How to Write a Conclusion for Research Papers (with Examples)

How to Write a Conclusion for Research Papers (with Examples)

The conclusion of a research paper is a crucial section that plays a significant role in the overall impact and effectiveness of your research paper. However, this is also the section that typically receives less attention compared to the introduction and the body of the paper. The conclusion serves to provide a concise summary of the key findings, their significance, their implications, and a sense of closure to the study. Discussing how can the findings be applied in real-world scenarios or inform policy, practice, or decision-making is especially valuable to practitioners and policymakers. The research paper conclusion also provides researchers with clear insights and valuable information for their own work, which they can then build on and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the field.

The research paper conclusion should explain the significance of your findings within the broader context of your field. It restates how your results contribute to the existing body of knowledge and whether they confirm or challenge existing theories or hypotheses. Also, by identifying unanswered questions or areas requiring further investigation, your awareness of the broader research landscape can be demonstrated.

Remember to tailor the research paper conclusion to the specific needs and interests of your intended audience, which may include researchers, practitioners, policymakers, or a combination of these.

Table of Contents

What is a conclusion in a research paper, summarizing conclusion, editorial conclusion, externalizing conclusion, importance of a good research paper conclusion, how to write a conclusion for your research paper, research paper conclusion examples, frequently asked questions.

A conclusion in a research paper is the final section where you summarize and wrap up your research, presenting the key findings and insights derived from your study. The research paper conclusion is not the place to introduce new information or data that was not discussed in the main body of the paper. When working on how to conclude a research paper, remember to stick to summarizing and interpreting existing content. The research paper conclusion serves the following purposes: 1

  • Warn readers of the possible consequences of not attending to the problem.
  • Recommend specific course(s) of action.
  • Restate key ideas to drive home the ultimate point of your research paper.
  • Provide a “take-home” message that you want the readers to remember about your study.

sample conclusion for qualitative research

Types of conclusions for research papers

In research papers, the conclusion provides closure to the reader. The type of research paper conclusion you choose depends on the nature of your study, your goals, and your target audience. I provide you with three common types of conclusions:

A summarizing conclusion is the most common type of conclusion in research papers. It involves summarizing the main points, reiterating the research question, and restating the significance of the findings. This common type of research paper conclusion is used across different disciplines.

An editorial conclusion is less common but can be used in research papers that are focused on proposing or advocating for a particular viewpoint or policy. It involves presenting a strong editorial or opinion based on the research findings and offering recommendations or calls to action.

An externalizing conclusion is a type of conclusion that extends the research beyond the scope of the paper by suggesting potential future research directions or discussing the broader implications of the findings. This type of conclusion is often used in more theoretical or exploratory research papers.

The conclusion in a research paper serves several important purposes:

  • Offers Implications and Recommendations : Your research paper conclusion is an excellent place to discuss the broader implications of your research and suggest potential areas for further study. It’s also an opportunity to offer practical recommendations based on your findings.
  • Provides Closure : A good research paper conclusion provides a sense of closure to your paper. It should leave the reader with a feeling that they have reached the end of a well-structured and thought-provoking research project.
  • Leaves a Lasting Impression : Writing a well-crafted research paper conclusion leaves a lasting impression on your readers. It’s your final opportunity to leave them with a new idea, a call to action, or a memorable quote.

sample conclusion for qualitative research

Writing a strong conclusion for your research paper is essential to leave a lasting impression on your readers. Here’s a step-by-step process to help you create and know what to put in the conclusion of a research paper: 2

  • Research Statement : Begin your research paper conclusion by restating your research statement. This reminds the reader of the main point you’ve been trying to prove throughout your paper. Keep it concise and clear.
  • Key Points : Summarize the main arguments and key points you’ve made in your paper. Avoid introducing new information in the research paper conclusion. Instead, provide a concise overview of what you’ve discussed in the body of your paper.
  • Address the Research Questions : If your research paper is based on specific research questions or hypotheses, briefly address whether you’ve answered them or achieved your research goals. Discuss the significance of your findings in this context.
  • Significance : Highlight the importance of your research and its relevance in the broader context. Explain why your findings matter and how they contribute to the existing knowledge in your field.
  • Implications : Explore the practical or theoretical implications of your research. How might your findings impact future research, policy, or real-world applications? Consider the “so what?” question.
  • Future Research : Offer suggestions for future research in your area. What questions or aspects remain unanswered or warrant further investigation? This shows that your work opens the door for future exploration.
  • Closing Thought : Conclude your research paper conclusion with a thought-provoking or memorable statement. This can leave a lasting impression on your readers and wrap up your paper effectively. Avoid introducing new information or arguments here.
  • Proofread and Revise : Carefully proofread your conclusion for grammar, spelling, and clarity. Ensure that your ideas flow smoothly and that your conclusion is coherent and well-structured.

Remember that a well-crafted research paper conclusion is a reflection of the strength of your research and your ability to communicate its significance effectively. It should leave a lasting impression on your readers and tie together all the threads of your paper. Now you know how to start the conclusion of a research paper and what elements to include to make it impactful, let’s look at a research paper conclusion sample.

sample conclusion for qualitative research

The research paper conclusion is a crucial part of your paper as it provides the final opportunity to leave a strong impression on your readers. In the research paper conclusion, summarize the main points of your research paper by restating your research statement, highlighting the most important findings, addressing the research questions or objectives, explaining the broader context of the study, discussing the significance of your findings, providing recommendations if applicable, and emphasizing the takeaway message. The main purpose of the conclusion is to remind the reader of the main point or argument of your paper and to provide a clear and concise summary of the key findings and their implications. All these elements should feature on your list of what to put in the conclusion of a research paper to create a strong final statement for your work.

A strong conclusion is a critical component of a research paper, as it provides an opportunity to wrap up your arguments, reiterate your main points, and leave a lasting impression on your readers. Here are the key elements of a strong research paper conclusion: 1. Conciseness : A research paper conclusion should be concise and to the point. It should not introduce new information or ideas that were not discussed in the body of the paper. 2. Summarization : The research paper conclusion should be comprehensive enough to give the reader a clear understanding of the research’s main contributions. 3 . Relevance : Ensure that the information included in the research paper conclusion is directly relevant to the research paper’s main topic and objectives; avoid unnecessary details. 4 . Connection to the Introduction : A well-structured research paper conclusion often revisits the key points made in the introduction and shows how the research has addressed the initial questions or objectives. 5. Emphasis : Highlight the significance and implications of your research. Why is your study important? What are the broader implications or applications of your findings? 6 . Call to Action : Include a call to action or a recommendation for future research or action based on your findings.

The length of a research paper conclusion can vary depending on several factors, including the overall length of the paper, the complexity of the research, and the specific journal requirements. While there is no strict rule for the length of a conclusion, but it’s generally advisable to keep it relatively short. A typical research paper conclusion might be around 5-10% of the paper’s total length. For example, if your paper is 10 pages long, the conclusion might be roughly half a page to one page in length.

In general, you do not need to include citations in the research paper conclusion. Citations are typically reserved for the body of the paper to support your arguments and provide evidence for your claims. However, there may be some exceptions to this rule: 1. If you are drawing a direct quote or paraphrasing a specific source in your research paper conclusion, you should include a citation to give proper credit to the original author. 2. If your conclusion refers to or discusses specific research, data, or sources that are crucial to the overall argument, citations can be included to reinforce your conclusion’s validity.

The conclusion of a research paper serves several important purposes: 1. Summarize the Key Points 2. Reinforce the Main Argument 3. Provide Closure 4. Offer Insights or Implications 5. Engage the Reader. 6. Reflect on Limitations

Remember that the primary purpose of the research paper conclusion is to leave a lasting impression on the reader, reinforcing the key points and providing closure to your research. It’s often the last part of the paper that the reader will see, so it should be strong and well-crafted.

  • Makar, G., Foltz, C., Lendner, M., & Vaccaro, A. R. (2018). How to write effective discussion and conclusion sections. Clinical spine surgery, 31(8), 345-346.
  • Bunton, D. (2005). The structure of PhD conclusion chapters.  Journal of English for academic purposes ,  4 (3), 207-224.

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The conclusion is intended to help the reader understand why your research should matter to them after they have finished reading the paper. A conclusion is not merely a summary of the main topics covered or a re-statement of your research problem, but a synthesis of key points and, if applicable, where you recommend new areas for future research. For most college-level research papers, one or two well-developed paragraphs is sufficient for a conclusion, although in some cases, more paragraphs may be required in summarizing key findings and their significance.

Conclusions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Conclusions. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University.

Importance of a Good Conclusion

A well-written conclusion provides you with important opportunities to demonstrate to the reader your understanding of the research problem. These include:

  • Presenting the last word on the issues you raised in your paper . Just as the introduction gives a first impression to your reader, the conclusion offers a chance to leave a lasting impression. Do this, for example, by highlighting key findings in your analysis that advance new understanding about the research problem, that are unusual or unexpected, or that have important implications applied to practice.
  • Summarizing your thoughts and conveying the larger significance of your study . The conclusion is an opportunity to succinctly re-emphasize  the "So What?" question by placing the study within the context of how your research advances past research about the topic.
  • Identifying how a gap in the literature has been addressed . The conclusion can be where you describe how a previously identified gap in the literature [described in your literature review section] has been filled by your research.
  • Demonstrating the importance of your ideas . Don't be shy. The conclusion offers you the opportunity to elaborate on the impact and significance of your findings. This is particularly important if your study approached examining the research problem from an unusual or innovative perspective.
  • Introducing possible new or expanded ways of thinking about the research problem . This does not refer to introducing new information [which should be avoided], but to offer new insight and creative approaches for framing or contextualizing the research problem based on the results of your study.

Bunton, David. “The Structure of PhD Conclusion Chapters.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 4 (July 2005): 207–224; Conclusions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Kretchmer, Paul. Twelve Steps to Writing an Effective Conclusion. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008; Conclusions. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Assan, Joseph. "Writing the Conclusion Chapter: The Good, the Bad and the Missing." Liverpool: Development Studies Association (2009): 1-8.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  General Rules

The function of your paper's conclusion is to restate the main argument . It reminds the reader of the strengths of your main argument(s) and reiterates the most important evidence supporting those argument(s). Do this by stating clearly the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem you investigated in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found in the literature. Make sure, however, that your conclusion is not simply a repetitive summary of the findings. This reduces the impact of the argument(s) you have developed in your essay.

When writing the conclusion to your paper, follow these general rules:

  • Present your conclusions in clear, simple language. Re-state the purpose of your study, then describe how your findings differ or support those of other studies and why [i.e., what were the unique or new contributions your study made to the overall research about your topic?].
  • Do not simply reiterate your findings or the discussion of your results. Provide a synthesis of arguments presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem and the overall objectives of your study.
  • Indicate opportunities for future research if you haven't already done so in the discussion section of your paper. Highlighting the need for further research provides the reader with evidence that you have an in-depth awareness of the research problem and that further investigations should take place.

Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is presented well:

  • If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize the argument for your reader.
  • If, prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the end of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
  • Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from the data. 

The conclusion also provides a place for you to persuasively and succinctly restate the research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with all the information about the topic . Depending on the discipline you are writing in, the concluding paragraph may contain your reflections on the evidence presented. However, the nature of being introspective about the research you have conducted will depend on the topic and whether your professor wants you to express your observations in this way.

NOTE : If asked to think introspectively about the topics, do not delve into idle speculation. Being introspective means looking within yourself as an author to try and understand an issue more deeply, not to guess at possible outcomes or make up scenarios not supported by the evidence.

II.  Developing a Compelling Conclusion

Although an effective conclusion needs to be clear and succinct, it does not need to be written passively or lack a compelling narrative. Strategies to help you move beyond merely summarizing the key points of your research paper may include any of the following strategies:

  • If your essay deals with a critical, contemporary problem, warn readers of the possible consequences of not attending to the problem proactively.
  • Recommend a specific course or courses of action that, if adopted, could address a specific problem in practice or in the development of new knowledge.
  • Cite a relevant quotation or expert opinion already noted in your paper in order to lend authority and support to the conclusion(s) you have reached [a good place to look is research from your literature review].
  • Explain the consequences of your research in a way that elicits action or demonstrates urgency in seeking change.
  • Restate a key statistic, fact, or visual image to emphasize the most important finding of your paper.
  • If your discipline encourages personal reflection, illustrate your concluding point by drawing from your own life experiences.
  • Return to an anecdote, an example, or a quotation that you presented in your introduction, but add further insight derived from the findings of your study; use your interpretation of results to recast it in new or important ways.
  • Provide a "take-home" message in the form of a succinct, declarative statement that you want the reader to remember about your study.

III. Problems to Avoid

Failure to be concise Your conclusion section should be concise and to the point. Conclusions that are too lengthy often have unnecessary information in them. The conclusion is not the place for details about your methodology or results. Although you should give a summary of what was learned from your research, this summary should be relatively brief, since the emphasis in the conclusion is on the implications, evaluations, insights, and other forms of analysis that you make. Strategies for writing concisely can be found here .

Failure to comment on larger, more significant issues In the introduction, your task was to move from the general [the field of study] to the specific [the research problem]. However, in the conclusion, your task is to move from a specific discussion [your research problem] back to a general discussion [i.e., how your research contributes new understanding or fills an important gap in the literature]. In short, the conclusion is where you should place your research within a larger context [visualize your paper as an hourglass--start with a broad introduction and review of the literature, move to the specific analysis and discussion, conclude with a broad summary of the study's implications and significance].

Failure to reveal problems and negative results Negative aspects of the research process should never be ignored. These are problems, deficiencies, or challenges encountered during your study should be summarized as a way of qualifying your overall conclusions. If you encountered negative or unintended results [i.e., findings that are validated outside the research context in which they were generated], you must report them in the results section and discuss their implications in the discussion section of your paper. In the conclusion, use your summary of the negative results as an opportunity to explain their possible significance and/or how they may form the basis for future research.

Failure to provide a clear summary of what was learned In order to be able to discuss how your research fits within your field of study [and possibly the world at large], you need to summarize briefly and succinctly how it contributes to new knowledge or a new understanding about the research problem. This element of your conclusion may be only a few sentences long.

Failure to match the objectives of your research Often research objectives in the social sciences change while the research is being carried out. This is not a problem unless you forget to go back and refine the original objectives in your introduction. As these changes emerge they must be documented so that they accurately reflect what you were trying to accomplish in your research [not what you thought you might accomplish when you began].

Resist the urge to apologize If you've immersed yourself in studying the research problem, you presumably should know a good deal about it [perhaps even more than your professor!]. Nevertheless, by the time you have finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you have produced. Repress those doubts! Don't undermine your authority by saying something like, "This is just one approach to examining this problem; there may be other, much better approaches that...." The overall tone of your conclusion should convey confidence to the reader.

Assan, Joseph. "Writing the Conclusion Chapter: The Good, the Bad and the Missing." Liverpool: Development Studies Association (2009): 1-8; Concluding Paragraphs. College Writing Center at Meramec. St. Louis Community College; Conclusions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Conclusions. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Freedman, Leora  and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Leibensperger, Summer. Draft Your Conclusion. Academic Center, the University of Houston-Victoria, 2003; Make Your Last Words Count. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin Madison; Miquel, Fuster-Marquez and Carmen Gregori-Signes. “Chapter Six: ‘Last but Not Least:’ Writing the Conclusion of Your Paper.” In Writing an Applied Linguistics Thesis or Dissertation: A Guide to Presenting Empirical Research . John Bitchener, editor. (Basingstoke,UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 93-105; Tips for Writing a Good Conclusion. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Kretchmer, Paul. Twelve Steps to Writing an Effective Conclusion. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008; Writing Conclusions. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Writing: Considering Structure and Organization. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College.

Writing Tip

Don't Belabor the Obvious!

Avoid phrases like "in conclusion...," "in summary...," or "in closing...." These phrases can be useful, even welcome, in oral presentations. But readers can see by the tell-tale section heading and number of pages remaining to read, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your readers if you belabor the obvious.

Assan, Joseph. "Writing the Conclusion Chapter: The Good, the Bad and the Missing." Liverpool: Development Studies Association (2009): 1-8.

Another Writing Tip

New Insight, Not New Information!

Don't surprise the reader with new information in your conclusion that was never referenced anywhere else in the paper and, as such, the conclusion rarely has citations to sources. If you have new information to present, add it to the discussion or other appropriate section of the paper. Note that, although no actual new information is introduced, the conclusion, along with the discussion section, is where you offer your most "original" contributions in the paper; the conclusion is where you describe the value of your research, demonstrate that you understand the material that you’ve presented, and locate your findings within the larger context of scholarship on the topic, including describing how your research contributes new insights or valuable insight to that scholarship.

Assan, Joseph. "Writing the Conclusion Chapter: The Good, the Bad and the Missing." Liverpool: Development Studies Association (2009): 1-8; Conclusions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.

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  • What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples

What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples

Published on June 19, 2020 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences. It can be used to gather in-depth insights into a problem or generate new ideas for research.

Qualitative research is the opposite of quantitative research , which involves collecting and analyzing numerical data for statistical analysis.

Qualitative research is commonly used in the humanities and social sciences, in subjects such as anthropology, sociology, education, health sciences, history, etc.

  • How does social media shape body image in teenagers?
  • How do children and adults interpret healthy eating in the UK?
  • What factors influence employee retention in a large organization?
  • How is anxiety experienced around the world?
  • How can teachers integrate social issues into science curriculums?

Table of contents

Approaches to qualitative research, qualitative research methods, qualitative data analysis, advantages of qualitative research, disadvantages of qualitative research, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about qualitative research.

Qualitative research is used to understand how people experience the world. While there are many approaches to qualitative research, they tend to be flexible and focus on retaining rich meaning when interpreting data.

Common approaches include grounded theory, ethnography , action research , phenomenological research, and narrative research. They share some similarities, but emphasize different aims and perspectives.

Note that qualitative research is at risk for certain research biases including the Hawthorne effect , observer bias , recall bias , and social desirability bias . While not always totally avoidable, awareness of potential biases as you collect and analyze your data can prevent them from impacting your work too much.

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sample conclusion for qualitative research

Each of the research approaches involve using one or more data collection methods . These are some of the most common qualitative methods:

  • Observations: recording what you have seen, heard, or encountered in detailed field notes.
  • Interviews:  personally asking people questions in one-on-one conversations.
  • Focus groups: asking questions and generating discussion among a group of people.
  • Surveys : distributing questionnaires with open-ended questions.
  • Secondary research: collecting existing data in the form of texts, images, audio or video recordings, etc.
  • You take field notes with observations and reflect on your own experiences of the company culture.
  • You distribute open-ended surveys to employees across all the company’s offices by email to find out if the culture varies across locations.
  • You conduct in-depth interviews with employees in your office to learn about their experiences and perspectives in greater detail.

Qualitative researchers often consider themselves “instruments” in research because all observations, interpretations and analyses are filtered through their own personal lens.

For this reason, when writing up your methodology for qualitative research, it’s important to reflect on your approach and to thoroughly explain the choices you made in collecting and analyzing the data.

Qualitative data can take the form of texts, photos, videos and audio. For example, you might be working with interview transcripts, survey responses, fieldnotes, or recordings from natural settings.

Most types of qualitative data analysis share the same five steps:

  • Prepare and organize your data. This may mean transcribing interviews or typing up fieldnotes.
  • Review and explore your data. Examine the data for patterns or repeated ideas that emerge.
  • Develop a data coding system. Based on your initial ideas, establish a set of codes that you can apply to categorize your data.
  • Assign codes to the data. For example, in qualitative survey analysis, this may mean going through each participant’s responses and tagging them with codes in a spreadsheet. As you go through your data, you can create new codes to add to your system if necessary.
  • Identify recurring themes. Link codes together into cohesive, overarching themes.

There are several specific approaches to analyzing qualitative data. Although these methods share similar processes, they emphasize different concepts.

Qualitative research often tries to preserve the voice and perspective of participants and can be adjusted as new research questions arise. Qualitative research is good for:

  • Flexibility

The data collection and analysis process can be adapted as new ideas or patterns emerge. They are not rigidly decided beforehand.

  • Natural settings

Data collection occurs in real-world contexts or in naturalistic ways.

  • Meaningful insights

Detailed descriptions of people’s experiences, feelings and perceptions can be used in designing, testing or improving systems or products.

  • Generation of new ideas

Open-ended responses mean that researchers can uncover novel problems or opportunities that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

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Researchers must consider practical and theoretical limitations in analyzing and interpreting their data. Qualitative research suffers from:

  • Unreliability

The real-world setting often makes qualitative research unreliable because of uncontrolled factors that affect the data.

  • Subjectivity

Due to the researcher’s primary role in analyzing and interpreting data, qualitative research cannot be replicated . The researcher decides what is important and what is irrelevant in data analysis, so interpretations of the same data can vary greatly.

  • Limited generalizability

Small samples are often used to gather detailed data about specific contexts. Despite rigorous analysis procedures, it is difficult to draw generalizable conclusions because the data may be biased and unrepresentative of the wider population .

  • Labor-intensive

Although software can be used to manage and record large amounts of text, data analysis often has to be checked or performed manually.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Chi square goodness of fit test
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

There are five common approaches to qualitative research :

  • Grounded theory involves collecting data in order to develop new theories.
  • Ethnography involves immersing yourself in a group or organization to understand its culture.
  • Narrative research involves interpreting stories to understand how people make sense of their experiences and perceptions.
  • Phenomenological research involves investigating phenomena through people’s lived experiences.
  • Action research links theory and practice in several cycles to drive innovative changes.

Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organizations.

There are various approaches to qualitative data analysis , but they all share five steps in common:

  • Prepare and organize your data.
  • Review and explore your data.
  • Develop a data coding system.
  • Assign codes to the data.
  • Identify recurring themes.

The specifics of each step depend on the focus of the analysis. Some common approaches include textual analysis , thematic analysis , and discourse analysis .

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18 Qualitative Research Examples

qualitative research examples and definition, explained below

Qualitative research is an approach to scientific research that involves using observation to gather and analyze non-numerical, in-depth, and well-contextualized datasets.

It serves as an integral part of academic, professional, and even daily decision-making processes (Baxter & Jack, 2008).

Methods of qualitative research encompass a wide range of techniques, from in-depth personal encounters, like ethnographies (studying cultures in-depth) and autoethnographies (examining one’s own cultural experiences), to collection of diverse perspectives on topics through methods like interviewing focus groups (gatherings of individuals to discuss specific topics).

Qualitative Research Examples

1. ethnography.

Definition: Ethnography is a qualitative research design aimed at exploring cultural phenomena. Rooted in the discipline of anthropology , this research approach investigates the social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions within groups, communities, or organizations.

Ethnographic research is characterized by extended observation of the group, often through direct participation, in the participants’ environment. An ethnographer typically lives with the study group for extended periods, intricately observing their everyday lives (Khan, 2014).

It aims to present a complete, detailed and accurate picture of the observed social life, rituals, symbols, and values from the perspective of the study group.

Example of Ethnographic Research

Title: “ The Everyday Lives of Men: An Ethnographic Investigation of Young Adult Male Identity “

Citation: Evans, J. (2010). The Everyday Lives of Men: An Ethnographic Investigation of Young Adult Male Identity. Peter Lang.

Overview: This study by Evans (2010) provides a rich narrative of young adult male identity as experienced in everyday life. The author immersed himself among a group of young men, participating in their activities and cultivating a deep understanding of their lifestyle, values, and motivations. This research exemplified the ethnographic approach, revealing complexities of the subjects’ identities and societal roles, which could hardly be accessed through other qualitative research designs.

Read my Full Guide on Ethnography Here

2. Autoethnography

Definition: Autoethnography is an approach to qualitative research where the researcher uses their own personal experiences to extend the understanding of a certain group, culture, or setting. Essentially, it allows for the exploration of self within the context of social phenomena.

Unlike traditional ethnography, which focuses on the study of others, autoethnography turns the ethnographic gaze inward, allowing the researcher to use their personal experiences within a culture as rich qualitative data (Durham, 2019).

The objective is to critically appraise one’s personal experiences as they navigate and negotiate cultural, political, and social meanings. The researcher becomes both the observer and the participant, intertwining personal and cultural experiences in the research.

Example of Autoethnographic Research

Title: “ A Day In The Life Of An NHS Nurse “

Citation: Osben, J. (2019). A day in the life of a NHS nurse in 21st Century Britain: An auto-ethnography. The Journal of Autoethnography for Health & Social Care. 1(1).

Overview: This study presents an autoethnography of a day in the life of an NHS nurse (who, of course, is also the researcher). The author uses the research to achieve reflexivity, with the researcher concluding: “Scrutinising my practice and situating it within a wider contextual backdrop has compelled me to significantly increase my level of scrutiny into the driving forces that influence my practice.”

Read my Full Guide on Autoethnography Here

3. Semi-Structured Interviews

Definition: Semi-structured interviews stand as one of the most frequently used methods in qualitative research. These interviews are planned and utilize a set of pre-established questions, but also allow for the interviewer to steer the conversation in other directions based on the responses given by the interviewee.

In semi-structured interviews, the interviewer prepares a guide that outlines the focal points of the discussion. However, the interview is flexible, allowing for more in-depth probing if the interviewer deems it necessary (Qu, & Dumay, 2011). This style of interviewing strikes a balance between structured ones which might limit the discussion, and unstructured ones, which could lack focus.

Example of Semi-Structured Interview Research

Title: “ Factors influencing adherence to cancer treatment in older adults with cancer: a systematic review “

Citation: Puts, M., et al. (2014). Factors influencing adherence to cancer treatment in older adults with cancer: a systematic review. Annals of oncology, 25 (3), 564-577.

Overview: Puts et al. (2014) executed an extensive systematic review in which they conducted semi-structured interviews with older adults suffering from cancer to examine the factors influencing their adherence to cancer treatment. The findings suggested that various factors, including side effects, faith in healthcare professionals, and social support have substantial impacts on treatment adherence. This research demonstrates how semi-structured interviews can provide rich and profound insights into the subjective experiences of patients.

4. Focus Groups

Definition: Focus groups are a qualitative research method that involves organized discussion with a selected group of individuals to gain their perspectives on a specific concept, product, or phenomenon. Typically, these discussions are guided by a moderator.

During a focus group session, the moderator has a list of questions or topics to discuss, and participants are encouraged to interact with each other (Morgan, 2010). This interactivity can stimulate more information and provide a broader understanding of the issue under scrutiny. The open format allows participants to ask questions and respond freely, offering invaluable insights into attitudes, experiences, and group norms.

Example of Focus Group Research

Title: “ Perspectives of Older Adults on Aging Well: A Focus Group Study “

Citation: Halaweh, H., Dahlin-Ivanoff, S., Svantesson, U., & Willén, C. (2018). Perspectives of older adults on aging well: a focus group study. Journal of aging research .

Overview: This study aimed to explore what older adults (aged 60 years and older) perceived to be ‘aging well’. The researchers identified three major themes from their focus group interviews: a sense of well-being, having good physical health, and preserving good mental health. The findings highlight the importance of factors such as positive emotions, social engagement, physical activity, healthy eating habits, and maintaining independence in promoting aging well among older adults.

5. Phenomenology

Definition: Phenomenology, a qualitative research method, involves the examination of lived experiences to gain an in-depth understanding of the essence or underlying meanings of a phenomenon.

The focus of phenomenology lies in meticulously describing participants’ conscious experiences related to the chosen phenomenon (Padilla-Díaz, 2015).

In a phenomenological study, the researcher collects detailed, first-hand perspectives of the participants, typically via in-depth interviews, and then uses various strategies to interpret and structure these experiences, ultimately revealing essential themes (Creswell, 2013). This approach focuses on the perspective of individuals experiencing the phenomenon, seeking to explore, clarify, and understand the meanings they attach to those experiences.

Example of Phenomenology Research

Title: “ A phenomenological approach to experiences with technology: current state, promise, and future directions for research ”

Citation: Cilesiz, S. (2011). A phenomenological approach to experiences with technology: Current state, promise, and future directions for research. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59 , 487-510.

Overview: A phenomenological approach to experiences with technology by Sebnem Cilesiz represents a good starting point for formulating a phenomenological study. With its focus on the ‘essence of experience’, this piece presents methodological, reliability, validity, and data analysis techniques that phenomenologists use to explain how people experience technology in their everyday lives.

6. Grounded Theory

Definition: Grounded theory is a systematic methodology in qualitative research that typically applies inductive reasoning . The primary aim is to develop a theoretical explanation or framework for a process, action, or interaction grounded in, and arising from, empirical data (Birks & Mills, 2015).

In grounded theory, data collection and analysis work together in a recursive process. The researcher collects data, analyses it, and then collects more data based on the evolving understanding of the research context. This ongoing process continues until a comprehensive theory that represents the data and the associated phenomenon emerges – a point known as theoretical saturation (Charmaz, 2014).

Example of Grounded Theory Research

Title: “ Student Engagement in High School Classrooms from the Perspective of Flow Theory “

Citation: Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Shneider, B., & Shernoff, E. S. (2003). Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18 (2), 158–176.

Overview: Shernoff and colleagues (2003) used grounded theory to explore student engagement in high school classrooms. The researchers collected data through student self-reports, interviews, and observations. Key findings revealed that academic challenge, student autonomy, and teacher support emerged as the most significant factors influencing students’ engagement, demonstrating how grounded theory can illuminate complex dynamics within real-world contexts.

7. Narrative Research

Definition: Narrative research is a qualitative research method dedicated to storytelling and understanding how individuals experience the world. It focuses on studying an individual’s life and experiences as narrated by that individual (Polkinghorne, 2013).

In narrative research, the researcher collects data through methods such as interviews, observations , and document analysis. The emphasis is on the stories told by participants – narratives that reflect their experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

These stories are then interpreted by the researcher, who attempts to understand the meaning the participant attributes to these experiences (Josselson, 2011).

Example of Narrative Research

Title: “Narrative Structures and the Language of the Self”

Citation: McAdams, D. P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (2006). Identity and story: Creating self in narrative . American Psychological Association.

Overview: In this innovative study, McAdams et al. (2006) employed narrative research to explore how individuals construct their identities through the stories they tell about themselves. By examining personal narratives, the researchers discerned patterns associated with characters, motivations, conflicts, and resolutions, contributing valuable insights about the relationship between narrative and individual identity.

8. Case Study Research

Definition: Case study research is a qualitative research method that involves an in-depth investigation of a single instance or event: a case. These ‘cases’ can range from individuals, groups, or entities to specific projects, programs, or strategies (Creswell, 2013).

The case study method typically uses multiple sources of information for comprehensive contextual analysis. It aims to explore and understand the complexity and uniqueness of a particular case in a real-world context (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). This investigation could result in a detailed description of the case, a process for its development, or an exploration of a related issue or problem.

Example of Case Study Research

Title: “ Teacher’s Role in Fostering Preschoolers’ Computational Thinking: An Exploratory Case Study “

Citation: Wang, X. C., Choi, Y., Benson, K., Eggleston, C., & Weber, D. (2021). Teacher’s role in fostering preschoolers’ computational thinking: An exploratory case study. Early Education and Development , 32 (1), 26-48.

Overview: This study investigates the role of teachers in promoting computational thinking skills in preschoolers. The study utilized a qualitative case study methodology to examine the computational thinking scaffolding strategies employed by a teacher interacting with three preschoolers in a small group setting. The findings highlight the importance of teachers’ guidance in fostering computational thinking practices such as problem reformulation/decomposition, systematic testing, and debugging.

Read about some Famous Case Studies in Psychology Here

9. Participant Observation

Definition: Participant observation has the researcher immerse themselves in a group or community setting to observe the behavior of its members. It is similar to ethnography, but generally, the researcher isn’t embedded for a long period of time.

The researcher, being a participant, engages in daily activities, interactions, and events as a way of conducting a detailed study of a particular social phenomenon (Kawulich, 2005).

The method involves long-term engagement in the field, maintaining detailed records of observed events, informal interviews, direct participation, and reflexivity. This approach allows for a holistic view of the participants’ lived experiences, behaviours, and interactions within their everyday environment (Dewalt, 2011).

