February 23, 2016

Known as one of the most valued process of inquiry, qualitative research is multi-method in focus with both interpretive and naturalistic approach to its subject matter. As a tool in research design, qualitative research studies things in their natural settings, while the researcher attempts to make sense of or interpret her observations in terms of the meaning people bring to them.

As a process of inquiry, qualitative research crosscuts various disciplines that include positivism, post-structuralism and other research methods dealing with cultural and interpretive studies. The fields of Science, Art, Anthropology and Social Studies among others employ qualitative research in trying to find answers to the most difficult social or human problems. The inquisitive researcher, builds a complex picture, analyzes words and keeps record of her informants’ views, while she conducts her study in a natural setting.

The Qualitative Researcher as Bricoleur

Because of the multiple methodologies in qualitative research, the research is viewed as a bricolage and the researcher as bricoleur. A bricoleur is a “Jack of all trade or a kind of professional do-it-yourself person” (Levi Strauss, 1966, p. 17). The result of a bricoleur’s work is the bricolage. “The solution (bricolage) which is the result of the bricoleurs method is an (emergent) construction” (Weinstein & Weinstein, 1991, p. 161)

In her quest for solution, the bricoleur or researcher, uses the tool of her methodological trade as she deploys whatever strategies, methods or empirical materials at her disposal (Becker, 1989). The choice of research tools and methodology are not set in advance. The decision on “choice of research practices, depends upon the questions that are asked, and the questions depend on their context” (Nelson et al, 1992, p. 2), this may include “what is available in the context, and what the researcher can do in that setting,” (Denzin & Lincoln: Landscape of Qualitative Research, 1998, p. 4).

In the process of research design, there are five research traditions available to the bricoleur. Depending on the subject of study and what the researcher intends to achieve, the following qualitative traditions of inquiry are available to the researcher who must decide on the right approach: Biography, Phenomenology, Grounded Theory, Ethnography and Case Study.

Biographical Study

In a biographical study, the researcher studies a person and his experiences as told to the researcher or as available in archival documents. It is a historical account of an individual’s life that reveals both great moments and thwarted periods in the person’s life. A biography explores turning points good or bad and regardless of the type of life, it tells the story of the subject without bias.

A person different from the individual being studied writes the biography using information from archives. Subjects of a biography can be dead or alive. However, in an autobiography, the subject writes about himself a kind of study that is rarely found in graduate research.

Despite its usefulness as an important tool of qualitative inquiry, a biographical study is not without challenges. The researcher must collect extensive information about the subject of her study. She must have a clear understanding of both historical and contextual material to place the subject within the larger trends in society or in the culture. The researcher must be diligent with a keen eye to discover the particular stories that works for the biography and must bring herself into the narrative, while acknowledging her standpoint (John W. Creswell, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design, 1998 p. 51).

Phenomenological Study

Unlike a biographical method that studies the life of an individual, a phenomenological study describes meaning of the lived experiences for several people about a concept or the phenomenon. The adept phenomenologist explores the structures of consciousness in human experiences as she embarks on a journey to make sense of the experiences for presentation to the objects.

Phenomenological study is found in various research subjects such as: Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology and in Health and Human Sciences among others. In using phenomenology, there are challenges the researcher may experience:

The researcher needs a solid understanding of the philosophical principles of phenomenology. She must carefully select the subjects, while at the same time making sure those selected have indeed experienced the phenomenon. The researcher may have difficulty bracketing personal experiences and may need to decide how her personal experiences come into the study (Creswell, 1998 p. 55).

Grounded Theory

While a phenomenological study tries to give meaning of an experience for a number of persons, the purpose of a grounded theory study is to generate or discover a theory. In a grounded theory approach, individuals interact, act and engage in a process in reaction to a phenomenon. To study such people and their reaction to the phenomenon, the researcher collects interview data, goes to the field, develops and interrelate information collected before writing theoretical propositions or hypothesis.

The idea behind grounded theory as articulated by sociologists, Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, is that theories should be grounded in data from the field, especially in the actions, interactions, and social process of people (Creswell, 1998 p. 56).

