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Background of The Study – Examples and Writing Guide

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Background of The Study

Background of The Study


Background of the study refers to the context, circumstances, and history that led to the research problem or topic being studied. It provides the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and the significance of the study.

The background of the study usually includes a discussion of the relevant literature, the gap in knowledge or understanding, and the research questions or hypotheses to be addressed. It also highlights the importance of the research topic and its potential contributions to the field. A well-written background of the study sets the stage for the research and helps the reader to appreciate the need for the study and its potential significance.

How to Write Background of The Study

Here are some steps to help you write the background of the study:

Identify the Research Problem

Start by identifying the research problem you are trying to address. This problem should be significant and relevant to your field of study.

Provide Context

Once you have identified the research problem, provide some context. This could include the historical, social, or political context of the problem.

Review Literature

Conduct a thorough review of the existing literature on the topic. This will help you understand what has been studied and what gaps exist in the current research.

Identify Research Gap

Based on your literature review, identify the gap in knowledge or understanding that your research aims to address. This gap will be the focus of your research question or hypothesis.

State Objectives

Clearly state the objectives of your research . These should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

Discuss Significance

Explain the significance of your research. This could include its potential impact on theory , practice, policy, or society.

Finally, summarize the key points of the background of the study. This will help the reader understand the research problem, its context, and its significance.

How to Write Background of The Study in Proposal

The background of the study is an essential part of any proposal as it sets the stage for the research project and provides the context and justification for why the research is needed. Here are the steps to write a compelling background of the study in your proposal:

  • Identify the problem: Clearly state the research problem or gap in the current knowledge that you intend to address through your research.
  • Provide context: Provide a brief overview of the research area and highlight its significance in the field.
  • Review literature: Summarize the relevant literature related to the research problem and provide a critical evaluation of the current state of knowledge.
  • Identify gaps : Identify the gaps or limitations in the existing literature and explain how your research will contribute to filling these gaps.
  • Justify the study : Explain why your research is important and what practical or theoretical contributions it can make to the field.
  • Highlight objectives: Clearly state the objectives of the study and how they relate to the research problem.
  • Discuss methodology: Provide an overview of the methodology you will use to collect and analyze data, and explain why it is appropriate for the research problem.
  • Conclude : Summarize the key points of the background of the study and explain how they support your research proposal.

How to Write Background of The Study In Thesis

The background of the study is a critical component of a thesis as it provides context for the research problem, rationale for conducting the study, and the significance of the research. Here are some steps to help you write a strong background of the study:

  • Identify the research problem : Start by identifying the research problem that your thesis is addressing. What is the issue that you are trying to solve or explore? Be specific and concise in your problem statement.
  • Review the literature: Conduct a thorough review of the relevant literature on the topic. This should include scholarly articles, books, and other sources that are directly related to your research question.
  • I dentify gaps in the literature: After reviewing the literature, identify any gaps in the existing research. What questions remain unanswered? What areas have not been explored? This will help you to establish the need for your research.
  • Establish the significance of the research: Clearly state the significance of your research. Why is it important to address this research problem? What are the potential implications of your research? How will it contribute to the field?
  • Provide an overview of the research design: Provide an overview of the research design and methodology that you will be using in your study. This should include a brief explanation of the research approach, data collection methods, and data analysis techniques.
  • State the research objectives and research questions: Clearly state the research objectives and research questions that your study aims to answer. These should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
  • Summarize the chapter: Summarize the chapter by highlighting the key points and linking them back to the research problem, significance of the study, and research questions.

How to Write Background of The Study in Research Paper

Here are the steps to write the background of the study in a research paper:

  • Identify the research problem: Start by identifying the research problem that your study aims to address. This can be a particular issue, a gap in the literature, or a need for further investigation.
  • Conduct a literature review: Conduct a thorough literature review to gather information on the topic, identify existing studies, and understand the current state of research. This will help you identify the gap in the literature that your study aims to fill.
  • Explain the significance of the study: Explain why your study is important and why it is necessary. This can include the potential impact on the field, the importance to society, or the need to address a particular issue.
  • Provide context: Provide context for the research problem by discussing the broader social, economic, or political context that the study is situated in. This can help the reader understand the relevance of the study and its potential implications.
  • State the research questions and objectives: State the research questions and objectives that your study aims to address. This will help the reader understand the scope of the study and its purpose.
  • Summarize the methodology : Briefly summarize the methodology you used to conduct the study, including the data collection and analysis methods. This can help the reader understand how the study was conducted and its reliability.

Examples of Background of The Study

Here are some examples of the background of the study:

Problem : The prevalence of obesity among children in the United States has reached alarming levels, with nearly one in five children classified as obese.

Significance : Obesity in childhood is associated with numerous negative health outcomes, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Gap in knowledge : Despite efforts to address the obesity epidemic, rates continue to rise. There is a need for effective interventions that target the unique needs of children and their families.

Problem : The use of antibiotics in agriculture has contributed to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which poses a significant threat to human health.

Significance : Antibiotic-resistant infections are responsible for thousands of deaths each year and are a major public health concern.

Gap in knowledge: While there is a growing body of research on the use of antibiotics in agriculture, there is still much to be learned about the mechanisms of resistance and the most effective strategies for reducing antibiotic use.

Edxample 3:

Problem : Many low-income communities lack access to healthy food options, leading to high rates of food insecurity and diet-related diseases.

Significance : Poor nutrition is a major contributor to chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Gap in knowledge : While there have been efforts to address food insecurity, there is a need for more research on the barriers to accessing healthy food in low-income communities and effective strategies for increasing access.

Examples of Background of The Study In Research

Here are some real-life examples of how the background of the study can be written in different fields of study:

Example 1 : “There has been a significant increase in the incidence of diabetes in recent years. This has led to an increased demand for effective diabetes management strategies. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the effectiveness of a new diabetes management program in improving patient outcomes.”

Example 2 : “The use of social media has become increasingly prevalent in modern society. Despite its popularity, little is known about the effects of social media use on mental health. This study aims to investigate the relationship between social media use and mental health in young adults.”

Example 3: “Despite significant advancements in cancer treatment, the survival rate for patients with pancreatic cancer remains low. The purpose of this study is to identify potential biomarkers that can be used to improve early detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer.”

Examples of Background of The Study in Proposal

Here are some real-time examples of the background of the study in a proposal:

Example 1 : The prevalence of mental health issues among university students has been increasing over the past decade. This study aims to investigate the causes and impacts of mental health issues on academic performance and wellbeing.

Example 2 : Climate change is a global issue that has significant implications for agriculture in developing countries. This study aims to examine the adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers to climate change and identify effective strategies to enhance their resilience.

Example 3 : The use of social media in political campaigns has become increasingly common in recent years. This study aims to analyze the effectiveness of social media campaigns in mobilizing young voters and influencing their voting behavior.

Example 4 : Employee turnover is a major challenge for organizations, especially in the service sector. This study aims to identify the key factors that influence employee turnover in the hospitality industry and explore effective strategies for reducing turnover rates.

Examples of Background of The Study in Thesis

Here are some real-time examples of the background of the study in the thesis:

Example 1 : “Women’s participation in the workforce has increased significantly over the past few decades. However, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions, particularly in male-dominated industries such as technology. This study aims to examine the factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the technology industry, with a focus on organizational culture and gender bias.”

Example 2 : “Mental health is a critical component of overall health and well-being. Despite increased awareness of the importance of mental health, there are still significant gaps in access to mental health services, particularly in low-income and rural communities. This study aims to evaluate the effectiveness of a community-based mental health intervention in improving mental health outcomes in underserved populations.”

Example 3: “The use of technology in education has become increasingly widespread, with many schools adopting online learning platforms and digital resources. However, there is limited research on the impact of technology on student learning outcomes and engagement. This study aims to explore the relationship between technology use and academic achievement among middle school students, as well as the factors that mediate this relationship.”

Examples of Background of The Study in Research Paper

Here are some examples of how the background of the study can be written in various fields:

Example 1: The prevalence of obesity has been on the rise globally, with the World Health Organization reporting that approximately 650 million adults were obese in 2016. Obesity is a major risk factor for several chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. In recent years, several interventions have been proposed to address this issue, including lifestyle changes, pharmacotherapy, and bariatric surgery. However, there is a lack of consensus on the most effective intervention for obesity management. This study aims to investigate the efficacy of different interventions for obesity management and identify the most effective one.

Example 2: Antibiotic resistance has become a major public health threat worldwide. Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are associated with longer hospital stays, higher healthcare costs, and increased mortality. The inappropriate use of antibiotics is one of the main factors contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance. Despite numerous efforts to promote the rational use of antibiotics, studies have shown that many healthcare providers continue to prescribe antibiotics inappropriately. This study aims to explore the factors influencing healthcare providers’ prescribing behavior and identify strategies to improve antibiotic prescribing practices.

Example 3: Social media has become an integral part of modern communication, with millions of people worldwide using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Social media has several advantages, including facilitating communication, connecting people, and disseminating information. However, social media use has also been associated with several negative outcomes, including cyberbullying, addiction, and mental health problems. This study aims to investigate the impact of social media use on mental health and identify the factors that mediate this relationship.

Purpose of Background of The Study

The primary purpose of the background of the study is to help the reader understand the rationale for the research by presenting the historical, theoretical, and empirical background of the problem.

More specifically, the background of the study aims to:

  • Provide a clear understanding of the research problem and its context.
  • Identify the gap in knowledge that the study intends to fill.
  • Establish the significance of the research problem and its potential contribution to the field.
  • Highlight the key concepts, theories, and research findings related to the problem.
  • Provide a rationale for the research questions or hypotheses and the research design.
  • Identify the limitations and scope of the study.

When to Write Background of The Study

The background of the study should be written early on in the research process, ideally before the research design is finalized and data collection begins. This allows the researcher to clearly articulate the rationale for the study and establish a strong foundation for the research.

The background of the study typically comes after the introduction but before the literature review section. It should provide an overview of the research problem and its context, and also introduce the key concepts, theories, and research findings related to the problem.

Writing the background of the study early on in the research process also helps to identify potential gaps in knowledge and areas for further investigation, which can guide the development of the research questions or hypotheses and the research design. By establishing the significance of the research problem and its potential contribution to the field, the background of the study can also help to justify the research and secure funding or support from stakeholders.

Advantage of Background of The Study

The background of the study has several advantages, including:

  • Provides context: The background of the study provides context for the research problem by highlighting the historical, theoretical, and empirical background of the problem. This allows the reader to understand the research problem in its broader context and appreciate its significance.
  • Identifies gaps in knowledge: By reviewing the existing literature related to the research problem, the background of the study can identify gaps in knowledge that the study intends to fill. This helps to establish the novelty and originality of the research and its potential contribution to the field.
  • Justifies the research : The background of the study helps to justify the research by demonstrating its significance and potential impact. This can be useful in securing funding or support for the research.
  • Guides the research design: The background of the study can guide the development of the research questions or hypotheses and the research design by identifying key concepts, theories, and research findings related to the problem. This ensures that the research is grounded in existing knowledge and is designed to address the research problem effectively.
  • Establishes credibility: By demonstrating the researcher’s knowledge of the field and the research problem, the background of the study can establish the researcher’s credibility and expertise, which can enhance the trustworthiness and validity of the research.

