Joseph A. Maxwell
Traditionally, works on research design (most of which focus on quantitative
research) have understood “design” in one of two ways. Some take designs to
be fixed, standard arrangements of research conditions and methods that
have their own coherence and logic, as possible answers to the question, “What
research design are you using?” (e.g., Campbell & Stanley, 1967). For example, a
randomized, double-blind experiment is one research design; an interrupted time-
series design is another. Beyond such broad categories as ethnographies, qualitative
interview studies, and case studies (which often overlap), qualitative research lacks
any such elaborate typology into which studies can be pigeonholed. In addition,
typologies are usually based on a limited number of features of the study, and by
themselves do little to clarify the actual functioning and interrelationship of the
component parts of a design.
Other models present design as a logical progression of stages or tasks, from
problem formulation to the generation of conclusions or theory, that are necessary
in planning or carrying out a study (e.g., Creswell, 1997; Marshall & Rossman,
1999). Such models usually resemble a flowchart with a clear starting point and
goal and a specified order for doing the intermediate tasks. Although some versions
of this approach are circular or iterative (see, e.g., Bickman & Rog, Chapter 1, this
volume), so that later steps connect back to earlier ones, all such models are linear
in the sense that they are made up of one-directional sequences of steps that repre-
sent what is seen as the optimal order for conceptualizing or conducting the differ-
ent components or activities of a study.
Neither of these models adequately represents the logic and process of qualita-
tive research. In a qualitative study, “research design should be a reflexive process
operating through every stage of a project” (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, p. 24);
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the activities of collecting and analyzing data, developing and modifying theory,
elaborating or refocusing the research questions, and identifying and dealing with
validity threats are usually going on more or less simultaneously, each influencing
all of the others. In addition, the researcher may need to reconsider or modify any
design decision during the study in response to new developments or to changes in
some other aspect of the design. Grady and Wallston (1988) argue that applied
research in general requires a flexible, nonsequential approach and “an entirely dif-
ferent model of the research process than the traditional one offered in most text-
books” (p. 10).
This does not mean that qualitative research lacks design; as Yin (1994) says,
“Every type of empirical research has an implicit, if not explicit, research design”
(p. 19). Qualitative research simply requires a broader and less restrictive concept
of “design” than the traditional ones described above. Thus, Becker, Geer, Hughes,
and Strauss (1961), authors of a classic qualitative study of medical students, begin
their chapter titled “Design of the Study” by stating,
In one sense, our study had no design. That is, we had no well-worked-out set
of hypotheses to be tested, no data-gathering instruments purposely designed
to secure information relevant to these hypotheses, no set of analytic proce-
dures specified in advance. Insofar as the term “design” implies these features
of elaborate prior planning, our study had none.
If we take the idea of design in a larger and looser sense, using it to identify those
elements of order, system, and consistency our procedures did exhibit, our study
had a design. We can say what this was by describing our original view of the
problem, our theoretical and methodological commitments, and the way these
affected our research and were affected by it as we proceeded. (p. 17)
For these reasons, the model of design that I present here, which I call an inter-
active model, consists of the components of a research study and the ways in which
these components may affect and be affected by one another. It does not presup-
pose any particular order for these components, or any necessary directionality of
The model thus resembles the more general definition of design employed out-
side research: “An underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or
unfolding” and “the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art”
(Frederick et al., 1993). A good design, one in which the components work harmo-
niously together, promotes efficient and successful functioning; a flawed design
leads to poor operation or failure.
Traditional (typological or linear) approaches to design provide a model for con-
ducting the research—a prescriptive guide that arranges the components or tasks
involved in planning or conducting a study in what is seen as an optimal order. In
contrast, the model presented in this chapter is a model of as well as for research. It
is intended to help you understand the actual structure of your study as well as to
plan this study and carry it out. An essential feature of this model is that it treats
research design as a real entity, not simply an abstraction or plan. Borrowing
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Kaplan’s (1964, p. 8) distinction between the “logic-in-use” and “reconstructed
logic” of research, this model can be used to represent the “design-in-use” of a
study, the actual relationships among the components of the research, as well as the
intended (or reconstructed) design (Maxwell & Loomis, 2002).
This model of research design has five components, each of which addresses a
different set of issues that are essential to the coherence of a study:
1. Goals: Why is your study worth doing? What issues do you want it to clarify,
and what practices and policies do you want it to influence? Why do you want to
conduct this study, and why should we care about the results?
2. Conceptual framework: What do you think is going on with the issues, set-
tings, or people you plan to study? What theories, beliefs, and prior research find-
ings will guide or inform your research, and what literature, preliminary studies,
and personal experiences will you draw on for understanding the people or issues
you are studying?
3. Research questions: What, specifically, do you want to learn or understand by
doing this study? What do you not know about the things you are studying that you
want to learn? What questions will your research attempt to answer, and how are
these questions related to one another?
4. Methods: What will you actually do in conducting this study? What
approaches and techniques will you use to collect and analyze your data, and how
do these constitute an integrated strategy?
5. Validity: How might your results and conclusions be wrong? What are the
plausible alternative interpretations and validity threats to these, and how will you
deal with these? How can the data that you have, or that you could potentially col-
lect, support or challenge your ideas about what’s going on? Why should we believe
I have not identified ethics as a separate component of research design. This isn’t
because I don’t think ethics is important for qualitative design; on the contrary,
attention to ethical issues in qualitative research is being increasingly recognized as
essential (Christians, 2000; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Fine, Weis, Weseen, & Wong,
2000). Instead, it is because I believe that ethical concerns should be involved in every
aspect of design. I have particularly tried to address these concerns in relation to
methods, but they are also relevant to your goals, the selection of your research ques-
tions, validity concerns, and the critical assessment of your conceptual framework.
These components are not substantially different from the ones presented in
many other discussions of qualitative or applied research design (e.g., LeCompte &
Preissle, 1993; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Robson, 2002).
What is innovative is the way the relationships among the components are concep-
tualized. In this model, the different parts of a design form an integrated and inter-
acting whole, with each component closely tied to several others, rather than being
linked in a linear or cyclic sequence. The most important relationships among these
five components are displayed in Figure 7.1.
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There are also connections other than those emphasized here, some of which I
have indicated by dashed lines. For example, if a goal of your study is to empower
participants to conduct their own research on issues that matter to them, this will
shape the methods you use, and conversely the methods that are feasible in your
study will constrain your goals. Similarly, the theories and intellectual traditions
you are drawing on in your research will have implications for what validity threats
you see as most important and vice versa.
The upper triangle of this model should be a closely integrated unit. Your
research questions should have a clear relationship to the goals of your study and
should be informed by what is already known about the phenomena you are study-
ing and the theoretical concepts and models that can be applied to these phenom-
ena. In addition, the goals of your study should be informed by current theory and
knowledge, while your decisions about what theory and knowledge are relevant
depend on your goals and questions.
Similarly, the bottom triangle of the model should also be closely integrated. The
methods you use must enable you to answer your research questions, and also to
deal with plausible validity threats to these answers. The questions, in turn, need to
be framed so as to take the feasibility of the methods and the seriousness of partic-
ular validity threats into account, while the plausibility and relevance of particular
validity threats, and the ways these can be dealt with, depend on the questions and
methods chosen. The research questions are the heart, or hub, of the model; they
connect all the other components of the design, and should inform, and be sensi-
tive to, these components.
There are many other factors besides these five components that should influ-
ence the design of your study; these include your research skills, the available
resources, perceived problems, ethical standards, the research setting, and the data
Designing a Qualitative Study 217
Figure 7.1 An Interactive Model of Research Design
SOURCE: From Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach, by J. A. Maxwell, 2005.
Copyright by SAGE.
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and preliminary conclusions of the study. In my view, these are not part of the
design of a study; rather, they either belong to the environment within which the
research and its design exist or are products of the research. Figure 7.2 presents some
of the environmental factors that can influence the design and conduct of a study.
I do not believe that there is one right model for qualitative or applied research
design. However, I think that the model I present here is a useful one, for three main
1. It explicitly identifies as components of design the key issues about which
decisions need to be made. These issues are therefore less likely to be ignored,
and can be dealt with in a systematic manner.
2. It emphasizes the interactive nature of design decisions in qualitative and
applied research, and the multiple connections among the design components.
3. It provides a model for the structure of a proposal for a qualitative study, one
that clearly communicates and justifies the major design decisions and the
connections among these (see Maxwell, 2005).
SOURCE: From Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach, by J. A. Maxwell, 2005. Copyright
218 APPLIED RESEARCH DESIGNS
setting Researcher skills
Figure 7.2 Contextual Factors Influencing a Research Design
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Because a design for your study always exists, explicitly or implicitly, it is impor-
tant to make this design explicit, to get it out in the open, where its strengths, limi-
tations, and implications can be clearly understood. In the remainder of this chapter,
I present the main design issues involved in each of the five components of my
model, and the implications of each component for the others. I do not discuss in
detail how to actually do qualitative research, or deal in depth with the theoretical
and philosophical views that have informed this approach. For additional guidance
on these topics, see the contributions of Fetterman (Chapter 17, this volume) and
Stewart, Shamdasani, and Rook (Chapter 18, this volume) to this Handbook; the
more extensive treatments by Patton (2000), Eisner and Peshkin (1990), LeCompte
and Preissle (1993), Glesne (2005), Weiss (1994), Miles and Huberman (1994), and
Wolcott (1995); and the encyclopedic handbooks edited by Denzin and Lincoln
(2005) and Given (in press). My focus here is on how to design a qualitative study
that arrives at valid conclusions and successfully and efficiently achieve its goals.
Goals: Why Are You Doing This Study?
