Types of Qualitative Research: Explained Within a SOTL Framework

Excerpts from Merriam, S. B., et al. (2002). Qualitative research in practice: Examples for discussion and analysis. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Basic Interpretive Qualitative Study

Can be used when an instructor is interested in how students make meaning of a situation or phenomenon. It uses an inductive strategy, collecting data from interviews, observations, or document analysis (e.g., students’ written work). Analysis is of patterns or common themes and the outcome is a rich descriptive account that makes reference to the literature that helped frame the study.

Example: An interview of 45 women from varying backgrounds and a comparison of the developmental patterns discerned with earlier findings on male development. They found women’s lives evolved through periods of tumultuous, structure-building phases that alternated with stable periods.
Levinson, D. J. & Levinson, L. D. (1996). The seasons of a woman’s life. New York: Ballentine.

Example: An examination of undergraduates’ decision making regarding their selection of reference sources. Frequently mentioned criteria are given. Students’ year in school also influenced their decisions.
Twait, M. (2005). Undergraduate students’ source selection criteria: A qualitative study.

Phenomenological Study

Aims to find the essence or structure of an experience by explaining how complex meanings are built out of simple units of inner experience, for example, the essence of being a participant in a particular program or the essence of understanding a subject. The method involves temporarily putting aside or “bracketing” personal attitudes and beliefs regarding the phenomenon, thereby heightening consciousness and allowing the researcher to intuit or see the phenomenon from the perspective of those who have experienced it. All collected data is laid out and treated as equal, clustered into themes, examined from multiple perspectives, and descriptions of the phenomena (how and what) are constructed.

Example: Eight clinical psychology practicum-level trainees were interviewed to obtain experience of good supervision. Meaning units were identified from these and a meaning structure was identified and refined into the essence or essential elements of good supervisory experiences shared by a majority in this context.
Worthen, V. E. & McNeill, B. W. (1996). A phenomenological investigation of good supervision events. Journal of Counseling Pscyhology, 43, 25-34.

Grounded Theory Study

Derives from collected data a theory that is “grounded” in the data, but therefore localized, dealing with a specific situation like how students handle multiple responsibilities or what constitutes an effective lesson plan. The method involves comparing collected units of data against one another until categories, properties, and hypotheses that state relations between these categories and properties emerge. These hypotheses are tentative and suggestive, not tested in the study.

Example: Ten school counselors were given structured interviews to help determine how their professional identity is formed. This data was coded first to form concepts and then to form connections between concepts. A core concept emerged and its process and implications were discussed. School counselors’ professional interactions were identified as defining experiences in their identity formation.
Brott, P. E. & Myers, J. E. (1999). Development of professional school counselor identity: A grounded theory. Professional School Counseling, 2, 339-348.

Example: Student perceptions of the residential environment educational program from a conservation school were collected from 2779 students at 31 schools. A grounded theory approach was used to discover which areas were most interesting, most confusing, and most meaningful.
Smith-Sebasto, N. J. & Walker, L. M. (2005). Toward a grounded theory for residential environmental education: A case study of the New Jersey School for Conservation. Journal of Environmental Education 37(1), 37-42.

Case Studies

A descriptive intensive analysis of an individual, unit, or phenomena selected for its typicality or uniqueness. Different methods could be used to conduct this analysis (like ethnography) but the focus is on the unit of analysis, like an individual student’s experiences.

Example: The faculty of a small Southern Historically Black College was examined in order to examine concerns of a digital divide between predominantly White colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The study reports on technology familiarity and use scores of these faculties and what was done by college administrators in the three years following the collection of these scores. Recommendations on how to close this divide are shared.
Snipes, V. T, Ellis, W. & Joy, T. (2006). Are HBTU’s up to speed to speed technologically: A case study. Journal of Black Studies 36(3), 382-295.