Disadvantages of Background of The Study

Some Disadvantages of Background of The Study are as follows:

  • Time-consuming : Writing a comprehensive background of the study can be time-consuming, especially if the research problem is complex and multifaceted. This can delay the research process and impact the timeline for completing the study.
  • Repetitive: The background of the study can sometimes be repetitive, as it often involves summarizing existing research and theories related to the research problem. This can be tedious for the reader and may make the section less engaging.
  • Limitations of existing research: The background of the study can reveal the limitations of existing research related to the problem. This can create challenges for the researcher in developing research questions or hypotheses that address the gaps in knowledge identified in the background of the study.
  • Bias : The researcher’s biases and perspectives can influence the content and tone of the background of the study. This can impact the reader’s perception of the research problem and may influence the validity of the research.
  • Accessibility: Accessing and reviewing the literature related to the research problem can be challenging, especially if the researcher does not have access to a comprehensive database or if the literature is not available in the researcher’s language. This can limit the depth and scope of the background of the study.

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What is the Background of the Study and How to Write It

what is background of the study in qualitative research

What is the Background of the Study in Research? 

The background of the study is the first section of a research paper and gives context surrounding the research topic. The background explains to the reader where your research journey started, why you got interested in the topic, and how you developed the research question that you will later specify. That means that you first establish the context of the research you did with a general overview of the field or topic and then present the key issues that drove your decision to study the specific problem you chose.

Once the reader understands where you are coming from and why there was indeed a need for the research you are going to present in the following—because there was a gap in the current research, or because there is an obvious problem with a currently used process or technology—you can proceed with the formulation of your research question and summarize how you are going to address it in the rest of your manuscript.

Why is the Background of the Study Important?

No matter how surprising and important the findings of your study are, if you do not provide the reader with the necessary background information and context, they will not be able to understand your reasons for studying the specific problem you chose and why you think your study is relevant. And more importantly, an editor who does not share your enthusiasm for your work (because you did not fill them in on all the important details) will very probably not even consider your manuscript worthy of their and the reviewers’ time and will immediately send it back to you.

To avoid such desk rejections , you need to make sure you pique the reader’s interest and help them understand the contribution of your work to the specific field you study, the more general research community, or the public. Introducing the study background is crucial to setting the scene for your readers.

Table of Contents:

  • What is “Background Information” in a Research Paper?
  • What Should the Background of a Research Paper Include?
  • Where Does the Background Section Go in Your Paper?

background of the study, brick wall

Background of the Study Structure

Before writing your study background, it is essential to understand what to include. The following elements should all be included in the background and are presented in greater detail in the next section:

  • A general overview of the topic and why it is important (overlaps with establishing the “importance of the topic” in the Introduction)
  • The current state of the research on the topic or on related topics in the field
  • Controversies about current knowledge or specific past studies that undergird your research methodology
  • Any claims or assumptions that have been made by researchers, institutions, or politicians that might need to be clarified
  • Methods and techniques used in the study or from which your study deviated in some way

Presenting the Study Background

As you begin introducing your background, you first need to provide a general overview and include the main issues concerning the topic. Depending on whether you do “basic” (with the aim of providing further knowledge) or “applied” research (to establish new techniques, processes, or products), this is either a literature review that summarizes all relevant earlier studies in the field or a description of the process (e.g., vote counting) or practice (e.g., diagnosis of a specific disease) that you think is problematic or lacking and needs a solution.

Example s of a general overview

If you study the function of a Drosophila gene, for example, you can explain to the reader why and for whom the study of fly genetics is relevant, what is already known and established, and where you see gaps in the existing literature. If you investigated how the way universities have transitioned into online teaching since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic has affected students’ learning progress, then you need to present a summary of what changes have happened around the world, what the effects of those changes have been so far, and where you see problems that need to be addressed. Note that you need to provide sources for every statement and every claim you make here, to establish a solid foundation of knowledge for your own study. 

Describing the current state of knowledge

When the reader understands the main issue(s), you need to fill them in more specifically on the current state of the field (in basic research) or the process/practice/product use you describe (in practical/applied research). Cite all relevant studies that have already reported on the Drosophila gene you are interested in, have failed to reveal certain functions of it, or have suggested that it might be involved in more processes than we know so far. Or list the reports from the education ministries of the countries you are interested in and highlight the data that shows the need for research into the effects of the Corona-19 pandemic on teaching and learning.

Discussing controversies, claims, and assumptions

Are there controversies regarding your topic of interest that need to be mentioned and/or addressed? For example, if your research topic involves an issue that is politically hot, you can acknowledge this here. Have any earlier claims or assumptions been made, by other researchers, institutions, or politicians, that you think need to be clarified?

Mentioning methodologies and approaches

While putting together these details, you also need to mention methodologies : What methods/techniques have been used so far to study what you studied and why are you going to either use the same or a different approach? Are any of the methods included in the literature review flawed in such a way that your study takes specific measures to correct or update? While you shouldn’t spend too much time here justifying your methods (this can be summarized briefly in the rationale of the study at the end of the Introduction and later in the Discussion section), you can engage with the crucial methods applied in previous studies here first.

When you have established the background of the study of your research paper in such a logical way, then the reader should have had no problem following you from the more general information you introduced first to the specific details you added later. You can now easily lead over to the relevance of your research, explain how your work fits into the bigger picture, and specify the aims and objectives of your study. This latter part is usually considered the “ statement of the problem ” of your study. Without a solid research paper background, this statement will come out of nowhere for the reader and very probably raise more questions than you were planning to answer.   

Where does the study background section go in a paper?

Unless you write a research proposal or some kind of report that has a specific “Background” chapter, the background of your study is the first part of your introduction section . This is where you put your work in context and provide all the relevant information the reader needs to follow your rationale. Make sure your background has a logical structure and naturally leads into the statement of the problem at the very end of the introduction so that you bring everything together for the reader to judge the relevance of your work and the validity of your approach before they dig deeper into the details of your study in the methods section .

Consider Receiving Professional Editing Services

Now that you know how to write a background section for a research paper, you might be interested in our AI text editor at Wordvice AI. And be sure to receive professional editing services , including academic editing and proofreading , before submitting your manuscript to journals. On the Wordvice academic resources website, you can also find many more articles and other resources that can help you with writing the other parts of your research paper , with making a research paper outline before you put everything together, or with writing an effective cover letter once you are ready to submit.

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What is the Background of a Study and How Should it be Written?

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Table of Contents

The background of a study is one of the most important components of a research paper. The quality of the background determines whether the reader will be interested in the rest of the study. Thus, to ensure that the audience is invested in reading the entire research paper, it is important to write an appealing and effective background. So, what constitutes the background of a study, and how must it be written?

What is the background of a study?

The background of a study is the first section of the paper and establishes the context underlying the research. It contains the rationale, the key problem statement, and a brief overview of research questions that are addressed in the rest of the paper. The background forms the crux of the study because it introduces an unaware audience to the research and its importance in a clear and logical manner. At times, the background may even explore whether the study builds on or refutes findings from previous studies. Any relevant information that the readers need to know before delving into the paper should be made available to them in the background.

How is a background different from the introduction?

The introduction of your research paper is presented before the background. Let’s find out what factors differentiate the background from the introduction.

  • The introduction only contains preliminary data about the research topic and does not state the purpose of the study. On the contrary, the background clarifies the importance of the study in detail.
  • The introduction provides an overview of the research topic from a broader perspective, while the background provides a detailed understanding of the topic.
  • The introduction should end with the mention of the research questions, aims, and objectives of the study. In contrast, the background follows no such format and only provides essential context to the study.

How should one write the background of a research paper?

The length and detail presented in the background varies for different research papers, depending on the complexity and novelty of the research topic. At times, a simple background suffices, even if the study is complex. Before writing and adding details in the background, take a note of these additional points:

  • Start with a strong beginning: Begin the background by defining the research topic and then identify the target audience.
  • Cover key components: Explain all theories, concepts, terms, and ideas that may feel unfamiliar to the target audience thoroughly.
  • Take note of important prerequisites: Go through the relevant literature in detail. Take notes while reading and cite the sources.
  • Maintain a balance: Make sure that the background is focused on important details, but also appeals to a broader audience.
  • Include historical data: Current issues largely originate from historical events or findings. If the research borrows information from a historical context, add relevant data in the background.
  • Explain novelty: If the research study or methodology is unique or novel, provide an explanation that helps to understand the research better.
  • Increase engagement: To make the background engaging, build a story around the central theme of the research

Avoid these mistakes while writing the background:

  • Ambiguity: Don’t be ambiguous. While writing, assume that the reader does not understand any intricate detail about your research.
  • Unrelated themes: Steer clear from topics that are not related to the key aspects of your research topic.
  • Poor organization: Do not place information without a structure. Make sure that the background reads in a chronological manner and organize the sub-sections so that it flows well.

Writing the background for a research paper should not be a daunting task. But directions to go about it can always help. At Elsevier Author Services we provide essential insights on how to write a high quality, appealing, and logically structured paper for publication, beginning with a robust background. For further queries, contact our experts now!

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What Is Background in a Research Paper?

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So you have carefully written your research paper  and probably ran it through your colleagues ten to fifteen times. While there are many elements to a good research article, one of the most important elements for your readers is the background of your study.

What is Background of the Study in Research

The background of your study will provide context to the information discussed throughout the research paper . Background information may include both important and relevant studies. This is particularly important if a study either supports or refutes your thesis.

Why is Background of the Study Necessary in Research?

The background of the study discusses your problem statement, rationale, and research questions. It links  introduction to your research topic  and ensures a logical flow of ideas.  Thus, it helps readers understand your reasons for conducting the study.

Providing Background Information

The reader should be able to understand your topic and its importance. The length and detail of your background also depend on the degree to which you need to demonstrate your understanding of the topic. Paying close attention to the following questions will help you in writing background information:

  • Are there any theories, concepts, terms, and ideas that may be unfamiliar to the target audience and will require you to provide any additional explanation?
  • Any historical data that need to be shared in order to provide context on why the current issue emerged?
  • Are there any concepts that may have been borrowed from other disciplines that may be unfamiliar to the reader and need an explanation?
Related: Ready with the background and searching for more information on journal ranking? Check this infographic on the SCImago Journal Rank today!

Is the research study unique for which additional explanation is needed? For instance, you may have used a completely new method

How to Write a Background of the Study

The structure of a background study in a research paper generally follows a logical sequence to provide context, justification, and an understanding of the research problem. It includes an introduction, general background, literature review , rationale , objectives, scope and limitations , significance of the study and the research hypothesis . Following the structure can provide a comprehensive and well-organized background for your research.

Here are the steps to effectively write a background of the study.

1. Identify Your Audience:

Determine the level of expertise of your target audience. Tailor the depth and complexity of your background information accordingly.

2. Understand the Research Problem:

Define the research problem or question your study aims to address. Identify the significance of the problem within the broader context of the field.

3. Review Existing Literature:

Conduct a thorough literature review to understand what is already known in the area. Summarize key findings, theories, and concepts relevant to your research.

4. Include Historical Data:

Integrate historical data if relevant to the research, as current issues often trace back to historical events.

5. Identify Controversies and Gaps:

Note any controversies or debates within the existing literature. Identify gaps , limitations, or unanswered questions that your research can address.

6. Select Key Components:

Choose the most critical elements to include in the background based on their relevance to your research problem. Prioritize information that helps build a strong foundation for your study.

7. Craft a Logical Flow:

Organize the background information in a logical sequence. Start with general context, move to specific theories and concepts, and then focus on the specific problem.

8. Highlight the Novelty of Your Research:

Clearly explain the unique aspects or contributions of your study. Emphasize why your research is different from or builds upon existing work.

Here are some extra tips to increase the quality of your research background:

Example of a Research Background

Here is an example of a research background to help you understand better.

The above hypothetical example provides a research background, addresses the gap and highlights the potential outcome of the study; thereby aiding a better understanding of the proposed research.

What Makes the Introduction Different from the Background?

Your introduction is different from your background in a number of ways.