Anyone can find an unanswered, empirically answerable question to which the
answer isn’t worth knowing; as Thoreau said, it is not worthwhile to go around
the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Without a clear sense of the goals of your
research, you are apt to lose your focus and spend your time and effort doing
things that won’t contribute to these goals. (I use goals here in a broad sense, to
include motives, desires, and purposes—anything that leads you to do the study
or that you hope to accomplish by doing it.) These goals serve two main functions
for your research. First, they help guide your other design decisions to ensure that
your study is worth doing, that you get out of it what you want. Second, they are
essential to justifying your study, a key task of a funding or dissertation proposal.
In addition, your goals inevitably shape the descriptions, interpretations, and the-
ories you create in your research. They therefore constitute not only important
resources that you can draw on in planning, conducting, and justifying the
research, but also potential validity threats, or sources of bias, that you will need
to deal with.
It is useful to distinguish among three kinds of goals for doing a study: personal
goals, practical goals, and intellectual goals. Personal goals are those that motivate
you to do this study; they can include a desire to change some existing situation, a
curiosity about a specific phenomenon or event, or simply the need to advance
your career. These personal goals often overlap with your practical or research
goals, but they may also include deeply rooted individual desires and needs that
bear little relationship to your “official” reasons for doing the study.
It is important that you recognize and take account of the personal goals that drive
and inform your research. Eradicating or submerging your personal goals and con-
cerns is impossible, and attempting to do so is unnecessary. What is necessary, in
qualitative design, is that you be aware of these concerns and how they may be shap-
ing your research, and that you think about how best to deal with their consequences.
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To the extent that you have not made a careful assessment of ways in which your
design decisions and data analyses are based on personal desires, you are in danger of
arriving at invalid conclusions.
However, your personal reasons for wanting to conduct a study, and the experi-
ences and perspectives in which these are grounded, are not simply a source of
“bias” (see the later discussion of this issue in the section on validity); they can also
provide you with a valuable source of insight, theory, and data about the phenom-
ena you are studying (Marshall & Rossman, 1999, pp. 25–30; Strauss & Corbin,
1990, pp. 42–43). This source is discussed in the next section, in the subsection on
Two major decisions are often profoundly influenced by the researcher’s per-
sonal goals. One is the topic, issue, or question selected for study. Traditionally,
students have been told to base this decision on either faculty advice or the litera-
ture on their topic. However, personal goals and experiences play an important role
in many research studies. Strauss and Corbin (1990) argue that
choosing a research problem through the professional or personal experience
route may seem more hazardous than through the suggested [by faculty] or
literature routes. This is not necessarily true. The touchstone of your own
experience may be more valuable an indicator for you of a potentially suc-
cessful research endeavor. (pp. 35–36)
A second decision that is often influenced by personal goals and experiences is
the choice of a qualitative approach. Locke, Spirduso, and Silverman (1993) argue
that “every graduate student who is tempted to employ a qualitative design should
confront one question, ‘Why do I want to do a qualitative study?’ and then answer
it honestly” (p. 107). They emphasize that qualitative research is not easier than
quantitative and that seeking to avoid statistics bears little relationship to having
the personal interests and skills that qualitative inquiry requires (pp. 107–110).
The key issue is the compatibility of your reasons for “going qualitative” with your
other goals, your research questions, and the actual activities involved in doing a
Besides your personal goals, there are two other kinds of goals that I want to dis-
tinguish and discuss, ones that are important for other people, not just yourself:
practical goals (including administrative or policy goals) and intellectual goals.
Practical goals are focused on accomplishing something—meeting some need,
changing some situation, or achieving some goal. Intellectual goals, on the other
hand, are focused on understanding something, gaining some insight into what is
going on and why this is happening. Although applied research design places much
more emphasis on practical goals than does basic research, you still need to address
the issues of what you want to understand by doing the study and how this under-
standing will contribute to your accomplishing your practical goals. (The issue of
what you want to understand is discussed in more detail below, in the section on
There are five particular intellectual goals for which qualitative studies are espe-
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1. Understanding the meaning, for participants in the study, of the events, situ-
ations, and actions they are involved with, and of the accounts that they give of
their lives and experiences. In a qualitative study, you are interested not only in the
physical events and behavior taking place, but also in how the participants in your
study make sense of these and how their understandings influence their behavior.
The perspectives on events and actions held by the people involved in them are not
simply their accounts of these events and actions, to be assessed in terms of truth
or falsity; they are part of the reality that you are trying to understand, and a major
influence on their behavior (Maxwell, 1992, 2004a). This focus on meaning is cen-
tral to what is known as the “interpretive” approach to social science (Bredo &
Feinberg, 1982; Geertz, 1973; Rabinow & Sullivan, 1979).
2. Understanding the particular context within which the participants act and
the influence this context has on their actions. Qualitative researchers typically
study a relatively small number of individuals or situations and preserve the indi-
viduality of each of these in their analyses, rather than collecting data from large
samples and aggregating the data across individuals or situations. Thus, they are
able to understand how events, actions, and meanings are shaped by the unique
circumstances in which these occur.
3. Identifying unanticipated phenomena and influences and generating new,
“grounded” theories about the latter. Qualitative research has long been used for
this goal by survey and experimental researchers, who often conduct “exploratory”
qualitative studies to help them design their questionnaires and identify variables
for experimental investigation. Although qualitative research is not restricted to this
exploratory role, it is still an important strength of qualitative methods.
4. Understanding the processes by which events and actions take place. Although
qualitative research is not unconcerned with outcomes, a major strength of qualita-
tive studies is their ability to get at the processes that lead to these outcomes, processes
that experimental and survey research are often poor at identifying (Maxwell, 2004a).
5. Developing causal explanations. The traditional view that qualitative
research cannot identify causal relationships is based on a restrictive and philo-
sophically outdated concept of causality (Maxwell, 2004b), and both qualitative
and quantitative researchers are increasingly accepting the legitimacy of using qual-
itative methods for causal inference (e.g., Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). Such
an approach requires thinking of causality in terms of processes and mechanisms,
rather than simply demonstrating regularities in the relationships between vari-
ables (Maxwell, 2004a); I discuss this in more detail in the section on research ques-
tions. Deriving causal explanations from a qualitative study is not an easy or
straightforward task, but qualitative research is not different from quantitative
research in this respect. Both approaches need to identify and deal with the plausi-
ble validity threats to any proposed causal explanation, as discussed below.
These intellectual goals, and the inductive, open-ended strategy that they
require, give qualitative research an advantage in addressing numerous practical
goals, including the following.
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Generating results and theories that are understandable and experientially credible,
both to the people being studied and to others (Bolster, 1983). Although quantitative
data may have greater credibility for some goals and audiences, the specific detail
and personal immediacy of qualitative data can lead to the greater influence of the
latter in other situations. For example, I was involved in one evaluation, of how
teaching rounds in one hospital department could be improved, that relied pri-
marily on participant observation of rounds and open-ended interviews with staff
physicians and residents (Maxwell, Cohen, & Reinhard, 1983). The evaluation led
to decisive department action, in part because department members felt that the
report, which contained detailed descriptions of activities during rounds and
numerous quotes from interviews to support the analysis of the problems with
rounds, “told it like it really was” rather than simply presenting numbers and gen-
eralizations to back up its recommendations.
Conducting formative studies, ones that are intended to help improve existing prac-
tice rather than simply to determine the outcomes of the program or practice being
studied (Scriven, 1991). In such studies, which are particularly useful for applied
research, it is more important to understand the process by which things happen in
a particular situation than to measure outcomes rigorously or to compare a given
situation with others.
Engaging in collaborative, action, or “empowerment” research with practitioners
or research participants (e.g., Cousins & Earl, 1995; Fetterman, Kaftarian, &
Wandersman, 1996; Tolman & Brydon-Miller, 2001; Whyte, 1991). The focus of
qualitative research on particular contexts and their meaning for the participants in
these contexts, and on the processes occurring in these contexts, makes it especially
suitable for collaborations with practitioners or with members of the community
being studied (Patton, 1990, pp. 129–130; Reason, 1994).
A useful way of sorting out and formulating the goals of your study is to write
memos in which you reflect on your goals and motives, as well as the implications
of these for your design decisions (for more information on such memos, see
Maxwell, 2005, pp. 11–13; Mills, 1959, pp. 197–198; Strauss & Corbin, 1990,
chap. 12). See Exercise 1.
What Do You Think Is Going On?
The conceptual framework of your study is the system of concepts, assumptions,
expectations, beliefs, and theories that supports and informs your research. Miles
and Huberman (1994) state that a conceptual framework “explains, either graphi-
cally or in narrative form, the main things to be studied—the key factors, concepts,
or variables—and the presumed relationships among them” (p. 18). Here, I use the
term in a broader sense that also includes the actual ideas and beliefs that you hold
about the phenomena studied, whether these are written down or not.
Thus, your conceptual framework is a formulation of what you think is going on
with the phenomena you are studying—a tentative theory of what is happening and
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why. Theory provides a model or map of why the world is the way it is (Strauss,
1995). It is a simplification of the world, but a simplification aimed at clarifying and
explaining some aspect of how it works. It is not simply a “framework,” although it
can provide that, but a story about what you think is happening and why. A useful
theory is one that tells an enlightening story about some phenomenon, one that
gives you new insights and broadens your understanding of that phenomenon. The
function of theory in your design is to inform the rest of the design—to help you
assess your goals, develop and select realistic and relevant research questions and
methods, and identify potential validity threats to your conclusions.
What is often called the “research problem” is a part of your conceptual frame-
work, and formulating the research problem is often seen as a key task in designing
your study. It is part of your conceptual framework (although it is often treated as
a separate component of a research design) because it identifies something that is
going on in the world, something that is itself problematic or that has consequences
that are problematic.
The conceptual framework of a study is often labeled the “literature review.” This
can be a dangerously misleading term, for three reasons. First, it can lead you to
focus narrowly on “literature,” ignoring other conceptual resources that may be of
equal or greater importance for your study, including unpublished work, commu-
nication with other researchers, and your own experience and pilot studies. Second,
it tends to generate a strategy of “covering the field” rather than focusing specifi-
cally on those studies and theories that are particularly relevant to your research
(Maxwell, 2006). Third, it can make you think that your task is simply descriptive—
to tell what previous researchers have found or what theories have been proposed.
