5 Qualitative Research Designs and Research Methods

Lissie Hoover

A small focus group for qualitative research

Before constructing a qualitative study, you must first know your approach. Second, you must know how you intend to gather the research. These are called research methods. Notably, qualitative research methods vary drastically from quantitative research methods.

Qualitative Research Design Approaches

To perform qualitative research, you must choose at least one research design approach that fits your topic. It is not uncommon for a researcher to employ more than one approach throughout their study. Here are five common design approaches:

1. Historical Study

A historical study is the ideal choice for studies that involve extensive examination of the past — including people, events and documents. The purpose of a historical study is to draw conclusions about the present and future, based off research conducted in the past.1

This model depends on adequate interview sources and historical documents. It is essential to validate the accuracy of the data and find primary sources. Depending on the goal of the researcher, this form of study may result in a biography, which is why the term “historical study” is sometimes used interchangeably with “biographical study.”

2. Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a wide-ranging form of study. In this research model, the researcher looks to gather information that explains how individuals experience a phenomenon and how they feel about it. This model recognizes that there is no single objective reality; instead, everyone experiences things differently.1

The outcome is described from the point of view of the participants. However, the researcher is still able to derive a set of findings that can be used to identify themes surrounding the phenomena under study.

3. Grounded Theory

The purpose of grounded theory is to develop a theory surrounding a social issue. This theory seeks not only to identify problems in social scenes, but also to define how people deal with those problems. Grounded theory is unique among qualitative design approaches, because it depends solely on the data gleaned through the research process.2. Often, the initial research question is progressively reformed and refined as more information is gathered on the topic. In this sense, the participants help shape the study.

4. Ethnography

Ethnography is the study of a specific grouping within a culture. Researchers pursuing this study format will immerse themselves into the culture they are researching. The qualitative data is gathered through direct observation of — and interaction with — participants who belong to that culture. The information is then presented through their perspective. Ultimately, this study aims at understanding group culture.1

5. Case Study

Case studies, one of the most common qualitative designs, are used to examine a person, group, community or institution. Researchers often use a bounded theory approach that confines the case study in terms of time or space. To conduct the case study, the researcher may draw upon multiple sources of data, such as observation, interviews and documents. All participants chosen must share a unifying factor, which means they all must have a direct or indirect connection to the research question or subject being studied. After collecting the data, the researcher will analyze it to identify common or prominent themes.

Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative data can be collected using a variety of methods, and multiple methods may be used throughout the data collection phase of a single qualitative study.

  • Interview: Researchers can conduct in-depth, face-to-face interviews with participants. This allows them to gain insights from the participants to best understand their experience. 
  • Focus Groups: Focus groups are similar to interviews, but involve multiple participants at once. They are another route to obtaining responses and making interview observations. 
  • Observation: A less direct method than interviews or focus groups, this method requires careful attention to participants’ activities and behaviors in order to gather data. 
  • Document analysis: Researchers can gather useful data from print documents as well as electronic records. Careful analysis is needed to draw conclusions from the body of related documents.

Interested in starting your doctoral journey? Grand Canyon University has a wide variety of qualitative and quantitative programs and resources to help you. Click Request Info above to learn more about your first step


Retrieved from:

1University of Missouri-St. Louis, Qualitative Research Designs in May 2021 

2Research Rundowns, Qualitative Research Design in May 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.