  • The introduction contains preliminary data about your topic that  the reader will most likely read , whereas the background clarifies the importance of the paper.
  • The background of your study discusses in depth about the topic, whereas the introduction only gives an overview.
  • The introduction should end with your research questions, aims, and objectives, whereas your background should not (except in some cases where your background is integrated into your introduction). For instance, the C.A.R.S. ( Creating a Research Space ) model, created by John Swales is based on his analysis of journal articles. This model attempts to explain and describe the organizational pattern of writing the introduction in social sciences.

Points to Note

Your background should begin with defining a topic and audience. It is important that you identify which topic you need to review and what your audience already knows about the topic. You should proceed by searching and researching the relevant literature. In this case, it is advisable to keep track of the search terms you used and the articles that you downloaded. It is helpful to use one of the research paper management systems such as Papers, Mendeley, Evernote, or Sente. Next, it is helpful to take notes while reading. Be careful when copying quotes verbatim and make sure to put them in quotation marks and cite the sources. In addition, you should keep your background focused but balanced enough so that it is relevant to a broader audience. Aside from these, your background should be critical, consistent, and logically structured.

Writing the background of your study should not be an overly daunting task. Many guides that can help you organize your thoughts as you write the background. The background of the study is the key to introduce your audience to your research topic and should be done with strong knowledge and thoughtful writing.

The background of a research paper typically ranges from one to two paragraphs, summarizing the relevant literature and context of the study. It should be concise, providing enough information to contextualize the research problem and justify the need for the study. Journal instructions about any word count limits should be kept in mind while deciding on the length of the final content.

The background of a research paper provides the context and relevant literature to understand the research problem, while the introduction also introduces the specific research topic, states the research objectives, and outlines the scope of the study. The background focuses on the broader context, whereas the introduction focuses on the specific research project and its objectives.

When writing the background for a study, start by providing a brief overview of the research topic and its significance in the field. Then, highlight the gaps in existing knowledge or unresolved issues that the study aims to address. Finally, summarize the key findings from relevant literature to establish the context and rationale for conducting the research, emphasizing the need and importance of the study within the broader academic landscape.

The background in a research paper is crucial as it sets the stage for the study by providing essential context and rationale. It helps readers understand the significance of the research problem and its relevance in the broader field. By presenting relevant literature and highlighting gaps, the background justifies the need for the study, building a strong foundation for the research and enhancing its credibility.

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Chapter 1. Introduction

“Science is in danger, and for that reason it is becoming dangerous” -Pierre Bourdieu, Science of Science and Reflexivity

Why an Open Access Textbook on Qualitative Research Methods?

I have been teaching qualitative research methods to both undergraduates and graduate students for many years.  Although there are some excellent textbooks out there, they are often costly, and none of them, to my mind, properly introduces qualitative research methods to the beginning student (whether undergraduate or graduate student).  In contrast, this open-access textbook is designed as a (free) true introduction to the subject, with helpful, practical pointers on how to conduct research and how to access more advanced instruction.  

Textbooks are typically arranged in one of two ways: (1) by technique (each chapter covers one method used in qualitative research); or (2) by process (chapters advance from research design through publication).  But both of these approaches are necessary for the beginner student.  This textbook will have sections dedicated to the process as well as the techniques of qualitative research.  This is a true “comprehensive” book for the beginning student.  In addition to covering techniques of data collection and data analysis, it provides a road map of how to get started and how to keep going and where to go for advanced instruction.  It covers aspects of research design and research communication as well as methods employed.  Along the way, it includes examples from many different disciplines in the social sciences.

The primary goal has been to create a useful, accessible, engaging textbook for use across many disciplines.  And, let’s face it.  Textbooks can be boring.  I hope readers find this to be a little different.  I have tried to write in a practical and forthright manner, with many lively examples and references to good and intellectually creative qualitative research.  Woven throughout the text are short textual asides (in colored textboxes) by professional (academic) qualitative researchers in various disciplines.  These short accounts by practitioners should help inspire students.  So, let’s begin!

What is Research?

When we use the word research , what exactly do we mean by that?  This is one of those words that everyone thinks they understand, but it is worth beginning this textbook with a short explanation.  We use the term to refer to “empirical research,” which is actually a historically specific approach to understanding the world around us.  Think about how you know things about the world. [1] You might know your mother loves you because she’s told you she does.  Or because that is what “mothers” do by tradition.  Or you might know because you’ve looked for evidence that she does, like taking care of you when you are sick or reading to you in bed or working two jobs so you can have the things you need to do OK in life.  Maybe it seems churlish to look for evidence; you just take it “on faith” that you are loved.

Only one of the above comes close to what we mean by research.  Empirical research is research (investigation) based on evidence.  Conclusions can then be drawn from observable data.  This observable data can also be “tested” or checked.  If the data cannot be tested, that is a good indication that we are not doing research.  Note that we can never “prove” conclusively, through observable data, that our mothers love us.  We might have some “disconfirming evidence” (that time she didn’t show up to your graduation, for example) that could push you to question an original hypothesis , but no amount of “confirming evidence” will ever allow us to say with 100% certainty, “my mother loves me.”  Faith and tradition and authority work differently.  Our knowledge can be 100% certain using each of those alternative methods of knowledge, but our certainty in those cases will not be based on facts or evidence.

For many periods of history, those in power have been nervous about “science” because it uses evidence and facts as the primary source of understanding the world, and facts can be at odds with what power or authority or tradition want you to believe.  That is why I say that scientific empirical research is a historically specific approach to understand the world.  You are in college or university now partly to learn how to engage in this historically specific approach.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, there was a newfound respect for empirical research, some of which was seriously challenging to the established church.  Using observations and testing them, scientists found that the earth was not at the center of the universe, for example, but rather that it was but one planet of many which circled the sun. [2]   For the next two centuries, the science of astronomy, physics, biology, and chemistry emerged and became disciplines taught in universities.  All used the scientific method of observation and testing to advance knowledge.  Knowledge about people , however, and social institutions, however, was still left to faith, tradition, and authority.  Historians and philosophers and poets wrote about the human condition, but none of them used research to do so. [3]

It was not until the nineteenth century that “social science” really emerged, using the scientific method (empirical observation) to understand people and social institutions.  New fields of sociology, economics, political science, and anthropology emerged.  The first sociologists, people like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, sought specifically to apply the scientific method of research to understand society, Engels famously claiming that Marx had done for the social world what Darwin did for the natural world, tracings its laws of development.  Today we tend to take for granted the naturalness of science here, but it is actually a pretty recent and radical development.

To return to the question, “does your mother love you?”  Well, this is actually not really how a researcher would frame the question, as it is too specific to your case.  It doesn’t tell us much about the world at large, even if it does tell us something about you and your relationship with your mother.  A social science researcher might ask, “do mothers love their children?”  Or maybe they would be more interested in how this loving relationship might change over time (e.g., “do mothers love their children more now than they did in the 18th century when so many children died before reaching adulthood?”) or perhaps they might be interested in measuring quality of love across cultures or time periods, or even establishing “what love looks like” using the mother/child relationship as a site of exploration.  All of these make good research questions because we can use observable data to answer them.

What is Qualitative Research?

“All we know is how to learn. How to study, how to listen, how to talk, how to tell.  If we don’t tell the world, we don’t know the world.  We’re lost in it, we die.” -Ursula LeGuin, The Telling

At its simplest, qualitative research is research about the social world that does not use numbers in its analyses.  All those who fear statistics can breathe a sigh of relief – there are no mathematical formulae or regression models in this book! But this definition is less about what qualitative research can be and more about what it is not.  To be honest, any simple statement will fail to capture the power and depth of qualitative research.  One way of contrasting qualitative research to quantitative research is to note that the focus of qualitative research is less about explaining and predicting relationships between variables and more about understanding the social world.  To use our mother love example, the question about “what love looks like” is a good question for the qualitative researcher while all questions measuring love or comparing incidences of love (both of which require measurement) are good questions for quantitative researchers. Patton writes,

Qualitative data describe.  They take us, as readers, into the time and place of the observation so that we know what it was like to have been there.  They capture and communicate someone else’s experience of the world in his or her own words.  Qualitative data tell a story. ( Patton 2002:47 )

Qualitative researchers are asking different questions about the world than their quantitative colleagues.  Even when researchers are employed in “mixed methods” research ( both quantitative and qualitative), they are using different methods to address different questions of the study.  I do a lot of research about first-generation and working-college college students.  Where a quantitative researcher might ask, how many first-generation college students graduate from college within four years? Or does first-generation college status predict high student debt loads?  A qualitative researcher might ask, how does the college experience differ for first-generation college students?  What is it like to carry a lot of debt, and how does this impact the ability to complete college on time?  Both sets of questions are important, but they can only be answered using specific tools tailored to those questions.  For the former, you need large numbers to make adequate comparisons.  For the latter, you need to talk to people, find out what they are thinking and feeling, and try to inhabit their shoes for a little while so you can make sense of their experiences and beliefs.

Examples of Qualitative Research

You have probably seen examples of qualitative research before, but you might not have paid particular attention to how they were produced or realized that the accounts you were reading were the result of hours, months, even years of research “in the field.”  A good qualitative researcher will present the product of their hours of work in such a way that it seems natural, even obvious, to the reader.  Because we are trying to convey what it is like answers, qualitative research is often presented as stories – stories about how people live their lives, go to work, raise their children, interact with one another.  In some ways, this can seem like reading particularly insightful novels.  But, unlike novels, there are very specific rules and guidelines that qualitative researchers follow to ensure that the “story” they are telling is accurate , a truthful rendition of what life is like for the people being studied.  Most of this textbook will be spent conveying those rules and guidelines.  Let’s take a look, first, however, at three examples of what the end product looks like.  I have chosen these three examples to showcase very different approaches to qualitative research, and I will return to these five examples throughout the book.  They were all published as whole books (not chapters or articles), and they are worth the long read, if you have the time.  I will also provide some information on how these books came to be and the length of time it takes to get them into book version.  It is important you know about this process, and the rest of this textbook will help explain why it takes so long to conduct good qualitative research!

Example 1 : The End Game (ethnography + interviews)

Corey Abramson is a sociologist who teaches at the University of Arizona.   In 2015 he published The End Game: How Inequality Shapes our Final Years ( 2015 ). This book was based on the research he did for his dissertation at the University of California-Berkeley in 2012.  Actually, the dissertation was completed in 2012 but the work that was produced that took several years.  The dissertation was entitled, “This is How We Live, This is How We Die: Social Stratification, Aging, and Health in Urban America” ( 2012 ).  You can see how the book version, which was written for a more general audience, has a more engaging sound to it, but that the dissertation version, which is what academic faculty read and evaluate, has a more descriptive title.  You can read the title and know that this is a study about aging and health and that the focus is going to be inequality and that the context (place) is going to be “urban America.”  It’s a study about “how” people do something – in this case, how they deal with aging and death.  This is the very first sentence of the dissertation, “From our first breath in the hospital to the day we die, we live in a society characterized by unequal opportunities for maintaining health and taking care of ourselves when ill.  These disparities reflect persistent racial, socio-economic, and gender-based inequalities and contribute to their persistence over time” ( 1 ).  What follows is a truthful account of how that is so.

