Five Approaches to Qualitative Research

Social research that is qualitative asks questions about how and why. For example, how did the university increase its enrollment by 20% over the past five years? Or, why does listening to music impact scholastic grades? Qualitative research is inductive and therefore may not always begin with a clear research question. It is concerned with the meaning that locals ascribe to symbols, rituals, and stories. Locals have the “inside” or emic perspective. Like quantitative research, qualitative approaches also rely on precedent literature for theoretical constructs. There are five approaches to qualitative research.

They are: Narrative, Phenomenology, Grounded Theory, Ethnography, and Case Study. Each approach to qualitative research is not mutually exclusive. They can be used in combinations. For example, a case study approach can also incorporate grounded theory.

How is each defined? What is their distinctive? What are examples of each? Let’s explore these questions.

  1. Narrative: This approach to inquiry retells someone’s story across time. It explores what the story means and the lessons to be learned. An example may be to study the life of General Colin Powell.
  2. Phenomenology: The goal of phenomenological research is to describe participants’ experiences in a specific context and understand a phenomenon. For example, what is it like to be homeless in Los Angeles, California?
  3. Grounded Theory: This type of qualitative approach investigates a process, action, or interaction with the goal of developing a theory. To illustrate, a colleague of mine is observing the dyad relationship between a CEO and an executive business coach across cultures.
  4. Ethnography: The mainstay of early culture anthropologists, ethnography is an in-depth description of a people group done through “immersed” participant observation and recorded in the vernacular of the host society. An ethnographic study may look at the Cree people of Western Canada.
  5. Case Study: The most common type of qualitative research, case study looks at episodic events in a definable framework bounded by time and setting. The overall purpose is generally to explain “how”. An example of a case study may be how the Durand Line Agreement established the political boundary between the nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1890s.

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