In order to understand human experiences, qualitative researchers ask how and why as opposed to how much or how many. Inasmuch as there are so many diverse types of people, groups, and organizations to investigate, there are varied methods as to which a researcher might use to learn about them.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a general overview of five research designs and to compare and contrast the writing styles, data collection and analysis process, as well as the role of a researcher, of each research method.
Summary of research designs
Narrative research is rooted in the study of stories told by participants about specific events, or a series of events. This type of study focuses on one individual, sometimes two and relies mostly on interviews as the method for collecting data (Creswell, 2013). There are many types of narratives, some dating back to the beginning of civilization.
These approaches include: a life history, an oral history, biographical study, and an autoethnography (Creswell, 2013). Phenomenology Research focuses on shared experiences of participants as it relates to a specified phenomenon. Researchers listen to the stories of participants, grouping material, identify themes, and analyzing that data to make inferences about the phenomenon (Campbell, 2011). There are two major types of phenomenological research: hermeneutic and transcendental (Creswell, 2013). Hermeneutic phenomenology refers to the interpreting of texts of lived experiences.
This concept can be summed up as “understanding human action in context” (Willis, 2007, p. 104). Throughout this type of study, researchers will look for themes. Transcendental phenomenology, however, does not necessarily focus on the interpretation, but more on descriptions presented by participants (Creswell, 2013). Grounded Theory is a method of qualitative research that has its roots in sociology and is used by many researchers in the fields of social sciences, including education.
This method focuses on the development of a theory based on the actions or process of a group of people. There are two distinct schools of thought in how the process should occur: systematically, or more of a constructivist approach. Either approach, data is collected by interviewing participants, generally 20-60, and then the data is analyzed by a series of coding processes: open, axial, and selective. When all is said and done, the researcher will have developed a theory (Creswell, 2013). Ethnography research has its roots in early 20th-century cultural anthropology, but has since expanded to more diverse fields of study. An ethnography details a group of people that share a culture.
Most studies involve large groups of people (however, not a requirement), over a long period of time. Data are collected by extensive observations, even to the point of researcher immersion. The published study will include extensive details about patterns of values, behavior, and language of the shared-culture group. Beyond reporting the details, the research will make inferences regarding the behaviors and interactions of the group members (Creswell, 2013).
The study of ethnography is so vast that it has its own academic journal. Published by SAGE Journals, Ethnography is a peer reviewed journal that provides ethnographic findings, theories, and critiques (SAGE 2016) . Made popular by famous psychologists, case studies involve the intentional study of real-life, current contexts, over a set amount of time and the collection of in-depth data including interviews, observations, and documents (Creswell, 2013). This focus of the case could be based on an individual, small group, or an organization, depending on the research question.
The role of the researcher
In all methods of qualitative research, the researcher’s personal experiences, biases, and prejudices must be addresses. Even their personality may affect the outcome of the results. So it is critical that the researcher use sound data to ensure quality of the research process and valid results (McCusker & Gunaydin, 2015). In each method of design, the researcher spends a great deal of time interviewing participants, and sometimes, immersing themselves in the lives of the participants. There are, however, some distinct differences between the different design methods.
Narrative: the researcher, as in any method, plays the important role of a listener. In this case, however, the researcher pays attention to details that are sometimes overlooked in other methods, such as the pacing and rhythm in which the participates tells their story. Also, the researcher will generally not interrupt the speaker with question as is often the case in other design methods (Sandelowski, 1991). Phenomenonology: in this type of study, the researcher must bracket themselves in order to remove an possibility of bias, assumptions, or prejudices based on personal experiences with the subject matter (Thompson, 2016).
Grounded Theory: a researcher using this design will use significantly different methods than other designs, mostly because the end goal is very different. The researcher ‘s goal is to develop a theory. In order to achieve this, they will identify assumptions, code, categorize, constantly write memos, make comparison and will eventually use of this to develop their theory (Birks ; Mills, 2011). Ethnography: the researcher immerses himself into the lives of the participants over a long period of time.
They begin their study, starting with a theory and then use that theory to look for patterns among participants. Case Study: the researcher must identify their case, and determine which type of case study it should be. The best way to determine which type of case study to do, the researcher may want to do a sample study (Creswell, 2013).
The purpose and role of literature
The purpose of a literature review varies, depending upon the method of design; however, the studying of peer reviewed literature about a topic can certainly help the researcher.