Cory Abramson spent three years conducting his research in four different urban neighborhoods.  We call the type of research he conducted “comparative ethnographic” because he designed his study to compare groups of seniors as they went about their everyday business.  It’s comparative because he is comparing different groups (based on race, class, gender) and ethnographic because he is studying the culture/way of life of a group. [4]   He had an educated guess, rooted in what previous research had shown and what social theory would suggest, that people’s experiences of aging differ by race, class, and gender.  So, he set up a research design that would allow him to observe differences.  He chose two primarily middle-class (one was racially diverse and the other was predominantly White) and two primarily poor neighborhoods (one was racially diverse and the other was predominantly African American).  He hung out in senior centers and other places seniors congregated, watched them as they took the bus to get prescriptions filled, sat in doctor’s offices with them, and listened to their conversations with each other.  He also conducted more formal conversations, what we call in-depth interviews, with sixty seniors from each of the four neighborhoods.  As with a lot of fieldwork , as he got closer to the people involved, he both expanded and deepened his reach –

By the end of the project, I expanded my pool of general observations to include various settings frequented by seniors: apartment building common rooms, doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, pharmacies, senior centers, bars, parks, corner stores, shopping centers, pool halls, hair salons, coffee shops, and discount stores. Over the course of the three years of fieldwork, I observed hundreds of elders, and developed close relationships with a number of them. ( 2012:10 )

When Abramson rewrote the dissertation for a general audience and published his book in 2015, it got a lot of attention.  It is a beautifully written book and it provided insight into a common human experience that we surprisingly know very little about.  It won the Outstanding Publication Award by the American Sociological Association Section on Aging and the Life Course and was featured in the New York Times .  The book was about aging, and specifically how inequality shapes the aging process, but it was also about much more than that.  It helped show how inequality affects people’s everyday lives.  For example, by observing the difficulties the poor had in setting up appointments and getting to them using public transportation and then being made to wait to see a doctor, sometimes in standing-room-only situations, when they are unwell, and then being treated dismissively by hospital staff, Abramson allowed readers to feel the material reality of being poor in the US.  Comparing these examples with seniors with adequate supplemental insurance who have the resources to hire car services or have others assist them in arranging care when they need it, jolts the reader to understand and appreciate the difference money makes in the lives and circumstances of us all, and in a way that is different than simply reading a statistic (“80% of the poor do not keep regular doctor’s appointments”) does.  Qualitative research can reach into spaces and places that often go unexamined and then reports back to the rest of us what it is like in those spaces and places.

Example 2: Racing for Innocence (Interviews + Content Analysis + Fictional Stories)

Jennifer Pierce is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.  Trained as a sociologist, she has written a number of books about gender, race, and power.  Her very first book, Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms, published in 1995, is a brilliant look at gender dynamics within two law firms.  Pierce was a participant observer, working as a paralegal, and she observed how female lawyers and female paralegals struggled to obtain parity with their male colleagues.

Fifteen years later, she reexamined the context of the law firm to include an examination of racial dynamics, particularly how elite white men working in these spaces created and maintained a culture that made it difficult for both female attorneys and attorneys of color to thrive. Her book, Racing for Innocence: Whiteness, Gender, and the Backlash Against Affirmative Action , published in 2012, is an interesting and creative blending of interviews with attorneys, content analyses of popular films during this period, and fictional accounts of racial discrimination and sexual harassment.  The law firm she chose to study had come under an affirmative action order and was in the process of implementing equitable policies and programs.  She wanted to understand how recipients of white privilege (the elite white male attorneys) come to deny the role they play in reproducing inequality.  Through interviews with attorneys who were present both before and during the affirmative action order, she creates a historical record of the “bad behavior” that necessitated new policies and procedures, but also, and more importantly , probed the participants ’ understanding of this behavior.  It should come as no surprise that most (but not all) of the white male attorneys saw little need for change, and that almost everyone else had accounts that were different if not sometimes downright harrowing.

I’ve used Pierce’s book in my qualitative research methods courses as an example of an interesting blend of techniques and presentation styles.  My students often have a very difficult time with the fictional accounts she includes.  But they serve an important communicative purpose here.  They are her attempts at presenting “both sides” to an objective reality – something happens (Pierce writes this something so it is very clear what it is), and the two participants to the thing that happened have very different understandings of what this means.  By including these stories, Pierce presents one of her key findings – people remember things differently and these different memories tend to support their own ideological positions.  I wonder what Pierce would have written had she studied the murder of George Floyd or the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 or any number of other historic events whose observers and participants record very different happenings.

This is not to say that qualitative researchers write fictional accounts.  In fact, the use of fiction in our work remains controversial.  When used, it must be clearly identified as a presentation device, as Pierce did.  I include Racing for Innocence here as an example of the multiple uses of methods and techniques and the way that these work together to produce better understandings by us, the readers, of what Pierce studied.  We readers come away with a better grasp of how and why advantaged people understate their own involvement in situations and structures that advantage them.  This is normal human behavior , in other words.  This case may have been about elite white men in law firms, but the general insights here can be transposed to other settings.  Indeed, Pierce argues that more research needs to be done about the role elites play in the reproduction of inequality in the workplace in general.

Example 3: Amplified Advantage (Mixed Methods: Survey Interviews + Focus Groups + Archives)

The final example comes from my own work with college students, particularly the ways in which class background affects the experience of college and outcomes for graduates.  I include it here as an example of mixed methods, and for the use of supplementary archival research.  I’ve done a lot of research over the years on first-generation, low-income, and working-class college students.  I am curious (and skeptical) about the possibility of social mobility today, particularly with the rising cost of college and growing inequality in general.  As one of the few people in my family to go to college, I didn’t grow up with a lot of examples of what college was like or how to make the most of it.  And when I entered graduate school, I realized with dismay that there were very few people like me there.  I worried about becoming too different from my family and friends back home.  And I wasn’t at all sure that I would ever be able to pay back the huge load of debt I was taking on.  And so I wrote my dissertation and first two books about working-class college students.  These books focused on experiences in college and the difficulties of navigating between family and school ( Hurst 2010a, 2012 ).  But even after all that research, I kept coming back to wondering if working-class students who made it through college had an equal chance at finding good jobs and happy lives,

What happens to students after college?  Do working-class students fare as well as their peers?  I knew from my own experience that barriers continued through graduate school and beyond, and that my debtload was higher than that of my peers, constraining some of the choices I made when I graduated.  To answer these questions, I designed a study of students attending small liberal arts colleges, the type of college that tried to equalize the experience of students by requiring all students to live on campus and offering small classes with lots of interaction with faculty.  These private colleges tend to have more money and resources so they can provide financial aid to low-income students.  They also attract some very wealthy students.  Because they enroll students across the class spectrum, I would be able to draw comparisons.  I ended up spending about four years collecting data, both a survey of more than 2000 students (which formed the basis for quantitative analyses) and qualitative data collection (interviews, focus groups, archival research, and participant observation).  This is what we call a “mixed methods” approach because we use both quantitative and qualitative data.  The survey gave me a large enough number of students that I could make comparisons of the how many kind, and to be able to say with some authority that there were in fact significant differences in experience and outcome by class (e.g., wealthier students earned more money and had little debt; working-class students often found jobs that were not in their chosen careers and were very affected by debt, upper-middle-class students were more likely to go to graduate school).  But the survey analyses could not explain why these differences existed.  For that, I needed to talk to people and ask them about their motivations and aspirations.  I needed to understand their perceptions of the world, and it is very hard to do this through a survey.

By interviewing students and recent graduates, I was able to discern particular patterns and pathways through college and beyond.  Specifically, I identified three versions of gameplay.  Upper-middle-class students, whose parents were themselves professionals (academics, lawyers, managers of non-profits), saw college as the first stage of their education and took classes and declared majors that would prepare them for graduate school.  They also spent a lot of time building their resumes, taking advantage of opportunities to help professors with their research, or study abroad.  This helped them gain admission to highly-ranked graduate schools and interesting jobs in the public sector.  In contrast, upper-class students, whose parents were wealthy and more likely to be engaged in business (as CEOs or other high-level directors), prioritized building social capital.  They did this by joining fraternities and sororities and playing club sports.  This helped them when they graduated as they called on friends and parents of friends to find them well-paying jobs.  Finally, low-income, first-generation, and working-class students were often adrift.  They took the classes that were recommended to them but without the knowledge of how to connect them to life beyond college.  They spent time working and studying rather than partying or building their resumes.  All three sets of students thought they were “doing college” the right way, the way that one was supposed to do college.   But these three versions of gameplay led to distinct outcomes that advantaged some students over others.  I titled my work “Amplified Advantage” to highlight this process.

These three examples, Cory Abramson’s The End Game , Jennifer Peirce’s Racing for Innocence, and my own Amplified Advantage, demonstrate the range of approaches and tools available to the qualitative researcher.  They also help explain why qualitative research is so important.  Numbers can tell us some things about the world, but they cannot get at the hearts and minds, motivations and beliefs of the people who make up the social worlds we inhabit.  For that, we need tools that allow us to listen and make sense of what people tell us and show us.  That is what good qualitative research offers us.

How Is This Book Organized?

This textbook is organized as a comprehensive introduction to the use of qualitative research methods.  The first half covers general topics (e.g., approaches to qualitative research, ethics) and research design (necessary steps for building a successful qualitative research study).  The second half reviews various data collection and data analysis techniques.  Of course, building a successful qualitative research study requires some knowledge of data collection and data analysis so the chapters in the first half and the chapters in the second half should be read in conversation with each other.  That said, each chapter can be read on its own for assistance with a particular narrow topic.  In addition to the chapters, a helpful glossary can be found in the back of the book.  Rummage around in the text as needed.

Chapter Descriptions

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Research Design Process.  How does one begin a study? What is an appropriate research question?  How is the study to be done – with what methods ?  Involving what people and sites?  Although qualitative research studies can and often do change and develop over the course of data collection, it is important to have a good idea of what the aims and goals of your study are at the outset and a good plan of how to achieve those aims and goals.  Chapter 2 provides a road map of the process.

Chapter 3 describes and explains various ways of knowing the (social) world.  What is it possible for us to know about how other people think or why they behave the way they do?  What does it mean to say something is a “fact” or that it is “well-known” and understood?  Qualitative researchers are particularly interested in these questions because of the types of research questions we are interested in answering (the how questions rather than the how many questions of quantitative research).  Qualitative researchers have adopted various epistemological approaches.  Chapter 3 will explore these approaches, highlighting interpretivist approaches that acknowledge the subjective aspect of reality – in other words, reality and knowledge are not objective but rather influenced by (interpreted through) people.

Chapter 4 focuses on the practical matter of developing a research question and finding the right approach to data collection.  In any given study (think of Cory Abramson’s study of aging, for example), there may be years of collected data, thousands of observations , hundreds of pages of notes to read and review and make sense of.  If all you had was a general interest area (“aging”), it would be very difficult, nearly impossible, to make sense of all of that data.  The research question provides a helpful lens to refine and clarify (and simplify) everything you find and collect.  For that reason, it is important to pull out that lens (articulate the research question) before you get started.  In the case of the aging study, Cory Abramson was interested in how inequalities affected understandings and responses to aging.  It is for this reason he designed a study that would allow him to compare different groups of seniors (some middle-class, some poor).  Inevitably, he saw much more in the three years in the field than what made it into his book (or dissertation), but he was able to narrow down the complexity of the social world to provide us with this rich account linked to the original research question.  Developing a good research question is thus crucial to effective design and a successful outcome.  Chapter 4 will provide pointers on how to do this.  Chapter 4 also provides an overview of general approaches taken to doing qualitative research and various “traditions of inquiry.”

Chapter 5 explores sampling .  After you have developed a research question and have a general idea of how you will collect data (Observations?  Interviews?), how do you go about actually finding people and sites to study?  Although there is no “correct number” of people to interview , the sample should follow the research question and research design.  Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research involves nonprobability sampling.  Chapter 5 explains why this is so and what qualities instead make a good sample for qualitative research.

Chapter 6 addresses the importance of reflexivity in qualitative research.  Related to epistemological issues of how we know anything about the social world, qualitative researchers understand that we the researchers can never be truly neutral or outside the study we are conducting.  As observers, we see things that make sense to us and may entirely miss what is either too obvious to note or too different to comprehend.  As interviewers, as much as we would like to ask questions neutrally and remain in the background, interviews are a form of conversation, and the persons we interview are responding to us .  Therefore, it is important to reflect upon our social positions and the knowledges and expectations we bring to our work and to work through any blind spots that we may have.  Chapter 6 provides some examples of reflexivity in practice and exercises for thinking through one’s own biases.