Example of Participant Observation Research

Title: Conflict in the boardroom: a participant observation study of supervisory board dynamics

Citation: Heemskerk, E. M., Heemskerk, K., & Wats, M. M. (2017). Conflict in the boardroom: a participant observation study of supervisory board dynamics. Journal of Management & Governance , 21 , 233-263.

Overview: This study examined how conflicts within corporate boards affect their performance. The researchers used a participant observation method, where they actively engaged with 11 supervisory boards and observed their dynamics. They found that having a shared understanding of the board’s role called a common framework, improved performance by reducing relationship conflicts, encouraging task conflicts, and minimizing conflicts between the board and CEO.

10. Non-Participant Observation

Definition: Non-participant observation is a qualitative research method in which the researcher observes the phenomena of interest without actively participating in the situation, setting, or community being studied.

This method allows the researcher to maintain a position of distance, as they are solely an observer and not a participant in the activities being observed (Kawulich, 2005).

During non-participant observation, the researcher typically records field notes on the actions, interactions, and behaviors observed , focusing on specific aspects of the situation deemed relevant to the research question.

This could include verbal and nonverbal communication , activities, interactions, and environmental contexts (Angrosino, 2007). They could also use video or audio recordings or other methods to collect data.

Example of Non-Participant Observation Research

Title: Mental Health Nurses’ attitudes towards mental illness and recovery-oriented practice in acute inpatient psychiatric units: A non-participant observation study

Citation: Sreeram, A., Cross, W. M., & Townsin, L. (2023). Mental Health Nurses’ attitudes towards mental illness and recovery‐oriented practice in acute inpatient psychiatric units: A non‐participant observation study. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing .

Overview: This study investigated the attitudes of mental health nurses towards mental illness and recovery-oriented practice in acute inpatient psychiatric units. The researchers used a non-participant observation method, meaning they observed the nurses without directly participating in their activities. The findings shed light on the nurses’ perspectives and behaviors, providing valuable insights into their attitudes toward mental health and recovery-focused care in these settings.

11. Content Analysis

Definition: Content Analysis involves scrutinizing textual, visual, or spoken content to categorize and quantify information. The goal is to identify patterns, themes, biases, or other characteristics (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005).

Content Analysis is widely used in various disciplines for a multitude of purposes. Researchers typically use this method to distill large amounts of unstructured data, like interview transcripts, newspaper articles, or social media posts, into manageable and meaningful chunks.

When wielded appropriately, Content Analysis can illuminate the density and frequency of certain themes within a dataset, provide insights into how specific terms or concepts are applied contextually, and offer inferences about the meanings of their content and use (Duriau, Reger, & Pfarrer, 2007).

Example of Content Analysis

Title: Framing European politics: A content analysis of press and television news .

Citation: Semetko, H. A., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2000). Framing European politics: A content analysis of press and television news. Journal of Communication, 50 (2), 93-109.

Overview: This study analyzed press and television news articles about European politics using a method called content analysis. The researchers examined the prevalence of different “frames” in the news, which are ways of presenting information to shape audience perceptions. They found that the most common frames were attribution of responsibility, conflict, economic consequences, human interest, and morality.

Read my Full Guide on Content Analysis Here

12. Discourse Analysis

Definition: Discourse Analysis, a qualitative research method, interprets the meanings, functions, and coherence of certain languages in context.

Discourse analysis is typically understood through social constructionism, critical theory , and poststructuralism and used for understanding how language constructs social concepts (Cheek, 2004).

Discourse Analysis offers great breadth, providing tools to examine spoken or written language, often beyond the level of the sentence. It enables researchers to scrutinize how text and talk articulate social and political interactions and hierarchies.

Insight can be garnered from different conversations, institutional text, and media coverage to understand how topics are addressed or framed within a specific social context (Jorgensen & Phillips, 2002).

Example of Discourse Analysis

Title: The construction of teacher identities in educational policy documents: A critical discourse analysis

Citation: Thomas, S. (2005). The construction of teacher identities in educational policy documents: A critical discourse analysis. Critical Studies in Education, 46 (2), 25-44.

Overview: The author examines how an education policy in one state of Australia positions teacher professionalism and teacher identities. While there are competing discourses about professional identity, the policy framework privileges a  narrative that frames the ‘good’ teacher as one that accepts ever-tightening control and regulation over their professional practice.

Read my Full Guide on Discourse Analysis Here

13. Action Research

Definition: Action Research is a qualitative research technique that is employed to bring about change while simultaneously studying the process and results of that change.

This method involves a cyclical process of fact-finding, action, evaluation, and reflection (Greenwood & Levin, 2016).

Typically, Action Research is used in the fields of education, social sciences , and community development. The process isn’t just about resolving an issue but also developing knowledge that can be used in the future to address similar or related problems.

The researcher plays an active role in the research process, which is normally broken down into four steps: 

  • developing a plan to improve what is currently being done
  • implementing the plan
  • observing the effects of the plan, and
  • reflecting upon these effects (Smith, 2010).

Example of Action Research

Title: Using Digital Sandbox Gaming to Improve Creativity Within Boys’ Writing

Citation: Ellison, M., & Drew, C. (2020). Using digital sandbox gaming to improve creativity within boys’ writing. Journal of Research in Childhood Education , 34 (2), 277-287.

Overview: This was a research study one of my research students completed in his own classroom under my supervision. He implemented a digital game-based approach to literacy teaching with boys and interviewed his students to see if the use of games as stimuli for storytelling helped draw them into the learning experience.

Read my Full Guide on Action Research Here

14. Semiotic Analysis

Definition: Semiotic Analysis is a qualitative method of research that interprets signs and symbols in communication to understand sociocultural phenomena. It stems from semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation (Chandler, 2017).

In a Semiotic Analysis, signs (anything that represents something else) are interpreted based on their significance and the role they play in representing ideas.

This type of research often involves the examination of images, sounds, and word choice to uncover the embedded sociocultural meanings. For example, an advertisement for a car might be studied to learn more about societal views on masculinity or success (Berger, 2010).

Example of Semiotic Research

Title: Shielding the learned body: a semiotic analysis of school badges in New South Wales, Australia

Citation: Symes, C. (2023). Shielding the learned body: a semiotic analysis of school badges in New South Wales, Australia. Semiotica , 2023 (250), 167-190.

Overview: This study examines school badges in New South Wales, Australia, and explores their significance through a semiotic analysis. The badges, which are part of the school’s visual identity, are seen as symbolic representations that convey meanings. The analysis reveals that these badges often draw on heraldic models, incorporating elements like colors, names, motifs, and mottoes that reflect local culture and history, thus connecting students to their national identity. Additionally, the study highlights how some schools have shifted from traditional badges to modern logos and slogans, reflecting a more business-oriented approach.

15. Qualitative Longitudinal Studies

Definition: Qualitative Longitudinal Studies are a research method that involves repeated observation of the same items over an extended period of time.

Unlike a snapshot perspective, this method aims to piece together individual histories and examine the influences and impacts of change (Neale, 2019).

Qualitative Longitudinal Studies provide an in-depth understanding of change as it happens, including changes in people’s lives, their perceptions, and their behaviors.

For instance, this method could be used to follow a group of students through their schooling years to understand the evolution of their learning behaviors and attitudes towards education (Saldaña, 2003).

Example of Qualitative Longitudinal Research

Title: Patient and caregiver perspectives on managing pain in advanced cancer: a qualitative longitudinal study

Citation: Hackett, J., Godfrey, M., & Bennett, M. I. (2016). Patient and caregiver perspectives on managing pain in advanced cancer: a qualitative longitudinal study.  Palliative medicine ,  30 (8), 711-719.

Overview: This article examines how patients and their caregivers manage pain in advanced cancer through a qualitative longitudinal study. The researchers interviewed patients and caregivers at two different time points and collected audio diaries to gain insights into their experiences, making this study longitudinal.

Read my Full Guide on Longitudinal Research Here

16. Open-Ended Surveys

Definition: Open-Ended Surveys are a type of qualitative research method where respondents provide answers in their own words. Unlike closed-ended surveys, which limit responses to predefined options, open-ended surveys allow for expansive and unsolicited explanations (Fink, 2013).

Open-ended surveys are commonly used in a range of fields, from market research to social studies. As they don’t force respondents into predefined response categories, these surveys help to draw out rich, detailed data that might uncover new variables or ideas.

For example, an open-ended survey might be used to understand customer opinions about a new product or service (Lavrakas, 2008).

Contrast this to a quantitative closed-ended survey, like a Likert scale, which could theoretically help us to come up with generalizable data but is restricted by the questions on the questionnaire, meaning new and surprising data and insights can’t emerge from the survey results in the same way.

Example of Open-Ended Survey Research

Title: Advantages and disadvantages of technology in relationships: Findings from an open-ended survey

Citation: Hertlein, K. M., & Ancheta, K. (2014). Advantages and disadvantages of technology in relationships: Findings from an open-ended survey.  The Qualitative Report ,  19 (11), 1-11.

Overview: This article examines the advantages and disadvantages of technology in couple relationships through an open-ended survey method. Researchers analyzed responses from 410 undergraduate students to understand how technology affects relationships. They found that technology can contribute to relationship development, management, and enhancement, but it can also create challenges such as distancing, lack of clarity, and impaired trust.

17. Naturalistic Observation

Definition: Naturalistic Observation is a type of qualitative research method that involves observing individuals in their natural environments without interference or manipulation by the researcher.

Naturalistic observation is often used when conducting research on behaviors that cannot be controlled or manipulated in a laboratory setting (Kawulich, 2005).

It is frequently used in the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. For instance, to understand the social dynamics in a schoolyard, a researcher could spend time observing the children interact during their recess, noting their behaviors, interactions, and conflicts without imposing their presence on the children’s activities (Forsyth, 2010).

Example of Naturalistic Observation Research

Title: Dispositional mindfulness in daily life: A naturalistic observation study

Citation: Kaplan, D. M., Raison, C. L., Milek, A., Tackman, A. M., Pace, T. W., & Mehl, M. R. (2018). Dispositional mindfulness in daily life: A naturalistic observation study. PloS one , 13 (11), e0206029.

Overview: In this study, researchers conducted two studies: one exploring assumptions about mindfulness and behavior, and the other using naturalistic observation to examine actual behavioral manifestations of mindfulness. They found that trait mindfulness is associated with a heightened perceptual focus in conversations, suggesting that being mindful is expressed primarily through sharpened attention rather than observable behavioral or social differences.

Read my Full Guide on Naturalistic Observation Here

18. Photo-Elicitation

Definition: Photo-elicitation utilizes photographs as a means to trigger discussions and evoke responses during interviews. This strategy aids in bringing out topics of discussion that may not emerge through verbal prompting alone (Harper, 2002).

Traditionally, Photo-Elicitation has been useful in various fields such as education, psychology, and sociology. The method involves the researcher or participants taking photographs, which are then used as prompts for discussion.

