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Realizing the Potential of Qualitative Designs: A Conceptual Guide for Research and


Wayne A. Babchuk and Manijeh Badiee

Abstract: This inquiry is based on the collaboration of the authors who have co-taught
qualitative research methods courses at a major Midwestern university. We provide a
conceptual guide for those new to qualitative research interested in developing a research
project and for those beginning to explore the potential of qualitative methods for the
study of educational problems and issues. We identify key aspects of qualitative research
and provide insights as to how contemporary scholars within this tradition have framed
this diverse and multifaceted family of approaches for educational and social research.
We also identify important historical and contemporary references to help get started, and
offer suggestions to better inform strategic decision-making needed to realize the
potential of qualitative designs for strengthening the link between research and practice in
the fields of education and the social sciences.


The relatively recent proliferation of qualitative methods has had a profound impact on
the research enterprise in education, health care, nursing, sociology, anthropology, psychology,
management, information systems, etc., gaining considerable popularity among those fields that
have a heavy bent towards practice. Yet for contemporary researchers interested in realizing the
potential of qualitative designs, selection of an appropriate methodology and its
operationalization in the field can prove daunting and not as superfluous as hoped. An
embarrassment of choices now characterizes the field of qualitative research (Denzin &
Lincoln, 2005, p. 20) which can overwhelm students of qualitative methods and intimidate even
more seasoned researchers attempting to advance their own research agendas or advise students
in an informed and potentially rewarding manner. In this inquiry, we identify important issues
that need to be taken into account when embarking on a qualitative research project, consider
how scholars of this literature have organized this material, and offer suggestions as to how to
begin to implement various approaches in the field. We provide a brief overview of the history of
qualitative research, stress the importance of understanding the epistemological underpinnings of
qualitative designs, and consider definitions, characteristics, and when to use qualitative
methods. We also identify popular qualitative approaches and touch upon other pivotal
considerations impacting their use. We underscore the need for a critical and analytic approach
involving informed and systematic choices throughout all phases of a research project to fully
realize the potential of qualitative designs for improving links between research and practice.

The History of Qualitative Research

Although the use of qualitative research has a long history in education and the social
sciences (see Vidich & Lyman, 2000; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007, for an
overview of these traditions), Denzin and Lincolns (2005) Second and Third Movements of
Qualitative Researchthe Modernist and Blurred Genres phases extending from the early
1960s through the 1970smarked the beginning of the qualitative revolution (Denzin &
Lincoln, 1994, 2005; Charmaz, 2000) that rapidly gained momentum across disciplines. This era
saw the publication of the canonical works of Becker, Geer, Hughes, and Strauss (1961) Boys in
White, Glaser and Strauss (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Blumers (1969)
Symbolic Interactionism, Geertzs (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, Gubas (1978) Toward
a Methodology of Naturalistic Inquiry in Educational Evaluation, Spradleys The Ethnographic
Interview (1979) and Participant Observation (1980), and the work of others particularly in the
anthropology of education (e.g., George and Louise Spindler, Harry Wolcott, etc.). These
scholars built upon early to mid-1900s pioneering ethnographic fieldwork of anthropologists
(e.g., Boas, Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Mead), and the Chicago School
sociologists (e.g., Park, Burgess, Thomas, Wirth) to set the stage for the modern tradition of
qualitative research and spark a shift in many camps from quantitative to qualitative designs.