Chapter 7 is a very important chapter and should not be overlooked.  As a practical matter, it should also be read closely with chapters 6 and 8.  Because qualitative researchers deal with people and the social world, it is imperative they develop and adhere to a strong ethical code for conducting research in a way that does not harm.  There are legal requirements and guidelines for doing so (see chapter 8), but these requirements should not be considered synonymous with the ethical code required of us.   Each researcher must constantly interrogate every aspect of their research, from research question to design to sample through analysis and presentation, to ensure that a minimum of harm (ideally, zero harm) is caused.  Because each research project is unique, the standards of care for each study are unique.  Part of being a professional researcher is carrying this code in one’s heart, being constantly attentive to what is required under particular circumstances.  Chapter 7 provides various research scenarios and asks readers to weigh in on the suitability and appropriateness of the research.  If done in a class setting, it will become obvious fairly quickly that there are often no absolutely correct answers, as different people find different aspects of the scenarios of greatest importance.  Minimizing the harm in one area may require possible harm in another.  Being attentive to all the ethical aspects of one’s research and making the best judgments one can, clearly and consciously, is an integral part of being a good researcher.

Chapter 8 , best to be read in conjunction with chapter 7, explains the role and importance of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) .  Under federal guidelines, an IRB is an appropriately constituted group that has been formally designated to review and monitor research involving human subjects .  Every institution that receives funding from the federal government has an IRB.  IRBs have the authority to approve, require modifications to (to secure approval), or disapprove research.  This group review serves an important role in the protection of the rights and welfare of human research subjects.  Chapter 8 reviews the history of IRBs and the work they do but also argues that IRBs’ review of qualitative research is often both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.  Some aspects of qualitative research are not well understood by IRBs, given that they were developed to prevent abuses in biomedical research.  Thus, it is important not to rely on IRBs to identify all the potential ethical issues that emerge in our research (see chapter 7).

Chapter 9 provides help for getting started on formulating a research question based on gaps in the pre-existing literature.  Research is conducted as part of a community, even if particular studies are done by single individuals (or small teams).  What any of us finds and reports back becomes part of a much larger body of knowledge.  Thus, it is important that we look at the larger body of knowledge before we actually start our bit to see how we can best contribute.  When I first began interviewing working-class college students, there was only one other similar study I could find, and it hadn’t been published (it was a dissertation of students from poor backgrounds).  But there had been a lot published by professors who had grown up working class and made it through college despite the odds.  These accounts by “working-class academics” became an important inspiration for my study and helped me frame the questions I asked the students I interviewed.  Chapter 9 will provide some pointers on how to search for relevant literature and how to use this to refine your research question.

Chapter 10 serves as a bridge between the two parts of the textbook, by introducing techniques of data collection.  Qualitative research is often characterized by the form of data collection – for example, an ethnographic study is one that employs primarily observational data collection for the purpose of documenting and presenting a particular culture or ethnos.  Techniques can be effectively combined, depending on the research question and the aims and goals of the study.   Chapter 10 provides a general overview of all the various techniques and how they can be combined.

The second part of the textbook moves into the doing part of qualitative research once the research question has been articulated and the study designed.  Chapters 11 through 17 cover various data collection techniques and approaches.  Chapters 18 and 19 provide a very simple overview of basic data analysis.  Chapter 20 covers communication of the data to various audiences, and in various formats.

Chapter 11 begins our overview of data collection techniques with a focus on interviewing , the true heart of qualitative research.  This technique can serve as the primary and exclusive form of data collection, or it can be used to supplement other forms (observation, archival).  An interview is distinct from a survey, where questions are asked in a specific order and often with a range of predetermined responses available.  Interviews can be conversational and unstructured or, more conventionally, semistructured , where a general set of interview questions “guides” the conversation.  Chapter 11 covers the basics of interviews: how to create interview guides, how many people to interview, where to conduct the interview, what to watch out for (how to prepare against things going wrong), and how to get the most out of your interviews.

Chapter 12 covers an important variant of interviewing, the focus group.  Focus groups are semistructured interviews with a group of people moderated by a facilitator (the researcher or researcher’s assistant).  Focus groups explicitly use group interaction to assist in the data collection.  They are best used to collect data on a specific topic that is non-personal and shared among the group.  For example, asking a group of college students about a common experience such as taking classes by remote delivery during the pandemic year of 2020.  Chapter 12 covers the basics of focus groups: when to use them, how to create interview guides for them, and how to run them effectively.

Chapter 13 moves away from interviewing to the second major form of data collection unique to qualitative researchers – observation .  Qualitative research that employs observation can best be understood as falling on a continuum of “fly on the wall” observation (e.g., observing how strangers interact in a doctor’s waiting room) to “participant” observation, where the researcher is also an active participant of the activity being observed.  For example, an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement might want to study the movement, using her inside position to gain access to observe key meetings and interactions.  Chapter  13 covers the basics of participant observation studies: advantages and disadvantages, gaining access, ethical concerns related to insider/outsider status and entanglement, and recording techniques.

Chapter 14 takes a closer look at “deep ethnography” – immersion in the field of a particularly long duration for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of a particular culture or social world.  Clifford Geertz called this “deep hanging out.”  Whereas participant observation is often combined with semistructured interview techniques, deep ethnography’s commitment to “living the life” or experiencing the situation as it really is demands more conversational and natural interactions with people.  These interactions and conversations may take place over months or even years.  As can be expected, there are some costs to this technique, as well as some very large rewards when done competently.  Chapter 14 provides some examples of deep ethnographies that will inspire some beginning researchers and intimidate others.

Chapter 15 moves in the opposite direction of deep ethnography, a technique that is the least positivist of all those discussed here, to mixed methods , a set of techniques that is arguably the most positivist .  A mixed methods approach combines both qualitative data collection and quantitative data collection, commonly by combining a survey that is analyzed statistically (e.g., cross-tabs or regression analyses of large number probability samples) with semi-structured interviews.  Although it is somewhat unconventional to discuss mixed methods in textbooks on qualitative research, I think it is important to recognize this often-employed approach here.  There are several advantages and some disadvantages to taking this route.  Chapter 16 will describe those advantages and disadvantages and provide some particular guidance on how to design a mixed methods study for maximum effectiveness.

Chapter 16 covers data collection that does not involve live human subjects at all – archival and historical research (chapter 17 will also cover data that does not involve interacting with human subjects).  Sometimes people are unavailable to us, either because they do not wish to be interviewed or observed (as is the case with many “elites”) or because they are too far away, in both place and time.  Fortunately, humans leave many traces and we can often answer questions we have by examining those traces.  Special collections and archives can be goldmines for social science research.  This chapter will explain how to access these places, for what purposes, and how to begin to make sense of what you find.

Chapter 17 covers another data collection area that does not involve face-to-face interaction with humans: content analysis .  Although content analysis may be understood more properly as a data analysis technique, the term is often used for the entire approach, which will be the case here.  Content analysis involves interpreting meaning from a body of text.  This body of text might be something found in historical records (see chapter 16) or something collected by the researcher, as in the case of comment posts on a popular blog post.  I once used the stories told by student loan debtors on the website studentloanjustice.org as the content I analyzed.  Content analysis is particularly useful when attempting to define and understand prevalent stories or communication about a topic of interest.  In other words, when we are less interested in what particular people (our defined sample) are doing or believing and more interested in what general narratives exist about a particular topic or issue.  This chapter will explore different approaches to content analysis and provide helpful tips on how to collect data, how to turn that data into codes for analysis, and how to go about presenting what is found through analysis.

Where chapter 17 has pushed us towards data analysis, chapters 18 and 19 are all about what to do with the data collected, whether that data be in the form of interview transcripts or fieldnotes from observations.  Chapter 18 introduces the basics of coding , the iterative process of assigning meaning to the data in order to both simplify and identify patterns.  What is a code and how does it work?  What are the different ways of coding data, and when should you use them?  What is a codebook, and why do you need one?  What does the process of data analysis look like?

Chapter 19 goes further into detail on codes and how to use them, particularly the later stages of coding in which our codes are refined, simplified, combined, and organized.  These later rounds of coding are essential to getting the most out of the data we’ve collected.  As students are often overwhelmed with the amount of data (a corpus of interview transcripts typically runs into the hundreds of pages; fieldnotes can easily top that), this chapter will also address time management and provide suggestions for dealing with chaos and reminders that feeling overwhelmed at the analysis stage is part of the process.  By the end of the chapter, you should understand how “findings” are actually found.

The book concludes with a chapter dedicated to the effective presentation of data results.  Chapter 20 covers the many ways that researchers communicate their studies to various audiences (academic, personal, political), what elements must be included in these various publications, and the hallmarks of excellent qualitative research that various audiences will be expecting.  Because qualitative researchers are motivated by understanding and conveying meaning , effective communication is not only an essential skill but a fundamental facet of the entire research project.  Ethnographers must be able to convey a certain sense of verisimilitude , the appearance of true reality.  Those employing interviews must faithfully depict the key meanings of the people they interviewed in a way that rings true to those people, even if the end result surprises them.  And all researchers must strive for clarity in their publications so that various audiences can understand what was found and why it is important.

The book concludes with a short chapter ( chapter 21 ) discussing the value of qualitative research. At the very end of this book, you will find a glossary of terms. I recommend you make frequent use of the glossary and add to each entry as you find examples. Although the entries are meant to be simple and clear, you may also want to paraphrase the definition—make it “make sense” to you, in other words. In addition to the standard reference list (all works cited here), you will find various recommendations for further reading at the end of many chapters. Some of these recommendations will be examples of excellent qualitative research, indicated with an asterisk (*) at the end of the entry. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. A good example of qualitative research can teach you more about conducting research than any textbook can (this one included). I highly recommend you select one to three examples from these lists and read them along with the textbook.

A final note on the choice of examples – you will note that many of the examples used in the text come from research on college students.  This is for two reasons.  First, as most of my research falls in this area, I am most familiar with this literature and have contacts with those who do research here and can call upon them to share their stories with you.  Second, and more importantly, my hope is that this textbook reaches a wide audience of beginning researchers who study widely and deeply across the range of what can be known about the social world (from marine resources management to public policy to nursing to political science to sexuality studies and beyond).  It is sometimes difficult to find examples that speak to all those research interests, however. A focus on college students is something that all readers can understand and, hopefully, appreciate, as we are all now or have been at some point a college student.

Recommended Reading: Other Qualitative Research Textbooks

I’ve included a brief list of some of my favorite qualitative research textbooks and guidebooks if you need more than what you will find in this introductory text.  For each, I’ve also indicated if these are for “beginning” or “advanced” (graduate-level) readers.  Many of these books have several editions that do not significantly vary; the edition recommended is merely the edition I have used in teaching and to whose page numbers any specific references made in the text agree.

Barbour, Rosaline. 2014. Introducing Qualitative Research: A Student’s Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.  A good introduction to qualitative research, with abundant examples (often from the discipline of health care) and clear definitions.  Includes quick summaries at the ends of each chapter.  However, some US students might find the British context distracting and can be a bit advanced in some places.  Beginning .

Bloomberg, Linda Dale, and Marie F. Volpe. 2012. Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.  Specifically designed to guide graduate students through the research process. Advanced .

Creswell, John W., and Cheryl Poth. 2018 Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Traditions .  4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.  This is a classic and one of the go-to books I used myself as a graduate student.  One of the best things about this text is its clear presentation of five distinct traditions in qualitative research.  Despite the title, this reasonably sized book is about more than research design, including both data analysis and how to write about qualitative research.  Advanced .