For instance, a researcher studying urban environmental issues might invite participants to photograph areas in their neighborhood that they perceive as environmentally detrimental, and then discuss each photo in depth (Clark-Ibáñez, 2004).

Example of Photo-Elicitation Research

Title: Early adolescent food routines: A photo-elicitation study

Citation: Green, E. M., Spivak, C., & Dollahite, J. S. (2021). Early adolescent food routines: A photo-elicitation study. Appetite, 158 .

Overview: This study focused on early adolescents (ages 10-14) and their food routines. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews using a photo-elicitation approach, where participants took photos related to their food choices and experiences. Through analysis, the study identified various routines and three main themes: family, settings, and meals/foods consumed, revealing how early adolescents view and are influenced by their eating routines.

Features of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is a research method focused on understanding the meaning individuals or groups attribute to a social or human problem (Creswell, 2013).

Some key features of this method include:

  • Naturalistic Inquiry: Qualitative research happens in the natural setting of the phenomena, aiming to understand “real world” situations (Patton, 2015). This immersion in the field or subject allows the researcher to gather a deep understanding of the subject matter.
  • Emphasis on Process: It aims to understand how events unfold over time rather than focusing solely on outcomes (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). The process-oriented nature of qualitative research allows researchers to investigate sequences, timing, and changes.
  • Interpretive: It involves interpreting and making sense of phenomena in terms of the meanings people assign to them (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011). This interpretive element allows for rich, nuanced insights into human behavior and experiences.
  • Holistic Perspective: Qualitative research seeks to understand the whole phenomenon rather than focusing on individual components (Creswell, 2013). It emphasizes the complex interplay of factors, providing a richer, more nuanced view of the research subject.
  • Prioritizes Depth over Breadth: Qualitative research favors depth of understanding over breadth, typically involving a smaller but more focused sample size (Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2020). This enables detailed exploration of the phenomena of interest, often leading to rich and complex data.

Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

Qualitative research centers on exploring and understanding the meaning individuals or groups attribute to a social or human problem (Creswell, 2013).

It involves an in-depth approach to the subject matter, aiming to capture the richness and complexity of human experience.

Examples include conducting interviews, observing behaviors, or analyzing text and images.

There are strengths inherent in this approach. In its focus on understanding subjective experiences and interpretations, qualitative research can yield rich and detailed data that quantitative research may overlook (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011).

Additionally, qualitative research is adaptive, allowing the researcher to respond to new directions and insights as they emerge during the research process.

However, there are also limitations. Because of the interpretive nature of this research, findings may not be generalizable to a broader population (Marshall & Rossman, 2014). Well-designed quantitative research, on the other hand, can be generalizable.

Moreover, the reliability and validity of qualitative data can be challenging to establish due to its subjective nature, unlike quantitative research, which is ideally more objective.

Compare Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methodologies in This Guide Here

In conclusion, qualitative research methods provide distinctive ways to explore social phenomena and understand nuances that quantitative approaches might overlook. Each method, from Ethnography to Photo-Elicitation, presents its strengths and weaknesses but they all offer valuable means of investigating complex, real-world situations. The goal for the researcher is not to find a definitive tool, but to employ the method best suited for their research questions and the context at hand (Almalki, 2016). Above all, these methods underscore the richness of human experience and deepen our understanding of the world around us.

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Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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surveys | August 27, 2020

The Guide to Qualitative Research: Methods, Types, and Examples

sample conclusion for qualitative research

Daniel Ndukwu

Qualitative research is an important part of any project. It gives you insights that quantitative research can’t hope to match.

To receive the benefits that qualitative research can bring to the table, it’s essential to do it properly. That’s easier said than done.

This in-depth guide will give you a better understanding of qualitative research, how it can be used, the methods for carrying it out, and its limitations.

Table of Contents

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is the process of gathering non-numerical data that helps you understand the deeper meaning behind a topic. It can help you decipher the motivations, thought processes, and opinions of people who are experiencing the problem or situation.

For example, an entrepreneur wants to start a shoe brand targeted at a younger demographic. They know younger people spend more money on name-brand basketball shoes. Qualitative research will help them understand the motivations and thought processes behind why those shoes are appealing.

With the help of capable marketing teams and mentors , they can use this data to craft communication plans that will resonate with their audience.

The data gained helps develop better hypotheses, confirm or disprove theories, and informs quantitative research studies. There are multiple quantitative research methods that are ideal for certain situations and this guide delves deeper into those data collection processes .

Keep in mind that qualitative research gives you descriptive data that must then be analyzed and interpreted. This process is much more difficult than a quantitative analysis which is why many organizations opt to skip it entirely.

What’s the purpose of qualitative research?

Qualitative research was popularized by psychologists and sociologists who were unhappy with the scientific method in use. Traditional scientific methods were only able to tell what was happening but failed to understand why.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, seeks to find the deeper meaning behind actions and situations. For example, you may realize a relationship between two things exist like poverty and lower literacy rates. It’s qualitative data that can help you understand why this relationship exists.

In the diverse landscape of qualitative research its application extends beyond conventional fields offering valuable insights in specialized areas take for instance the legal sector where understanding nuanced human experiences is crucial a cerebral palsy lawyer leveraging qualitative research delves deeper into the multifaceted experiences of individuals and families impacted by cerebral palsy this methodical approach aids in comprehending the broader social emotional and economic ramifications thereby guiding more compassionate and effective legal representation.

When should qualitative research be used

There’s a simple stress test to understand whether qualitative research or quantitative research should be used. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of the problem? If not, use it;
  • Do you understand the reasons that contribute to the problem or situation? If not, use it;
  • Are the attitudes of the people who experience or display the behavior clear to you? If not, use it;
  • Have you already analyzed first-person accounts or research related to the topic? If not, use it.

Qualitative research vs quantitative research

There’s a big difference between the two types of research. For the most part, qualitative research is exploratory. You’re trying to figure out the reasons behind situations and form a clearer hypothesis. Those hypotheses are then tested with further qualitative or quantitative research.

Quantitative research focuses on collecting numerical data that can be used to quantify the magnitude of a situation. The data gained can be organized and statistical analysis carried out.

For example, qualitative research may tell you that people in lower-income areas drop out of school and have lower literacy rates. Quantitative research can tell you the percentage of people that end up dropping out of school within a given population.

As you can see, they work together to give you a holistic understanding of a market or problem.

Qualitative research data collection Methods

We’ve written an in-depth guide about the data collection methods you can use for both quantitative and qualitative research. This section will give you a quick overview of the data collection methods available.

The first data collection method and the most common are surveys. More specifically, surveys with open-ended questions . These give your respondents the opportunity to explain things with their own words.

Another benefit of surveys, especially with online survey tools like KyLeads is that you can quickly distribute your survey to a huge audience. This can cut down on your costs while still giving you the insights you need.

There are two problems with surveys. The first one is that you’re unable to ask relevant clarifying questions. Some of the data you collect may be unclear and lead you to the wrong conclusions.

The second problem is that respondents, unless adequately incentivized, may abandon the survey or give inadequate answers. This is known as survey fatigue and is a challenge when you have longer surveys. You can mitigate the effects by placing the most important questions first.

Focus groups

A focus group involves 3 – 10 people and a specialized moderator. Groups larger than ten should be broken up and those fewer than three won’t be able to deliver the insights you need.

The benefits of a focus group come from the ability to recreate specific situations or test scenarios before they happen. To get the most out of the focus group, it’s important to carefully select the participants based on their demographic and psychographic profiles .

The advantage of a focus group is that the information is insightful and comes from multiple people within your target market. The disadvantage is that groupthink can be a real problem.

You can prevent groupthink by having people write their opinions down before voicing them and even assigning one person to play devil’s advocate. Don’t discourage divergent opinions or perspectives.

Another challenge is that focus groups are expensive compared to other methods listed here. The participants are usually paid for their time and it requires things like meeting space and specialized staff.

Interviews are an old staple of qualitative research and are almost as common as surveys. Interviews can be conducted over the phone, in person, or even through a video conference. The important part is that they’re real-time and you can ask clarifying questions so you don’t draw the wrong conclusions.

There are multiple types of interviews. You can use structured interviews, unstructured interviews, or semi-structured interviews. Keep in mind that the structured interview may not be the best option if you’re doing exploratory =research.

Observation/immersion

This is the process of observing the ongoing behavior of an individual or group. It’s most prevalent in social sciences and marketing applications. This data collection method is the most passive and may not be ideal when doing initial exploratory research. You may be drawing conclusions on incomplete information.

There is an option of participating actively in what you’re observing. Keep in mind that this is frowned upon because the researcher may accidentally introduce biases. The biggest disadvantage is that some things simply can’t be observed by a researcher without interaction.

Try to use team collaboration to cut down on the biases that will be introduced. Compare notes and, as much as possible, look at things objectively. A teammate is invaluable for this kind of exercise.

Pros and cons of qualitative research

Qualitative research is powerful and has many benefits but it also has multiple disadvantages you should be aware of before jumping in.

  • Get a deep understanding of the behaviors and attitudes of your target group
  • You can get those insights from smaller samples sizes
  • As long as you choose the right aspects to focus on and groups to work with, the insights can have much wider applications.
  • Helps reduce biases because you’re doing exploratory research to get a baseline of information
  • Most qualitative research is fluid meaning it adapts to the inputs to get a better understanding of the overall situation
  • The data itself is subjective because it’s based on the experiences and biases of the respondents
  • It’s more expensive than quantitative research
  • It can take much longer to go through the more involved data collection methods like focus groups and interviews
  • It’s more difficult to analyze and often requires people with specialized skills
  • It’s nonnumerical in nature so statistical analysis cannot be applied to the data
  • Results can’t be easily replicated following the scientific method

Qualitative research can be a powerful tool in your arsenal but there are many things to take into consideration. It tends to take longer to collect the data and analyze it. It’s also more expensive than most quantitative research methods.

Before diving into a qualitative research strategy, define clear goals, a timeframe for completion, and the kind of information you need to solve your problem.

Let me know what you think in the comments and don’t forget to share.

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Chapter 5. Sampling

Introduction.

Most Americans will experience unemployment at some point in their lives. Sarah Damaske ( 2021 ) was interested in learning about how men and women experience unemployment differently. To answer this question, she interviewed unemployed people. After conducting a “pilot study” with twenty interviewees, she realized she was also interested in finding out how working-class and middle-class persons experienced unemployment differently. She found one hundred persons through local unemployment offices. She purposefully selected a roughly equal number of men and women and working-class and middle-class persons for the study. This would allow her to make the kinds of comparisons she was interested in. She further refined her selection of persons to interview:

I decided that I needed to be able to focus my attention on gender and class; therefore, I interviewed only people born between 1962 and 1987 (ages 28–52, the prime working and child-rearing years), those who worked full-time before their job loss, those who experienced an involuntary job loss during the past year, and those who did not lose a job for cause (e.g., were not fired because of their behavior at work). ( 244 )

The people she ultimately interviewed compose her sample. They represent (“sample”) the larger population of the involuntarily unemployed. This “theoretically informed stratified sampling design” allowed Damaske “to achieve relatively equal distribution of participation across gender and class,” but it came with some limitations. For one, the unemployment centers were located in primarily White areas of the country, so there were very few persons of color interviewed. Qualitative researchers must make these kinds of decisions all the time—who to include and who not to include. There is never an absolutely correct decision, as the choice is linked to the particular research question posed by the particular researcher, although some sampling choices are more compelling than others. In this case, Damaske made the choice to foreground both gender and class rather than compare all middle-class men and women or women of color from different class positions or just talk to White men. She leaves the door open for other researchers to sample differently. Because science is a collective enterprise, it is most likely someone will be inspired to conduct a similar study as Damaske’s but with an entirely different sample.

