surveying students on how they feel about the changes or measuring the amount of waste reduced by the new recycling program. They use this information to tweak their approach, making improvements in real time. It’s a hands-on way to solve problems by testing actions, observing the outcomes, learning from them, and then trying again with a better plan.

In many ways, action research is like a science experiment that doesn’t just happen in a beaker or under a microscope—it’s all around us, involving real people and real issues. For instance, if the goal is to improve the school’s lunch experience, researchers might create a new menu and see if students eat more fruits and vegetables. If the new menu is a hit, the change might become permanent. If not, it’s back to the drawing board with valuable lessons learned.

Action research is particularly valued for its immediate relevance and practicality. It empowers researchers not just to study the world but to shape it actively. While some might argue it lacks the control of traditional research, its advocates would say that its real-world application and swift adaptability make it a powerful tool for change. This type of study doesn’t just collect dust in academic journals—it’s making a difference in everyday life.


Qualitative research is like reading a storybook about people’s real lives, where researchers look at words and meanings instead of just numbers. It’s serious and scientific, even though it reads more like a detective novel without graphs or stats. Researchers are like chefs or detectives, following strict rules to collect real stories and observations, not just opinions. They’re looking for patterns in behavior or thoughts by getting into the minds of the people they study.

Qualitative research doesn’t start with a clear answer; it’s about exploring, like putting together a puzzle without the picture. Researchers find themes, sort of like how you sort Lego bricks, and this can lead to new ideas or theories. They present their findings as detailed stories, categorize them, and use logic to make sense of it all, even making educated guesses sometimes.

Case studies are a big part of qualitative research, like detailed biographies or diaries of events. There are different ways to do this research, like interviews or observations, each with its own unique approach to understanding people’s experiences.

Six Fundamental Methodologies

Qualitative research is a landscape rich with variation, where methodologies act as lenses, each offering a unique angle on the intricate mosaic of human experience. The following six types form the crux of this investigative domain:

Phenomenological Studies

This approach resembles a deep-sea dive into the ocean of human emotions, surfacing with stories that echo the subjective realities of our existence. It is a venture into the lived experiences, where narratives are not merely heard but felt, carving out a space for the authentic voices of participants.

Historical Studies

These studies are akin to time-travel escapades, seeking to stitch together the tapestry of the past. Historians are the detectives of time, deciphering the narratives etched in documents and artifacts, to shape our understanding of the present and guide future paths.

Case Studies

By honing in on the singular narrative of a person or event, case studies are the microscopes of social research. They carve out detailed biographies from the broader canvas, painting a vivid picture of individual phenomena with the precision and depth of a master artist.

Ethnographic Studies

The ethnographer’s path is one of immersion, living and breathing the essence of a culture. It is a journey of becoming, blurring the line between the observer and the observed, and in doing so, etching a rich, insider portrayal of communal life.

Grounded Theory Studies

Turning conventional research on its head, grounded theory starts with a clean slate and lets patterns emerge organically, constructing theories from the raw clay of empirical data. It is the cultivation of insights from the ground up, allowing the natural contours of data to shape understanding.

Action Research Studies

This pragmatic approach intertwines action with inquiry, targeting change and improvement in real-world settings. Researchers in this realm are both the playwrights and actors on the stage of innovation, iteratively shaping action into impactful outcomes.

Each of these methodologies offers a distinct flavor to the qualitative research feast, providing rich, textured understandings of our world. Together, they form a comprehensive suite for exploring the depths and breadths of human experience.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  11/06/2023

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