In developing a conceptual framework, your purpose is not only descriptive, but
also critical; you need to treat “the literature” not as an authority to be deferred to,
but as a useful but fallible source of ideas about what’s going on, and to attempt to
see alternative ways of framing the issues (Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2004).
Another way of putting this is that the conceptual framework for your research
study is something that is constructed, not found. It incorporates pieces that are
borrowed from elsewhere, but the structure, the overall coherence, is something
that you build, not something that exists ready-made. Becker (1986, 141ff.) system-
atically develops the idea that prior work provides modules that you can use in
building your conceptual framework, modules that you need to examine critically
to make sure they work effectively with the rest of your design. There are four main
sources for these modules: your own experiential knowledge, existing theory and
research, pilot and exploratory studies, and thought experiments. Before address-
ing the sources of these modules, however, I want to discuss a particularly impor-
tant part of your conceptual framework—the research paradigm(s) within which
you situate your work.
Connecting With a Research Paradigm
One of the critical decisions that you will need to make in designing your study
is the paradigm (or paradigms) within which you will situate your work. This use
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of the term paradigm, which derives from the work of the historian of science
Thomas Kuhn, refers to a set of very general philosophical assumptions about the
nature of the world (ontology) and how we can understand it (epistemology),
assumptions that tend to be shared by researchers working in a specific field or tra-
dition. Paradigms also typically include specific methodological strategies linked to
these assumptions, and identify particular studies that are seen as exemplifying
these assumptions and methods. At the most abstract and general level, examples
of such paradigms are philosophical positions such as positivism, constructivism,
realism, and pragmatism, each embodying very different ideas about reality and
how we can gain knowledge of it. At a somewhat more specific level, paradigms that
are relevant to qualitative research include interpretivism, critical theory, feminism,
postmodernism, and phenomenology, and there are even more specific traditions
within these (for more detailed guidance, see Creswell, 1997; Schram, 2005). I want
to make several points about using paradigms in your research design:
1. Although some people refer to “the qualitative paradigm,” there are many dif-
ferent paradigms within qualitative research, some of which differ radically in their
assumptions and implications (see also Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Pitman & Maxwell,
1992). You need to make explicit which paradigm(s) your work will draw on, since
a clear paradigmatic stance helps guide your design decisions and to justify these
decisions. Using an established paradigm (such as grounded theory, critical realism,
phenomenology, or narrative research) allows you to build on a coherent and well-
developed approach to research, rather than having to construct all of this yourself.
2. You don’t have to adopt in total a single paradigm or tradition. It is possible
to combine aspects of different paradigms and traditions, although if you do this
you will need to carefully assess the compatibility of the modules that you borrow
from each. Schram (2005) gives a valuable account of how he combined the ethno-
graphic and life history traditions in his dissertation research on an experienced
teacher’s adjustment to a new school and community.
3. Your selection of a paradigm (or paradigms) is not a matter of free choice. You
have already made many assumptions about the world, your topic, and how we can
understand these, even if you have never consciously examined these. Choosing a par-
adigm or tradition primarily involves assessing which paradigms best fit with your
own assumptions and methodological preferences; Becker (1986, pp. 16–17) makes
the same point about using theory in general. Trying to work within a paradigm (or
theory) that doesn’t fit your assumptions is like trying to do a physically demanding
job in clothes that don’t fit—at best you’ll be uncomfortable, at worst it will keep you
from doing the job well. Such a lack of fit may not be obvious at the outset; it may
only emerge as you develop your conceptual framework, research questions, and
methods, since these should also be compatible with your paradigmatic stance.
Traditionally, what you bring to the research from your background and iden-
tity has been treated as “bias,” something whose influence needs to be eliminated
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from the design, rather than a valuable component of it. However, the explicit
incorporation of your identity and experience (what Strauss, 1987, calls “experien-
tial data”) in your research has recently gained much wider theoretical and philo-
sophical support (e.g., Berg & Smith, 1988; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Jansen &
Peshkin, 1992; Strauss, 1987). Using this experience in your research can provide
you with a major source of insights, hypotheses, and validity checks. For example,
Grady and Wallston (1988, p. 41) describe how one health care researcher used
insights from her own experience to design a study of why many women don’t do
This is not a license to impose your assumptions and values uncritically on the
research. Reason (1988) uses the term critical subjectivity to refer to
a quality of awareness in which we do not suppress our primary experience;
nor do we allow ourselves to be swept away and overwhelmed by it; rather we
raise it to consciousness and use it a as part of the inquiry process. (p. 12)
However, there are few well-developed and explicit strategies for doing this. The
“researcher identity memo” is one technique; this involves reflecting on, and writ-
ing down, the different aspects of your experience that are potentially relevant to
your study. Example 7.1 is part of one of my own researcher identity memos, writ-
ten when I was working on a paper of diversity and community; Exercise 1 involves
writing your own researcher identity memo. (For more on this technique, see
Maxwell, 2005.) Doing this can generate unexpected insights and connections, as
well as create a valuable record of these.
Designing a Qualitative Study 225
Example 7.1 Identity Memo on Diversity
I can’t recall when I first became interested in diversity; it’s been a major
concern for at least the past 20 years ...I do remember the moment that I
consciously realized that my mission in life was “to make the world safe for
diversity”; I was in Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago one night
in the mid-1970s talking to another student about why we had gone into
anthropology, and the phrase suddenly popped into my head.
However, I never gave much thought to tracing this position any further
back. I remember, as an undergraduate, attending a talk on some political
topic, and being struck by two students’ bringing up issues of the rights of
particular groups to retain their cultural heritages; it was an issue that had
never consciously occurred to me. And I’m sure that my misspent youth
reading science fiction rather than studying had a powerful influence on my
sense of the importance of tolerance and understanding of diversity; I wrote
my essay for my application to college on tolerance in high school society.
But I didn’t think much about where all this came from.
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Existing Theory and Research
The second major source of modules for your conceptual framework is existing
theory and research—not simply published work, but also unpublished papers and
dissertations, conference presentations, and what is in the heads of active researchers
in your field (Locke, Spirduso, & Silverman, 2000). I will begin with theory, because
it is for most people the more problematic and confusing of the two, and then deal
with using prior research for other purposes than as a source of theory.
226 APPLIED RESEARCH DESIGNS
It was talking to the philosopher Amelie Rorty in the summer of 1991 that
really triggered my awareness of these roots. She had given a talk on the
concept of moral diversity in Plato, and I gave her a copy of my draft paper
on diversity and solidarity. We met for lunch several weeks later to discuss
these issues, and at one point she asked me how my concern with diversity
connected with my background and experiences. I was surprised by the
question, and found I really couldn’t answer it. She, on the other hand, had
thought about this a lot, and talked about her parents emigrating from
Belgium to the United States, deciding they were going to be farmers like
“real Americans,” and with no background in farming, buying land in rural
West Virginia and learning how to survive and fit into a community
composed of people very different from themselves.
This made me start thinking, and I realized that as far back as I can
remember I’ve felt different from other people, and had a lot of difficulties
as a result of this difference and my inability to “fit in” with peers, relatives,
or other people generally. This was all compounded by my own shyness and
tendency to isolate myself, and by the frequent moves that my family made
while I was growing up.
The way in which this connects with my work on diversity is that my main
strategy for dealing with my difference from others, as far back as I can
to try to be more
them (similarity-based), but to try
to them (contiguity-based). This is a bit oversimplified, because
I also saw myself as somewhat of a “social chameleon,” adapting to whatever
situation I was in, but this adaptation was much more an
adaptation than one of becoming fundamentally similar to other people.
It now seems incomprehensible to me that I never saw the connections
between this background and my academic work.
[The remainder of the memo discusses the specific connections between
my experience and the theory of diversity and community that I had been
developing, which sees both similarity (shared characteristics) and contiguity
(interaction) as possible sources of solidarity and community.]
Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach,
by J. A. Maxwell, 2005.
Copyright by SAGE.
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Using existing theory in qualitative research has both advantages and dangers. A
useful theory helps you organize your data. Particular pieces of information that
otherwise might seem unconnected or irrelevant to one another or to your research
questions can be related if you can fit them into the theory. A useful theory also illu-
minates what you are seeing in your research. It draws your attention to particular
events or phenomena and sheds light on relationships that might otherwise go
unnoticed or misunderstood.
However, Becker (1986) warns that the existing literature, and the assumptions
embedded in it, can deform the way you frame your research, causing you to
overlook important ways of conceptualizing your study or key implications of
your results. The literature has the advantage of what he calls “ideological hege-
mony,” making it difficult for you to see any phenomenon in ways that are differ-
ent from those that are prevalent in the literature. Trying to fit your insights into
this established framework can deform your argument, weakening its logic and
making it harder for you to see what this new way of framing the phenomenon
might contribute. Becker describes how existing theory and perspectives
deformed his early research on marijuana use, leading him to focus on the dom-
inant question in the literature and to ignore the most interesting implications
and possibilities of his study.
Becker (1986) argues that there is no way to be sure when the established approach
is wrong or misleading or when your alternative is superior. All you can do is try to
identify the ideological component of the established approach, and see what hap-
pens when you abandon these assumptions. He asserts that “a serious scholar ought
routinely to inspect competing ways of taking about the same subject matter,” and
warns, “Use the literature, don’t let it use you” (p. 149; see also Mills, 1959).
A review of relevant prior research can serve several other purposes in your
design besides providing you with existing theory (see Locke et al., 2004; Strauss,
1987, pp. 48–56). First, you can use it to develop a justification for your study—to
show how your work will address an important need or unanswered question.