One of the primary purposes of a literature review is to help the researcher figure out what topics they may be interesting in pursuing. It also helps them determine what gaps exists about the research subject (Kuttner ; Threlkeld). This will help the researcher develop their research question, which is often required for research proposals whether they are for dissertations or grants. Additionally, a researcher may need to do a literature review periodically, even after they have begun their research. Inevitably, new questions will arise and returning to published literature may guide the researcher (Kuttner ; Threlkeld).
Many times, the researcher will include a literature review section somewhere in their report. The review may be in a stand-alone section, or a synthesized part of the introduction in order to set up the research question (Creswell, 2009).
Data collection and analysis
Data collection is an integral part of the research process. In all methods, the researcher will interview participants, and in some cases observe as well as collect existing documents and visual data (Kuttner ; Threlkeld). Data are the “rough materials researchers collect from the world they are studying” (Bogden ; Biklen, 2003, p.
109). Narrative Design: researchers observe participants, collects stories, documents, pictures, and record group conversations in order to find stories that emerge and are relevant to the research question (Creswell, 2013). The primary methods of analysis are thematic which examines recurring elements that were said by the participant, structural which focus on how the narrative events are told, and dialogic which highlight who the story is actually about (Reissman, 2008). In phenomenological studies, the researcher frequently relies on in-depths and often multiple interviews of participants who have some experience with the phenomenon under investigation (Creswell, 2013). The interviews typically consist of open-ended questions.
Additionally, the researcher may use choose to analyze observations, documents as well as artistic sources of data such as journals, poetry, film, and even music (Polkingorne, 1990). The process by which the researchers analyze and interpret data is rather involved. They must first transcribe the interviews, identify important phrases that are meaningful or recurrent, group statements, and finally develop themes (Creswell, 2013). Grounded research examines data from participant and focuses on a process or action with the intent to develop a theoretical explanation. Data collection includes interviews and memoing, a process in which the researcher writes down their own ideas as they are collecting data. The goal of memoing is to begin to understand the process they are studying (Creswell, 2013).
There are multiple ways to analyze the data once it is collected. In some cases, the researcher will take a more structured approach, which includes multiple levels of coding, or the researcher may simply choose to analyze the data and look for emerging ideas. Ethnographic studies examine a shared culture through the analysis of behavior, language, and interactions of participants. The data collection is gathered through thorough fieldwork and consists of interviews and artifacts (Creswell 2013).
The researcher must report the data exactly as the participant shares it, but must analyze it scientifically. The notes are intensely specific, consisting of what was said, descriptions of the participants as they are speaking, rituals, time, and symbols (Kuttner ; Threlkeld). Case Study data collection includes interviews, observations, documents and audiovisual materials. Analysis includes a detailed description of the case, examining themes and placing them in chronological order (Creswell, 2013).
Depending on the goal of the research, the study can include a holistic examination of the data or it can include an analysis of subcategories within the case, which is called embedded analysis (Yin, 2009).
Analysis of writing styles
Narrative studies are written by a method called “restorying” in which the researcher listens to and observes participants, as well as examines artifacts and documents, in order to gather key ideas. The researcher will then arrange the details so that the narrative unfolds chronologically. In fact, narratives often follow the plot structure of a novel with an introduction, climax, conflict and so on.
It would also include useful information regarding setting, characters and themes. There is however, some debate as to whether a narrative analysis should be written as a narrative itself. Ultimately, it depends on the intended audience (Clandinin ; Connelly, 2000). Phenomenological studies are written once themes emerge. The researcher uses the themes to compose a description of the phenomenon, based on the data collected from the participants.
The description is intended to illuminate common experiences so that the audience has a better understanding of what the participants have experienced (Creswell, 2013). In a grounded theory approach, the researcher will write more than a description or narrative, but move on to the next step and actually develop a written theory, explaining a process or action (Creswell, 2013). Ethnographies are written so that the end result is a better understanding of culture; and sometimes the researcher will study groups that have been marginalized by society in order to effect positive change (Creswell, 2013). They are generally written in narrative form, with a thematic analysis, and conclude with a description of how the system within the culture works (Fetterman, 2010).
Case studies chronicle relevant events, include a thematic analysis, and an interpretation of the meaning of the case. Oftentimes, the researcher reveals a lesson learned based on the case (Creswell, 2013).
After looking at the myriad of methods and processes a researcher must consider when developing a research plan, there is no clear formula to determine which is right. It is best to consider the purpose and audience and let those factors dictate which method is best.