14 Types of Qualitative Research

qualitative research examples and definition, explained below

Qualitative research is a research methodology that involves gathering non-numerical empirical data for in-depth and contextualized analysis.

It is one of two main categories of research methodologies, the other being quantitative research. While quantitative research is effective in identifying trends and facts (the ‘what?’), qualitative studies attempt to understand underlying reasons why something might be true (the ‘why?’):

Qualitative ResearchQuantitative Research
GoalsSeeks to understand the nuanced underlying meanings, experiences, and interpretations of a phenomenon (Walliman, 2021) through the collection and analysis of non-numeric data.Seeks to quantify data in order to create generalizable results (Busetto, Wick & Gumbinger, 2020). Requires numerical data and statistical methods. Generally also requires substantial populations.
Strengths– Enables researchers to develop in-depth, rich, and nuanced insights.
– Allows for the exploration of the complexities underlying issues that cannot be identified through quantitative research.
– Provides objective, reliable, and generalizable results (Liamputtong, 2020).
– Enables researchers to test hypotheses and examine relationships between variables.
Weaknesses– Results are not generalizable to an entire population due to smaller sample sizes and context-specific findings (Busetto, Wick & Gumbinger, 2020).
– Researcher bias and subjectivity can influence the research process and findings.
– May not capture the full complexity and richness of human experiences and social phenomena.
– Is excellent at answering ‘what?’ questions but not ‘why?’ questions
Types – Ethnography
– Phenomenology
– Case studies
– Narrative research
– Grounded theory
– Participatory action research
– Life history research
– Observational research
– Surveys
– Experiments
Cross-sectional studies
– Correlational research
– Meta-analyses
– Quasi-experiments
Secondary data analysis

Below are examples of various approaches to qualitative research. Note that the following types represent some but not all approaches to qualitative research, and that some of these approaches can also be used in, combined with, and analyzed through, quantitative methods.

Types of Qualitative Research

1. Ethnography

In ethnographic research, the researcher embeds themselves within the group in which they are studying.

Then, they employ qualitative research methods such as participant observation, thick description, unstructured interviews, and field notes vignettes to provide detailed and contextualized descriptions of the subjects of their analysis.

This type of research, common in anthropology. aims to understand the shared beliefs, practices, and values of a particular community through the researcher’s immersion within the cultural group.

Ethnographic research can rarely make predictions, identify trends, or ascertain hard facts about an entire population (that would require substantive quantitative methods). However, they can create detailed explanations of cultural practices and comparisons between social and cultural groups. Its strength is in producing detailed and holistic accounts of groups of people and their interactions.

This method often demands a significant investment of time and funds, as researchers need to embed themselves within the group. They are often embedded with the group day and night, attempting to develop trust and rapport with the participants to generate authentic and detailed accounts of group practices.

Example Study

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street by Karen Ho involves an anthropologist who embeds herself with Wall Street firms to study the culture of Wall Street bankers and how this culture affects the broader economy and world.

2. Autoethnography

Autoethnography builds upon ethnography by combining elements of both autobiography and ethnography. In autoethnography, the researcher is the subject of their study.

The author uses personal experiences, memories, and reflections to explore and analyze broader cultural and social phenomena, and their place within them (Liamputtong, 2020).

The researcher’s subjective experiences serve two key purposes:

  1. First, their personal experiences are the source of data
  2. Second, their personal experiences are a lens through which to examine the topic

As with many qualitative studies, autoethnography challenges traditional ideas of validity and reliability because it does not seek objectivity. Rather, it embraces the researcher’s positionality and subjective interpretations. As a result, the focus is not on identifying population trends. Rather, it is on interpreting and understanding a case study in-depth to answer ‘why?’ questions.

This method is particularly suited for exploring topics related to identity and culture, where deep explanations are required.

Example Study

Living Without a Mobile Phone: An Autoethnography by Andres Luccero (2018) is one of the more captivating academic studies I’ve engaged with in recent months. It explores themes related to the benefits and struggles of voluntarily foregoing mobile phones (including the safety fears Luccero goes through) after systematically collecting field notes over a number of years.

3. Life history research

Life history research involves the collection and analysis of personal biographies or autobiographies to explore people’s experiences across their lifetime.