Second, it can inform your decisions about methods, suggesting alternative
approaches or revealing potential problems with your plans. Third, it can be a
source of data that you can use to test or modify your theories. You can see if exist-
ing theory, the results of your pilot research, or your experiential understanding is
supported or challenged by previous studies. Finally, you can use ideas in the liter-
ature to help you generate theory, rather than simply borrowing such theory from
Pilot and Exploratory Studies
Pilot studies serve some of the same functions as prior research, but they can be
focused more precisely on your own concerns and theories. You can design pilot
studies specifically to test your ideas or methods and explore their implications, or
to inductively develop grounded theory. One particular use that pilot studies have
in qualitative research is to generate an understanding of the concepts and theories
held by the people you are studying—what I have called “interpretation” (Maxwell,
1992). This is not simply a source of additional concepts for your theory; instead,
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it provides you with an understanding of the meaning that these phenomena and
events have for the actors who are involved in them, and the perspectives that
inform their actions. In a qualitative study, these meanings and perspectives should
constitute an important focus of your theory; as discussed earlier, they are one of
the things your theory is about, not simply a source of theoretical insights and
building blocks for the latter.
Thought experiments have a long and respected tradition in the physical
sciences (much of Einstein’s work was based on thought experiments) but have
received little attention in discussions of research design, particularly qualitative
research design. Thought experiments draw on both theory and experience to
answer “what if” questions, to seek out the logical implications of various proper-
ties of the phenomena you want to study. They can be used both to test your cur-
rent theory for logical problems and to generate new theoretical insights. They
encourage creativity and a sense of exploration and can help you make explicit the
experiential knowledge that you already possess. Finally, they are easy to do, once
you develop the skill. Valuable discussions of thought experiments in the social
sciences are presented by Mills (1959) and Lave and March (1975).
Experience, prior theory and research, pilot studies, and thought experiments
are the four major sources of the conceptual framework for your study. The ways in
which you can put together a useful and valid conceptual framework from these
sources are particular to each study, and not something for which any cookbook
exists. The main thing to keep in mind is the need for integration of these compo-
nents with one another and with your goals and research questions.
A particularly valuable tool for generating and understanding these connections in
your research is a technique known as concept mapping (Miles & Huberman, 1994;
Novak & Gowin, 1984). Kane & Trochim (Chapter 14, this volume) provide an
overview of concept mapping but focus on using concept mapping with groups of
stakeholders for organizational improvement or evaluation, employing mainly quan-
titative techniques. However, concept mapping has many other uses, including clarifi-
cation and development of your own ideas about what’s going on with the phenomena
you want to study. Exercise 2 is designed to help you develop an initial concept map
for your study (for additional guidance, see the sources above and Maxwell, 2005).
What Do You Want to Understand?
Your research questions—what you specifically want to learn or understand
by doing your study—are at the heart of your research design. They are the one
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component that directly connects to all the other components of the design. More
than any other aspect of your design, your research questions will have an influence
on, and should be responsive to, every other part of your study.
This is different from seeing research questions as the starting point or primary
determinant of the design. Models of design that place the formulation of research
questions at the beginning of the design process, and that see these questions as deter-
mining the other aspects of the design, don’t do justice to the interactive and induc-
tive nature of qualitative research. The research questions in a qualitative study
should not be formulated in detail until the goals and conceptual framework (and
sometimes general aspects of the sampling and data collection) of the design are clar-
ified, and should remain sensitive and adaptable to the implications of other parts of
the design. Often, you will need to do a significant part of the research before it is clear
to you what specific research questions it makes sense to try to answer.
This does not mean that qualitative researchers should, or usually do, begin
studies with no questions, simply going into the field with “open minds” and seeing
what is there to be investigated. Every researcher begins with a substantial base of
experience and theoretical knowledge, and these inevitably generate certain ques-
tions about the phenomena studied. These initial questions frame the study in
important ways, influence decisions about methods, and are one basis for further
focusing and development of more specific questions. However, these specific ques-
tions are generally the result of an interactive design process, rather than the start-
ing point for that process. For example, Suman Bhattacharjea (1994; see also
Maxwell, 2005, p. 66) spent a year doing field research on women’s roles in a
Pakistani educational district office before she was able to focus on two specific
research questions and submit her dissertation proposal; at that point, she had also
developed several hypotheses as tentative answers to these questions.
The Functions of Research Questions
In your research design, the research questions serve two main functions: to help
you focus the study (the questions’ relationship to your goals and conceptual
framework) and to give you guidance for how to conduct it (their relationship to
methods and validity). A design in which the research questions are too general or
too diffuse creates difficulties both for conducting the study—in knowing what site
or informants to choose, what data to collect, and how to analyze these data—and
for clearly connecting what you learn to your goals and existing knowledge (Miles
& Huberman, 1994, pp. 22–25). Research questions that are precisely framed too
early in the study, on the other hand, may lead you to overlook areas of theory or
prior experience that are relevant to your understanding of what is going on, or
cause you to pay too little attention to a wide range of data early in the study, data
that can reveal important and unanticipated phenomena and relationships.
A third problem is that you may be smuggling unexamined assumptions into the
research questions themselves, imposing a conceptual framework that doesn’t fit
the reality you are studying. A research question such as “How do elementary
school teachers deal with the experience of isolation from their colleagues in their
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classrooms?” assumes that teachers do experience such isolation. Such an assump-
tion needs to be carefully examined and justified, and without this justification it
might be better to frame such a question as a tentative subquestion to broader ques-
tions about the nature of classroom teachers’ experience of their work and their
relations with colleagues.
For all these reasons, there is real danger to your study if you do not carefully
formulate your research questions in connection with the other components of
your design. Your research questions need to take account of what you want to
accomplish by doing the study (your goals), and of what is already known about
the things you want to study and your tentative theories about these phenomena
(your conceptual framework). There is no reason to pose research questions for
which the answers are already available, that don’t clearly connect to what you
think is actually going on, or that would have no direct relevance to your goals in
doing the research.
Likewise, your research questions need to be ones that are answerable by the
kind of study you can actually conduct. There is no value to posing questions that
no feasible study could answer, either because the data that could answer them
could not be obtained, or because any conclusions you might draw from these data
would be subject to serious validity threats.
A common problem in the development of research questions is confusion
between research issues (what you want to understand by doing the study) and prac-
tical issues (what you want to accomplish). Your research questions need to connect
clearly to your practical concerns, but in general an empirical study cannot directly
answer practical questions such as, “How can I improve this program?” or “What is
the best way to increase students’ knowledge of science?” To address such practical
questions, you need to focus on what you don’t understand about the phenomena
you are studying, and investigate what is really going on with these phenomena. For
example, the practical goal of Martha Regan-Smith’s (1992) dissertation research
was to improve the teaching of the basic sciences in medical school (see Maxwell,
2005, 117ff.). However, her research questions focused not on this goal but on
what exceptional teachers in her school did that helped students learn science—
something she had realized that she didn’t know and that she believed would have
important implications for how to improve such teaching overall.
A second confusion, one that can create problems for interview studies, is that
between research questions and interview questions. Your research questions iden-
tify the things that you want to understand; your interview questions generate the
data that you need to understand these things. This distinction is discussed in more
detail below, in the section on methods.
There are three issues that you should keep in mind in formulating research
questions for applied social research. First, research questions may legitimately
be framed in particular as well as general terms. There is a strong tendency in
basic research to state research questions in general terms, such as, “How do
students deal with racial and ethnic difference in multiracial schools?” and then
to “operationalize” these questions by selecting a particular sample or site. This
tendency can be counterproductive when the goal of your study is to understand
and improve some particular program, situation, or practice. In applied research,
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it is often more appropriate to formulate research questions in particular
terms, such as, “How do students at North High School deal with racial and eth-
Second, some researchers believe that questions should be stated in terms of
what the respondents report or what can be directly observed, rather than in terms
of inferred behavior, beliefs, or causal influences. This is what I call an instrumen-
talist or positivist, rather than a realist, approach to research questions (Maxwell,
1992; Norris, 1983). Instrumentalists formulate their questions in terms of observ-
able or measurable data and are suspicious of inferences to things that cannot be
defined in terms of such data. For example, instrumentalists would reject a ques-
tion such as, “How do exemplary teachers help medical students learn science?” and
replace it with questions such as, “How do medical students report that exemplary
teachers help them learn science?” or “How are exemplary teachers observed to teach
Realists, in contrast, don’t assume that research questions about feelings, beliefs,
intentions, prior behavior, effects, and so on need to be reduced to, or reframed as,
questions about the actual data that one uses. Instead, they treat their data as falli-
ble evidence about these phenomena, to be used critically to develop and test ideas
about what is going on (Campbell, 1988; Maxwell, 1992).
The main risk of using instrumentalist questions is that you will lose sight of
what you are really interested in, and define your study in ways that obscure the
actual phenomena you want to investigate, ending up with a rigorous but uninter-
esting conclusion. As in the joke about the man who was looking for his keys under
the streetlight (rather than where he dropped them) because the light was better
there, you may never find what you started out to look for. An instrumentalist
approach to your research questions may also make it more difficult for your study
to address important goals of your study directly, and it can inhibit your theorizing
about phenomena that are not directly observable.
My own preference is to use realist questions and to address, as systematically
and rigorously as possible, the validity threats that this approach involves. The seri-
ousness of these validity threats (such as self-report bias) needs to be assessed in the
context of a particular study; these threats are often not as serious as instrumental-
ists imply. There are also effective ways to address these threats in a qualitative
design, which I discuss below in the section on validity. The risk of trivializing your
study by restricting your questions to what can be directly observed is usually more
serious than the risk of drawing invalid conclusions. As the statistician John Tukey
(1962) put it, “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is
often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made
precise” (p. 13).
One issue that is not entirely a matter of realism versus instrumentalism is
whether research questions in interview studies should be framed in terms of the
respondents’ perceptions or beliefs rather than the actual state of affairs. You should
base this decision not simply on the seriousness of the validity threats, but also on
what you actually want to understand. In many qualitative studies, the real interest
is in how participants make sense of what has happened, and how this perspective
informs their actions, rather than determining precisely what took place.