Ethnographic Study

Traditional in anthropology for studying human society and culture. It is less a method of data collection and more the use of a socio-cultural lens through which the data are interpreted. Extensive fieldwork is usually required in order to give a cultural interpretation of the data and immersion in the culture is common, but a description of the culture (the beliefs, traditions, practices, and behaviors of a group of individuals) and an interpretation of the culture through the point of view of an insider to that culture are necessary components of ethnographies.

Example: Native American students training to be teachers were followed through interviews over a five year period to chart the progress towards a goal of facilitating the development of Native American teachers and to better understand and address their unique problems. Their beliefs, views about self, and concerns were presented.
Whitfield, P. T. & Klug, B. J. (2000). From aspirant to professional: The transformation of American Indians who would be teachers. Results of a five-year ethnographic study. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans, LA, April 24-28.

Narrative Analysis

This involves the use of stories or life narratives, first person accounts of experiences. These stories are used as data, taking the perspective of the storyteller, as opposed to the larger society, with the goal of extracting meaning from the text. The most common types of narrative analysis are psychological, biographical, and discourse analysis. The former involves analyzing the story in terms of internal thoughts and motivations and the latter analyzes the written text or spoken words for its component parts or patterns. Biographical analysis takes the individual’s society and factors like gender and class into account.

Example: Oral narratives were collected from three social studies teachers’ lectures, conversations with students, and student interactions over a 14 month period. These narratives were coded and analyzed and used to argue that storytelling or the use of oral history was well received by students and provided richer data than more traditional teaching methods.
Hamer, L. (1998). Looking at the overlooked: A narrative analysis of how teachers combine personal and professional knowledge. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Diego, CA, April 13-17.

Critical Qualitative Research

This writing aims to reveal and critique the social, cultural, and psychological assumptions regarding present day contexts with the goal of empowering individuals and enabling change. It challenges current power distributions and the status quo, as opposed to merely revealing meaning. Research questions may address race, gender, and class influences, how current power structures may serve some groups’ interests and oppress others, and how truth and knowledge are constructed. This analysis is critical for methods like participatory action research which uses such critique as the basis for collective action.

Example: A critical examination of the consumer education texts used in adult literacy programs revealed content that was disrespectful of adult learners and their previous experience as consumers, promoted certain ideologies regarding consumerism, and defended the status quo by placing blame for economic troubles on individual inadequacies, ignoring societal inequities.
Sandlin, J. A. (2000). The politics of consumer education materials used in adult literacy classrooms. Adult Education Quarterly, 50(4), 289-307.

Postmodern Research

This is research that challenges the form and categories of traditional qualitative analysis. The postmodern perspective involves questioning certainties and assumptions in the world including the nature of truth, the ability of research and science to discover this truth, and all generalizations and typologies. Three “crises” have resulted from these questions; whether the experience of another can be captured or whether it is created by the researcher, whether any study can be viewed as valid if traditional methodologies are flawed, and whether it is possible to institute any real change. While no single methodology is encouraged, this research is characterized by the inclusion of a plurality of voices and interpretations, an awareness of exclusion and the politics involved the choice of perspectives, and a sensitivity to the power of the author’s voice and language usage.

Example: This paper critiques the use of self-reflection by higher education teachers as a student-centered method of continuing professional development. The author argues that the widespread and unquestioned use of reflective self-assessment assumes that the self has a transparent nature and can be adequately examined by introspection and ignores the many post-modern and post-structuralist challenges of this view. For example, if our views of the self are themselves constructed by the society we live in and the language we use, is true knowledge of the self, independent of these, even possible? If our “selves” are constructed then attempting to gain knowledge through self-reflection is a mis-cognition and instead results in the creation of a less independent and more societal-regulated self.
Bleakley, A. (2000). Adrfit without a lifeboat: Reflective self-assessment in a post-modern age. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(4), 405-418.Excerpts from Merriam, S. B., et al. (2002). Qualitative research in practice: Examples for discussion and analysis. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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