Research design

In general, qualitative researchers commit to some form of naturalistic interpretative approach to inquiry. However, there are many different forms of qualitative designs. For instance, the role of theory can vary from using a specific theory to certain overarching theoretical concepts, generating theory, or no (explicit) use of theory (Cheek in Given, 2008).

Theoretical approaches

The field of qualitative research is characterized by the use of many different theoretical perspectives. The theoretical perspective shapes the questions a researcher addresses and the research design, interpretation of data and explanations that follow. Examples of theoretical perspectives are phenomenology, interactionism, or grounded theory.  Reeves et al. (2008) illustrate how different theories would highlight different facets of a specific research problem.

In general, different types of theories are distinguished, focusing on different levels. For instance, they focus on how societies work (grand theories or macro theories), how local systems or organizations function (mid-range theories) or interaction on an individual level (micro level theory) (Reeves et al., 2008). Green and Thorogood (2010) offer a short overview of different levels of theory.

Research questions

Research questions in qualitative studies are open questions; they aim to answer a ‘what’, ‘how’ or ‘why’. They are meant to give insight into perspectives or meanings of people, or provide information on experiences, needs or considerations. Furthermore, the research question includes a description of the study population and the topics of research, such as ‘decision making’, ‘coping’, ‘experiencing’, ‘perspectives’ or ‘support’.

Examples of research designs

There are many different types of research design and divisions between them are not necessarily clear-cut (Green & Thorogood, 2010). Therefore, only some examples are provided in this guideline.

Case studies provide an in-depth study to understand the complexity of a case. Abma & Stake (2014) describe different approaches to case studies, for instance using a preordained theoretical framework (Yin, 1994) or a naturalistic – non-interventionist – approach to understand the particularities of a case (Stake, 2000).

Studies using grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967) aim at the development of categories or concepts ‘grounded’ in the data, that could subsequently lead to the formulation of a formal theory. Data collection, data analysis and reflection form a cycle (iterative study); analysis informs the next cycle of data collection, and the subsequent analysis leads to further refinement. In grounded theory, ‘iterative study design, theoretical sampling, and system of analysis are intimately related. An iterative study design requires theoretical sampling for interactions to be meaningful, and constant comparative analysis allows the integration of new and existing data in this iterative cycle, towards a well-grounded theory’ (Lingard et al. 2008: 460).


  • Verbrugge, R., De Boer, F. & Georges, J-J. (2013) Strategies used by respiratory nurses to stimulate self-management in patients with COPD. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 22, 2787-2799.

In action research, ‘theory and action [are integrated] with the goal of addressing important organizational, community and social issues together with those who experience them. (…) it is really a shared-values stance founded on a commitment to generating knowledge through democratic practice in the pursuit of positive social change.’ (Coghlan & Brydon-Miller, 2014: xxv)


  • Baur, V. & Abma, T. (2012) ‘The Taste Buddies’: participation and empowerment in a residential home for older people. Ageing & Society, 32, 1055-1078.

The recruitment of respondents in qualitative research is not aimed at generalization of a selected population. Instead, researchers strive for transferability, which they try to reach through theoretical saturation: inclusion continues until a point is reached where there is a sense that sufficient insight has been acquired about the research phenomenon. Important principles in this process are constant comparison, purposive sampling, and theoretical sampling: the researcher is constantly looking for new “cases” that are able to sharpen up, confirm or correct earlier cases. This results in the research group usually being relatively small (maximum of tens of participants) and heterogeneous.