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Finally, many researchers (consciously or unconsciously) focus their questions
on variance rather than process (Maxwell, 2004a; Mohr, 1982, 1995, 1996).
Variance questions deal with difference and correlation; they often begin with
“Is there,” “Does,” “How much,” or “To what extent.” For example, a variance
approach to Martha Regan-Smith’s (1992) study would ask questions such as,
“Do exemplary medical school teachers differ from others in their teaching of
basic science?” or “Is there a relationship between teachers’ behavior and students’
learning?” and attempt to measure these differences and relationships. Process
questions, in contrast, focus on how and why things happen, rather than whether
there is a particular difference or relationship or how much it is explained by
other variables. Regan-Smith’s actual questions focused on how these teachers
helped students learn—that is, the process by which their teaching helped the
In a qualitative study, it can be dangerous for you to frame your research ques-
tions in a way that focuses on differences and their explanation. This may lead you
to begin thinking in variance terms, to try to identify the variables that will account
for observed or hypothesized differences, and to overlook the real strength of a
qualitative approach, which is in understanding the process by which phenomena
take place. Variance questions are often best answered by quantitative approaches,
which are powerful ways of determining whether a particular result is causally
related to one or another variable, and to what extent these are related. However,
qualitative research is often better at showing how this occurred. Variance questions
are legitimate in qualitative research, but they are often best grounded in the
answers to prior process questions (Maxwell 2004a).
Qualitative researchers therefore tend to generate two kinds of questions that
are much better suited to process theory than to variance theory: (1) questions
about the meaning of events and activities to the people involved in them and
(2) questions about the influence of the physical and social context on these
events and activities. (See the earlier discussion of meaning and context as
research goals.) Because both of these types of questions involve situation-
specific phenomena, they do not lend themselves to the kinds of comparison
and control that variance theory requires. Instead, they generally involve an
open-ended, inductive approach to discover what these meanings and influ-
ences are and how they are involved in these events and activities—an inher-
ently processual orientation.
Developing relevant, focused, answerable research questions takes time; such
questions cannot be thrown together quickly, nor in most studies can they be defin-
itively formulated before data collection and analysis begin. Generating good ques-
tions requires that you pay attention not just to the questions themselves but to
their connections with all the other design components: the goals that answering
the questions might serve, the implications for your questions of your conceptual
framework, the methods you could use to answer the questions, and the validity
threats you will need to address. As is true with the other components of your
design, writing memos about these issues is an extremely useful tool for developing
your questions (Maxwell, 2005, pp. 76–78).
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Methods: What Will You Actually Do?
There is no “cookbook” for doing qualitative research. The appropriate answer to
almost any question about the use of qualitative methods is, “It depends.” The value
and feasibility of your research methods cannot be guaranteed by your adhering to
methodological rules; rather, they depend on the specific setting and phenomena
you are studying and the actual consequences of your strategy for studying it.
Prestructuring a Qualitative Study
One of the most important issues in designing a qualitative study is how much
you should attempt to prestructure your methods. Structured approaches can help
ensure the comparability of data across sources and researchers and are therefore
particularly useful in answering variance questions, questions that deal with differ-
ences between things and the explanation for these differences. Unstructured
approaches, in contrast, allow the researcher to focus on the particular phenomena
studied; they trade generalizability and comparability for internal validity and con-
textual understanding and are particularly useful for understanding the processes
that led to specific outcomes, what Huberman and Miles (1988) call “local causal-
ity.” Sayer (1992, 241ff.) refers to these two approaches as “extensive” and “inten-
sive” research designs, respectively.
However, Miles and Huberman (1994) warn that
highly inductive, loosely designed studies make good sense when experienced
researchers have plenty of time and are exploring exotic cultures, understud-
ied phenomena, or very complex social phenomena. But if you’re new to qual-
itative studies and are looking at a better understood phenomenon within a
familiar culture or subculture, a loose, inductive design is a waste of time.
Months of fieldwork and voluminous case studies may yield only a few banal-
ities. (p. 17)
They also point out that prestructuring reduces the amount of data that you
have to deal with, functioning as a form of preanalysis that simplifies the analytic
Unfortunately, most discussions of this issue treat prestructuring as a single
dimension, and view it in terms of metaphors such as hard versus soft and tight ver-
sus loose. Such metaphors have powerful connotations (although they are different
for different people) that can lead you to overlook or ignore the numerous ways in
which studies can vary, not just in the amount of prestructuring, but in how pre-
structuring is used. For example, you could employ an extremely open approach to
data collection, but use these data for a confirmatory test of explicit hypotheses
based on a prior theory (e.g., Festinger, Riecker, & Schachter, 1956). In contrast, the
approach often known as ethnoscience or cognitive anthropology (Werner &
Schoepfle, 1987a, 1987b) employs highly structured data collection techniques, but
interprets these data in a largely inductive manner with very few preestablished
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categories. Thus, the decision you face is not primarily whether or to what extent
you prestructure your study, but in what ways you do this, and why.
Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that you can lay out a tentative plan for some
aspects of your study in considerable detail, but leave open the possibility of sub-
stantially revising this if necessary. Emergent insights may require new sampling
plans, different kinds of data, and different analytic strategies.
I distinguish four main components of qualitative methods:
1. The research relationship that you establish with those you study
2. Sampling: what times, settings, or individuals you select to observe or inter-
view, and what other sources of information you decide to use
3. Data collection: how you gather the information you will use
4. Data analysis: what you do with this information to make sense of it
It is useful to think of all these components as involving design decisions—key
issues that you should consider in planning your study and that you should rethink
as you are engaged in it.
Negotiating a Research Relationship
Your relationships with the people in your study can be complex and change-
able, and these relationships will necessarily affect you as the “research instrument,”
as well as have implications for other components of your research design. My
changing relationships with the people in the Inuit community in which I con-
ducted my dissertation research (Maxwell, 1986) had a profound effect not only on
my own state of mind, but also on who I was able to interview, my opportunities
for observation of social life, the quality of the data I collected, the research ques-
tions I was able to answer, and my ability to test my conclusions. The term reflexiv-
ity (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995) is often used for this unavoidable mutual
influence of the research participants and the researcher on each other.
There are also philosophical, ethical, and political issues that should inform the
kind of relationship that you want to establish. In recent years, there has been a
growing interest in alternatives to the traditional style of research, including partic-
ipatory action research, collaborative research, feminist research, critical ethnogra-
phy, and empowerment research (see Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Fetterman et al.,
1996; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; Whyte, 1991). Each of these modes of research involves
different sorts of relationships between the researcher and the participants in the
research and has different implications for the rest of the research design.
Thus, it is important that you think about the kinds of relationships you want to
have with the people whom you study, and what you need to do to establish such
relationships. I see these as design decisions, not simply as external factors that may
affect your design. Although they are not completely under your control and
cannot be defined precisely in advance, they are still matters that require systematic
planning and reflection if your design is to be as coherent as possible.
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Decisions About Sampling: Where, When, Who, and What
Whenever you have a choice about when and where to observe, whom to talk to,
or what information sources to focus on, you are faced with a sampling decision.
Even a single case study involves a choice of this case rather than others, as well as
requiring sampling decisions within the case itself. Miles and Huberman (1994,
pp. 27–34) and LeCompte and Preissle (1993, pp. 56–85) provide valuable discus-
sions of particular sampling issues; here, I want to talk more generally about the
nature and purposes of sampling in qualitative research.
Works on quantitative research generally treat anything other than probability
sampling as “convenience sampling,” and strongly discourage the latter. For quali-
tative research, this ignores the fact that most sampling in qualitative research is
neither probability sampling nor convenience sampling, but falls into a third cate-
gory: purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990, 169ff.). This is a strategy in which particular
settings, persons, or events are deliberately selected for the important information
they can provide that cannot be gotten as well from other choices.
There are several important uses for purposeful sampling. First, it can be used to
achieve representativeness or typicality of the settings, individuals, or activities
selected. A small sample that has been systematically selected for typicality and rel-
ative homogeneity provides far more confidence that the conclusions adequately
represent the average members of the population than does a sample of the same
size that incorporates substantial random or accidental variation. Second, purpose-
ful sampling can be used to capture adequately the heterogeneity in the population.
The goal here is to ensure that the conclusions adequately represent the entire range
of variation rather than only the typical members or some subset of this range.
Third, a sample can be purposefully selected to allow for the examination of cases
that are critical for the theories that the study began with or that have subsequently
been developed. Finally, purposeful sampling can be used to establish particular
comparisons to illuminate the reasons for differences between settings or individu-
als, a common strategy in multicase qualitative studies.
You should not make sampling decisions in isolation from the rest of your design.
They should take into account your research relationship with study participants, the
feasibility of data collection and analysis, and validity concerns, as well as your goals
and conceptual framework. In addition, feasible sampling decisions often require
considerable knowledge of the setting studied, and you will need to alter them as you
learn more about what decisions will work best to give you the data you need.
Decisions About Data Collection
Most qualitative methods texts devote considerable space to the strengths and
limitations of particular data collection methods (see particularly, Bogdan &
Biklen, 2006; Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Patton, 2000; Weiss, 1994), so I won’t
deal with these issues here. Instead, I want to address two key design issues in select-
ing and using data collection methods: the relationship between research questions
and data collection methods, and the triangulation of different methods.
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Although researchers often talk about “operationalizing” their research ques-
tions, or of “translating” the research questions into interview questions, this lan-
guage is a vestigial remnant of logical positivism that bears little relationship to
qualitative research practice. There is no way to convert research questions into use-
ful methods decisions; your methods are the means to answering your research
questions, not a logical transformation of the latter. Their selection depends not
only on your research questions, but on the actual research situation and what will
work most effectively in that situation to give you the data you need. For example,
your interview questions should be judged not by whether they can be logically
derived from your research questions, but by whether they provide the data that
will contribute to answering these questions, an issue that may require pilot testing
a variety of questions or actually conducting a significant number of the interviews.
