qualitative research design

Actively Conducting an Analysis to Construct an Interpretation

It is not uncommon for researchers who are reporting the results of their quantitative studies to go beyond describing their numerical data and attempt to interpret the meaning associated with this data. For example, in a survey concerning services at a healthcare facility, the portion of respondents who selected the midpoint on a five-point scale to rate the improvement of these services from the year before might be interpreted as having a neutral opinion, i.e., these respondents believe the caliber of services has remained the same, neither better nor worse than a year earlier. And yet there are other interpretations of the midpoint response that may be equally viable. These respondents may not know whether the services have improved or not (e.g., they were not qualified to answer the question). Or, these respondents may believe that the services have gotten worse but are reluctant to give a negative opinion.

Survey researchers fall into this gray area of interpretation because they often lack the tools to build a knowledgeable understanding of vague data types, such as scale midpoints. Unless the study is a hybrid research design (i.e., a quantitative study that incorporates qualitative components), the researcher is left to guess respondents’ meaning.

In contrast, the unique attributes of qualitative research methods offer researchers the tools they need to construct informed interpretations of their data. By way of context, latent (coupled with manifest) meanings, the participant-researcher relationship, and other fundamentals associated with qualitative research, the trained researcher collects thick data from which to build an interpretation that addresses the research objectives in a profound and valuable manner for the users of the research.

Qualitative data analysis is a process by which the researcher is actively involved in the creation of themes from the data and the interpretation within and across themes to construct results that move the topic of investigation forward in some meaningful way. This active involvement is central to what it means to conduct qualitative research. Faithful to the principles that define qualitative research, researchers do not rest on manifest content, such as words alone, or on automated tools that exploit the obvious, such as word clouds.

This is another way of saying — as stated in this article on sample size and saturation — that “themes do not simply pop up…but rather are the result of actively conducting an analysis to construct an interpretation.” As Staller (2015) states, “In lieu of the language of ‘discovering’ things with its positivistic roots, the researcher is actually interpreting the evidence” (p. 147).

Braun and Clarke (2006, 2016, 2019, 2021) have written extensively about the idea that “themes do not passively emerge” (2019, p. 594, italics in original) from thematic analysis and that meaning

is not inherent or self-evident in data, that meaning resides at the intersection of the data and the researcher’s contextual and theoretically embedded interpretative practices – in short, that meaning requires interpretation. (2021, p. 210)

An article posted in 2018 in Research Design Review“The Important Role of ‘Buckets’ in Qualitative Data Analysis” — illustrates this point. The article discusses the analytical step of creating categories (or “buckets”) of codes representing shared constructs prior to building themes. As an example, the discussion focuses on three categories that were developed from an in-depth interview study with financial managers — Technology, Partner, Communication. The researcher constructed themes by looking within and across categories, considering the meaning and context associated with each code. One such theme was “strong partnership,” as illustrated below.

Themes from buckets

The theme “strong partnership” did not simply emerge from the data, it was not lying in the data waiting to be discovered. Rather, the researcher utilized their analytical skills, in conjunction with their constructed understanding of each participant’s contribution to the data, to create contextually sound, meaningful themes such as “strong partnership.” Then, with the depth of definition associated with each theme, the researcher looked within and across themes to build an interpretation of the research data targeted at the research objectives, and provided the users of the research with a meaningful path forward.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2016). (Mis)conceptualising themes, thematic analysis, and other problems with Fugard and Potts’ (2015) sample-size tool for thematic analysis. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19(6), 739–743. https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2016.1195588

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, Vol. 11, pp. 589–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628806

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2021). To saturate or not to saturate? Questioning data saturation as a useful concept for thematic analysis and sample-size rationales. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(2), 201–216. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1704846

Staller, K. M. (2015). Qualitative analysis: The art of building bridging relationships. Qualitative Social Work, 14(2), 145–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325015571210

Ethnography & the Observation Method: 15 Articles on Design, Implementation, & Uses

“Ethnography & the Observation Method” is a compilation Ethnography & the Observation Methodthat includes a selection of 15 articles appearing in Research Design Review from 2013 to 2021. There are certainly many other articles in RDR that are relevant to ethnography and the observation method — such as those having to do with multiple methods, e.g., A Multi-method Approach in Qualitative Research, and a quality approach to design, e.g., Quality Frameworks in Qualitative Research, and transparency, e.g., Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency — however, the 15 articles chosen for this compilation  are specific to this method. It is hoped that this brief text will be useful to the student, the teacher, and the researcher who is interested in furthering their consideration of a quality approach to designing and conducting ethnographic studies.

“Ethnography & the Observation Method: 15 Articles on Design, Implementation, & Uses” is available for download here.

Five similar compilations, devoted to particular methods or techniques, are also available:

“Reflexivity: 10 Articles on the Role of Reflection in Qualitative Research” is available for download here.

“The Focus Group Method: 18 Articles on Design & Moderating” is available for download here.

“The In-depth Interview Method: 12 Articles on Design & Implementation” is available for download here.

“Qualitative Data Analysis: 16 Articles on Process & Method” is available for download here.

“Qualitative Research: Transparency & Reporting” is available for download here.

