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The Five Qualitative Research Approaches

Updated on March 19, 2018
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Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, blogger at Healthy at Home, and educator. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.


The text discusses the importance of researchers talking about how their personal beliefs and assumptions affect the research study on which they are currently working.

In order to know for sure what one believes, it is critical to know the approach one is going to take on the study and how their opinions factor into it.

As each research approach is completely different and looks at problems, situations and people in a unique light, it is important for research to understand them in order to choose the right one for their research.

The five approaches the author outlines in his text include narrative research, phenomenological research, grounded theory research, ethnographic research and case study research.

Narrative Research

Narrative research is rooted in various social and humanities disciplines, and is based on collecting stories and experiences from individuals surrounding a specific situation.

The big thinkers in this approach are D. Clandinin and F. Connelly. Some types of narrative research include biographical studies, autoethnographies, life histories, and oral histories.

Some of the challenges related to this research approach are the need to collect a great deal of information from participants, the need to be able to uncover the multi-layered contexts of participants’ lives, and the need to be able to reflect on one’s personal beliefs and assumptions in relation to the situation studied.

Narrative research requires a great deal of collaboration between the researcher and his or her participants.

While a narrative reports the experiences of individuals, phenomenology focuses more on the common experiences of individuals in the same situation.


Phenomenological Research

Phenomenological research is rooted in philosophy and is based on a single phenomenon and describes how all individuals involved are connected by it.

The big thinker for this research approach is Edmund Husserl. Some types of phenomenological research include hermeneutic phenomenology, empirical phenomenology, transcendental phenomenology, and psychological phenomenology.

Some of the challenges related to this research approach are that the researcher needs an understanding of broader philosophical assumptions, finding individuals who have all experienced the phenomenon may be difficult, and the researcher must be able to set aside his or her personal beliefs and biases.

The approach may be too structured for some, and participants will need to be chosen carefully to ensure that they have each directly experienced the phenomenon.

While phenomenology may focus on common experiences amongst individuals, grounded theory research seeks to create a theory or reason behind a situation based on the experiences of a number of people having experienced it.

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Grounded Theory Research

Grounded theory research is rooted in sociology and focuses on a process or action with steps.

The goal of grounded theory research is to develop a theory about situations or actions based on data collected through tons of interviews collected from those involved.

The big thinkers for this approach are Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss. Some types of grounded theory research include the systematic procedures of Strauss and Corbin, and the constructivist approach of Charmaz.

Some of the challenges related to this research approach are that the researchers must recognize that this is a systematic approach with specific steps, it is difficult to know exactly when the categories are “saturated” or when the theory is sufficiently detailed, and the researcher needs to recognize that the outcome of this research should be a theory with specific components that must be met.

The biggest challenge, however, is that the researcher must be able to set aside his or her personal beliefs and biases in order to accurately create a theory that explains the process or action studied.

Although grounded theory research focuses on developing a theory from a number of interviews collected from individuals sharing in the same interactions, ethnographic research focus not on the action or process involved, but on the shared and learned patterns of an entire culture-sharing group.



The study of ethnography is rooted in cultural sociology and focuses on the study of the shared and learned patterns of values, beliefs, language and behaviors of a culture-sharing group. (Creswell, 2013)

The big thinkers of this research approach are Park, Dewey and Mead. Some types of ethnographic research include a realistic ethnography, a critical ethnography, a confessional ethnography, a life history, an autoethnography, a feminist ethnography, ethnographic novels, and a visual ethnography.

Some of the challenges related to this research approach are that the researcher needs to have an understanding of cultural anthropology and the social-cultural system, the researcher may “go native” and be unable to complete the study, and there is a need to be sensitive to the needs of participants. In an ethnographic study, the time needed to collect data is extensive and narratives are written in a literary approach.

Once again, even though everything else a researcher must battle in this type of study, the researcher must report his or her impact in conducting the study, which is one of the toughest parts.

The intent in ethnography is to determine how the culture works in a group, or a case. However, in a case study, the intent is to explore an issue or problem within a case in a real-life setting.

Case Study

A case study is originally rooted in sociology and anthropology and has been described in many ways by a variety of well-known researchers.

Some say it is not a methodology but a choice about what the researcher wants to study. Others say it is a strategy of inquiry or a comprehensive research strategy.

What it is, is a qualitative approach where the researcher investigates a real-life system, or several systems, using in-depth data collection, to explore an issue or problem.

The big thinkers of this approach are Malinowski, LePlay, Thomas and Znaniecki, and their various research studies.

Some types of case studies include the single instrumental case study, the collective or multiple case study, and the intrinsic case study.

Some of the challenges related to this research method are to decide which bounded system to study and recognize that several might be possible candidates, to consider whether to study a single case or multiple cases, to establish a rationale for purposeful sampling, for selecting the case and for gathering information, and to simply have enough information.

Some case studies may not have clear beginning and ending points, and therefore it will be necessary to decide which boundaries are necessary for the study and to define them clearly before research begins.


Although all of these research methods have their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their specific purposes for research, I wish to use the case study method for my research study. With the online learning environment as the case I’m studying, and student motivation and achievement my issue, it seems perfect to use this method to explain what motivates students to want to achieve in an online learning program so that I may better my own program for those interested. I am a very thorough person that works best with rules and guidelines, so the very in-depth data collection methods of the case study method appeal greatly to me. I have already chosen the online program I wish to use and have been trying to better understand my own beliefs and assumptions in relation to my research.

Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches
Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches

I purchased this book in my quest for knowledge on qualitative research approaches. This book will give you all of the information you need on this topic.



Creswell, J.W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

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