This chapter is all about sampling. After you have developed a research question and have a general idea of how you will collect data (observations or interviews), how do you go about actually finding people and sites to study? Although there is no “correct number” of people to interview, the sample should follow the research question and research design. You might remember studying sampling in a quantitative research course. Sampling is important here too, but it works a bit differently. Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research involves nonprobability sampling. This chapter explains why this is so and what qualities instead make a good sample for qualitative research.

Quick Terms Refresher

  • The population is the entire group that you want to draw conclusions about.
  • The sample is the specific group of individuals that you will collect data from.
  • Sampling frame is the actual list of individuals that the sample will be drawn from. Ideally, it should include the entire target population (and nobody who is not part of that population).
  • Sample size is how many individuals (or units) are included in your sample.

The “Who” of Your Research Study

After you have turned your general research interest into an actual research question and identified an approach you want to take to answer that question, you will need to specify the people you will be interviewing or observing. In most qualitative research, the objects of your study will indeed be people. In some cases, however, your objects might be content left by people (e.g., diaries, yearbooks, photographs) or documents (official or unofficial) or even institutions (e.g., schools, medical centers) and locations (e.g., nation-states, cities). Chances are, whatever “people, places, or things” are the objects of your study, you will not really be able to talk to, observe, or follow every single individual/object of the entire population of interest. You will need to create a sample of the population . Sampling in qualitative research has different purposes and goals than sampling in quantitative research. Sampling in both allows you to say something of interest about a population without having to include the entire population in your sample.

We begin this chapter with the case of a population of interest composed of actual people. After we have a better understanding of populations and samples that involve real people, we’ll discuss sampling in other types of qualitative research, such as archival research, content analysis, and case studies. We’ll then move to a larger discussion about the difference between sampling in qualitative research generally versus quantitative research, then we’ll move on to the idea of “theoretical” generalizability, and finally, we’ll conclude with some practical tips on the correct “number” to include in one’s sample.

Sampling People

To help think through samples, let’s imagine we want to know more about “vaccine hesitancy.” We’ve all lived through 2020 and 2021, and we know that a sizable number of people in the United States (and elsewhere) were slow to accept vaccines, even when these were freely available. By some accounts, about one-third of Americans initially refused vaccination. Why is this so? Well, as I write this in the summer of 2021, we know that some people actively refused the vaccination, thinking it was harmful or part of a government plot. Others were simply lazy or dismissed the necessity. And still others were worried about harmful side effects. The general population of interest here (all adult Americans who were not vaccinated by August 2021) may be as many as eighty million people. We clearly cannot talk to all of them. So we will have to narrow the number to something manageable. How can we do this?

Null

First, we have to think about our actual research question and the form of research we are conducting. I am going to begin with a quantitative research question. Quantitative research questions tend to be simpler to visualize, at least when we are first starting out doing social science research. So let us say we want to know what percentage of each kind of resistance is out there and how race or class or gender affects vaccine hesitancy. Again, we don’t have the ability to talk to everyone. But harnessing what we know about normal probability distributions (see quantitative methods for more on this), we can find this out through a sample that represents the general population. We can’t really address these particular questions if we only talk to White women who go to college with us. And if you are really trying to generalize the specific findings of your sample to the larger population, you will have to employ probability sampling , a sampling technique where a researcher sets a selection of a few criteria and chooses members of a population randomly. Why randomly? If truly random, all the members have an equal opportunity to be a part of the sample, and thus we avoid the problem of having only our friends and neighbors (who may be very different from other people in the population) in the study. Mathematically, there is going to be a certain number that will be large enough to allow us to generalize our particular findings from our sample population to the population at large. It might surprise you how small that number can be. Election polls of no more than one thousand people are routinely used to predict actual election outcomes of millions of people. Below that number, however, you will not be able to make generalizations. Talking to five people at random is simply not enough people to predict a presidential election.

In order to answer quantitative research questions of causality, one must employ probability sampling. Quantitative researchers try to generalize their findings to a larger population. Samples are designed with that in mind. Qualitative researchers ask very different questions, though. Qualitative research questions are not about “how many” of a certain group do X (in this case, what percentage of the unvaccinated hesitate for concern about safety rather than reject vaccination on political grounds). Qualitative research employs nonprobability sampling . By definition, not everyone has an equal opportunity to be included in the sample. The researcher might select White women they go to college with to provide insight into racial and gender dynamics at play. Whatever is found by doing so will not be generalizable to everyone who has not been vaccinated, or even all White women who have not been vaccinated, or even all White women who have not been vaccinated who are in this particular college. That is not the point of qualitative research at all. This is a really important distinction, so I will repeat in bold: Qualitative researchers are not trying to statistically generalize specific findings to a larger population . They have not failed when their sample cannot be generalized, as that is not the point at all.

In the previous paragraph, I said it would be perfectly acceptable for a qualitative researcher to interview five White women with whom she goes to college about their vaccine hesitancy “to provide insight into racial and gender dynamics at play.” The key word here is “insight.” Rather than use a sample as a stand-in for the general population, as quantitative researchers do, the qualitative researcher uses the sample to gain insight into a process or phenomenon. The qualitative researcher is not going to be content with simply asking each of the women to state her reason for not being vaccinated and then draw conclusions that, because one in five of these women were concerned about their health, one in five of all people were also concerned about their health. That would be, frankly, a very poor study indeed. Rather, the qualitative researcher might sit down with each of the women and conduct a lengthy interview about what the vaccine means to her, why she is hesitant, how she manages her hesitancy (how she explains it to her friends), what she thinks about others who are unvaccinated, what she thinks of those who have been vaccinated, and what she knows or thinks she knows about COVID-19. The researcher might include specific interview questions about the college context, about their status as White women, about the political beliefs they hold about racism in the US, and about how their own political affiliations may or may not provide narrative scripts about “protective whiteness.” There are many interesting things to ask and learn about and many things to discover. Where a quantitative researcher begins with clear parameters to set their population and guide their sample selection process, the qualitative researcher is discovering new parameters, making it impossible to engage in probability sampling.

Looking at it this way, sampling for qualitative researchers needs to be more strategic. More theoretically informed. What persons can be interviewed or observed that would provide maximum insight into what is still unknown? In other words, qualitative researchers think through what cases they could learn the most from, and those are the cases selected to study: “What would be ‘bias’ in statistical sampling, and therefore a weakness, becomes intended focus in qualitative sampling, and therefore a strength. The logic and power of purposeful sampling like in selecting information-rich cases for study in depth. Information-rich cases are those from which one can learn a great deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the inquiry, thus the term purposeful sampling” ( Patton 2002:230 ; emphases in the original).

Before selecting your sample, though, it is important to clearly identify the general population of interest. You need to know this before you can determine the sample. In our example case, it is “adult Americans who have not yet been vaccinated.” Depending on the specific qualitative research question, however, it might be “adult Americans who have been vaccinated for political reasons” or even “college students who have not been vaccinated.” What insights are you seeking? Do you want to know how politics is affecting vaccination? Or do you want to understand how people manage being an outlier in a particular setting (unvaccinated where vaccinations are heavily encouraged if not required)? More clearly stated, your population should align with your research question . Think back to the opening story about Damaske’s work studying the unemployed. She drew her sample narrowly to address the particular questions she was interested in pursuing. Knowing your questions or, at a minimum, why you are interested in the topic will allow you to draw the best sample possible to achieve insight.

Once you have your population in mind, how do you go about getting people to agree to be in your sample? In qualitative research, it is permissible to find people by convenience. Just ask for people who fit your sample criteria and see who shows up. Or reach out to friends and colleagues and see if they know anyone that fits. Don’t let the name convenience sampling mislead you; this is not exactly “easy,” and it is certainly a valid form of sampling in qualitative research. The more unknowns you have about what you will find, the more convenience sampling makes sense. If you don’t know how race or class or political affiliation might matter, and your population is unvaccinated college students, you can construct a sample of college students by placing an advertisement in the student paper or posting a flyer on a notice board. Whoever answers is your sample. That is what is meant by a convenience sample. A common variation of convenience sampling is snowball sampling . This is particularly useful if your target population is hard to find. Let’s say you posted a flyer about your study and only two college students responded. You could then ask those two students for referrals. They tell their friends, and those friends tell other friends, and, like a snowball, your sample gets bigger and bigger.

Researcher Note

Gaining Access: When Your Friend Is Your Research Subject

My early experience with qualitative research was rather unique. At that time, I needed to do a project that required me to interview first-generation college students, and my friends, with whom I had been sharing a dorm for two years, just perfectly fell into the sample category. Thus, I just asked them and easily “gained my access” to the research subject; I know them, we are friends, and I am part of them. I am an insider. I also thought, “Well, since I am part of the group, I can easily understand their language and norms, I can capture their honesty, read their nonverbal cues well, will get more information, as they will be more opened to me because they trust me.” All in all, easy access with rich information. But, gosh, I did not realize that my status as an insider came with a price! When structuring the interview questions, I began to realize that rather than focusing on the unique experiences of my friends, I mostly based the questions on my own experiences, assuming we have similar if not the same experiences. I began to struggle with my objectivity and even questioned my role; am I doing this as part of the group or as a researcher? I came to know later that my status as an insider or my “positionality” may impact my research. It not only shapes the process of data collection but might heavily influence my interpretation of the data. I came to realize that although my inside status came with a lot of benefits (especially for access), it could also bring some drawbacks.

—Dede Setiono, PhD student focusing on international development and environmental policy, Oregon State University

The more you know about what you might find, the more strategic you can be. If you wanted to compare how politically conservative and politically liberal college students explained their vaccine hesitancy, for example, you might construct a sample purposively, finding an equal number of both types of students so that you can make those comparisons in your analysis. This is what Damaske ( 2021 ) did. You could still use convenience or snowball sampling as a way of recruitment. Post a flyer at the conservative student club and then ask for referrals from the one student that agrees to be interviewed. As with convenience sampling, there are variations of purposive sampling as well as other names used (e.g., judgment, quota, stratified, criterion, theoretical). Try not to get bogged down in the nomenclature; instead, focus on identifying the general population that matches your research question and then using a sampling method that is most likely to provide insight, given the types of questions you have.