You need to anticipate, as best you can, how particular interview questions or other
data collection strategies will actually work in practice. In addition, your interview
questions and observational strategies will generally be far more focused, context-
specific, and diverse than the broad, general research questions that define what you
seek to understand in conducting the study. The development of a good data col-
lection plan requires creativity and insight, not a mechanical translation of your
research questions into methods.
In addition, qualitative studies generally rely on the integration of data from a
variety of methods and sources of information, a general principle known as trian-
gulation (Denzin, 1970). This strategy reduces the risk that your conclusions will
reflect only the systematic biases or limitations of a specific method, and allows you
to gain a better assessment of the validity and generality of the explanations that
you develop. Triangulation is also discussed below in the section on validity.
Decisions About Data Analysis
Analysis is often conceptually separated from design, especially by writers who
see design as what happens before the data are actually collected. Here, I treat analy-
sis as a part of design (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, p. 6), and as something that must
itself be designed. Every qualitative study requires decisions about how the analysis
will be done, and these decisions should influence, and be influenced by, the rest of
A basic principle of qualitative research is that data analysis should be conducted
simultaneously with data collection (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, p. 2). This allows you
to progressively focus your interviews and observations, and to decide how to test
your emerging conclusions.
Strategies for qualitative analysis fall into three main groups: categorizing strategies
(such as coding and thematic analysis), connecting strategies (such as narrative analy-
sis and individual case studies), and memos and displays (for a more detailed discus-
sion, see Coffey & Atkinson, 1996; Dey, 1993; Maxwell, 2005). These methods can, and
generally should, be combined, but I will begin by discussing them separately.
The main categorizing strategy in qualitative research is coding. This is rather
different from coding in quantitative research, which consists of applying a pre -
established set of categories to the data according to explicit, unambiguous rules,
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with the primary goal being to generate frequency counts of the items in each cat-
egory. In qualitative research, in contrast, the goal of coding is not to produce
counts of things but to “fracture” (Strauss, 1987, p. 29) the data and rearrange it
into categories that facilitate comparison between things in the same category and
between categories. These categories may be derived from existing theory, induc-
tively generated during the research (the basis for what Glaser & Strauss, 1967, term
grounded theory), or drawn from the categories of the people studied (what anthro-
pologists call “emic” categories). Such categorizing makes it much easier for you to
develop a general understanding of what is going on, to generate themes and theo-
retical concepts, and to organize and retrieve your data to test and support these
general ideas. (An excellent practical source on coding is Bogdan & Biklen, 2006.)
However, fracturing and categorizing your data can lead to the neglect of con-
textual relationships among these data, relationships based on contiguity rather
than similarity (Maxwell & Miller, 2008), and can create analytic blinders, prevent-
ing you from seeing alternative ways of understanding your data. Atkinson (1992)
describes how his initial categorizing analysis of data on the teaching of general
medicine affected his subsequent analysis of the teaching of surgery:
On rereading the surgery notes, I initially found it difficult to escape those
categories I had initially established [for medicine]. Understandably, they fur-
nished a powerful conceptual grid...The notes as I confronted them had
been fragmented into the constituent themes. (pp. 458–459)
An important set of distinctions in planning your categorizing analysis is between
what I call organizational, substantive, and theoretical categories (Maxwell, 2005).
Organizational categories are generally broad subjects or issues that you establish
prior to your interviews or observations, or that could usually have been anticipated.
McMillan and Schumacher (2001) refer to these as topics rather than categories, stat-
ing that “a topic is the descriptive name for the subject matter of the segment. You
are not, at this time, asking ‘What is said?’ which identifies the meaning of the seg-
ment” (p. 469). In a study of elementary school principals’ practices of retaining
children in a grade, examples of such categories are “retention,” “policy,” “goals,”
“alternatives,” “and “consequences” (p. 470). Organizational categories function pri-
marily as “bins” for sorting the data for further analysis. They may be useful as chap-
ter or section headings in presenting your results, but they don’t help much with the
actual work of making sense of what’s going on.
This latter task requires substantive and/or theoretical categories, ones that pro-
vide some insight into what’s going on. These latter categories can often be seen as
subcategories of the organizational ones, but they are generally not subcategories
that, in advance, you could have known would be significant, unless you are already
fairly familiar with the kind of participants or setting you’re studying or are using
a well-developed theory. They implicitly make some sort of claim about the topic
being studied—that is, they could be wrong, rather than simply being conceptual
boxes for holding data.
Substantive categories are primarily descriptive, in a broad sense that include descrip-
tion of participants’ concepts and beliefs; they stay close to the data categorized and don’t
Designing a Qualitative Study 237
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inherently imply a more abstract theory. In the study of grade retention mentioned
above, examples of substantive categories would be “retention as failure,” “retention
as a last resort,” “self-confidence as a goal,” “parent’s willingness to try alternatives,”
and “not being in control (of the decision)” (drawn from McMillan & Schumacher,
2001, p. 472). Substantive categories are often inductively developed through a close
“open coding” of the data (Corbin & Strauss, 2007). They can be used in developing a
more general theory of what’s going on, but they don’t depend on this theory.
Theoretical categories, in contrast, place the coded data into a more general or
abstract framework. These categories may be derived either from prior theory or
from an inductively developed theory (in which case the concepts and the theory
are usually developed concurrently). They usually represent the researcher’s con-
cepts (what are called “etic” categories), rather than denoting participants’ own
concepts (“emic” concepts). For example, the categories “nativist,” “remediationist,”
or “interactionist,” used to classify teachers’ beliefs about grade retention in terms
of prior analytic distinctions (Smith & Shepard, 1988), would be theoretical.
The distinction between organizational categories and substantive or theoretical
categories is important because some qualitative researchers use mostly organiza-
tional categories to formally analyze their data, and don’t systematically develop and
apply substantive or theoretical categories in developing their conclusions. The more
data you have, the more important it is to create the latter types of categories; with
any significant amount of data, you can’t hold all the data relevant to particular sub-
stantive or theoretical points in your mind, and need a formal organization and
retrieval system. In addition, creating substantive categories is particularly important
for ideas (including participants’ ideas) that don’t fit into existing organizational or
theoretical categories; such substantive ideas may get lost, or never developed, unless
they can be captured in explicit categories. Consequently, you need to include strate-
gies for developing substantive and theoretical categories in your design.
Connecting strategies, instead of fracturing the initial text into discrete elements
and re-sorting it into categories, attempt to understand the data (usually, but not
necessarily, an interview transcript or other textual material) in context, using var-
ious methods to identify the relationships among the different elements of the text.
Such strategies include some forms of case studies (Patton, 1990), profiles
(Seidman, 1991), some types of narrative analysis (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996), and
ethnographic microanalysis (Erickson, 1992). What all these strategies have in com-
mon is that they look for relationships that connect statements and events within a
particular context into a coherent whole. Atkinson (1992) states,
I am now much less inclined to fragment the notes into relatively small seg-
ments. Instead, I am just as interested in reading episodes and passages at
greater length, with a correspondingly different attitude toward the act of
reading and hence of analysis. Rather than constructing my account like a
patchwork quilt, I feel more like working with the whole cloth...To be more
precise, what now concerns me is the nature of these products as texts. (p. 460)
The distinction between categorizing and connecting strategies has important
implications for your research questions. A research question that asks about the
238 APPLIED RESEARCH DESIGNS
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way events in a specific context are connected cannot be answered by an exclusively
categorizing analysis (Agar, 1991). Conversely, a question about similarities and
differences across settings or individuals, or about general themes in your data,
cannot be answered by an exclusively connecting analysis. Your analysis strategies
have to be compatible with the questions you are asking. Both categorizing and
connecting strategies are legitimate and valuable tools in qualitative analysis, and a
study that relies on only one of these runs the risk of missing important insights.
The third category of analytic tools, memos and displays, is also a key part of
qualitative analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994, pp. 72–75; Strauss & Corbin, 1990,
pp. 197–223). As discussed above, memos can perform functions not related to data
analysis, such as reflection on methods, theory, or goals. However, displays and
memos are valuable analytic techniques for the same reasons that they are useful for
other purposes: They facilitate your thinking about relationships in your data and
make your ideas and analyses visible and retrievable. You should write memos fre-
quently while you are doing data analysis, in order to stimulate and capture your
ideas about your data. Displays (Miles & Huberman, 1994), which include matrices
or tables, networks or concept maps, and various other forms, also serve two other
purposes: data reduction and the presentation of data or analysis in a form that
allows you to see it as a whole.
There are now a substantial number of computer programs available for analyzing
qualitative data (Weitzman, 2000). Although none of these programs eliminate the
need to read your data and create your own concepts and relationships, they can enor-
mously simplify the task of coding and retrieving data in a large project. However,
most of these programs are designed primarily for categorizing analysis, and may dis-
tort your analytic strategy to favor such approaches (see Example 7.2). So-called
hypertext programs (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996, pp. 181–186) allow you to create elec-
tronic links, representing any sort of connection you want, among data within a par-
ticular context, but the openness of such programs can make them difficult for less
experienced researchers to use effectively. A few of the more structured programs, such
as ATLAS/ti and HyperRESEARCH, enable you not only to create links among data
chunks, codes, and memos, but also to display the resulting networks.
Designing a Qualitative Study 239
Example 7.2 A Mismatch Between Questions and Analysis
Mike Agar (1991) was once asked by a foundation to review a report on an
interview study that they had commissioned, investigating how historians
worked. The researchers had used the computer program The Ethnograph to
segment and code the interviews by topic and collect together all the
segments on the same topic; the report discussed each of these topics and
provided examples of how the historians talked about these. However, the
foundation felt that the report hadn’t really answered their questions, which
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Linking Methods and Questions
A useful technique for linking your research questions and methods (and also
other aspects of your design) is a matrix in which you list your questions and iden-
tify how each of the components of your methods will help you get the data to
answer these questions. Such a matrix displays the logic of your methods decisions.
