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Qualitative Research Methods

Analysis of Professional Literature
Class 6: Qualitative Research I

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Jul 2006



Types of qualitative research

Data collection & analysis

Criticism of qualitative research

Qualitative exam

Key terms

Recommended reading

Further reading



There are three basic research paradigms -- positivism (quantitative, scientific approach), interpretivism, and critical science (Cantrell, n. d.).


Positivism, or the scientific approach, we have explored in the early parts of this course.


Critical science, or the critical approach, explores the social world, critiques it, and seeks to empower the individual to overcome problems in the social world.  Critical science enables people to understand how society functions and methods by which unsatisfactory aspects can be changed.  We do not cover critical science in this course.


Interpretivism, or the qualitative approach, is a way to gain insights through discovering meanings by improving our comprehension of the whole. Qualitative research explores the richness, depth, and complexity of phenomena.  Qualitative research, broadly defined, means "any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification" (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).


Although acceptance of interpretivism is increasing within human movement sciences, positivism remains the dominant paradigm, as it does in other social science fields

Assumptions of Interpretivism


The underlying assumption of interpretivism is that the whole needs to be examined in order to understand a phenomena.  Interpretivism is critical of the positivism because it seeks to collect and analyze data from parts of a phenomena and, in so doing, positivism can miss important aspects of a comprehensive understanding of the whole.


Interpretivism proposes that there are multiple realities, not single realities of phenomena, and that these realities can differ across time and place.


Unlike quantitative research, there is no overarching framework for how qualitative research should be conducted; rather each type of qualitative research is guided by particular philosophical stances that are taken in relation by the research to each phenomenon (O'Brien, n. d.).

Main Types of Qualitative Research


Case study

Attempts to shed light on a phenomena by studying indepth a single case example of the phenomena.  The case can be an individual person, an event, a group, or an institution.

Grounded theory

Theory is developed inductively from a corpus of data acquired by a participant-observer.


Describes the structures of experience as they present themselves to consciousness, without recourse to theory, deduction, or assumptions from other disciplines


Focuses on the sociology of meaning through close field observation of sociocultural phenomena. Typically, the ethnographer focuses on a community.


Systematic collection and objective evaluation of data related to past occurrences in order to test hypotheses concerning causes, effects, or trends of these events that may help to explain present events and anticipate future events. (Gay, 1996)


Main Types of Qualitative Data Collection & Analysis


"Those who are not familiar with qualitative methodology may be surprised by the sheer volume of data and the detailed level of analysis that results even when research is confined to a small number of subjects" (Myers, 2002).


There are three main methods of data collection:


Interactive interviewing

People asked to verbally described their experiences of phenomenon.

Written descriptions by participants

People asked to write descriptions of  their experiences of phenomenon.


Descriptive observations of verbal and non-verbal behavior.


Analysis begins when the data is first collected and is used to guide decisions related to further data collection.


"In communicating--or generating--the data, the researcher must make the process of the study accessible and write descriptively so tacit knowledge may best be communicated through the use of rich, thick descriptions" (Myers, 2002).


Criticism of qualitative research


"Qualitative studies are tools used in understanding and describing the world of human experience. Since we maintain our humanity throughout the research process, it is largely impossible to escape the subjective experience, even for the most seasoned of researchers. As we proceed through the research process, our humanness informs us and often directs us through such subtleties as intuition or 'aha' moments. Speaking about the world of human experience requires an extensive commitment in terms of time and dedication to process; however, this world is often dismissed as 'subjective' and regarded with suspicion. This paper acknowledges that small qualitative studies are not generalizable in the traditional sense, yet have redeeming qualities that set them above that requirement."


"A major strength of the qualitative approach is the depth to which explorations are conducted and descriptions are written, usually resulting in sufficient details for the reader to grasp the idiosyncracies of the situation."


"The ultimate aim of qualitative research is to offer a perspective of a situation and provide well-written research reports that reflect the researcher's ability to illustrate or describe the corresponding phenomenon. One of the greatest strengths of the qualitative approach is the richness and depth of explorations and descriptions."


- Myers (2002)

Qualitative Exam Part 1 (5%):

Compare and contrast two qualitative research studies in your field and interest.  Include brief summaries of the studies, with relevant details about the research question and the qualitative methods.  Comment on the strengths and weaknesses of these studies.


Qualitative Exam Part 2 (5%):


Describe a research question and present a qualitative research design which you think would be feasible for a Masters thesis or project.  Comment on the strengths, weaknesses, and practical aspects of the design.


Qualitative Exam Part 3 (5%):


Describe a research question and a mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative methods) which you think would be feasible for a Masters thesis or project.  Comment on the strengths, weaknesses, and practical aspects of the design. Make sure that your method is mixed, that is, that the techniques are meaningfully integrated.

Key Terms

  • Paradigms

  • Positivism

  • Critical science

  • Interpretivism

  • Grounded theory

  • Phenomenology

  • Ethnography

  • Ethnoscience

  • Historical

  • Philosophical inquiry

  • Action research

  • Interviewing

  • Written descriptions

  • Observation

Recommended Reading

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., Gall, J. P. (2003).  Educational research: An introduction. (7th Edition). White Plains, New York: Longman. Recommended: Skim read:

  • Chapter 14: Selecting Sample (pp. 434-511)

  • Chapter 15: Qualitative Research Traditions (pp. 475-512)

  • Chapter 16: Historical Research (pp. 513-539) .

Further Reading

Bogdan, R. F., & Biklen, S. (1992). Eight common questions about qualitative research.  In Qualitative research for education: An Introduction to theory and methods (pp. 39-48). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Botoroff, J. (n.d.) Workshop on qualitative research.

Cantrell, D. C. (n.d.) Alternative paradigms in environmental education research: The interpretive perspective.

Guba, E. G., Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In . K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.)  Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 105-117). Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

LeCompte, Millroy, & Preissle (Ed.) (1992). The handbook of qualitative research in education.

McCotter, S. S. (2001). The journey of a beginning researcher. The Qualitative Report, 6(2).

Myers, M. (2000). Qualitative research and the generalizability question: Standing firm with Proteus. The Qualitative Report, 4(3/4).

O'Brien, K. (n. d.) Research paradigms. Latrobe University.