There are all kinds of ways of being strategic with sampling in qualitative research. Here are a few of my favorite techniques for maximizing insight:

  • Consider using “extreme” or “deviant” cases. Maybe your college houses a prominent anti-vaxxer who has written about and demonstrated against the college’s policy on vaccines. You could learn a lot from that single case (depending on your research question, of course).
  • Consider “intensity”: people and cases and circumstances where your questions are more likely to feature prominently (but not extremely or deviantly). For example, you could compare those who volunteer at local Republican and Democratic election headquarters during an election season in a study on why party matters. Those who volunteer are more likely to have something to say than those who are more apathetic.
  • Maximize variation, as with the case of “politically liberal” versus “politically conservative,” or include an array of social locations (young vs. old; Northwest vs. Southeast region). This kind of heterogeneity sampling can capture and describe the central themes that cut across the variations: any common patterns that emerge, even in this wildly mismatched sample, are probably important to note!
  • Rather than maximize the variation, you could select a small homogenous sample to describe some particular subgroup in depth. Focus groups are often the best form of data collection for homogeneity sampling.
  • Think about which cases are “critical” or politically important—ones that “if it happens here, it would happen anywhere” or a case that is politically sensitive, as with the single “blue” (Democratic) county in a “red” (Republican) state. In both, you are choosing a site that would yield the most information and have the greatest impact on the development of knowledge.
  • On the other hand, sometimes you want to select the “typical”—the typical college student, for example. You are trying to not generalize from the typical but illustrate aspects that may be typical of this case or group. When selecting for typicality, be clear with yourself about why the typical matches your research questions (and who might be excluded or marginalized in doing so).
  • Finally, it is often a good idea to look for disconfirming cases : if you are at the stage where you have a hypothesis (of sorts), you might select those who do not fit your hypothesis—you will surely learn something important there. They may be “exceptions that prove the rule” or exceptions that force you to alter your findings in order to make sense of these additional cases.

In addition to all these sampling variations, there is the theoretical approach taken by grounded theorists in which the researcher samples comparative people (or events) on the basis of their potential to represent important theoretical constructs. The sample, one can say, is by definition representative of the phenomenon of interest. It accompanies the constant comparative method of analysis. In the words of the funders of Grounded Theory , “Theoretical sampling is sampling on the basis of the emerging concepts, with the aim being to explore the dimensional range or varied conditions along which the properties of the concepts vary” ( Strauss and Corbin 1998:73 ).

When Your Population is Not Composed of People

I think it is easiest for most people to think of populations and samples in terms of people, but sometimes our units of analysis are not actually people. They could be places or institutions. Even so, you might still want to talk to people or observe the actions of people to understand those places or institutions. Or not! In the case of content analyses (see chapter 17), you won’t even have people involved at all but rather documents or films or photographs or news clippings. Everything we have covered about sampling applies to other units of analysis too. Let’s work through some examples.

Case Studies

When constructing a case study, it is helpful to think of your cases as sample populations in the same way that we considered people above. If, for example, you are comparing campus climates for diversity, your overall population may be “four-year college campuses in the US,” and from there you might decide to study three college campuses as your sample. Which three? Will you use purposeful sampling (perhaps [1] selecting three colleges in Oregon that are different sizes or [2] selecting three colleges across the US located in different political cultures or [3] varying the three colleges by racial makeup of the student body)? Or will you select three colleges at random, out of convenience? There are justifiable reasons for all approaches.

As with people, there are different ways of maximizing insight in your sample selection. Think about the following rationales: typical, diverse, extreme, deviant, influential, crucial, or even embodying a particular “pathway” ( Gerring 2008 ). When choosing a case or particular research site, Rubin ( 2021 ) suggests you bear in mind, first, what you are leaving out by selecting this particular case/site; second, what you might be overemphasizing by studying this case/site and not another; and, finally, whether you truly need to worry about either of those things—“that is, what are the sources of bias and how bad are they for what you are trying to do?” ( 89 ).

Once you have selected your cases, you may still want to include interviews with specific people or observations at particular sites within those cases. Then you go through possible sampling approaches all over again to determine which people will be contacted.

Content: Documents, Narrative Accounts, And So On

Although not often discussed as sampling, your selection of documents and other units to use in various content/historical analyses is subject to similar considerations. When you are asking quantitative-type questions (percentages and proportionalities of a general population), you will want to follow probabilistic sampling. For example, I created a random sample of accounts posted on the website studentloanjustice.org to delineate the types of problems people were having with student debt ( Hurst 2007 ). Even though my data was qualitative (narratives of student debt), I was actually asking a quantitative-type research question, so it was important that my sample was representative of the larger population (debtors who posted on the website). On the other hand, when you are asking qualitative-type questions, the selection process should be very different. In that case, use nonprobabilistic techniques, either convenience (where you are really new to this data and do not have the ability to set comparative criteria or even know what a deviant case would be) or some variant of purposive sampling. Let’s say you were interested in the visual representation of women in media published in the 1950s. You could select a national magazine like Time for a “typical” representation (and for its convenience, as all issues are freely available on the web and easy to search). Or you could compare one magazine known for its feminist content versus one antifeminist. The point is, sample selection is important even when you are not interviewing or observing people.

Goals of Qualitative Sampling versus Goals of Quantitative Sampling

We have already discussed some of the differences in the goals of quantitative and qualitative sampling above, but it is worth further discussion. The quantitative researcher seeks a sample that is representative of the population of interest so that they may properly generalize the results (e.g., if 80 percent of first-gen students in the sample were concerned with costs of college, then we can say there is a strong likelihood that 80 percent of first-gen students nationally are concerned with costs of college). The qualitative researcher does not seek to generalize in this way . They may want a representative sample because they are interested in typical responses or behaviors of the population of interest, but they may very well not want a representative sample at all. They might want an “extreme” or deviant case to highlight what could go wrong with a particular situation, or maybe they want to examine just one case as a way of understanding what elements might be of interest in further research. When thinking of your sample, you will have to know why you are selecting the units, and this relates back to your research question or sets of questions. It has nothing to do with having a representative sample to generalize results. You may be tempted—or it may be suggested to you by a quantitatively minded member of your committee—to create as large and representative a sample as you possibly can to earn credibility from quantitative researchers. Ignore this temptation or suggestion. The only thing you should be considering is what sample will best bring insight into the questions guiding your research. This has implications for the number of people (or units) in your study as well, which is the topic of the next section.

What is the Correct “Number” to Sample?

Because we are not trying to create a generalizable representative sample, the guidelines for the “number” of people to interview or news stories to code are also a bit more nebulous. There are some brilliant insightful studies out there with an n of 1 (meaning one person or one account used as the entire set of data). This is particularly so in the case of autoethnography, a variation of ethnographic research that uses the researcher’s own subject position and experiences as the basis of data collection and analysis. But it is true for all forms of qualitative research. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. The number to include is what is relevant and insightful to your particular study.

That said, humans do not thrive well under such ambiguity, and there are a few helpful suggestions that can be made. First, many qualitative researchers talk about “saturation” as the end point for data collection. You stop adding participants when you are no longer getting any new information (or so very little that the cost of adding another interview subject or spending another day in the field exceeds any likely benefits to the research). The term saturation was first used here by Glaser and Strauss ( 1967 ), the founders of Grounded Theory. Here is their explanation: “The criterion for judging when to stop sampling the different groups pertinent to a category is the category’s theoretical saturation . Saturation means that no additional data are being found whereby the sociologist can develop properties of the category. As he [or she] sees similar instances over and over again, the researcher becomes empirically confident that a category is saturated. [They go] out of [their] way to look for groups that stretch diversity of data as far as possible, just to make certain that saturation is based on the widest possible range of data on the category” ( 61 ).

It makes sense that the term was developed by grounded theorists, since this approach is rather more open-ended than other approaches used by qualitative researchers. With so much left open, having a guideline of “stop collecting data when you don’t find anything new” is reasonable. However, saturation can’t help much when first setting out your sample. How do you know how many people to contact to interview? What number will you put down in your institutional review board (IRB) protocol (see chapter 8)? You may guess how many people or units it will take to reach saturation, but there really is no way to know in advance. The best you can do is think about your population and your questions and look at what others have done with similar populations and questions.

Here are some suggestions to use as a starting point: For phenomenological studies, try to interview at least ten people for each major category or group of people . If you are comparing male-identified, female-identified, and gender-neutral college students in a study on gender regimes in social clubs, that means you might want to design a sample of thirty students, ten from each group. This is the minimum suggested number. Damaske’s ( 2021 ) sample of one hundred allows room for up to twenty-five participants in each of four “buckets” (e.g., working-class*female, working-class*male, middle-class*female, middle-class*male). If there is more than one comparative group (e.g., you are comparing students attending three different colleges, and you are comparing White and Black students in each), you can sometimes reduce the number for each group in your sample to five for, in this case, thirty total students. But that is really a bare minimum you will want to go. A lot of people will not trust you with only “five” cases in a bucket. Lareau ( 2021:24 ) advises a minimum of seven or nine for each bucket (or “cell,” in her words). The point is to think about what your analyses might look like and how comfortable you will be with a certain number of persons fitting each category.

Because qualitative research takes so much time and effort, it is rare for a beginning researcher to include more than thirty to fifty people or units in the study. You may not be able to conduct all the comparisons you might want simply because you cannot manage a larger sample. In that case, the limits of who you can reach or what you can include may influence you to rethink an original overcomplicated research design. Rather than include students from every racial group on a campus, for example, you might want to sample strategically, thinking about the most contrast (insightful), possibly excluding majority-race (White) students entirely, and simply using previous literature to fill in gaps in our understanding. For example, one of my former students was interested in discovering how race and class worked at a predominantly White institution (PWI). Due to time constraints, she simplified her study from an original sample frame of middle-class and working-class domestic Black and international African students (four buckets) to a sample frame of domestic Black and international African students (two buckets), allowing the complexities of class to come through individual accounts rather than from part of the sample frame. She wisely decided not to include White students in the sample, as her focus was on how minoritized students navigated the PWI. She was able to successfully complete her project and develop insights from the data with fewer than twenty interviewees. [1]

But what if you had unlimited time and resources? Would it always be better to interview more people or include more accounts, documents, and units of analysis? No! Your sample size should reflect your research question and the goals you have set yourself. Larger numbers can sometimes work against your goals. If, for example, you want to help bring out individual stories of success against the odds, adding more people to the analysis can end up drowning out those individual stories. Sometimes, the perfect size really is one (or three, or five). It really depends on what you are trying to discover and achieve in your study. Furthermore, studies of one hundred or more (people, documents, accounts, etc.) can sometimes be mistaken for quantitative research. Inevitably, the large sample size will push the researcher into simplifying the data numerically. And readers will begin to expect generalizability from such a large sample.

