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About Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is a means for exploring and understanding the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem.  The process of research involves emerging questions and procedures, data typically collected in the participants’ setting, data analysis, inductively building from particulars to general themes, and the researcher making interpretations of the meaning of the data.  The final written report has a flexible structure.  Those who engage in this form of inquiry support a way of looking at research that honors an inductive style, a focus on individual meaning, and the importance of rendering the complexity of a situation.

Qualitative procedures demonstrate a different approach to scholarly inquiry than methods of quantitative research. Qualitative inquiry employs different philosophical assumptions; strategies of inquiry; and methods of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.  Although the process are similar, qualitative procedures rely on text and image data, have unique steps in data analysis, and draw on diverse strategies of inquiry.

Looking over the landscapse of qualitative procedures shows a diverse perspectives ranging from social justice thinking (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005), to ideological perspectives (Lather, 1991), to philisophical stances (Schwandt, 2000), to systematic procedural guidelines (Creswell, 2007; Corbin & Strauss, 2007).  All perspectives vie for center stage in this unfolding model of inquiry called qualitative research (adapted from Creswell, 2007).

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Purposeful sampling, collection of open-ended data, analysis of text or pictures, representation of information in figures and tables, and personal interpretation of the findings all inform qualitative procedures.

A Checklist of Questions for Designing a Qualitative Procedure

  • Is the purposeful sampling strategy for sites and individuals identified?

  • Are the specific forms of data collection mentioned and a rationale given for their use?

  • Are the procedures for recording information during the data collection mentioned and a rationale give for their use?

  • Are the data analysis steps identified?

  • Is there evidence that the researcher has organized the data has organized the data for analysis?

  • Has the researcher reviewed the data generally to obtain a sense of the information?

  • Has coding been used with the data?

  • Have the codes been developed to form a description or to identify themes?

  • Are the themes interrelated to show a higher level of analysis and abstraction?

  • Are the ways that the data will be represented mentioned– such as in tables, graphs, and figures?

  • Have the bases for interpreting the analysis been specified (personal experiences, the literature, questions, action agenda)?

  • Has the researcher mentioned the outcome of the study (developed a theory, provided a complex picture of themes)?

  • Have multiple strategies been cited for validating the findings?

Qualitative Research Designs

Outlined below is the general research design process and different forms of qualitative research approaches.  To learn more about the qualitative research design, download the introductory chapter to qualitative research design:

Designing Qualitative Research

Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks,. CA: Sage.

In this chapter, the author provides an overview and introduction to qualitative research. They first section outlines a general definition of qualitative research, which highlights the key aspects of qualitative inquiry. The authors discuss the types of research problems and issues that can be best examined by conducting a qualitative study. However, it is important to note that a qualitative study is rigorous and time consuming.  Additionally during the process, researchers need to anticipate any issues that may arise from conducting their study. The author then elaborates on the overall research design. The authors also provide four models in which researchers can use to outline their planning or proposing a qualitative research study.


But wait, I need to develop my research idea first….

Not a problem!  This quick video tutorial will walk you through the preliminary research question process, and will help you refine your research questions and scope of project.

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I still need additional support, show me how to:

  • Create a topic map in order to brainstorm ideas for your project and organize those ideas into a research question

  • Generate a list of keywords that you can use when searching for sources on your topic,

  • Conduct an effective search in a database or catalog, and

  • Get help from the UCLA Library staff!

It seems like you will benefit from using the UCLA Research Notebook that reviews research fundamentals from start to finish, click here to access your research notebook! If you’re ready to learn more about the general research design process and different forms of qualitative research approaches, keep scrolling down:



Purpose: To describe experiences as they are lived

  • Examines uniqueness of individual’s lived situations

  • Each person has own reality

  • Reality is subjective

Research question development: 

  • What does existence of feeling or experience indicate concerning the phenomenon to be explored?

  • What are necessary and sufficient constituents of feeling or experience?

  • What is the nature of the human being?


  • No clearly defined steps to avoid limiting creativity of researchers

Sampling and data collection: 

  • Seek persons who understand study and  are willing to express inner feelings and  experiences.

  • Describes experiences of phenomenon

  • Writes experiences of phenomenon

  • Direct observations

  • Audio or videotape

Data analysis: 

  • Classify and  rank data

  • Sense of wholeness

  • Examine experiences beyond human awareness/ or cannot be communicated


  • Findings described from subject’s point-of-view

  • Researcher identifies themes

  • Structural explanation of findings is developed



Purpose: To describe a culture’s characteristics


  • Identify culture and variables for study

  •  Review literature

Data Collection:

  • Gain entrance to culture

  • Immerse self in culture

  • Acquire informants

  • Gather data through direct observation and interaction with subjects

Data Analysis: 

  • Describe characteristics of culture

Outcomes: Description of culture

Case Study


Purpose: To describe in-depth the experience of one person, family, group, community, or institution

Method: Direct observation and interaction with subject

Analysis: Synthesis of experience

Outcomes: In-depth description of the experience

Grounded Theory


Purpose:  To develop a theoretical framework, utilizing data from the study

  • Used in discovering what problems exist in a social scene and how persons handle the

  • Involves formulation, testing, and redevelopment of propositions until a theory is developed


  • Steps occur simultaneously

  • A constant comparative process

Data Collection

  • Interview

  • Observation

  • Record review

  • Combination of different data collection types (above)


  • Concept formation

  • Concept development

  • Data reduction

  • Selective sampling of literature

  • Selective sampling of subjects

  • Emergence of core concepts

  • Concept modification and integration

Outcomes: Theory supported by examples from data



Purpose: To describe and examine events of the past to understand the present and anticipate potential future effects


  • Formulate idea – select topic after reading related literature

  • Develop research questions; Develop an inventory of sources – archives, private libraries, papers

  • Clarify validity and reliability of data – primary sources, authenticity, biases

  • Develop research outline to organize investigative process

  • Collect data


  • Synthesis of all data

  • Accept and reject data

  • Reconcile conflicting evidence


  • Select means of presentation- biography, chronology, or issue paper


Additional Resources

The following books are helpful references in learning more about qualitative research and developing your qualitative study:

Bogdan, R.C. & Biklen, S.K. (2003). Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theories and Methods. Boston, MA: Chestnut Hill Enterprises.

Creswell, J.W. (2009). Research Design Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Merriam, S.B. (2009).  Qualitative Research: A guide to Design and Implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Information for this page has been has been adapted from these  sources:

Merriam, Sharan B.Merriam, Sharan B. (2009) Qualitative research :a guide to design and implementation San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.