Philosophical, Epistemological, and Theoretical Considerations

After becoming familiar with historical traditions contributing to contemporary forms of
qualitative research, the next step is to tackle what scholars have referred to by a variety of terms
including philosophical or epistemological perspectives, orientations, or traditions, interpretive
paradigms or worldviews, theoretical underpinnings, traditions, orientations, or perspectives, or
alternative approaches to science. (Hatch, 2002; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Bogdan & Biklen,
2007; Creswell, 2007; Merriam, 2009; Glesne, 2011). Influenced by Kuhns (1970) notion of
paradigm (Hatch, 2002; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Glesne, 2011), a philosophical orientation is
conceptualized as a worldview that underlies and informs methodology and methods (Corbin
& Strauss, 2008, p. 1), or a basic set of beliefs that guide action (Guba, 1990, p. 17; and see
Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 22). As Merriam (2009) cautions, however, there is almost no
consistency among writers in how this aspect of qualitative research is discussed (p. 8).
For example, Hatch (2002) identifies five research paradigms (positivist, postpositivist,
constructivist, critical/feminist, and poststructuralist), and poses ontological, epistemological,
and methodological questions for each. Denzin and Lincoln (2005) discuss interpretive
paradigms viewed as the net that contains the researchers epistemological, ontological, and
methodological premises (p. 22). Newman (2006), in his thorough treatment of this topic, lists
three alternative approaches to social science (positivist, interpretive, and critical), Merriam
(2009) advocates four philosophical perspectives (positivist, interpretive, critical, and
poststructural/postmodern), and Glesne (2011) presents these same four paradigmatic families. In
his insightful and illuminating organizational scheme, Creswell (2007) discusses philosophical
assumptions (ontological, epistemological, axiological, rhetorical, and methodological),
worldviews (postpositivism, social constructivism, advocacy/participatory, and pragmatism), and
interpretive communities (postmodernism, feminist theories, critical theory and critical race
theory, queer theory, and disability theory).
Although potentially daunting to those unfamiliar with this material, gaining an
understanding of these philosophical orientations provides a foundation for researchers to
position themselves when conceptualizing their own research designs, a rationale for choosing
qualitative methods (as opposed to quantitative) to answer a research question or questions, and
why a specific approach (e.g., phenomenology, case study, etc.) and type of approach (e.g.,
constructivist vs. objectivist grounded theory) was selected over other options.

Definitions, Characteristics, and When to Use Qualitative Research

Given the extensive range of approaches that make up the family of methodologies
falling under the rubric of qualitative research, it is not surprising that some of the leading
scholars in the field have offered lengthy definitions of this enterprise (see Denzin & Lincoln,
2005, p. 3; Creswell, 2007, p. 37). Presenting more concise but less encompassing efforts,
Bogdan and Biklen (2007) define qualitative research as an approach to social science research
that emphasizes collecting descriptive data in natural settings, uses inductive thinking, and
emphasizes understanding the subjects point of view (p. 274), while Glesnes (2011) definition
reads, a type of research that focuses on qualities such as words or observations that are difficult
to quantify and lend themselves to interpretation or deconstruction (p. 283).
There is also some room for interpretation among scholars regarding shared
characteristics of qualitative designs that distinguish them from more traditional quantitative
approaches, and, for that matter, the desirable attributes or competencies needed by the
researchers themselves to conduct good qualitative research. Hatch (2002), Denzin and
Lincoln (2005), Bogdan and Biklen (2007), Creswell (2007), Morse and Richards (2007), Corbin
and Strauss (2008), Merriam (2009), and Stake (2010) all list central characteristics of qualitative
research, finding common ground along a number of dimensions. Some of the more frequently
cited attributes include long-term face-to-face research conducted in naturalistic settings, a focus
on rich description and the understanding of participants points of view or meanings, the
researcher as the primary data collection instrument, inductive data analysis, a concern with
process, an emergent and flexible design, nonrandom, purposeful sample selection, and a holistic
understanding achieved through collection and analysis of multiple sources of data and
perspectives. Researchers purportedly benefit from having a humanistic orientation and are
comfortable with ambiguity, analytical and introspective, willing to take risks, ambitious and
dedicated enough to embrace the substantial commitment required to conduct qualitative
research, flexible, open-minded, and able to see things from multiple perspectives. In effect, one
must be able to stand comfortably at the intersection of art and science (see Denzin & Lincoln,
2005, pp. 4-6; Creswell, 2007, p. 41; Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 13; Merriam, 2009, pp. 16-18).
In a related vein, most scholars of qualitative methods also discuss criteria important for
choosing to conduct a qualitative study (Hatch, 2002; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Creswell, 2007;
Richards & Morse, 2007; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Merriam, 2009; Stake, 2010). These criteria
include such factors as the research problem or question requires it, to better understand an area
where little is known, to make sense of complex situations, contexts, and settings, to learn how
participants construct their worlds, to gain deep, rich and detailed descriptions of cultural scenes,
to help empower individuals to share their stories and enact meaningful social change, and to
generate theory where little exists (see Creswell, 2007, pp. 39-41; Richards & Morse, 2007, pp.
29-31). Of course, these attributes underscore the viability of qualitative methods to bolster the
link between research and practice in practitioner-driven fields.

