Types of Qualitative Research – 6 Qualitative Research Types and Methods

Types of Qualitative Research – 6 Qualitative Research Types and Methods (2020 Guide)

types of qualitative researchSocial science research often fits into one of two categories: qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative research focuses on human behavior from a participant’s point of view.  Quantitative research seeks the common facts found across defined groups. Six types of qualitative research are widely used in business, education, and government organizational models.

Phenomenological Method

Describing how an individual participant experiences a specific event is the goal of the phenomenological method of research. This method employs interviews, observation, and surveys to gather information from subjects. Phenomenology is highly concerned with how participants feel about things during an event or activity. Businesses use this method to develop processes to help sales representatives effectively close sales using styles that fit their personality.

A phenomenological study is an appropriate method when you want to describe an event, activity, or phenomenon. A combination of methods can be used such as conducting interviews, reading documents, watching videos, or visiting places, and events.  These methods are used to help understand the meaning participants place on whatever’s being examined. You rely on the participants’ own perspectives to provide insight into their motivations.

Like other qualitative methods, you don’t start with a well-formed hypothesis. In a phenomenological study, you often conduct a lot of interviews, usually between 5 and 25 for common themes.  This lets you build a sufficient dataset to look for emerging themes and to use other participants to validate your findings.

For example, there’s been an explosion in the last 5 years in online courses and training. But how do students engage with these courses? While you can examine time spent and content accessed using log data and even assess student achievement vis-a-vis in-person courses, a phenomenological study would aim to better understand the students experience and how that may impact comprehension of the material. (Source: measuringu.com)

Ethnographic Model

One of the most popular and widely recognized methods of qualitative research is the ethnographic model.  It places its subjects in a culture that is unfamiliar to them. The goal is to then learn and describe the culture’s characteristics.  This is similar to the way anthropologists observe the cultural challenges and motivations that drive a group. This method often immerses the researcher as a subject for extended periods of time. In a business model, ethnography is central to understanding customers. Testing products personally or in beta groups before releasing them to the public is an example of ethnographic research.

Ethnographic research is probably the most familiar and applicable type of qualitative method to UX professionals. In ethnography, you immerse yourself in the target participants’ environment to understand the goals, cultures, challenges, motivations, and themes that emerge. Ethnography has its roots in cultural anthropology where researchers immerse themselves within a culture, often for years! Rather than relying on interviews or surveys, you experience the environment first hand, and sometimes as a “participant observer.”  For example, one way of uncovering the unmet needs of customers is to “follow them home” and observe them as they interact with the product. You don’t come armed with any hypotheses to necessarily test; rather, you’re looking to find out how a product is used. (Source: measurinfu.com)

Grounded Theory Method

The grounded theory method tries to explain why a course of action evolved the way it did. The grounded theory looks at large subject numbers. Theoretical models are developed based on existing data in existing modes of genetic, biological, or psychological science. Businesses use grounded theory when conducting user or satisfaction surveys that target why consumers use company products or services. This data helps companies maintain customer satisfaction and loyalty. A phenomenological study looks to describe an actual activity or event.  The grounded theory looks to provide an explanation or theory behind why the events occurred.

You use primarily interviews and existing documents to build a theory based on the data. You go through a series of open and axial coding techniques to identify themes and build the theory. Sample sizes are often also larger—between 20 to 60—with these studies to better establish a theory. Grounded theory can help inform design decisions by better understanding how a community of users currently use a product or perform tasks.  For example, a grounded theory study could involve understanding how software developers use portals to communicate and write code or how small retail merchants approve or decline customers for credit. (Source: measuringu.com)

Case Study Model

Made famous by the Harvard Business School, the case study model gives an in-depth look at a single test subject. The subject can be a person or family, business or organization, town, or city. Data is collected from multiple sources and compiled using the details to create a bigger conclusion. Businesses often use case studies when marketing to new clients.  They do this to demonstrate how their business solutions solve a problem for the subject.

Even mainly quantitative researchers can relate to the value of the case study in explaining an organization, entity, company, or event. A case study involves a deep understanding through multiple types of data sources. Case studies can be explanatory, exploratory, or describing an event.  The annual CHI conference has a peer-reviewed track dedicated to case studies.  For example, a case study of how a large multi-national company introduced UX methods into an agile development environment would be informative to many organizations. (Source: measuringu.com)

Historical Model

The historical method of qualitative research studies the past to make observations about the potential future.  This method describes past events in order to understand present patterns and anticipate future choices. The historical model answers questions based on a hypothetical idea.  It then applies resources to test the idea for any potential deviations. Businesses often use historical data from previous ad campaigns and the targeted demographic.  They will then split-test to compare results with new campaigns to determine the most effective ad approach.