Figure 7.3 is an example of how such a matrix can be used; Exercise 3 helps you
develop such a matrix for your own study.
Validity: How Might You Be Wrong?
Quantitative and experimental researchers generally attempt to design, in advance,
controls that will deal with both anticipated and unanticipated threats to validity.
Qualitative researchers, on the other hand, rarely have the benefit of formal com-
parisons, sampling strategies, or statistical manipulations that “control for” the
effect of particular variables, and they must try to rule out most validity threats
after the research has begun, by using evidence collected during the research itself
to make these “alternative hypotheses” implausible. This approach requires you to
identify the specific threat in question and to develop ways to attempt to rule out
that particular threat. It is clearly impossible to list here all, or even the most impor-
tant, validity threats to the conclusions of a qualitative study, but I want to discuss
two broad types of threats to validity that are often raised in relation to qualitative
240 APPLIED RESEARCH DESIGNS
had to do with how individual historians thought about their work—their
theories about how the different topics were connected, and the
relationships that they saw between their thinking, actions, and results.
Answering the latter question would have required an analysis that
elucidated these connections in each historian’s interview. However, the
categorizing analysis on which the report was based fragmented these
connections, destroying the contextual unity of each historian’s views and
allowing only a collective presentation of shared concerns. Agar argues that
the fault was not with The Ethnograph, which is extremely useful for
answering questions that require categorization, but with its misapplication.
He comments that “The Ethnograph represents a
research process. When the part is taken for the whole, you get a
pathological metonym that can lead you straight to the right answer to the
wrong question” (p. 181).
SOURCE: From “The Right Brain Strikes Back
by M. Agar in
Using Computers in Qualitative
edited by N. G. Fielding and R. M. Lee, 1991. Copyright by SAGE.
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I need to know?
What are the
What is the
the students in
What is the
proficiency of the
What do American
Why do I need
to know this?
To assess the impact
of attendance on
To assess the impact
To assess the
persistence in school
To discover what
factors lead to
What kind of
data will answer
Norm- and criterion-
scores; grades on
grades on report
ESL class grades
Formal and informal
Where can I
find the data?
for all schools
Whom do I
contact for access?
Mr. Joe Smith, high
principal; Dr. Amanda
Jones, middle school
High school and middle
Principals of high school
and middle schools;
parents of students;
August: Establish student
June: Final tally
End of semester
End of school
Collect test scores Sept. 15
ESL class grades, end of fall
semester and end of
Obtain student and parent
consent forms, Aug.–Sept.
Student survey, first
week in May
Figure 7.3 (Continued)
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I need to know?
What do students
plan to do after
What do teachers
What do teachers
know about the
home culture of
What do teachers
do to integrate
knowledge of the
Why do I need
to know this?
To assess the degree
to which coherent
affects high school
To assess teacher
To assess teachers’
To assess the degree
culture and home
What kind of
data will answer
Student survey; follow-
up survey of
college and getting
teacher survey; logs
of participation in
Teachers’ lesson plans;
observations; logs of
participation in staff
Where can I
find the data?
Whom do I
contact for access?
social service workers
Student survey, first
week in May
Follow-up survey, summer
Teacher survey, April
Teacher survey, April
Sept. 1–May 30
Figure 7.3 Adaptation of the Data Planning Matrix for a Study of American Indian At-Risk High School Students
SOURCE: This figure was published in Ethnography and Qualitative Design in Educational Research, 2nd ed. by M. D. LeCompte, & J. Preissle, J., with R. Tesch. Copyright
1993 by Academic Press.
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studies: researcher bias, and the effect of the researcher on the setting or individu-
als studied, generally known as reactivity.
Bias refers to ways in which data collection or analysis are distorted by the
researcher’s theory, values, or preconceptions. It is clearly impossible to deal with
these problems by eliminating these theories, preconceptions, or values, as dis-
cussed earlier. Nor is it usually appropriate to try to “standardize” the researcher to
achieve reliability; in qualitative research, the main concern is not with eliminating
variance between researchers in the values and expectations that they bring to the
study but with understanding how a particular researcher’s values influence the
conduct and conclusions of the study. As one qualitative researcher, Fred Hess, has
phrased it, validity in qualitative research is the result not of indifference, but of
integrity (personal communication).
Reactivity is another problem that is often raised about qualitative studies. The
approach to reactivity of most quantitative research, of trying to “control for” the
effect of the researcher, is appropriate to a “variance theory” perspective, in which
the goal is to prevent researcher variability from being an unwanted cause of vari-
ability in the outcome variables. However, eliminating the actual influence of the
researcher is impossible (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995), and the goal in a qual-
itative study is not to eliminate this influence but to understand it and to use it
For participant observation studies, reactivity is generally not as serious a valid-
ity threat as many people believe. Becker (1970, 45ff.) points out that in natural set-
tings, an observer is generally much less of an influence on participants’ behavior
than is the setting itself (though there are clearly exceptions to this, such as settings
in which illegal behavior occurs). For all types of interviews, in contrast, the inter-
viewer has a powerful and inescapable influence on the data collected; what the
interviewee says is always a function of the interviewer and the interview situation
(Briggs, 1986; Mishler, 1986). Although there are some things that you can do to
prevent the more undesirable consequences of this (such as avoiding leading ques-
tions), trying to “minimize” your effect on the interviewee is an impossible goal. As
discussed above for “bias,” what is important is to understand how you are influ-
encing what the interviewee says, and how to most productively (and ethically) use
this influence to answer your research questions.
Validity Tests: A Checklist
I discuss below some of the most important strategies you can use in a qualita-
tive study to deal with particular validity threats and thereby increase the credibil-
ity of your conclusions. Miles and Huberman (1994, 262ff.) include a more
extensive list, having some overlap with mine, and other lists are given by Becker
(1970), Kidder (1981), Guba and Lincoln (1989), and Patton (2000). Not every
strategy will work in a given study, and even trying to apply all the ones that are
feasible might not be an efficient use of your time. As noted above, you need to
think in terms of specific validity threats and what strategies are best able to deal
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1. Intensive, long-term involvement: Becker and Geer (1957) claim that long-
term participant observation provides more complete data about specific situations
and events than any other method. Not only does it provide more, and more dif-
ferent kinds, of data, but the data are more direct and less dependent on inference.
Repeated observations and interviews, as well as the sustained presence of the
researcher in the setting studied, can help rule out spurious associations and pre-
mature theories. They also allow a much greater opportunity to develop and test
alternative hypotheses during the course of the research. For example, Becker
(1970, pp. 49–51) argues that his lengthy participant observation research with
medical students not only allowed him to get beyond their public expressions of
cynicism about a medical career and uncover an idealistic perspective, but also
enabled him to understand the processes by which these different views were
expressed in different social situations and how students dealt with the conflicts
between these perspectives.
2. “Rich” data: Both long-term involvement and intensive interviews enable you
to collect “rich” data, data that are detailed and varied enough that they provide a
full and revealing picture of what is going on (Becker, 1970, 51ff.). In interview
studies, such data generally require verbatim transcripts of the interviews, not just
notes on what you felt was significant. For observation, rich data are the product of
detailed, descriptive note-taking (or videotaping and transcribing) of the specific,
concrete events that you observe. Becker (1970) argued that such data
counter the twin dangers of respondent duplicity and observer bias by
making it difficult for respondents to produce data that uniformly support
a mistaken conclusion, just as they make it difficult for the observer to
restrict his observations so that he sees only what supports his prejudices
and expectations. (p. 53)
3. Respondent validation: Respondent validation (Bryman, 1988, pp. 78–80;
Lincoln & Guba, 1985, refer to this as “member checks”) is systematically soliciting
feedback about one’s data and conclusions from the people you are studying. This is
the single most important way of ruling out the possibility of misinterpreting the
meaning of what participants say and do and the perspective they have on what is
going on, as well as being an important way of identifying your own biases and mis-
understandings of what you observed. However, participants’ feedback is no more
inherently valid than their interview responses; both should be taken simply as evi-
dence regarding the validity of your account (see also Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995).
4. Searching for discrepant evidence and negative cases: Identifying and analyzing
discrepant data and negative cases is a key part of the logic of validity testing in
qualitative research. Instances that cannot be accounted for by a particular inter-
pretation or explanation can point up important defects in that account. However,
there are times when an apparently discrepant instance is not persuasive, as when
the interpretation of the discrepant data is itself in doubt. The basic principle here
is that you need to rigorously examine both the supporting and discrepant data to
assess whether it is more plausible to retain or modify the conclusion, being aware
of all of the pressures to ignore data that do not fit your conclusions. In particularly
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difficult cases, the best you may be able to do is to report the discrepant evidence
and allow readers to evaluate this and draw their own conclusions (Wolcott, 1990).
5. Triangulation: Triangulation—collecting information from a diverse range of
individuals and settings, using a variety of methods—was discussed earlier. This
strategy reduces the risk of chance associations and of systematic biases due to a
specific method and allows a better assessment of the generality of the explanations
that one develops. The most extensive discussion of triangulation as a validity-
testing strategy in qualitative research is by Fielding and Fielding (1986).
6. Quasi-Statistics: Many of the conclusions of qualitative studies have an
implicit quantitative component. Any claim that a particular phenomenon is typi-
cal, rare, or prevalent in the setting or population studied is an inherently quanti-
tative claim and requires some quantitative support. Becker (1970) coined the term
quasi-statistics to refer to the use of simple numerical results that can be readily
derived from the data. He argues that “one of the greatest faults in most observa-
tional case studies has been their failure to make explicit the quasi-statistical basis
of their conclusions” (pp. 81–82).