Like the earlier research methods, a grounded theory researcher also meet challenges, which if not properly addressed may hinder anticipated outcome of the study: The investigator must set aside theoretical ideas or notions to arrive at a substantive theory, she must recognize her type of study as a systematic approach to research with specific steps in data analysis. Also, the researcher may deal with the difficulty of knowing when categories are saturated or when the theory is sufficiently detailed and finally, the investigator must know that the end goal of her study is to generate a theory with a central phenomenon and other components.


Ethnography deals with the description and interpretation of a social or cultural group. The researcher, studies the subjects’ or group’ pattern of behavior, customs, and ways of life. In ethnography there is a prolonged observation of the group in which the researcher is fully immersed in the study as a participant. Through participant observation, the researcher engages the group and takes part in the daily activities of its members by conducting interviews with those in the group. Through the interviews and other information collected, the ethnographer is able to find meanings of behavior, language and cultural interaction of the group.

To add credibility to her study, the ethnographer conducts her research in the field and by engaging in fieldwork, he gains trust of the group members who are keen to open up and provide sensitive information to the researcher that she wouldn’t have received without their trust.

Depending on the challenges, the ethnographer may need help of gatekeepers or individuals that can give access to the research site. The gatekeepers are essential informants with great connection to the group and through their help, the researcher gains access to credible information and other informants with materials relevant to her study.

Ethnography is a common research method in anthropology, where the ethnographer tries to describe a cultural system or social group by studying the history, religion, politics, economy and surroundings of the subjects being investigated. Like other research methods, ethnography is not without its challenges:

To be successful the ethnographer must have in-depth understanding of cultural anthropology and the meaning of social cultural system. Besides, the researcher may need to spend more time in the fields as well as extensive periods for data collection (Creswell, 1998 p. 61). Also, an ethnographer lacking a sense of humility or unwilling to be immersed, can be rejected and denied credible information and therefore, fail to gain the trust of the group of study. Another challenge is when the ethnographer becomes too immersed in the culture of the group such that her study becomes compromised.


Case Study

A case study involves both complex and intensive analysis of an individual unit as a group or community. It emphasizes developmental issues and relationships with the environment, while it documents real life situation and other events through data collection involving multiple sources of materials rich in context. The sources of information in a case study include observations, interviews, audio-visual material and documents.

Since multiple sources of information are used, the process of data collection can be extensive and analysis of the data can be a holistic analysis of the entire case or an embedded analysis of a specific aspect of the case (Yin, 1989).

The challenges inherent in a case study are multiple and require attention of the researcher without which it is impossible to have a successful qualitative case study. The followings are some of the challenges a researcher using this approach of inquiry may encounter:

The researcher must have in-depth understanding of the purpose of her research and be able to identify her case. She must decide what bounded system to study, while at the same time being able to figure out if the case or cases selected is worthy of study. The researcher must also decide whether using multiple cases is better than a single case or vice versa for her study.

When a researcher decides on a particular case or cases, she must explain her rationale for choosing the case or cases and be able to show why gathering information on the case is essential to her study. Being able to collect enough information for the study is another challenge a researcher may face and in a situation where the researcher is unable to gather all necessary details for her study, her research would lack quality of inquiry required for such study.

While gathering enough information is paramount to the success of a case study, the researcher may also meet the challenge of knowing her boundaries. She must decide where to begin, how to begin and when to stop in order to make her study meaningful and easy to understand.

In ending, a biographical study explores the life of an individual and his experiences as told to the researcher and as found in historical documents and other valuable sources. This research method is found in Anthropology, Literature, History, Psychology and Sociology. Phenomenology deals with understanding the essence of experiences about a phenomenon. It explores the structures of consciousness in human experiences and widely used in the field of Philosophy, Sociology and Psychology.

Grounded theory focuses on the development of a theory grounded in data from the field. It is a method of inquiry in Sociology. Ethnography describes and interprets a cultural and social group, a reason why it is mostly used in Cultural anthropology and Sociology. Lastly, a case study deals with an in-depth analysis of a particular case or multiple cases. This research method is employed in Political science, Evolution, Sociology, Urban studies and other Social Science disciplines.

Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is an expert in general law, foreign relations and the United Nations. He is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment,’ ‘Criminal Law-Homicide’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available on Amazon. Follow on Twitter @san0670.




Categories: Academic Journal, Education and Writing

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