Lareau, Annette. 2021. Listening to People: A Practical Guide to Interviewing, Participant Observation, Data Analysis, and Writing It All Up .  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A readable and personal account of conducting qualitative research by an eminent sociologist, with a heavy emphasis on the kinds of participant-observation research conducted by the author.  Despite its reader-friendliness, this is really a book targeted to graduate students learning the craft.  Advanced .

Lune, Howard, and Bruce L. Berg. 2018. 9th edition.  Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences.  Pearson . Although a good introduction to qualitative methods, the authors favor symbolic interactionist and dramaturgical approaches, which limits the appeal primarily to sociologists.  Beginning .

Marshall, Catherine, and Gretchen B. Rossman. 2016. 6th edition. Designing Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.  Very readable and accessible guide to research design by two educational scholars.  Although the presentation is sometimes fairly dry, personal vignettes and illustrations enliven the text.  Beginning .

Maxwell, Joseph A. 2013. Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach .  3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. A short and accessible introduction to qualitative research design, particularly helpful for graduate students contemplating theses and dissertations. This has been a standard textbook in my graduate-level courses for years.  Advanced .

Patton, Michael Quinn. 2002. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.  This is a comprehensive text that served as my “go-to” reference when I was a graduate student.  It is particularly helpful for those involved in program evaluation and other forms of evaluation studies and uses examples from a wide range of disciplines.  Advanced .

Rubin, Ashley T. 2021. Rocking Qualitative Social Science: An Irreverent Guide to Rigorous Research. Stanford : Stanford University Press.  A delightful and personal read.  Rubin uses rock climbing as an extended metaphor for learning how to conduct qualitative research.  A bit slanted toward ethnographic and archival methods of data collection, with frequent examples from her own studies in criminology. Beginning .

Weis, Lois, and Michelle Fine. 2000. Speed Bumps: A Student-Friendly Guide to Qualitative Research . New York: Teachers College Press.  Readable and accessibly written in a quasi-conversational style.  Particularly strong in its discussion of ethical issues throughout the qualitative research process.  Not comprehensive, however, and very much tied to ethnographic research.  Although designed for graduate students, this is a recommended read for students of all levels.  Beginning .

Patton’s Ten Suggestions for Doing Qualitative Research

The following ten suggestions were made by Michael Quinn Patton in his massive textbooks Qualitative Research and Evaluations Methods . This book is highly recommended for those of you who want more than an introduction to qualitative methods. It is the book I relied on heavily when I was a graduate student, although it is much easier to “dip into” when necessary than to read through as a whole. Patton is asked for “just one bit of advice” for a graduate student considering using qualitative research methods for their dissertation.  Here are his top ten responses, in short form, heavily paraphrased, and with additional comments and emphases from me:

  • Make sure that a qualitative approach fits the research question. The following are the kinds of questions that call out for qualitative methods or where qualitative methods are particularly appropriate: questions about people’s experiences or how they make sense of those experiences; studying a person in their natural environment; researching a phenomenon so unknown that it would be impossible to study it with standardized instruments or other forms of quantitative data collection.
  • Study qualitative research by going to the original sources for the design and analysis appropriate to the particular approach you want to take (e.g., read Glaser and Straus if you are using grounded theory )
  • Find a dissertation adviser who understands or at least who will support your use of qualitative research methods. You are asking for trouble if your entire committee is populated by quantitative researchers, even if they are all very knowledgeable about the subject or focus of your study (maybe even more so if they are!)
  • Really work on design. Doing qualitative research effectively takes a lot of planning.  Even if things are more flexible than in quantitative research, a good design is absolutely essential when starting out.
  • Practice data collection techniques, particularly interviewing and observing. There is definitely a set of learned skills here!  Do not expect your first interview to be perfect.  You will continue to grow as a researcher the more interviews you conduct, and you will probably come to understand yourself a bit more in the process, too.  This is not easy, despite what others who don’t work with qualitative methods may assume (and tell you!)
  • Have a plan for analysis before you begin data collection. This is often a requirement in IRB protocols , although you can get away with writing something fairly simple.  And even if you are taking an approach, such as grounded theory, that pushes you to remain fairly open-minded during the data collection process, you still want to know what you will be doing with all the data collected – creating a codebook? Writing analytical memos? Comparing cases?  Having a plan in hand will also help prevent you from collecting too much extraneous data.
  • Be prepared to confront controversies both within the qualitative research community and between qualitative research and quantitative research. Don’t be naïve about this – qualitative research, particularly some approaches, will be derided by many more “positivist” researchers and audiences.  For example, is an “n” of 1 really sufficient?  Yes!  But not everyone will agree.
  • Do not make the mistake of using qualitative research methods because someone told you it was easier, or because you are intimidated by the math required of statistical analyses. Qualitative research is difficult in its own way (and many would claim much more time-consuming than quantitative research).  Do it because you are convinced it is right for your goals, aims, and research questions.
  • Find a good support network. This could be a research mentor, or it could be a group of friends or colleagues who are also using qualitative research, or it could be just someone who will listen to you work through all of the issues you will confront out in the field and during the writing process.  Even though qualitative research often involves human subjects, it can be pretty lonely.  A lot of times you will feel like you are working without a net.  You have to create one for yourself.  Take care of yourself.
  • And, finally, in the words of Patton, “Prepare to be changed. Looking deeply at other people’s lives will force you to look deeply at yourself.”
  • We will actually spend an entire chapter ( chapter 3 ) looking at this question in much more detail! ↵
  • Note that this might have been news to Europeans at the time, but many other societies around the world had also come to this conclusion through observation.  There is often a tendency to equate “the scientific revolution” with the European world in which it took place, but this is somewhat misleading. ↵
  • Historians are a special case here.  Historians have scrupulously and rigorously investigated the social world, but not for the purpose of understanding general laws about how things work, which is the point of scientific empirical research.  History is often referred to as an idiographic field of study, meaning that it studies things that happened or are happening in themselves and not for general observations or conclusions. ↵
  • Don’t worry, we’ll spend more time later in this book unpacking the meaning of ethnography and other terms that are important here.  Note the available glossary ↵

An approach to research that is “multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter.  This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.  Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives." ( Denzin and Lincoln 2005:2 ). Contrast with quantitative research .

In contrast to methodology, methods are more simply the practices and tools used to collect and analyze data.  Examples of common methods in qualitative research are interviews , observations , and documentary analysis .  One’s methodology should connect to one’s choice of methods, of course, but they are distinguishable terms.  See also methodology .

A proposed explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation.  The positing of a hypothesis is often the first step in quantitative research but not in qualitative research.  Even when qualitative researchers offer possible explanations in advance of conducting research, they will tend to not use the word “hypothesis” as it conjures up the kind of positivist research they are not conducting.

The foundational question to be addressed by the research study.  This will form the anchor of the research design, collection, and analysis.  Note that in qualitative research, the research question may, and probably will, alter or develop during the course of the research.

An approach to research that collects and analyzes numerical data for the purpose of finding patterns and averages, making predictions, testing causal relationships, and generalizing results to wider populations.  Contrast with qualitative research .

Data collection that takes place in real-world settings, referred to as “the field;” a key component of much Grounded Theory and ethnographic research.  Patton ( 2002 ) calls fieldwork “the central activity of qualitative inquiry” where “‘going into the field’ means having direct and personal contact with people under study in their own environments – getting close to people and situations being studied to personally understand the realities of minutiae of daily life” (48).

The people who are the subjects of a qualitative study.  In interview-based studies, they may be the respondents to the interviewer; for purposes of IRBs, they are often referred to as the human subjects of the research.

The branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge.  For researchers, it is important to recognize and adopt one of the many distinguishing epistemological perspectives as part of our understanding of what questions research can address or fully answer.  See, e.g., constructivism , subjectivism, and  objectivism .

An approach that refutes the possibility of neutrality in social science research.  All research is “guided by a set of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied” (Denzin and Lincoln 2005: 13).  In contrast to positivism , interpretivism recognizes the social constructedness of reality, and researchers adopting this approach focus on capturing interpretations and understandings people have about the world rather than “the world” as it is (which is a chimera).

The cluster of data-collection tools and techniques that involve observing interactions between people, the behaviors, and practices of individuals (sometimes in contrast to what they say about how they act and behave), and cultures in context.  Observational methods are the key tools employed by ethnographers and Grounded Theory .

Research based on data collected and analyzed by the research (in contrast to secondary “library” research).

The process of selecting people or other units of analysis to represent a larger population. In quantitative research, this representation is taken quite literally, as statistically representative.  In qualitative research, in contrast, sample selection is often made based on potential to generate insight about a particular topic or phenomenon.

A method of data collection in which the researcher asks the participant questions; the answers to these questions are often recorded and transcribed verbatim. There are many different kinds of interviews - see also semistructured interview , structured interview , and unstructured interview .

The specific group of individuals that you will collect data from.  Contrast population.

The practice of being conscious of and reflective upon one’s own social location and presence when conducting research.  Because qualitative research often requires interaction with live humans, failing to take into account how one’s presence and prior expectations and social location affect the data collected and how analyzed may limit the reliability of the findings.  This remains true even when dealing with historical archives and other content.  Who we are matters when asking questions about how people experience the world because we, too, are a part of that world.

The science and practice of right conduct; in research, it is also the delineation of moral obligations towards research participants, communities to which we belong, and communities in which we conduct our research.

An administrative body established to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted under the auspices of the institution with which it is affiliated. The IRB is charged with the responsibility of reviewing all research involving human participants. The IRB is concerned with protecting the welfare, rights, and privacy of human subjects. The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove, monitor, and require modifications in all research activities that fall within its jurisdiction as specified by both the federal regulations and institutional policy.

Research, according to US federal guidelines, that involves “a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research:  (1) Obtains information or biospecimens through intervention or interaction with the individual, and uses, studies, or analyzes the information or biospecimens; or  (2) Obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens.”

One of the primary methodological traditions of inquiry in qualitative research, ethnography is the study of a group or group culture, largely through observational fieldwork supplemented by interviews. It is a form of fieldwork that may include participant-observation data collection. See chapter 14 for a discussion of deep ethnography. 

A form of interview that follows a standard guide of questions asked, although the order of the questions may change to match the particular needs of each individual interview subject, and probing “follow-up” questions are often added during the course of the interview.  The semi-structured interview is the primary form of interviewing used by qualitative researchers in the social sciences.  It is sometimes referred to as an “in-depth” interview.  See also interview and  interview guide .

A method of observational data collection taking place in a natural setting; a form of fieldwork .  The term encompasses a continuum of relative participation by the researcher (from full participant to “fly-on-the-wall” observer).  This is also sometimes referred to as ethnography , although the latter is characterized by a greater focus on the culture under observation.

A research design that employs both quantitative and qualitative methods, as in the case of a survey supplemented by interviews.

An epistemological perspective that posits the existence of reality through sensory experience similar to empiricism but goes further in denying any non-sensory basis of thought or consciousness.  In the social sciences, the term has roots in the proto-sociologist August Comte, who believed he could discern “laws” of society similar to the laws of natural science (e.g., gravity).  The term has come to mean the kinds of measurable and verifiable science conducted by quantitative researchers and is thus used pejoratively by some qualitative researchers interested in interpretation, consciousness, and human understanding.  Calling someone a “positivist” is often intended as an insult.  See also empiricism and objectivism.

A place or collection containing records, documents, or other materials of historical interest; most universities have an archive of material related to the university’s history, as well as other “special collections” that may be of interest to members of the community.

A method of both data collection and data analysis in which a given content (textual, visual, graphic) is examined systematically and rigorously to identify meanings, themes, patterns and assumptions.  Qualitative content analysis (QCA) is concerned with gathering and interpreting an existing body of material.    

A word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and/or evocative attribute for a portion of language-based or visual data (Saldaña 2021:5).