Like ethnography and autoethnography, it is focused on individual experiences and perspectives. However, it does not require the researcher to be embedded in a cultural or social group in order to gather data (Busetto, Wick & Gumbinger, 2020).

Rather, the data can be gathered from people’s written or spoken biographies in the form of diaries, letters, and so on. It will aim to focus on the complex relationships between personal narratives and the sociocultural, historical, and political contexts of their lives.

This method seeks to understand how people construct meaning from their life events. It is common in social work and psychology research.

Like all qualitative research, life history research focuses on the in-depth exploration of individual stories and experiences rather than the collection of numerical data.

Example Study

The Study of Life History: Gandhi by David Mandelbaum conducts a life history analysis of Gandhi by exploring his biographies and texts about his life. Through this analysis, Mandelbaum contextualized Gandhi’s life achievements and decisions in the banal experiences of fatherhood an nationhood, with an attempt to humanize the Indian hero and re-imagine his role in the development of modern India.

4. Observational research

Observational research involves the systematic documentation and analysis of phenomena by the research.

In this approach, the researcher usually takes the position of the ‘fly on the wall’ (Walliman, 2021). So, unlike ethnographic research, observational research does not attempt to be an embedded researcher-participant. Rather, they are a researcher-observer.

Observational research can be either overt observation, where the participants are aware that the researcher is observing them, or covert observation, where the participants are not aware of the researcher and therefore more likely to behave authentically (Liamputtong, 2020).

Of course, in human subject research, covert observation comes with many ethical issues that need to be assessed and approved by a university ethics review board.

Methods employed in observational research include use of researcher vignettes and field notes and audiovisual data collection.

Example Study

The Bobo Doll Experiment by Albert Bandura is the quintessential observational study. Bandura had children watch adults interacting with a doll. Half saw adults acting roughly with the doll, the other half saw parents acting carefully with the doll. Then, Bandura observed children playing with a doll. His observations revealed that children’s observations of adult actions affect how the children will subsequently treat the doll.

5. Phenomenology

Phenomenology, like the above studies, focuses on exploring the lived experiences and subjective perceptions of individuals. However, it focuses specifically on people’s experiences in relation to a specific social phenomenon.

The primary goal of phenomenology is to gain a deep understanding of the essence or meaning of the experience from the perspective of those who have lived it.

This approach is considered qualitative research because its focus is specifically on exploration of subjective experiences and interpretations, not identification of numerically significant population-wide trends.

Methods employed in phenomenological research include in-depth semi-structured or unstructured interviews, personal reflections via field notes, and other qualitative data sources that can help to capture the nuances and complexities of human experiences.

Example Study

A phenomenological approach to experiences with technology by Sebnem Cilesiz represents a good starting-point for formulating a phenomenological study. With its focus on the ‘essence of experience’, this piece presents methodological, reliability, validity, and data analysis techniques that phenomenologists use to explain how people experience technology in their everyday lives.

6. Grounded theory

Grounded theory involves developing a theory during and after data collection rather than testing a hypothesis that was developed before data collection.

This is in contrast to most academic research studies.

The grounded theory approach avoids developing hypotheses because it holds that hypotheses limit and constrain the observations of the researcher (Belgrave & Seide, 2019). Instead, this approach lets the data lead the study, and allows researchers to stay open-minded to a range of possible ideas that will emerge from the data.

Generally, it will involve the collection, coding, and constant comparison of data with the aim of identifying patterns, trends, relationships, and categories.

Grounded theory tends to be qualitative because it is a research tradition that emphasizes the importance of context and the iterative nature of the research process in developing a nuanced understanding of the research topic (Belgrave & Seide, 2019; Komives et al., 2005).

Grounded Theory Example

Developing a Leadership Identity by Komives et al (2005) is a highly-accessible research paper that employs a grounded theory approach to develop a thesis based on the data rather than testing a hypothesis. The researchers studied the leadership identity of 13 college students taking on leadership roles. Based on their interviews, the researchers theorized that the students’ leadership identities shifted from a hierarchical view of leadership to one that embraced leadership as a collaborative concept.

7. Case study

Case study research is the quintessential qualitative research methodology. Instead of examining a whole population to develop numerical trend data, case study researchers try to obtain in-depth, nuanced, and contextualized explanations of one single event.

