Understanding Qualitative Research - From Qualitative Research to a Journal Article - Conference Proposals and Article Types

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Understanding Qualitative Research
From Qualitative Research to a Journal Article
Conference Proposals and Article Types

To illustrate the characteristics of qualitative research, consider this hypothetical study of patients diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This disease is more commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” after the famous baseball player who was debilitated by the condition. It occurs when specific nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary movement gradually degenerate. The loss of these motor neurons causes muscles to weaken and waste away. Early symptoms include loss of motor control in hands and arms, tripping and falling, persistent fatigue, and twitching/cramping. There is no cure. Ultimately, paralysis sets in and the patient can no longer speak, swallow or breathe (Source: MedicineNet.com). A quantitative researcher would study patients from a “counting” perspective—how many people have the condition, how long they survive, if particular populations seem more susceptible, and what treatments can alleviate their suffering. While this is very important information, the “lived experience” of ALS would be of most interest to qualitative researchers, who would raise questions such as the following:

· How do participants describe changes in their physical condition and the resultant limitations since they were first diagnosed with Lou Gerhig’s Disease? How do they make sense out of living and coping with the debilitating trajectory of the disease?

· How do people afflicted with ALS construct a definition of the disease? What metaphors and symbols do they use in these descriptions?

· What perceptions do they have of interactions with family members and friends related to their condition?

· How do they describe the medical personnel, medical treatments, and health care agencies and policies they have encountered?

· What are the emotional responses and consequences of the disease for patients? How has ALS shaped their concepts of self?

· How do ALS patients make sense out of their affliction?

· How do they talk about their terminal illness and prepare for their impending death?

As this example illustrates, description and interpretation of lived experience are the primary goals of qualitative research. Qualitative and quantitative research differ in at least five essential ways:






Table 8.1 compares/contrasts the researcher’s role in qualitative and quantitative research.

Table 8.1

The researcher’s role in qualitative and quantitative research




Aligned with phenomenology; regards individual variation as the focal point of research

Aligned with logical positivism (the scientific method); seeks to delineate procedures that other researchers can replicate

Mode of thought

Depends on inductive/metaphorical thinking; regards all research as interpretive

Depends on deductive/linear thinking; relies upon the data to “speak for themselves”


Emphasizes depth over breadth (e.g., case study, in-depth interviews, etc.)

Favors breadth over depth (e.g., surveys, large scale assessments, etc.)

Researcher’s stance

Seeks to engage in dialogue with others or even to function as an advocate for underrepresented or oppressed groups

Seeks to speak with the voice of authority and remain at a distance from the subjects

Perspective on findings

Invites multiple perspectives and expects varying interpretations of study findings

Asserts own interpretation as the most reasonable or accurate, given the control exercised over the variables


Uses writing skills and the narrative mode to synthesize observational data and artifacts

Uses statistical formulas and computation to analyze numerical data

Claims to truth

Bases claims to truth on the verisimilitude of data that have been gathered from different sources to reinforce credibility

Bases claims to truth on the scientific method and mathematical precision


Illuminates thinking by shedding light on the particular in great detail

Informs through carefully controlled procedures designed to justify the generalizations from a sample to a larger population

Qualitative research is empirical and is conducted in a natural setting. Researchers gather data on the phenomenon they are studying. Qualitative researchers become stationed in the participants’ natural environment for a lengthy period of time to examine the phenomenon and different circumstances that affect it. Whereas the rigor of quantitative research relies on statistical precision, qualitative research depends on the depth and duration. Qualitative researchers organize the data to support their ideas, hypotheses, and actual definitions. Qualitative researchers investigate qualities or entities to understand them in a specific setting. Their research is grounded on the concept of contextual understanding. Qualitative researchers believe that the individuals’ specific physical, historical, materials, and social surroundings influence the way they think and act, which are interpreted by drawing on their larger contexts (Smith, 1987).

Qualitative research uses an inductive and interpretive (Van Maanen 1988) approach to describe an account of the individuals’ insights of reality through their dialogue, which is used to develop part of the texts. Qualitative researchers use observations to investigate human behavior in depth and study the participants’ explanations for their behavior, including descriptions of particular ways that individuals experience and understand a phenomenon. The description focuses on who said what to whom as well as the what, where, when, why, and how of a specific situation. It records in detail situations that occur during the period of study, which allows qualitative researchers to explain the individuals’ practices. Qualitative study assumes that there is not one, universal truth but may truths—depending upon the perceptions of the people in the process. It documents these multiple perspectives through meticulous descriptions of authentic events in real-life situations that shed light on the individuals’ social processes, interactions, and meanings. If, for example, you wanted to conduct a qualitative study to explore the reasons that doctoral candidates give for remaining at the “all-but-dissertation” stage, you would interview them to get their perspectives rather than send out a survey.

Traditionally, qualitative methods generate information only on the specific cases that are investigated. Unlike quantitative research, the goal of qualitative research is not to generalize from a representative sample to the larger population using statistical formula. Instead, qualitative research describes the particular in considerable detail and invites others to decide the implications of the study for their situations. Qualitative researchers prize depth over breadth: they study individuals, social groups, or specific contexts as ways to illuminate the phenomenon under study. The role of the qualitative researcher frequently is referred to as “participant observer” because the researcher is immersed in a context to attain the “emic” or insider’s perspective from key informants. Qualitative research aims for less distance between the researcher and the researched; in fact, they use the word “participants” rather than “subjects” to convey the idea that research is conducted with (rather than on) people in the study.

Activity 8.1: Qualitative Research Questions

The questions that qualitative researchers ask differ are intended to describe. Rudestam and Newton (2014) identify five basic types of questions:






Draft some qualitative research questions for a study you would like to conduct.

Qualitative Research Methodologies

Qualitative research uses many methods of inquiry that have an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its field of study. The purpose of the qualitative researchers’ study helps them to select from a range of qualitative research methodologies (e.g., narrative research, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, case study) and data sources (e.g., interviews, questionnaires, documents, photographs, observations) to understand and describe social phenomena. There are several different research approaches, or research designs, that qualitative researchers use. Creswell (2013a, b) provides the following examples:

· Narrative has ethnographic characteristics that focus on storytelling where a story is described, analyzed, and interpreted.

· Phenomenology has a description of a phenomena based on the way informants construct meaning without using theories.

· Ethnographic research is a practical study of a specific culture and their understandings of their cultural framework.

· Grounded theory is an inductive research methodology that is based on the observations of several data sources including quantitative data, review of records, interviews, observations, and surveys.

· Historical research describes past and present-day events based on a current framework to consider probable solutions to contemporary issues and problems such as: Where have we come from, where are we, who are we now, and where are we going?

Qualitative researchers also have their personal styles and writing techniques. For instance, a narrative study describes an individual’s life, an ethnography depicts an individual or group’s cultural behavior, and a case study has an in-depth description of a case or cases (Creswell 2013a, b). The major tasks for qualitative researchers include analyzing and coding the data, using related research to interpret the meaning, and generating themes to write a scholarly publication.

Online Tool

The University of Missouri-St. Louis offers a chart that provides an overview of qualitative research methods http://www.umsl.edu/~lindquists/qualdsgn.html.