Selecting a Qualitative Methodology or Approach

We have provided several underlying characteristics shared in whole or in part by
qualitative research designs that separate them from more traditional quantitative forms of
inquiry. As mentioned above, there are a seemingly endless number of approaches from which to
choose, each different in varying degrees in terms of their epistemological underpinnings,
theoretical assumptions, and modus operandi impacting all aspects of the research process. Hatch
(2002), Denzin and Lincoln (2005), and Bogdan and Biklen (2007) identify and discuss various
approaches to qualitative research, and Creswell (2007) provides a comprehensive table (pp. 7-8)
of how other authors have historically organized this material.
For the purposes of this discussion, we find Creswell (2007), Richards and Morse (2007),
Merriam (2009), and Glesne (2011) most instructive, because these authors identify popular
contemporary methodologies, describe unique characteristics of each, and offer suggestions as to
how to decide between them when planning ones research. In the most thorough treatment of
this subject, Creswell (2007) systematically outlines the use of five approaches (narrative,
phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, and case study) derived from a lifetime of work
both conducting research and teaching and mentoring students on qualitative methods. Similarly,
Merriam (2009), another noted scholar within the qualitative tradition, outlines six approaches
(basic qualitative research, ethnography, grounded theory, narrative analysis, critical research,
and case study) in her well-conceptualized text on qualitative research. Richards and Morse
(2007) provide practical overviews of phenomenology, ethnography, and grounded theory,
whereas Glesne (2011) covers five interpretive traditions of qualitative inquiry (p. 16)
including ethnography, life history, grounded theory, case study, and action research. Important
references to consider when getting started are for basic qualitative research (Maxwell, 2005),
ethnography (Spradley, 1979; 1980; Van Maanen, 1988; LeCompte & Schensul, 1999; Wolcott,
1999; Fetterman, 2010), phenomenology (van Manen, 1990; Moustakas, 1994), grounded theory
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss, 1987; Glaser, 1992; Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Clarke, 2005;
Charmaz, 2006; Morse et al., 2009; Babchuk 2010), case study (Stake, 1995; Yin, 2003;
Merriam, 2009), narrative (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990), and critical research (see, Crotty, 1998;
Neuman, 2006). For a more comprehensive list consult Richards and Morse (2007).


We have taken initial steps in developing a conceptual guide for those wanting to learn
more about qualitative methods. More complete guidelines would take into account several other
central and integrally overlapping aspects involved in the design and implementation of a
research project. These aspects extend and elaborate upon what we have presented here, taking
into account a host of theoretical and procedural considerations. These include identifying a
research area or problem, the use of literature in qualitative research, developing a qualitative
purpose statement, writing research questions and sub-questions, selecting a sample, employing
methods of data collection and analysis, presenting the findings, writing up qualitative research,
the use of terminology, implementing computer software for qualitative data analysis, ethical
considerations, and suggestions for writing theses, dissertations, and publications. Key texts that
can provide further guidance in these areas have been identified above and include Creswell
(2007), Richards and Morse (2007), Merriam (2009) and Glesne (2010).
In conclusion, it has been argued that qualitative research methods have become
increasingly popular over the past few decades and are continuing to make strides in realizing
their potential in practitioner-driven fields such as education, health care, nursing, and social
work. As has been documented elsewhere (Babchuk, 1997; 2009; 2010), qualitative research
designs hold considerable potential for exploring problems germane to adult and continuing
education, and underscore the increasingly popular belief that these methods can be uniquely
effective for addressing a dynamic range of issues impacting research and practice in the field.

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Dr. Wayne A. Babchuk, Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 931
Oldfather Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0368. wbabchuk1@unl.edu.
Manijeh Badiee, Office of Qualitative and Mixed Methods Research, University of Nebraska-
Lincoln, 114 Teachers College Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0345. manijehb@gmail.com

Presented at the Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and
Community Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, September 26-28. 2010