The benefit of case study research is that it helps elucidate details and explanations that are overlooked by numerical data (Busetto, Wick & Gumbinger, 2020). It can demonstrate deep insights that can help us develop empathetic, reflective, and thoughtful understandings of a phenomenon.

However, findings from a case study can not be transferrable to new contexts or make population-wide predictions. Rather, the data is generally used to inform practitioner understandings of a phenomenon so they can approach future instances with nuance and deep understanding (Liamputtong, 2020).

Case studies tend to focus on complex, real-life situations or phenomena within their natural contexts (Busetto, Wick & Gumbinger, 2020). Through methods like participant interviews and observations, case studies present rich, detailed, and context-specific findings.

Example Study

Jean Piaget’s writings on stages of child development represent a famous example of case study research. In his writings, he explored his own child’s development and categorized her development into four distinct cognitive stages. This study, while not generalizable on its own, has stood the test of time, and is still used to examine the cognitive progress of children to this day.

8. Focus Group Research

Focus group research is involves small group discussions led by a trained moderator to gather insights and opinions on an issue. With its focus on experiences and opinions rather than objective numerical data, this is a qualitative research approach.

One of the strengths of focus group research is that it often involves open and interactive discussions among participants(Busetto, Wick & Gumbinger, 2020).

This unstructured group discussion can allow the researchers to identify friction points, points of contradiction, and differences in opinions across a group. Because focus groups are live and interact, the researchers may also ask for clarification and additional detail in such areas (Liamputtong, 2020).

However, the above hypotheticals are often influenced by study design, and whether the focus groups are structured, semi-structured, or unstructured.

Example Study

One core example of focus group research comes from political science, where political researchers bring a cohort of voters into a research locale to ask them questions about their opinions of political leaders, which can generate qualitative understandings of how a leader may be seen by key demographics.

9. Interview Research

Interview research is designed to gather data through interviews – that is, questioning research participants about their thoughts, experiences, and opinions on a matter.

Unlike focus groups, they tend to be one-to-one situations; however, often, a corpus of 10 or more people are interviewed in order to gather enough opinions to develop themes across the research participants’ answers.

Interview methods can be broken down into structured, semi-structured, and unstructured interviews (Atkinson et al., 2001).

  • Structured interviews require the researcher to ask the same set of questions to all research participants and do not allow the researcher to go off-script. This can ensure a degree of uniformity across the research cohort and could arguably improve data validity by removing researcher bias and interference to some degree.
  • Semi-structured interviews tend to have a core set of research questions, but allow the researcher to seek clarification or prompt the interviewees to go into more depth about their points.
  • Unstructured interviews often involve few pre-determined questions and instead may focus on a set of themes that may be led by the research participant themselves. This is common, for example, in grounded research (Atkinson et al., 2001).

For each type, the focus remains on obtaining opinions and personal experiences, making interview research a type of qualitative research (Liamputtong, 2020).

10. Narrative research

Narrative research involves the study of the narratives people produce in their minds about topics, such as themselves, an event, or a phenomenon. It is perhaps most closely connected to life history research, explored above.

However, narrative research isn’t combined to personal identity narratives, but can also involve the study of a range of narratives people develop in order to achieve cognitive equilibrium and consistency of thought when it comes to an event, person, or phenomenon (Atkinson et al., 2001).

The idea is generally to understand how individuals construct meaning from their life events, and how they use the meanings they have constructed in future interactions or thought processes. For example, the narrative we construct about our religion, town, interpersonal relationships etc., may come to deeply inform our values and beliefs.

Clearly, narrative research emphasizes the exploration of subjective experiences, meanings, and interpretations, and is therefore a form of qualitative research (Liamputtong, 2020).

Example Study

Learning to Labour by Paul Willis is perhaps one of the most famous examples of narrative research. In this study, Willis explored the personal identity narratives that working-class English boys created around work and school, demonstrating their choices to reject formal education and its middle-class values while many of them embraced hard work ethic for types of work they valued, namely, creative and productive physical labor.

11. Action research

Action research, common in education and nursing, involves conducting field research that directly informs and builds upon a specific professional approach or intervention.

