Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 June 2018
• What is the process that qualitative research follows?
• What initial questions should be asked when designing a qualitative investigation?
• What methods are commonly employed in qualitative research?
The qualitative research process in information settings
If we watch experienced qualitative researchers in information settings, we might notice that they sometimes appear to proceed without any plan, stumbling from one observational event or setting to another, taking notes at random and not steering a clear course through contexts, data or variables. There is both truth and falsehood in this appearance. At the outset it must be stated quite categorically that qualitative researchers do design their research – or perhaps ‘adopt a broad research strategy’ might be a more appropriate description. That is, they do not necessarily have a clearly set out, step-by-step design as we would expect to find in a quantitative research project. Rather they have a set of theoretical assumptions and traditional means of data collection that provide a general framework and set of parameters within which they operate.
Beyond that, however, qualitative researchers seek to be totally open to the setting and subjects of their study, allowing these to inform the process and to modify general research plans. In other words, within the established parameters of qualitative research, the researchers allow their plans to evolve as they come to know the subjects and settings more intimately – the act of conducting the research provides the final structure of that research, and detailed procedures can be described only afterwards.
As a rule, textbooks on research methods speak of research as a series of clearly defined stages: planning, design, implementation, analysis, conclusions (see Figure 3.1). This linear process applies most directly to quantitative studies in which stepby- step, detailed planning is essential for a variety of reasons – although even here the reality is often that the research does not proceed in such neat steps, even if it is written up in this way.
Qualitative research, on the other hand, tends to be represented as a cyclical process or as a series of overlapping stages. Marshall and Rossman, for example, offer a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ model of the research process with 14 key points on the wheel, while Mellon presents a model of eight stages, of which five overlap.