The Issues & Questions Uniquely Suited For Qualitative Research

QR Unique Attributes: Type of Issues & Questions

There are many instances when a qualitative research design is the only option. This is because qualitative research is uniquely suited to address research issues or questions that might be difficult, if not impossible, to investigate under more structured, less flexible quantitative research designs. Qualitative inquiry effectively tackles sensitive or personal issues such as domestic violence (e.g., Beaulaurier et al., 2005), racism (e.g., Harper et al., 2011), physical disabilities (e.g., Kroll et al., 2007), pregnancy among teenagers (e.g., Luttrell, 2003), drug addiction (e.g., Jodlowski et al., 2007), and infertility (e.g., Culley et al., 2007); multifaceted, intricate topics such as personal life histories (Elliott, 2005) and corporate leadership (e.g., Schilling, 2006); nebulous questions such as those pertaining to “quality of life” (e.g., Ferrell et al., 1997; Wainwright et al., 2018) and “Feelings & Sensations: Where Survey Designs Fair Badly.”; and contextual issues such as in-the-moment decision making, for example, in-store observations of shopping patterns (e.g., West, 2012).

By the same token, qualitative research is often the only option to gaining in-depth, meaningful information from hard-to-reach, underserved, or hidden populations, such as children (e.g., Christensen, et al., 2011), same-sex partners (e.g., Frost, 2013); subcultures such as motorcycle bikers (e.g., Schouten & McAlexander, 1995); psychiatric facilities (e.g., Lyall & Bartlett, 2010); deviant groups such as heavy drug users and convicted murderers (e.g., Small et al., 2006); individuals afflicted with an uncommon physical condition such as acromegaly (e.g., Sibeoni et al., 2019); and minority parents of school-age children (e.g., Auerbach, 2002). Although qualitative inquiry is just as appropriate in the investigation of the “average” consumer, teenager, senior citizen, educator, corporate employee, community volunteer, cancer patient, and the like, it is the ability to obtain insight from the less obvious, smaller niche segments of the population that gives special distinction to the qualitative approach.

All 10 unique attributes of qualitative research are discussed in this RDR article.

Auerbach, S. (2002). “Why do they give the good classes to some and not to others?” Latino parent narratives of struggle in a college access program. Teachers College Record, 104(7), 1369–1392. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9620.00207

Beaulaurier, R. L., Seff, L. R., Newman, F. L., & Dunlop, B. (2005). Internal barriers to help seeking for middle-aged and older women who experience intimate partner violence. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 17(3), 2005. https://doi.org/10.1300/J084v17n03_04

Christensen, P., Mikkelsen, M. R., Nielsen, T. A. S., & Harder, H. (2011). Children, mobility, and space: Using GPS and mobile phone technologies in ethnographic research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 5(3), 227–246. https://doi.org/10.1177/1558689811406121

Culley, L., Hudson, N., & Rapport, F. (2007). Using focus groups with minority ethnic communities: Researching infertility in British South Asian communities. Qualitative Health Research, 17(1), 102–112. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732306296506

Elliott, J. (2005). Using narrative in social research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. London: Sage Publications.

Ferrell, B. R., Grant, M. M., Funk, B., Otis-Green, S., & Garcia, N. (1997). Quality of life in breast cancer survivors as identified by focus groups. Psycho-Oncology, 6(1), 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1611(199703)6:1<13::AID-PON231>3.0.CO;2-S

Frost, D. M. (2013). Stigma and intimacy in same-sex relationships: A narrative approach. Qualitative Psychology, 1(S), 49–61. https://doi.org/10.1037/2326-3598.1.S.49

Harper, S. R., Davis, R. J., Jones, D. E., McGowan, B. L., Ingram, T. N., & Platt, C. S. (2011). Race and racism in the experiences of Black male resident assistants at predominantly White universities. Journal of College Student Development, 52(2), 180–200. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2011.0025

Jodlowski, D., Sharf, B. F., Nguyen, L. C., Haidet, P., & Woodard, L. D. (2007). “Screwed for life”: Examining identification and division in addiction narratives. Communication & Medicine, 4(1), 15–26. https://doi.org/10.1515/CAM.2007.003

Kroll, T., Barbour, R., & Harris, J. (2007). Using focus groups in disability research. Qualitative Health Research, 17(5), 690–698. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732307301488

Luttrell, W. (2003). Pregnant bodies, fertile minds: Gender, race and the schooling of pregnant teens. New York: Routledge.

Lyall, M., & Bartlett, A. (2010). Decision making in medium security: Can he have leave? Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(6), 887–901. https://doi.org/10.1080/14789949.2010.500740

Schilling, J. (2006). On the pragmatics of qualitative assessment. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 22(1), 28–37. https://doi.org/10.1027/1015-5759.22.1.28

Schouten, J. W., & McAlexander, J. H. (1995). Subcultures of consumption: An ethnography of the new bikers. Journal of Consumer Research, 22, 43–61.

Sibeoni, J., Manolios, E., Verneuil, L., Chanson, P., & Revah-Levy, A. (2019). Patients’ perspectives on acromegaly diagnostic delay: a qualitative study. https://doi.org/10.1530/EJE-18-0925

Small, W., Kerr, T., Charette, J., Schechter, M. T., & Spittal, P. M. (2006). Impacts of intensified police activity on injection drug users: Evidence from an ethnographic investigation. International Journal of Drug Policy, 17(2), 85–95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2005.12.005

Wainwright, B., Waring, M. J., Julich, S., Yeung, P., & Green, J. K. (2018). Quality of life of living with a transplanted liver: The issue of returning to normalcy. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30(1), 7–19.

West, R. (2012). Lather, rinse, repeat: Getting into the shower & other private places with mobile qualitative. MRMW North America Conference.