Historical Overview of Qualitative Research – Oxford Handbooks

Qualitative research does not represent a monolithic, agreed-upon approach to research but is a vibrant and contested field with many contradictions and different perspectives. In order to respect the multivoicedness of qualitative research, we will approach its history in the plural—as a variety of histories. We will work polyvocally and focus on six histories of qualitative research, which are sometimes overlapping, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes even incommensurable. They can be considered as articulations of different discourses about the history of the field, which compete for researchers’ attention. The six histories are: (1) the conceptual history of qualitative research, (2) the internal history of qualitative research, (3) the marginalizing history of qualitative research, (4) the repressed history of qualitative research, (5) the social history of qualitative research, and (6) the technological history of qualitative research. (Source: oxfordhandbooks.com)

Narrative Model

The narrative approach weaves together a sequence of events.  Usually, just one or two individuals are studied to formulate a cohesive story. This model occurs over extended periods of time and compiles information as it happens. Much like a story, it takes subjects at a starting point and reviews situations as obstacles or opportunities occur.  The final narrative doesn’t always have to remain in chronological order. Businesses use the narrative method to define buyer profiles.  They then use these personas to identify innovations that appeal to a specific target market.

You conduct in-depth interviews, read documents, and look for themes; in other words, how does an individual story illustrate the larger life influences that created it. Often interviews are conducted over weeks, months, or even years, but the final narrative doesn’t need to be in chronological order. Rather it can be presented as a story (or narrative) with themes and can reconcile conflicting stories and highlight tensions and challenges which can be opportunities for innovation.  For example, a narrative approach can be an appropriate method for building a persona. While a persona should be built using a mix of methods—including segmentation analysis from surveys—in-depth interviews with individuals in an identified persona can provide the details that help describe the culture, whether it’s a person living with Multiple Sclerosis, a prospective student applying for college, or a working mom. (Source: measuringu.com)

Types of Qualitative Research Methods

Just like the types of qualitative research can vary, so too can the methodology itself that is employed to conduct the research.  Some of the more prominent methods are described here:


Interviews are one of the most common qualitative methods used.  They allow access to individual and personal narratives and responses. Interviews can be a source of rich data. The information is often then transcribed to reveal in-depth personal reflections.

Focus group discussions

Focus group discussions are a great way to include a larger sampling of subjects and respondents.  Questions are posed and then open to discussion by the group. Group dynamics can lead to debates, opinions, and responses.  Researchers can then map the network of answers to the questions that were posed.

Participant observation

With this method, the researcher not only observes the participants but actively engages in the group’s activities. Most researchers who conduct participant observations take on the role that they are interested in studying.  This method usually entails the researcher embedding himself or herself in a group setting.  This allows the researcher to observe in great detail. This could include larger contextual settings, descriptions of individuals, group dynamics, individual opinions, and a host of other areas of focus.

Content analysis

Content analysis of media, such as documents or videos, entails close scrutiny of the subject matter. It is a research tool that examines how words, figures, pictures, and texts deliver meaning.  This method further explores the relationship and presence of certain words, themes, and concepts within a given data set.

This list of qualitative research methods is by no means complete.  It is a brief compilation of the most popular ones used. As the world advances, new technology aids in recording video, audio, and other enhancements that will help the process of qualitative data collection.  New methods will emerge to augment each of the above methods.

Types of Qualitative Research Methods – Characteristics

  • On-site data collection – Qualitative research methods usually collect data at the sight, where the participants are experiencing issues or problems. These are real-time data and rarely bring the participants out of the geographic locations to collect information.
  • Multiple forms of data collected – Qualitative researchers typically gather multiple forms of data, such as interviews, observations, and documents, rather than rely on a single data source.
  • Breaking down complex issues – This type of research method works towards solving complex issues by breaking down into meaningful inferences, that is easily readable and understood by all.
  • Building rapport – Since its a more communicative method, people can build their trust in the researcher, and the information thus obtained is raw and untainted.

Types of Qualitative Research – Conclusion

These various qualitative research designs do not form a complete list.  Some research methods can be
applied with either a qualitative or a quantitative orientation. The language of qualitative
research can be difficult for the novice researcher to understand.

It is very clear that the differences between the assorted qualitative research designs can
be difficult to understand at first. The differences are somewhat slight and are mainly concerned
with the original research question, the people or situations being studied, and the way the data is
analyzed, interpreted, and presented. It is very easy for the learner to understand the difference
between phenomenology and grounded theory or between ethnography and case study. The
main purpose of the various qualitative research designs is to provide the appropriate knowledge
about the different qualitative methodologies and what the terms mean. (Source:semanticscholar.org/)

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