Qualitative Research: An Overview

  • First Online: 24 April 2019

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qualitative research journal

  • Yanto Chandra 3 &
  • Liang Shang 4  

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Qualitative research is one of the most commonly used types of research and methodology in the social sciences. Unfortunately, qualitative research is commonly misunderstood. In this chapter, we describe and explain the misconceptions surrounding qualitative research enterprise, why researchers need to care about when using qualitative research, the characteristics of qualitative research, and review the paradigms in qualitative research.

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Qualitative research is defined as the practice used to study things –– individuals and organizations and their reasons, opinions, and motivations, beliefs in their natural settings. It involves an observer (a researcher) who is located in the field , who transforms the world into a series of representations such as fieldnotes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings and memos (Denzin and Lincoln 2011 ). Many researchers employ qualitative research for exploratory purpose while others use it for ‘quasi’ theory testing approach. Qualitative research is a broad umbrella of research methodologies that encompasses grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 2017 ; Strauss and Corbin 1990 ), case study (Flyvbjerg 2006 ; Yin 2003 ), phenomenology (Sanders 1982 ), discourse analysis (Fairclough 2003 ; Wodak and Meyer 2009 ), ethnography (Geertz 1973 ; Garfinkel 1967 ), and netnography (Kozinets 2002 ), among others. Qualitative research is often synonymous with ‘case study research’ because ‘case study’ primarily uses (but not always) qualitative data.

The quality standards or evaluation criteria of qualitative research comprises: (1) credibility (that a researcher can provide confidence in his/her findings), (2) transferability (that results are more plausible when transported to a highly similar contexts), (3) dependability (that errors have been minimized, proper documentation is provided), and (4) confirmability (that conclusions are internally consistent and supported by data) (see Lincoln and Guba 1985 ).

We classify research into a continuum of theory building — >   theory elaboration — >   theory testing . Theory building is also known as theory exploration. Theory elaboration refers to the use of qualitative data and a method to seek “confirmation” of the relationships among variables or processes or mechanisms of a social reality (Bartunek and Rynes 2015 ).

In the context of qualitative research, theory/ies usually refer(s) to conceptual model(s) or framework(s) that explain the relationships among a set of variables or processes that explain a social phenomenon. Theory or theories could also refer to general ideas or frameworks (e.g., institutional theory, emancipation theory, or identity theory) that are reviewed as background knowledge prior to the commencement of a qualitative research project.

For example, a qualitative research can ask the following question: “How can institutional change succeed in social contexts that are dominated by organized crime?” (Vaccaro and Palazzo 2015 ).

We have witnessed numerous cases in which committed positivist methodologists were asked to review qualitative papers, and they used a survey approach to assess the quality of an interpretivist work. This reviewers’ fallacy is dangerous and hampers the progress of a field of research. Editors must be cognizant of such fallacy and avoid it.

A social enterprises (SE) is an organization that combines social welfare and commercial logics (Doherty et al. 2014 ), or that uses business principles to address social problems (Mair and Marti 2006 ); thus, qualitative research that reports that ‘social impact’ is important for SEs is too descriptive and, arguably, tautological. It is not uncommon to see authors submitting purely descriptive papers to scholarly journals.

Some qualitative researchers have conducted qualitative work using primarily a checklist (ticking the boxes) to show the presence or absence of variables, as if it were a survey-based study. This is utterly inappropriate for a qualitative work. A qualitative work needs to show the richness and depth of qualitative findings. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to use such checklists as supplementary data if a study involves too many informants or variables of interest, or the data is too complex due to its longitudinal nature (e.g., a study that involves 15 cases observed and involving 59 interviews with 33 informants within a 7-year fieldwork used an excel sheet to tabulate the number of events that occurred as supplementary data to the main analysis; see Chandra 2017a , b ).

As mentioned earlier, there are different types of qualitative research. Thus, a qualitative researcher will customize the data collection process to fit the type of research being conducted. For example, for researchers using ethnography, the primary data will be in the form of photos and/or videos and interviews; for those using netnography, the primary data will be internet-based textual data. Interview data is perhaps the most common type of data used across all types of qualitative research designs and is often synonymous with qualitative research.

The purpose of qualitative research is to provide an explanation , not merely a description and certainly not a prediction (which is the realm of quantitative research). However, description is needed to illustrate qualitative data collected, and usually researchers describe their qualitative data by inserting a number of important “informant quotes” in the body of a qualitative research report.

We advise qualitative researchers to adhere to one approach to avoid any epistemological and ontological mismatch that may arise among different camps in qualitative research. For instance, mixing a positivist with a constructivist approach in qualitative research frequently leads to unnecessary criticism and even rejection from journal editors and reviewers; it shows a lack of methodological competence or awareness of one’s epistemological position.

Analytical generalization is not generalization to some defined population that has been sampled, but to a “theory” of the phenomenon being studied, a theory that may have much wider applicability than the particular case studied (Yin 2003 ).

There are different types of contributions. Typically, a researcher is expected to clearly articulate the theoretical contributions for a qualitative work submitted to a scholarly journal. Other types of contributions are practical (or managerial ), common for business/management journals, and policy , common for policy related journals.

There is ongoing debate on whether a template for qualitative research is desirable or necessary, with one camp of scholars (the pluralistic critical realists) that advocates a pluralistic approaches to qualitative research (“qualitative research should not follow a particular template or be prescriptive in its process”) and the other camps are advocating for some form of consensus via the use of particular approaches (e.g., the Eisenhardt or Gioia Approach, etc.). However, as shown in Table 1.1 , even the pluralistic critical realism in itself is a template and advocates an alternative form of consensus through the use of diverse and pluralistic approaches in doing qualitative research.

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Chandra, Y., Shang, L. (2019). Qualitative Research: An Overview. In: Qualitative Research Using R: A Systematic Approach. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-3170-1_1

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Qualitative Research Journal

ISSN : 1443-9883

Article publication date: 15 December 2020

Issue publication date: 2 August 2021

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the critical realism (CR) philosophical viewpoint and how it can be applied in qualitative research. CR is a relatively new and viable philosophical paradigm proposed as an alternative to the more predominant paradigms of positivism, interpretivism and pragmatism. This paper reviews the concept, its benefits and limitation. It goes further to provide an example of how CR is used as a philosophical and methodological framework with the systems thinking theory to applied qualitative research.


A study of project management challenges in a Nigerian government organisation is used to demonstrate a qualitative research approach, which includes a coding process and data analysis that is consistent with CR ontology and epistemology.

CR focuses primarily on closed systems. However, a more accurate explanation of reality is obtained in addition to the identification of contextual causal mechanisms in the context of study when a general systems theory is applied.

Research limitations/implications

The knowledge about the nature of relationships obtained in the context of study may not necessarily be replicated in another context. However, this paper elucidates a CR process that is generalisable by demonstrating how a theory is applied in a different context.


The paper demonstrates how systems theory is used to understand interactions in a CR paradigm. It engages with CR approach critically and illustrates a clear example of how CR can be applied in social research.

  • Critical realism
  • Systems thinking
  • Data analysis


No funding nor potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Lawani, A. (2021), "Critical realism: what you should know and how to apply it", Qualitative Research Journal , Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 320-333. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRJ-08-2020-0101

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