Quasi-statistics not only allows you to test and support claims that are inher-
ently quantitative, but also enable you to assess the amount of evidence in your data
that bears on a particular conclusion or threat, such as how many discrepant
instances exist and from how many different sources they were obtained.
7. Comparison: Although explicit comparisons (such as control groups) for the
purpose of assessing validity threats are mainly associated with quantitative research,
there are valid uses for comparison in qualitative studies, particularly multisite stud-
ies (e.g., Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 237). In addition, single case studies often
incorporate implicit comparisons that contribute to the interpretability of the case.
For examples, Martha Regan-Smith (1992), in her “uncontrolled” study of how
exemplary medical school teachers helped students learn, used both the existing
literature on “typical” medical school teaching and her own extensive knowledge
of this topic to determine what was distinctive about the teachers she studied.
Furthermore, the students that she interviewed explicitly contrasted these teachers
with others whom they felt were not as helpful to them, explaining not only what the
exemplary teachers did that increased their learning, but why this was helpful.
Exercise 4 is designed to help you identify, and develop strategies to deal with,
the most important validity threats to your conclusions.
Generalization in Qualitative Research
Qualitative researchers often study only a single setting or a small number of
individuals or sites, using theoretical or purposeful rather than probability sam-
pling, and rarely make explicit claims about the generalizability of their accounts.
Indeed, the value of a qualitative study may depend on its lack of generalizability in
the sense of being representative of a larger population; it may provide an account
of a setting or population that is illuminating as an extreme case or “ideal type.”
Freidson (1975), for his study of social controls on work in a medical group
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practice, deliberately selected an atypical practice, one in which the physicians were
better trained and more “progressive” than usual and that was structured precisely
to deal with the problems that he was studying. He argues that the documented fail-
ure of social controls in this case provides a far stronger argument for the general-
izability of his conclusions than would the study of a “typical” practice.
The generalizability of qualitative studies is usually based not on explicit sam-
pling of some defined population to which the results can be extended, but on the
development of a theory that can be extended to other cases (Becker, 1991; Ragin,
1987); Yin (1994) refers to this as “analytic,” as opposed to statistical, generalization.
For this reason, Guba and Lincoln (1989) prefer to talk of “transferability” rather
than “generalizability” in qualitative research. Hammersley (1992, pp. 189–191) and
Weiss (1994, pp. 26–29) list a number of features that lend credibility to generaliza-
tions made from case studies or nonrandom samples, including respondents’ own
assessments of generalizability, the similarity of dynamics and constraints to other
situations, the presumed depth or universality of the phenomenon studied, and cor-
roboration from other studies. However, none of these permits the kind of precise
extrapolation of results to defined populations that probability sampling allows.
Harry Wolcott (1990) provided a useful metaphor for research design: “Some of the
best advice I’ve ever seen for writers happened to be included with the directions I
found for assembling a new wheelbarrow: Make sure all parts are properly in place
before tightening” (p. 47). Like a wheelbarrow, your research design not only needs
to have all the required parts, it has to work—to function smoothly and accomplish
its tasks. This requires attention to the connections among the different parts of the
design—what I call coherence. There isn’t one right way to create a coherent quali-
tative design; in this chapter I have tried to give you the tools that will enable you
to put together a way that works for you and your research.
The following questions are ones that are valuable to review before beginning (or
continuing) with the design of a qualitative study.
1. Why are you thinking of doing a qualitative study of the topic you’ve chosen?
How would your study use the strengths of qualitative research? How would it deal
with the limitations of qualitative research?
2. What do you already know or believe about your topic or problem? Where
do these beliefs come from? How do the different beliefs fit together into a coher-
ent picture of this topic or problem?
3. What do you not know about your topic or problem that a qualitative study
could help you understand?
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4. What types of settings or individuals would be most productive to select for
your study, in terms of answering your research questions? Why? What practical issues
would you need to deal with to do this? What compromises might be required to make
your study feasible and how would these affect your ability to answer your questions?
5. What relationships do you already have, or could you create, with potential
settings or individuals you could select for your study? How could these relation-
ships help or hinder your study? What relationships do you want to create with the
individuals and settings you select?
6. What data collection methods would best provide the information you need
to answer your research questions? Why? Could you combine different methods to
better answer your questions?
7. How would you need to analyze your data to answer your questions? Why? If
you use a categorizing approach, how would you develop and apply your coding
categories? What could connecting strategies contribute to your analysis?
8. What are the most serious potential validity threats to the conclusions you
might draw from your study? What could you do (in your design as a whole, not
just data collection and analysis) to address these threats?
These exercises give you an opportunity to work through several of the most
important issues in designing a qualitative study. Other important issues are
addressed in the discussion questions.
Exercise 1: Researcher Identity Memo
The purpose of this exercise is to help you identify the goals, experiences, assump-
tions, feelings, and values that are most relevant to your planned research and to
reflect on how these could inform and influence your research (see Example 7.1).
I would begin working on this memo by “brainstorming” whatever comes to
mind when you think about prior experiences that relate to your topic, and jotting
these down without immediately trying to organize or analyze them. Then, try to
identify the issues most likely to be important in your research, think about the
implications of these, and organize your reflections. There are two broad types of
questions that it is productive to reflect on in this memo.
1. What prior experiences have you had that are relevant to your topic or set-
ting? What assumptions about your topic or setting have resulted from these expe-
riences? What goals have emerged from these? How have these experiences,
assumptions, and goals shaped your decision to choose this topic, and the way you
are approaching this project?
2. What potential advantages do you think these goals, beliefs, and experiences
have for your study? What potential disadvantages do you think these may create
for you, and how might you deal with these?
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Exercise 2: Developing Research Questions
This exercise involves both developing an initial set of research questions and
trying to connect these questions to the other four components of your design. At
this point, your ideas may still be very tentative; you can repeat this exercise as you
get a better idea of what your study will look like.
1. Begin by thinking about your goals for this study. What could you learn in a
research study that would help accomplish these goals? What research questions
does this suggest? Conversely, how do any research questions you may already have
formulated connect to your goals in conducting the study? How will answering
these specific questions help you achieve your goals? Which questions are most
interesting to you, personally, practically, or intellectually?
2. Next, connect these research questions to your conceptual framework. What
would answering these questions tell you that you don’t already know? Where are the
places in this framework that you don’t understand adequately or where you need to
test your ideas? What could you learn in a research study that would help you better
understand what’s going on with these phenomena? What changes or additions to
your questions does your framework suggest? Conversely, are there places where
your questions imply things that should be in your framework, but aren’t?
3. Now focus. What questions are most central for your study? How do these
questions form a coherent set that will guide your study? You can’t study everything
interesting about your topic; start making choices. Three or four main questions are
usually a reasonable maximum for a qualitative study, although you can have addi-
tional subquestions for each of the main questions.
4. In addition, you need to consider how you could actually answer the ques-
tions you pose. What methods would you need to use to collect data that would
answer these questions? Conversely, what questions can a qualitative study of the
kind you are planning productively address? At this point in your planning, this
may primarily involve “thought experiments” about the way you will conduct the
study, the kinds of data you will collect, and the analyses you will perform on these
data. This part of the exercise is one you can usefully repeat when you have devel-
oped your methods and validity concerns in more detail.
5. Assess the potential answers to your questions in terms of validity. What are
the plausible validity threats and alternative explanations that you would have to
rule out? How might you be wrong, and what implications does this have for the
way you frame your questions?
Don’t get stuck on trying to precisely frame your research questions or in spec-
ifying in detail how to measure things or gain access to data that would answer your
questions. Try to develop some meaningful and important questions that would be
worth answering. Feasibility is obviously an important issue in doing research, but
focusing on it at the beginning can abort a potentially valuable study.
A valuable additional step is to share your questions and your reflections on these
with a small group of fellow students or colleagues. Ask them if they understand the
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questions and why these would be worth answering, what other questions or
changes in the questions they would suggest, and what problems they see in trying
to answer them. If possible, tape record the discussion; afterward, listen to the tape
and take notes.
Exercise 3: Questions ×Methods Matrix
This exercise (based on Figure 7.3) helps you display the logical connections
between your research questions and your selection, data collection, and data
analysis decisions. Doing this isn’t a mechanical process; it requires thinking about
how your methods can provide answers to your research questions. Start with your
questions and ask what data you would need, how you could get these data, and
how you could analyze them to answer these questions. You can also work in the
other direction: Ask yourself why you want to collect and analyze the data in the
way you propose—what will you learn from this?
Your matrix should include columns for research questions, selection decisions,
data collection methods, and kinds of analyses, but you can add any other columns
you think would be useful in explaining the logic of your design. You should also
include a justification for the choices you make in the matrix, either as a separate
discussion, by question, of the rationale for your choices in each row, or by includ-
ing this as a column in the matrix itself (as in Figure 7.3). This exercise is intended
to help you make your methods decisions, not as a final formulation of these, so it
may require you to revise your questions, your planned methods, or both.
Exercise 4: Identifying and Dealing With Validity Threats
1. What are the most serious validity threats that you need to be concerned with
in your study? In other words, what are the main ways in which you might be mis-
taken about what’s going on, and what issues will your potential audiences be most
concerned about? These threats can include alternative theories or interpretations
of your data, as well as potential methodological flaws. Be as specific as you can,
rather than just listing general categories. Also, think about why you believe these
might be serious threats.
2. What could you do in your research design (including data collection and data
analysis) to deal with these threats and increase the credibility of your conclusions?
This includes ways of testing your interpretations and conclusions, and of investi-
gating the existence and plausibility of alternative interpretations and conclusions
(e.g., could your analysis of your data be biased by your preconceptions about your
topic? How could you test this?). Start by brainstorming possible solutions, and then
consider which of these strategies are practical for your study, as well as effective.
Remember that some validity threats are unavoidable; you will need to acknowl-
edge these in your proposal or in the conclusions to your study, but no one expects
you to have airtight answers to every possible threat. The key issue is how plausible
and how serious these unavoidable threats are.
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