One of the biggest decisions a qualitative researcher can make is selection of a research design. Your design will shape your study, including the wording of your research questions, your assumptions and limitations, data collection, and the data analysis process. In qualitative studies, you will not be trying to prove or disprove a hypothesis, find correlations, or answer yes or no questions. The goal of qualitative research is to explore and describe a phenomenon. Different types of qualitative designs lend themselves to specific types of exploration. The most commonly used qualitative designs are phenomenology, case study, and generic qualitative exploration.
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Phenomenological studies are conducted when a researcher wishes to explore the perceptions and experiences of the participants from their point of view. The goal of this type of study is to understand the world through the eyes of your participants. Phenomenologists believe there is no one objective reality, and the best way to understand a specific phenomenon is though the words of individuals who have direct experience with what is being studied. Thus, examples of research questions for this type of design would be:
Case studies, on the other hand, are conducted by researchers who wish to answer “how” or “why” questions. This type of study is recommended when you want to explore a specific case and explore how and why things occur. Case studies use more than one type of data, thus questions would be framed in a manner that allows for gathering more than one type of information from a variety of sources (i.e., interviews, document reviews, and observations). Other hallmarks of a case study include: a bounded sample; researching a situation where the sample is enmeshed in the context and cannot be separated; the researcher has no control over behavioral events; and the focus of the study is on a contemporary phenomenon. Research questions for this type of study could include:
The third type of design commonly used by researchers is generic qualitative research design (also known as an “exploratory qualitative” or “descriptive qualitative” design). The advantage of this design is that you are not tied to any one research tradition. Using a generic method enables you to pick and choose the pieces of different designs that fit your study. A weakness in this method, however, is a lack of framework. There are no basic assumptions that guide you, thus every choice you make must be justified and supported. You have to create the logic chain that supports your use of this method. Research questions in generic qualitative can be framed in any manner. Example questions include:
When looking at a research design, remember to be clear on what you are trying to learn through your research study. Once you know what you wish to learn, you can then choose the type of design that will help you explore your topic and begin to create your qualitative methodology.