Qualitative research

Overview of qualitative research
Entire books are written about qualitative research methods, and whole courses are dedicated to studying various characteristics, elements and procedures used.  This section is meant as a very brief overview of some of these elements for the purpose of beginning a conversation, thinking about ways to conduct your research, and interacting with colleagues about your perspectives.  It may be helpful to begin with some of the assumptions behind qualitative research to get the dialogue under way.

Assumptions underlying qualitative methods
Some general assumptions are characteristic of qualitative research:

  • multiple realities exist in any study -- the researcher’s, those of the individuals being investigated, and the reader or audience interpreting the results;
  • multiple perspectives including voices of informants are included in the study;
  • researchers interact with those under study and actively work to minimize the distance between the researcher and those being researched;
  • researchers explicitly recognize and acknowledge the value-laden nature of the research;
  • research is context-bound;
  • research is based on inductive forms of logic;
  • categories of interest may emerge from informants (internal) or be used to frame the understanding (external);
  • uncovering patterns or theories that help explain a phenomenon of interest  is the goal;
  • determining accuracy involves verifying the information with informants or "triangulating" among different sources of information.

Types of qualitative methods
A qualitative "approach" is a general way of thinking about conducting qualitative research. It describes, either explicitly or implicitly, the purpose of the qualitative research, the role of the researcher(s), the stages of research, and the method of data analysis. Several approaches generally are considered when undertaking qualitative research.

Case studies  
In a case study the researcher explores a single entity or phenomenon (‘the case’) bounded by time and activity (e.g., a program, event, institution, or social group) and collects detailed information through a variety of data sources. The case study is a descriptive record of an individual's experiences and/or behaviors kept by an outside observer.

Ethnographic studies
The ethnographic approach to qualitative research comes largely from the field of anthropology. Originally, the idea of a culture was tied to the notion of ethnicity and geographic location, but it has been broadened to include virtually any group or organization. In ethnographic research the researcher studies an intact cultural group in a natural setting over a specific period of time.  A cultural group can be any group of individuals who share a common social experience, location, or other social characteristic of interest. Ethnography is an extremely broad area with a great variety of practitioners and methods. However, the most common ethnographic approach is participant observation as a part of field research. Typically the ethnographer becomes immersed in the culture as an active participant and records extensive field notes.

Phenomenological studies   
Phenomenology is sometimes considered a philosophical perspective as well as an approach to qualitative methodology. It has a long history in several social research disciplines including psychology, sociology and social work. Phenomenology is a school of thought that emphasizes a focus on people's subjective experiences and interpretations of the world. That is, the phenomenologist wants to understand how the world appears to others. In a phenomenological study, human experiences are examined through the detailed description of the people being studied -- the goal is to understand the ‘lived experience’ of the individuals being studied.  This approach involves researching a small group of people intensively over a long period of time.

Grounded theory
Grounded theory is a qualitative research approach that was originally developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s. The self-defined purpose of grounded theory is to develop theory about phenomena of interest. This is not just abstract theorizing, instead the theory needs to be grounded or rooted in observation -- hence the term. Grounded theory is a complex iterative process. The research begins with the raising of generative questions that help to guide the research but are not intended to be either static or confining. As the researcher begins to gather data, core theoretical concept(s) are identified. Tentative linkages are developed between the theoretical core concepts and the data. This early phase of the research tends to be very open and can take months. Later on the researcher is more engaged in verification and summary. The effort tends to evolve toward one core category that is central.

Field research
Field research can also be considered either a broad approach to qualitative research or a method of gathering qualitative data. The essential idea is that the researcher goes "into the field" to observe the phenomenon in its natural state. As such, it is probably most related to the method of participant observation. The field researcher typically takes extensive field notes that are subsequently coded and analyzed in a variety of ways.

Begin the dialogue
These categories are divided and described in any number of ways by different qualitative researchers. However described, the information here is designed to start a dialogue with colleagues about what qualitative method might best help understand the phenomenon that faculty members undertake to study.

Qualitative Research Design

The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research
Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y. (2005). 3rd Ed., Sage Publications, Inc.
This book represents the state of the art in theory and practice of qualitative inquiry.  In this edition the editors and authors ask how such inquiry can be used to address issues of social justice.

Intensive Qualitative Research: Challenges, Best Uses, and Opportunities
MDRC (Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) (2003) created in 1974 by the Ford Foundation,
mounts large scale evaluations of real world policies and programs targeted to low income people
This paper examines the use of ethnographic interviews, focus groups, and other intensive qualitative methods in social policy research.

Challenges of Qualitative Research

Doing Sensitive Research: What Challenges Do Qualitative Researchers Face?
Dickson-Swift, V. (2007). Qualitative Social Work, Vol. 7, No. 3, p.  327-353
Much of health research involves face-to-face encounters with participants.  There is a growing recognition that this process can pose difficulties for researchers.  This paper explores those issues through interviews with 30 qualitative health researchers.

The Veteran's Affairs Experience: Comparative Effectiveness Research in a Large Health System
David Atkins, Joel Kupersmith, Seth Eisen
This article explores some of the challenges of qualitative methods in management research. 

Sister-to-Sister Talk: Transcending Boundaries and Challenges in Qualitative Research with Black Women
Few, A.L., Stephens, D.P. & Rouse-Arnett, M. (November, 2001). Annual conference of the National Council of Family Relations, Rochester, New York
This paper discusses the challenges that Black women face when doing qualitative research with Black women.

When Black + Lesbian + Woman Does Not Equal Black Lesbian Woman: The Methodological Challenges of Qualitative and Quantitative Intersectionality Research
Bowleg, L. (2008). Sex Roles, Vol. 59, Iss. 5-6, p. 312-325
The notion that social identities and social inequality based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, and sex/gender are intersectional rather than additive poses a variety of thorny methodological challenges.  This paper examines how these challenges shape measurement, analysis, and inter-pretation.

Challenges and Strategies for Conducting Survey and Focus Group Research with Culturally Diverse Groups
Huer, M.B. & Saenz, T.I. (May, 2003). American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, Vol. 12, p. 209-220
These California State University Fullerton faculty offer tentative guidance and invite an open dialogue about culturally sensitive research issues.

top of page