Usually a verbatim written record of an interview or focus group discussion.

The primary form of data for fieldwork , participant observation , and ethnography .  These notes, taken by the researcher either during the course of fieldwork or at day’s end, should include as many details as possible on what was observed and what was said.  They should include clear identifiers of date, time, setting, and names (or identifying characteristics) of participants.

The process of labeling and organizing qualitative data to identify different themes and the relationships between them; a way of simplifying data to allow better management and retrieval of key themes and illustrative passages.  See coding frame and  codebook.

A methodological tradition of inquiry and approach to analyzing qualitative data in which theories emerge from a rigorous and systematic process of induction.  This approach was pioneered by the sociologists Glaser and Strauss (1967).  The elements of theory generated from comparative analysis of data are, first, conceptual categories and their properties and, second, hypotheses or generalized relations among the categories and their properties – “The constant comparing of many groups draws the [researcher’s] attention to their many similarities and differences.  Considering these leads [the researcher] to generate abstract categories and their properties, which, since they emerge from the data, will clearly be important to a theory explaining the kind of behavior under observation.” (36).

A detailed description of any proposed research that involves human subjects for review by IRB.  The protocol serves as the recipe for the conduct of the research activity.  It includes the scientific rationale to justify the conduct of the study, the information necessary to conduct the study, the plan for managing and analyzing the data, and a discussion of the research ethical issues relevant to the research.  Protocols for qualitative research often include interview guides, all documents related to recruitment, informed consent forms, very clear guidelines on the safekeeping of materials collected, and plans for de-identifying transcripts or other data that include personal identifying information.

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

A newer edition of this book is available.

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1 Introduction

Patricia Leavy Independent Scholar Kennebunk, ME, USA

  • Published: 01 July 2014
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This chapter serves as the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research . The first half of the chapter responds to two questions. First, the chapter addresses the question: What is qualitative research? In answering the question, the chapter reviews the major elements of research: paradigm, ontology, epistemology (which together form the philosophical basis of research), genre, methods, theory, methodology (which operate at the level of praxis), ethics, values, and reflexivity (which merge the philosophical and praxis dimensions of research). Second, the chapter addresses the question: Who are qualitative researchers? Leavy explains qualitative research as a form of bricolage and qualitative researchers as bricoleurs. The remainder of the chapter reviews the contents of the handbook, providing a chapter by chapter summary.

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot

I open the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research with the preceding quote for two reasons. First, it captures the essence of qualitative inquiry as a way of understanding, describing, explaining, unraveling, illuminating, chronicling, and documenting social life—which includes attention to the everyday, to the mundane and ordinary, as much as the extraordinary. Qualitative research can involve the study of others, but also the self and the complex relationships between, within, and among people and groups, including our own entanglements. The second reason I have begun with this quote is because it opens Laurel Richardson’s book Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life (1997) . This is one of my favorite books, and, in it, Richardson expands the way we think of ourselves as researchers, writers, and knowers. What I intend to do by way of sharing this is to locate myself within the field and within this text—this is something that many qualitative researchers aim to do, in various ways. In qualitative research, we are not outside of our projects, but located and shifting within them. Qualitative research is an engaged way of building knowledge about the social world and human experience, and qualitative researchers are enmeshed in their projects.

What Is Qualitative Research?

Science is a conversation between rigor and imagination. ( Abbott, 2004 , p. 3)

Qualitative research is a way of learning about social reality. Qualitative approaches to research can be used across the disciplines to study a wide array of topics. In the social and behavioral sciences, these approaches to research are often used to explore, describe, or explain social phenomenon; unpack the meanings people ascribe to activities, situations, events, or artefacts; build a depth of understanding about some aspect of social life; build “thick descriptions” (see Clifford Geertz, 1973 ) of people in naturalistic settings; explore new or underresearched areas; or make micro–macro links (illuminate connections between individuals–groups and institutional and/or cultural contexts).

Qualitative research itself is an umbrella term for a rich array of research practices and products. Qualitative research is an expansive and continually evolving methodological field that encompasses a wide range of approaches to research, as well as multiple perspectives on the nature of research itself. It has been argued that qualitative research developed in an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or counterdisciplinary field ( Denzin & Lincoln, 1998 ; Jovanic, 2011 ; Lorenz, 2010 ). This approach to inquiry is unique, in part because of its philosophical and methodological diversity, as well as because of the value system guiding research practice.

The diversity of the qualitative landscape, as well as the gestalt of qualitative practice, is also partly attributable to the context in which qualitative research developed. Chapter 2 in this handbook looks much more fully at the historical development of qualitative research, but I would like to briefly note the period of growth in the 1960s and 1970s because it bears directly on the richness of contemporary qualitative practice. 2

Although there were many pivotal works published prior to the 1960s, the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s—the civil rights, women’s, gay rights, and peace movements—culminated in major changes in the academic landscape, including the asking of new research questions and the reframing of many previously asked research questions and corresponding approaches to research. These movements in essence became sites for new ways of thinking and led to the critique of dominant methods of scientific practice, many of which relied on positivism ( Jovanic, 2011 ). There was a drive to include people historically excluded from social research or included in ways that reinforced stereotypes and justified relations of oppression, and researchers became more cognizant of power within the research process ( Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011 ). A couple of decades later, interdisciplinary area studies that developed in the context of critique—women’s studies, African-American studies, Chicana/Chicano studies—began emerging across academic institutions.

Because of the sociohistorical conditions in which it developed, the qualitative tradition can be characterized by its multiplicity of approaches to research as well as by its focus on the uses to which that research might be put . In this vein, there is a social justice undercurrent to qualitative practice, one that may be implicit or explicit depending on the positioning and goals of the practitioner and the project at hand.

Many qualitative researchers define qualitative research by comparing it to quantitative research. I myself have done this. However, instead of describing what something is by explaining what it isn’t, I focus on a discussion of the qualitative tradition as understood on its own merits. 3 One way of understanding qualitative research is by considering the key dimensions of any research practice and discussing them in terms of qualitative practice.

The Elements of Research

The main dimensions of research can be categorized under three general categories: philosophical, praxis, and ethics. The philosophical substructure of research consists of three elements: paradigm, ontology, and epistemology. At the level of praxis there are four key elements of research: genre, methods, theory, and methodology. The ethical compass (which combines philosophical and praxis dimensions) includes three main elements: ethics, values, and reflexivity (see Table 1.1 ).

The Philosophical Substructure of Qualitative Research

A range of beliefs guide research practice—beliefs about how research should proceed, what can be known, who can be a knower, and how we come to know. Together, these beliefs form the philosophical substructure of research and inform all aspects of the research from topic selection to research design to the final representation and dissemination of the research findings and all phases in between.

A paradigm is a worldview through which knowledge is filtered ( Kuhn, 1962 ). In other words, it is an overarching perspective that guides the research process. I think of paradigms as sunglasses, with different color lenses. When you put a pair on, it influences everything you see. Qualitative research is multiparadigmatic, with researchers working from different worldviews (such as post-positivism, interpretivism, and critical orientations), which makes it a highly diverse field of inquiry.

An ontology is a philosophical belief system about the nature of social reality, including what we can learn about this reality and how we can do so. In their classic definition, Egon Guba and Yvonna Lincoln explained the ontological question as: “What is the form and nature of reality and, therefore, what is there that can be known about it?” (1998, p. 201). Qualitative researchers adopt a perspective that suggests knowledge building is viewed as generative and process-oriented. The truth is not absolute and ready to be “discovered” by “objective” researchers, but rather it is contingent, contextual, and multiple ( Saldaña, 2011 ). Subjectivity is acknowledged and valued. Objectivity may be redefined and achieved through the owning and disclosing of one’s values system, not disavowing it ( Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011 ).

If the ontological question is “What can be known?” then the epistemological question is “Who can be a knower?” An epistemology is a philosophical belief system about how research proceeds as an embodied activity, how one embodies the role of researcher, and the relationship between the researcher and research participants ( Guba & Lincoln, 1998 ; Harding, 1987 ; Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2004 ; 2011 ). Qualitative researchers work from many different epistemological positions. Researchers may work individually or as a part of a team with their participants in the co-creation of knowledge. From this perspective, researchers are not considered neutral or objective in the traditional sense. Rather, researchers acknowledge how their personal, professional, and political commitments influence all aspects of their research. Researchers are considered instruments in qualitative research ( Bresler, 2005 ; Saldaña, 2011 ). Research participants are valued and positioned as knowledge bearers and co-creators. This position rejects a hierarchical structure between the researcher and research participants or the idea that the researcher is the sole authority.

Together, the ontological and epistemological belief systems guiding the research practice serves as the philosophical basis or substructure of any research practice ( Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011 ). Although a researcher’s ontological and epistemological positions can vary across qualitative projects and may be influenced by a range of other factors, including theoretical and personal commitments, generally, qualitative researchers seek to build partial and contextualized truths in collaboration with their research participants or through reflexive engagement with their research texts.

Praxis: Approaches, Methods, and Theories in Action

Praxis is the doing of research—the practice of research. Approaches, methods, and theories come into being during praxis, as researchers build projects and execute on them, often making adjustments along the way.

Genres of research are overarching categories for different ways of approaching research ( Saldaña, 2011 ). Each genre lends itself to studying particular kinds of topics and includes a range of commonly used methods of data collection, analysis, and representation. Frequently used research genres include but are not limited to field research, interview, grounded theory, unobtrusive approaches, participatory research, community-based research, arts-based research, internet research, and multimethod and mixed-method approaches. This is not an exhaustive list. The genre within which a researcher works is motivated by a combination of factors, including the research topic, the research question(s), his or her methodological preferences and experiences, and the intended audience(s) for the research, as well as by a range of pragmatic considerations such as funding, time, and the researcher’s previous experience, skills, and personal preferences.

Research methods are tools for data collection. Research methods commonly used in qualitative practice include but are not limited to ethnography, autoethnography, duoethnography, narrative inquiry, in-depth interview, semistructured interview, focus group interview, oral history, document analysis, content analysis, historical-comparative methods, poetic inquiry, audiovisual methods, visual methods, photo-voice, case study, multiple case study, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, daily diary research, program evaluation, ethnodrama, ethnotheatre, ethnocinema, play building, and fiction-based research. As you can see, qualitative researchers use a range of tools for data collection. Research methods are selected because they are the best tools to gather the data sought for a particular study. The selection of research methods should be made in conjunction with the research question(s) and purpose or objective. In other words, depending on the research topic and how the research questions are framed, as well as more pragmatic issues such as access to participants or textual/preexisting data sources, time, and practical skills, researchers are guided to particular methods.

Each genre discussed earlier lends itself to the use of particular methods. For example, the genre of arts-based research lends itself to the use of ethnodrama, ethnotheatre, ethnocinema, play building, fiction-based research, poetic inquiry, audiovisual methods, photo-voice, or visual methods. The genre of interview research lends itself to the use of in-depth interview, semistructured interview, focus group interview, or oral history. Of course, these genres are all more complicated in practice. For example, discourse analysis is a method that may be employed in an interview study, document analysis, or narrative inquiry. Furthermore, depending on the context in which one employs a method, such as narrative inquiry, one might view it as an arts-based approach, interview approach, way of doing autoethnography, or a method of analysis. The intent is not to confuse matters but, given how large and diffuse the field of qualitative research is and the variety of ways that methods can be creatively employed, it is important to understand that you may come across these terms conceptualized in various ways in the literature. One of the reasons that methods can be conceptualized and employed in many different ways is because qualitative researchers also draw on multiple theories.

