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A qualitative "approach" is a general way of thinking about conducting qualitative research. It describes, either explicitly or implicitly, the purpose of the qualitative research, the role of the researcher(s), the stages of research, and the method of data analysis. here, four of the major qualitative approaches are introduced.


The ethnographic approach to qualitative research comes largely from the field of anthropology. The emphasis in ethnography is on studying an entire culture. Originally, the idea of a culture was tied to the notion of ethnicity and geographic location (e.g., the culture of the Trobriand Islands), but it has been broadened to include virtually any group or organization. That is, we can study the "culture" of a business or defined group (e.g., a Rotary club).

Ethnography is an extremely broad area with a great variety of practitioners and methods. However, the most common ethnographic approach is participant observation as a part of field research. The ethnographer becomes immersed in the culture as an active participant and records extensive field notes. As in grounded theory, there is no preset limiting of what will be observed and no real ending point in an ethnographic study.


Phenomenology is sometimes considered a philosophical perspective as well as an approach to qualitative methodology. It has a long history in several social research disciplines including psychology, sociology and social work. Phenomenology is a school of thought that emphasizes a focus on people's subjective experiences and interpretations of the world. That is, the phenomenologist wants to understand how the world appears to others.

Field Research

Field research can also be considered either a broad approach to qualitative research or a method of gathering qualitative data. the essential idea is that the researcher goes "into the field" to observe the phenomenon in its natural state or in situ. As such, it is probably most related to the method of participant observation. The field researcher typically takes extensive field notes which are subsequently coded and analyzed in a variety of ways.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a qualitative research approach that was originally developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s. The self-defined purpose of grounded theory is to develop theory about phenomena of interest. But this is not just abstract theorizing they're talking about. Instead the theory needs to be grounded or rooted in observation -- hence the term.

Grounded theory is a complex iterative process. The research begins with the raising of generative questions which help to guide the research but are not intended to be either static or confining. As the researcher begins to gather data, core theoretical concept(s) are identified. Tentative linkages are developed between the theoretical core concepts and the data. This early phase of the research tends to be very open and can take months. Later on the researcher is more engaged in verification and summary. The effort tends to evolve toward one core category that is central.

There are several key analytic strategies:

  • Coding is a process for both categorizing qualitative data and for describing the implications and details of these categories. Initially one does open coding, considering the data in minute detail while developing some initial categories. Later, one moves to more selective coding where one systematically codes with respect to a core concept.
  • Memoing is a process for recording the thoughts and ideas of the researcher as they evolve throughout the study. You might think of memoing as extensive marginal notes and comments. Again, early in the process these memos tend to be very open while later on they tend to increasingly focus in on the core concept.
  • Integrative diagrams and sessions are used to pull all of the detail together, to help make sense of the data with respect to the emerging theory. The diagrams can be any form of graphic that is useful at that point in theory development. They might be concept maps or directed graphs or even simple cartoons that can act as summarizing devices. This integrative work is best done in group sessions where different members of the research team are able to interact and share ideas to increase insight.

Eventually one approaches conceptually dense theory as new observation leads to new linkages which lead to revisions in the theory and more data collection. The core concept or category is identified and fleshed out in detail.

When does this process end? One answer is: never! Clearly, the process described above could continue indefinitely. Grounded theory doesn't have a clearly demarcated point for ending a study. Essentially, the project ends when the researcher decides to quit.

What do you have when you're finished? Presumably you have an extremely well-considered explanation for some phenomenon of interest -- the grounded theory. This theory can be explained in words and is usually presented with much of the contextually relevant detail collected.

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