To summarize, “There are no rules for sample size in qualitative inquiry. Sample size depends on what you want to know, the purpose of the inquiry, what’s at stake, what will be useful, what will have credibility, and what can be done with available time and resources” ( Patton 2002:244 ).

How did you find/construct a sample?

Since qualitative researchers work with comparatively small sample sizes, getting your sample right is rather important. Yet it is also difficult to accomplish. For instance, a key question you need to ask yourself is whether you want a homogeneous or heterogeneous sample. In other words, do you want to include people in your study who are by and large the same, or do you want to have diversity in your sample?

For many years, I have studied the experiences of students who were the first in their families to attend university. There is a rather large number of sampling decisions I need to consider before starting the study. (1) Should I only talk to first-in-family students, or should I have a comparison group of students who are not first-in-family? (2) Do I need to strive for a gender distribution that matches undergraduate enrollment patterns? (3) Should I include participants that reflect diversity in gender identity and sexuality? (4) How about racial diversity? First-in-family status is strongly related to some ethnic or racial identity. (5) And how about areas of study?

As you can see, if I wanted to accommodate all these differences and get enough study participants in each category, I would quickly end up with a sample size of hundreds, which is not feasible in most qualitative research. In the end, for me, the most important decision was to maximize the voices of first-in-family students, which meant that I only included them in my sample. As for the other categories, I figured it was going to be hard enough to find first-in-family students, so I started recruiting with an open mind and an understanding that I may have to accept a lack of gender, sexuality, or racial diversity and then not be able to say anything about these issues. But I would definitely be able to speak about the experiences of being first-in-family.

—Wolfgang Lehmann, author of “Habitus Transformation and Hidden Injuries”

Examples of “Sample” Sections in Journal Articles

Think about some of the studies you have read in college, especially those with rich stories and accounts about people’s lives. Do you know how the people were selected to be the focus of those stories? If the account was published by an academic press (e.g., University of California Press or Princeton University Press) or in an academic journal, chances are that the author included a description of their sample selection. You can usually find these in a methodological appendix (book) or a section on “research methods” (article).

Here are two examples from recent books and one example from a recent article:

Example 1 . In It’s Not like I’m Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-welfare World , the research team employed a mixed methods approach to understand how parents use the earned income tax credit, a refundable tax credit designed to provide relief for low- to moderate-income working people ( Halpern-Meekin et al. 2015 ). At the end of their book, their first appendix is “Introduction to Boston and the Research Project.” After describing the context of the study, they include the following description of their sample selection:

In June 2007, we drew 120 names at random from the roughly 332 surveys we gathered between February and April. Within each racial and ethnic group, we aimed for one-third married couples with children and two-thirds unmarried parents. We sent each of these families a letter informing them of the opportunity to participate in the in-depth portion of our study and then began calling the home and cell phone numbers they provided us on the surveys and knocking on the doors of the addresses they provided.…In the end, we interviewed 115 of the 120 families originally selected for the in-depth interview sample (the remaining five families declined to participate). ( 22 )

Was their sample selection based on convenience or purpose? Why do you think it was important for them to tell you that five families declined to be interviewed? There is actually a trick here, as the names were pulled randomly from a survey whose sample design was probabilistic. Why is this important to know? What can we say about the representativeness or the uniqueness of whatever findings are reported here?

Example 2 . In When Diversity Drops , Park ( 2013 ) examines the impact of decreasing campus diversity on the lives of college students. She does this through a case study of one student club, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), at one university (“California University,” a pseudonym). Here is her description:

I supplemented participant observation with individual in-depth interviews with sixty IVCF associates, including thirty-four current students, eight former and current staff members, eleven alumni, and seven regional or national staff members. The racial/ethnic breakdown was twenty-five Asian Americans (41.6 percent), one Armenian (1.6 percent), twelve people who were black (20.0 percent), eight Latino/as (13.3 percent), three South Asian Americans (5.0 percent), and eleven people who were white (18.3 percent). Twenty-nine were men, and thirty-one were women. Looking back, I note that the higher number of Asian Americans reflected both the group’s racial/ethnic composition and my relative ease about approaching them for interviews. ( 156 )

How can you tell this is a convenience sample? What else do you note about the sample selection from this description?

Example 3. The last example is taken from an article published in the journal Research in Higher Education . Published articles tend to be more formal than books, at least when it comes to the presentation of qualitative research. In this article, Lawson ( 2021 ) is seeking to understand why female-identified college students drop out of majors that are dominated by male-identified students (e.g., engineering, computer science, music theory). Here is the entire relevant section of the article:

Method Participants Data were collected as part of a larger study designed to better understand the daily experiences of women in MDMs [male-dominated majors].…Participants included 120 students from a midsize, Midwestern University. This sample included 40 women and 40 men from MDMs—defined as any major where at least 2/3 of students are men at both the university and nationally—and 40 women from GNMs—defined as any may where 40–60% of students are women at both the university and nationally.… Procedure A multi-faceted approach was used to recruit participants; participants were sent targeted emails (obtained based on participants’ reported gender and major listings), campus-wide emails sent through the University’s Communication Center, flyers, and in-class presentations. Recruitment materials stated that the research focused on the daily experiences of college students, including classroom experiences, stressors, positive experiences, departmental contexts, and career aspirations. Interested participants were directed to email the study coordinator to verify eligibility (at least 18 years old, man/woman in MDM or woman in GNM, access to a smartphone). Sixteen interested individuals were not eligible for the study due to the gender/major combination. ( 482ff .)

What method of sample selection was used by Lawson? Why is it important to define “MDM” at the outset? How does this definition relate to sampling? Why were interested participants directed to the study coordinator to verify eligibility?

Final Words

I have found that students often find it difficult to be specific enough when defining and choosing their sample. It might help to think about your sample design and sample recruitment like a cookbook. You want all the details there so that someone else can pick up your study and conduct it as you intended. That person could be yourself, but this analogy might work better if you have someone else in mind. When I am writing down recipes, I often think of my sister and try to convey the details she would need to duplicate the dish. We share a grandmother whose recipes are full of handwritten notes in the margins, in spidery ink, that tell us what bowl to use when or where things could go wrong. Describe your sample clearly, convey the steps required accurately, and then add any other details that will help keep you on track and remind you why you have chosen to limit possible interviewees to those of a certain age or class or location. Imagine actually going out and getting your sample (making your dish). Do you have all the necessary details to get started?

Table 5.1. Sampling Type and Strategies

Further Readings

Fusch, Patricia I., and Lawrence R. Ness. 2015. “Are We There Yet? Data Saturation in Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Report 20(9):1408–1416.

Saunders, Benjamin, Julius Sim, Tom Kinstone, Shula Baker, Jackie Waterfield, Bernadette Bartlam, Heather Burroughs, and Clare Jinks. 2018. “Saturation in Qualitative Research: Exploring Its Conceptualization and Operationalization.”  Quality & Quantity  52(4):1893–1907.

  • Rubin ( 2021 ) suggests a minimum of twenty interviews (but safer with thirty) for an interview-based study and a minimum of three to six months in the field for ethnographic studies. For a content-based study, she suggests between five hundred and one thousand documents, although some will be “very small” ( 243–244 ). ↵

The process of selecting people or other units of analysis to represent a larger population. In quantitative research, this representation is taken quite literally, as statistically representative.  In qualitative research, in contrast, sample selection is often made based on potential to generate insight about a particular topic or phenomenon.

The actual list of individuals that the sample will be drawn from. Ideally, it should include the entire target population (and nobody who is not part of that population).  Sampling frames can differ from the larger population when specific exclusions are inherent, as in the case of pulling names randomly from voter registration rolls where not everyone is a registered voter.  This difference in frame and population can undercut the generalizability of quantitative results.

The specific group of individuals that you will collect data from.  Contrast population.

The large group of interest to the researcher.  Although it will likely be impossible to design a study that incorporates or reaches all members of the population of interest, this should be clearly defined at the outset of a study so that a reasonable sample of the population can be taken.  For example, if one is studying working-class college students, the sample may include twenty such students attending a particular college, while the population is “working-class college students.”  In quantitative research, clearly defining the general population of interest is a necessary step in generalizing results from a sample.  In qualitative research, defining the population is conceptually important for clarity.

A sampling strategy in which the sample is chosen to represent (numerically) the larger population from which it is drawn by random selection.  Each person in the population has an equal chance of making it into the sample.  This is often done through a lottery or other chance mechanisms (e.g., a random selection of every twelfth name on an alphabetical list of voters).  Also known as random sampling .

The selection of research participants or other data sources based on availability or accessibility, in contrast to purposive sampling .

A sample generated non-randomly by asking participants to help recruit more participants the idea being that a person who fits your sampling criteria probably knows other people with similar criteria.

Broad codes that are assigned to the main issues emerging in the data; identifying themes is often part of initial coding . 

A form of case selection focusing on examples that do not fit the emerging patterns. This allows the researcher to evaluate rival explanations or to define the limitations of their research findings. While disconfirming cases are found (not sought out), researchers should expand their analysis or rethink their theories to include/explain them.

A methodological tradition of inquiry and approach to analyzing qualitative data in which theories emerge from a rigorous and systematic process of induction.  This approach was pioneered by the sociologists Glaser and Strauss (1967).  The elements of theory generated from comparative analysis of data are, first, conceptual categories and their properties and, second, hypotheses or generalized relations among the categories and their properties – “The constant comparing of many groups draws the [researcher’s] attention to their many similarities and differences.  Considering these leads [the researcher] to generate abstract categories and their properties, which, since they emerge from the data, will clearly be important to a theory explaining the kind of behavior under observation.” (36).

The result of probability sampling, in which a sample is chosen to represent (numerically) the larger population from which it is drawn by random selection.  Each person in the population has an equal chance of making it into the random sample.  This is often done through a lottery or other chance mechanisms (e.g., the random selection of every twelfth name on an alphabetical list of voters).  This is typically not required in qualitative research but rather essential for the generalizability of quantitative research.

A form of case selection or purposeful sampling in which cases that are unusual or special in some way are chosen to highlight processes or to illuminate gaps in our knowledge of a phenomenon.   See also extreme case .

The point at which you can conclude data collection because every person you are interviewing, the interaction you are observing, or content you are analyzing merely confirms what you have already noted.  Achieving saturation is often used as the justification for the final sample size.

The accuracy with which results or findings can be transferred to situations or people other than those originally studied.  Qualitative studies generally are unable to use (and are uninterested in) statistical generalizability where the sample population is said to be able to predict or stand in for a larger population of interest.  Instead, qualitative researchers often discuss “theoretical generalizability,” in which the findings of a particular study can shed light on processes and mechanisms that may be at play in other settings.  See also statistical generalization and theoretical generalization .

A term used by IRBs to denote all materials aimed at recruiting participants into a research study (including printed advertisements, scripts, audio or video tapes, or websites).  Copies of this material are required in research protocols submitted to IRB.

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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