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What is the best approach to use for a qualitative research study?

 Sign post with two women trying to decide which qualitative approach

What qualitative research approach should I use?

You may be a student trying to decide the best approach for your thesis or dissertation study. Or, perhaps you are an academic working on a line of research that is well-suited and received for tenure and promotion. You are interested in conducting qualitative research. What is the best qualitative approach to use? The best approach to use for a qualitative research study is one that aligns with the interests of your study and has the best chance of producing the data needed to answer your research question. There are several considerations to make before choosing the right approach.

What qualitative approaches are there?

There are many approaches to qualitative inquiry. Marshall & Rossman suggested four main approaches: ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenology, and qualitative case study. Creswell & Poth added narrative; Adu added action research; and Merriam & TisdellOpens in a new tab. added basic qualitative research for any qualitative research that didn’t meet the criteria of the others. These are the widely accepted approaches but a myriad of others exists. In alphabetical order the main approaches are:

  • Action research/Participatory action research
  • Case study (qualitative only)
  • Ethnography
  • Grounded theory
  • Narrative
  • Phenomenology

Or if these don’t fit, you may be conducting a:

  • Basic qualitative study

What are the main features of different qualitative approaches?

To help you navigate the qualitative approaches and decide which one, if any, are appropriate for your study, I have put together the chart below. The rationale or reasons for your study can help you decide which approach will support the intent of your research study.

RationalePotential approach
You want your participants to guide the research study from its creation to dissemination of the findingsAction research
You want to conduct an in-depth examination of a phenomenon, situation, or process using multiple sources of information or data to increase the credibility of your findingsCase study (qualitative)
You want to fully explore a phenomenon, culture, social practices, or ways of being by understanding people in their natural environmentEthnography
You want to understand a phenomenon, situation, or process with enough depth to develop a model or theoryGrounded theory
You want to collect participants’ stories in order to authentically retell themNarrative inquiry
You want to capture the essence of experiencing a phenomenon to share what it is like to experience itPhenomenology
You want to understand people’s perceptions, decisions, lived experience, or understandings of a phenomenonBasic qualitative study

What are examples of qualitative research questions?

I’ve found that often people are best guided by examples. One thing to remember is that the overall research question or questions are not the same thing as interview, focus group, or survey questions. Your overall research question should set up the entire study from the beginning where you identified a need for the study to data collection where all data is gathered to answer the research question, to the analysis again this should answer the research question, to the findings, conclusions, and dissemination all used to help the reader understand the answer to your research question. I have two things below (a) a diagram to remind you of the importance of the research question and (b) I’ve compiled a list of research questions by qualitative approach found in the literature.

Case Study

  • What are the relational practices of a teacher who negotiates educational relationships with students who have a history of school failure? (see Creswell & Poth, 2018, Appendix F for example article for the case study approach)
  • How do the points of interaction between the secondary mainstream teacher, the English language learners, the content and the context shape the experiences of the inclusive classroom? (Ruiz, 2011)
  • How do instructors use Classroom Response Systems to achieve pedagogical goals? (Milholland, 2015)
  • How do high schoolers start vaping?
  • How does a campus react to a gunman event?
  • How does exercise improve mental health for professors in higher education settings?
  • In which ways do three urban elementary schools, in partnership with a local, publicly funded multipurpose university, use a similar array of material and human resources to improve their integration of technology? (Staples, Pugach, & Himes, 2005)
  • How do volunteers at the YMCA offer participants opportunities to develop mentoring relationships with role models in the local community? (Durella, 2019)


  • What are the changing cultural conditions that are inhabited by British born, working class Pakistani and Bangladeshi young men? (see Creswell & Poth, 2018, Appendix E for example article for the ethnography approach)
  • What is the culture of a local homeless shelter? (Saldana & Omasta, 2019)
  • What are the experiences of U.S. postal carriers of color in predominately white suburban middle-class neighborhoods in the Midwest? (Durella, 2019)

Grounded Theory

  • What is the process for physical activity adoption and maintenance of African American women? (see Creswell & Poth, 2018, Appendix D for an example article for the grounded theory approach)
  • How do family pets share the cognitive development of children who are on the autism spectrum? (Durella, 2019)
  • What processes does a person experiences in creating a leadership identity? (Komives, Owen, Longerbeam, Mainella, & Osteen, 2005)
  • How do women use their experiences to shape their coping strategies used to survive abuse?
  • Why don’t men go to the doctor when they are sick?
  • How does contact with research faculty influence the decisions of undergraduate students to pursue terminal degrees?


  • What were the experiences of a Chinese immigrant student, Ai Mei Zhang? (see Creswell & Poth, 2018, Appendix B for example article for the narrative approach)
  • How do African American women construct Black womanhood? (Njoku, 2017)
  • What were the experiences of a student with autism who moved from a self-contained program to an inclusive setting?
  • What are the experiences of high school athletes who moved onto a championship-winning university team?
  • How did a holocaust survivor experience life before, during, and after?


  • What are patient experiences and cognitive representations of AIDs? (see Creswell & Poth, 2018, Appendix C for example article for the phenomenology approach)
  • What is the lived experience of high-achieving African American males, 18 to 22 years of age, who participated in a dual enrollment program? (Malveaux Hudson, 2016)
  • What are the experiences of a homeless family living temporarily in a Phoenix-area shelter? (Saldana & Omasta, 2019)
  • How do people experience depression?
  • What is the experience of converting from Islam to Christianity?
  • What is the lived experience of disability for a woman who sustained a head injury during adulthood? (Durella, 2019)

Basic Qualitative Research

  • What processes do instructional designers use to choose instructional strategies when creating online learning that enhances self-directed learning? (Oakes, 2020)
  • What socio-cultural/ethnic experiences or beliefs influence the voluntary academic withdrawal among African American and Hispanic American nursing students? (Bell-Hawkins, 2020)
  • What are the challenges and opportunities confronting female-headed households in Iran? (Lebni, et al., 2020)
  • What are the perceptions of middle age women in undergraduate programs at a local community college?
  • How do 12 school leaders describe the transformation of their schools from low achieving schools to high achieving schools?
  • What are the practices of highly effective teachers for engaging refuge girls in middle school science classes?
  • How do older adult consumers of deceptive bank fraud alerts describe their experiences?

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