Action research tends to be cyclical, meaning changes are implemented, and then research is conducted once more to see if those changes have had a result (Atkinson et al., 2001).

For example, an action research study in a classroom might involve a teacher analyzing their own teaching style and methods, and based upon the findings, the teacher might make adjustments to their approach, before conducting another round of research to see if it has had a positive effect.

The main upside of action research is that it helps practitioners to improve their practice. It is highly relevant and applicable to a specific context (Liamputtong, 2020).

Action research generally contains qualitative research methods (although may also embrace a mixed methodology). With its focus on one case study, it generally aims to obtain in-depth and context-specific perspectives.

Example Study

Using Digital Sandbox Gaming to Improve Creativity Within Boys’ Writing by Ellison and Drew was a research study one of my research students completed in his own classroom under my supervision. He implemented a digital game-based approach to literacy teaching with boys and interviewed his students to see if the use of games as stimuli for storytelling helped draw them into the learning experience.

12. Participatory research

Participatory research, like action research, is research where the research participants are actively involved in the study design and implementation.

However, unlike action research, the researcher may not themselves be a participant (Atkinson et al., 2001).

For example, a researcher might be invited by a school to come into the school and work with teachers on an intervention. The researcher will work with the teachers to develop a study scope, research question, and methods (Vaughn & Jacquez,  2020).

Participants may also provide on-the-go feedback about the study, its methods, and its progress in order to allow the researcher to develop more nuanced and effective future lines of analysis (Vaughn & Jacquez,  2020).

With the focus on participants’ thoughts, feelings, and input, participatory research is generally oriented to the gathering of qualitative data and the use of qualitative analysis techniques such as thematic analysis.

13. Critical Discourse Analysis

Critical discourse analysis refers to a type of qualitative research that involves the close analysis of texts (usually written and spoken, and often involving media analysis) to identify ideologies and metanarratives that the texts assume or imply are true.

This type of research is based upon the poststructuralist idea that truth is made up of ‘discourses’ –ways of speaking – which inevitably have underling assumptions that should be deconstructed and analyzed to highlight their assumptions (Fairclough, 2001).

A critical discourse analysis will involve gathering a corpus of data – such as newspaper articles or political speeches – and coding themes in texts through a close textual or semiotic analysis.

Generally through qualitative methods, the themes are not coded numerically but through multi-researcher parsing of salient terms, phrases, metaphors, and linguistic devices.

The seminal texts for methods for conducting this type of analysis are Norman Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis and Analyzing Discourse.

Example Study

How is Islam Portrayed in Western Media? By Poorebrahim and Zarei (2013) represents a typical critical discourse analysis. This study combs through a corpus of western media texts to explore the language forms that are used in relation to Islam and Muslims, finding that they are overly stereotyped, which may represent anti-Islam bias or failure to understand the Islamic world.

14. Visual and Multimodal Discourse Analysis

Building on critical discourse analysis, visual and multimodal analyses attempt to uncover and elucidate discourses in multimodal texts such as film and television.

Central to this approach is an understanding that it’s not just the words we use but the nonverbal and visual communication strategies that affect learning and development.

For example, intonation in the voice, filmography techniques, scene cutting, speed of voice, and so on, all convey meaning.

Addressing the shortcomings of discourse analysis methods, multimodal discourse analysis employs qualitative semiotic methods which help to explore how images, sound, and other multimodal devices convey meaning. The most useful resource for me when using this sort of analysis has been Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) text Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design.

Example Study

Education for Sale by Colin Symes (1998) was a study that was highly influential to my early multimodal discourse analysis work. Symes, who became a personal mentor of mine, studied how elite school prospectuses subtly constructed narratives around exclusion and elitism in order to inflate prices and generate profit and social status. Symes looked not only at text, but camera angles, image choice, and even school uniform design.


Qualitative research has the benefit of obtaining detailed and in-depth analysis of a phenomenon. While it does not allow us to gather population data or make future trend analysis based on numerical findings, it helps us to provide meaningful answers to nuanced questions in a way that quantitative research cannot. The above approaches to qualitative research can be combined with quantitative approaches (in what’s called mixed-methods research) or used alone to develop detailed and rigorous information about social phenomena.


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Willis, P. E. (1981). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. Columbia University Press.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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