A theory is an account of social reality that is grounded in empirical data but extends beyond that data. Numerous theoretical perspectives may guide the research process, including but not limited to post-positivism, interpretive, symbolic interactionism, dramaturgy, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, social constructionism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, feminism, intersectionality theory, queer theory, and critical race theory. This is also not an exhaustive list and in most instances each of these theoretical perspectives are general categories for a range of more specific theories. A qualitative research study may also yield the development of a new theory. In these instances, theory develops inductively out of the research process. In other words, the study generates data out of which a theory is built—that theory is grounded in the empirical data from that study but extends beyond that data and can be applied to other situations.

A methodology is plan for how research will proceed—combining methods and theory. The methodology is what the researcher actually does once he or she has combined the different elements of research. The methodology is informed by the philosophical beliefs guiding the research, the selection of research methods, and the use of theory. One’s attention to ethics and their corresponding values system also influences how a study is designed and how methods are employed. Although two studies may use the same research method—for instance, a focus group interview—the researchers’ methodologies may be completely different. In other words, how they proceed with the research, based not only on their data collection tool but also on how they conceive of the use of that tool and thus structure the study, determines their methodology. The level of moderation and/or control a researcher exhibits during focus group interviews can vary greatly. Methodologies are not standardized nor are they typically etched in stone. Not only will methodological approaches to research vary across projects, but, even within a particular project, methodologies are often viewed as flexible and malleable. A qualitative researcher might adjust his or her methodology over the course of a project to facilitate new learning or new insights or to adapt to unanticipated challenges, obstacles, or opportunities. The malleability of qualitative methodologies is a strength of this approach to knowledge generation.

It is important to note that although I have reviewed methods for data collection as a part of methodology, there are also methods or strategies for qualitative data analysis, interpretation, representation, and dissemination of research findings. Similar to data collection tools and theories, these too are diverse, making the methodological possibilities rich.

Ethics: Beliefs and Practices

Ethics is an area that bridges the philosophical and praxis aspects of research. Ethics play a central role in any research practice. Typically, when we think about ethics in social research, particularly when working with human subjects, we are referring to issues such as preventing harm to the people or settings involved in the study, avoiding exploitation of research participants (with added attention in the case of vulnerable populations), disclosure of the nature of the study and how the findings will be used, the voluntary nature of participation, and confidentiality. Additionally, qualitative researchers have an ethical obligation to carefully consider how research participants are portrayed and to act sensitively.

Additional ethical issues are linked to a researcher’s ontological, epistemological, and practical imperatives, which together form a researcher’s values system. For instance, the real-world value or public usefulness of the research, the inclusion of underrepresented populations, the treatment of anomalous or contradictory data, and the way that the research findings are distributed to relevant stakeholders—these issues are also connected to ethical practice.

Reflexivity is also a core concept in the qualitative community and refers to one’s attention to how power and bias come to bear during all phases of the research. As D. Soyini Madison suggests, reflexivity is about “the politics of positionality” and acknowledging our power, privileges, and biases throughout the research process (2005, p. 6). The social justice imperative of many qualitative projects is a driver of reflexivity, as are critical and power-sensitive theoretical traditions. I suggest reflexivity is both a philosophical perspective and a way of doing or acting within the context of research, from start to finish (see Table 1.2 ).

Given the wide range of approaches, tools, and values that guide qualitative research, it is a rich and evolving tradition with innumerable possibilities for knowledge building and knowledge sharing. Researchers can build, craft, or construct many different kinds of projects to study a nearly limitless range of topics. For these reasons, many consider qualitative research a craft or form of bricolage.

Who Are Qualitative Researchers?

We are all interpretive bricoleurs stuck in the present working against the past as we move into a politically charged and challenging future. ( Norman K. Denzin, 2010 , p. 15)

The qualitative researcher can be thought of as a bricoleur—someone who comfortably draws on multiple bodies of scholarship, methods, and theories to do her or his work. The term bricoleur is attributed to Levi-Strauss (1966) ; however, Denzin and Lincoln popularized applying the term to the work of qualitative researchers. Thomas A. Schwandt (2001) writes:

As a bricoleur , the qualitative inquirer is capable of donning multiple identities—researcher, scientist, artist, critic, and performer—and engaging in different kinds of bricolage that consist of particular configurations of (or ways of relating) various fragments of inherited methodologies, methods, empirical materials, perspectives, understandings, ways of presentation, situated responsiveness, and so on into a coherent, reasoned approach to a research situation and problem. The bricolage appears to vary depending on one’s allegiance to different notions of interpretation, understanding, representation, and so on drawn from various intellectual and practice traditions. (p. 20) Table 1.2 Open in new tab Summary of key elements of research Element .  Philosophical or Praxis .  Definition .  Paradigm Philosophical Guiding worldview Ontology Philosophical The nature of social reality and what can be known about it Epistemology Philosophical The role of the researcher and researcher/participant relationship Genres Praxis Categories of ways of approaching research Methods Praxis Tools for data collection Theory Praxis Account of social reality that extends beyond data Methodology Praxis A plan for how research will proceed (combining methods, theory, and ethics) Ethics Philosophical and Praxis How one engages with, informs, and protects participants Values System Philosophical and Praxis Usefulness and distribution to the public, inclusion of underrepresented groups Reflexivity Philosophical and Praxis Attention to power, bias, and researcher positionality Element .  Philosophical or Praxis .  Definition .  Paradigm Philosophical Guiding worldview Ontology Philosophical The nature of social reality and what can be known about it Epistemology Philosophical The role of the researcher and researcher/participant relationship Genres Praxis Categories of ways of approaching research Methods Praxis Tools for data collection Theory Praxis Account of social reality that extends beyond data Methodology Praxis A plan for how research will proceed (combining methods, theory, and ethics) Ethics Philosophical and Praxis How one engages with, informs, and protects participants Values System Philosophical and Praxis Usefulness and distribution to the public, inclusion of underrepresented groups Reflexivity Philosophical and Praxis Attention to power, bias, and researcher positionality

Qualitative researchers may draw on scientific, humanistic, artistic, and other disciplinary forms. In this regard, qualitative research can be viewed as a scholarly, practical, and creative pursuit. Researchers need to be able to think analytically, symbolically, imaginatively, and metaphorically ( Saldaña, 2011 ). Moreover, projects often demand innovation, creativity, intuition, flexibility, and responsiveness (adapting to new learning or practical problems). This is a rigorous and often labor-intensive process. Qualitative research commonly requires working with others over an expanse of time and producing large amounts of data for analysis while also demanding sustained attention to ethics and values. It is also a creative process—allowing researchers to experiment, play, adapt, learn, and grow along the way.

Of course, pragmatic considerations come into play when designing a project: funding, time, access to needed participants or textual/preexisting data sources, and the researcher’s previous experience, skills, and personal preferences. Unfortunately, qualitative researchers are more often limited by practical issues than by their imaginative capabilities.

Despite these challenges, qualitative research is also a deeply rewarding process that may result in new learning about topics of import, increased self-awareness, the forging of meaningful relationships between co-creators of knowledge, the production of public scholarship, and the impetus for social change.

The Contents of This Handbook

As noted in the preface, no handbook can be all things to all people. It’s impossible to cover the entire field, and so I have approached the content with practicality in mind: what one learning about and/or embarking on qualitative research most needs to know, peppered with advanced material and prospective reviews intended to be of value to even the most experienced researchers.

Part 1 of this handbook, “The Qualitative Tradition,” offers a historical review of the field. Specifically, Part 1 presents an overview of the history of qualitative research in the social sciences and the ethical substructure of qualitative research practice.

In Chapter 2 , “Historical Overview of Qualitative Research in the Social Sciences,” Svend Brinkmann, Michael Hviid Jacobsen, and Søren Kristiansen provide a detailed history of qualitative research in the social sciences. As they note, this history is a complicated task because there is no agreed-upon version but rather a variety of perspectives. Accordingly, these authors present six histories of qualitative research: the conceptual history, the internal history, the marginalizing history, the repressed history, the social history, and the technological history. They also suggest that writing about history is necessarily tied up with writing about the future and thus conclude their contribution with a vision of the field. In Chapter 3 , “The History of Historical-Comparative Methods in Sociology,” Chares Demetriou and Victor Roudometof present an overview of the historical trajectory of comparative-historical sociology while considering the development of specific methodological approaches. Next is Anna Traianou’s chapter, “The Centrality of Ethics in Qualitative Research.” Attention to the ethical substructure of research is central to any qualitative practice and thus is given priority as the closing chapter in Part 1 . Traianou details the main ethical issues in qualitative practice, bearing in mind the changing sociohistorical climate in which research is carried out.

Part 2 of this handbook, “Approaches to Qualitative Research,” presents an array of philosophical approaches to qualitative research (all of which have implications for research praxis). Because qualitative research is a diverse tradition, it is impossible to adequately cover all of the approaches researchers may adopt. Nevertheless, Part 2 provides both an overview of the key approaches to qualitative research and detailed reviews of several commonly used approaches.

Part 2 opens with Renée Spencer, Julia M. Pryce, and Jill Walsh’s chapter, “Philosophical Approaches to Qualitative Research,” which provides a general view of the philosophical approaches that typically guide qualitative practice. They review post-positivism, constructivism, critical theory, feminism, and queer theory and offer a brief history of these approaches, considering the ontological, epistemological, and axiological assumptions on which they rest, and they detail some of their distinguishing features. They also identify three overarching, interrelated, and contested issues with which the field is being confronted: retaining the rich diversity that has defined the field, the articulation of recognizable standards for qualitative research, and the commensurability of differing approaches.

After the overview in Chapter 5 , we turn to in-depth treatments of specific approaches to qualitative research. In Chapter 6 , “Applied Interpretive Approaches,” Sally E. Thorne turns to the applied world of qualitative practice. Thorne considers how many applied scholars have been departing from established method to articulate approaches better suited to the questions of the applied world. This chapter considers the evolving relationship between the methods and their disciplinary origins and current trends in the direction of the applied interpretive qualitative project. Interpretive description is used as a methodological case in point to illustrate the kinds of departures that applied approaches are taking from their theoretical roots as they begin to advance knowledge development within applied contexts.

Chapter 7 , “The Grounded Theory Method” by Antony Bryant, reviews grounded theory, which, as Bryant notes, is itself a somewhat misleading term because it actually refers to a method that facilitates the development of new theoretical insights. Bryant’s suggestion about the complexity of the term itself is duly noted because this chapter could easily have been placed in Part 3 of this handbook. However, because grounded theory can be used in conjunction with more than one method of data collection, I have placed it in Part 2 as an approach to research. This chapter provides background information about the development of grounded theory as well as its main features, procedures outputs, and evaluation criteria.

The final three chapters in Part 2 tackle power-sensitive or social justice approaches to qualitative research that have emerged in the context of activist and scholarly work. In Chapter 8 , “Feminist Qualitative Research: Toward Transformation of Science and Society,” Maureen C. McHugh offers an in-depth treatment of feminist qualitative research, described in terms of its purposes of addressing women’s lives, advocacy for women, analysis of gender oppression, and transformation of society. The chapter covers topics including the feminist critiques of social science research, the transformation of science from empiricism to post-modernism (including intersectionality and double consciousness), reflexivity, collaboration, power analysis, advocacy, validity, and voice. Several qualitative approaches to research are described in relation to feminist research goals, with illustrations of feminist research. In Chapter 9 , “Critical Approaches to Qualitative Research,” Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Peter Chua, and Dana Collins reflect on critical strategies in qualitative research and examine the meanings and debates associated with the term “critical.” The authors contrast liberal and dialectical notions and practices in relations to social analysis and qualitative research. The chapter also explores how critical social research may be synonymous with critical ethnography in relation to issues of power, positionality, representation, and the production of situated knowledges. It uses Bhavnani’s (1993) framework to draw on Dana Collin’s research as a specific case to suggest how the notion of the “critical” relates to ethnographic research practices: ensuring feminist and queer accountability, resisting reinscription, and integrating lived experience. In Chapter 10 , “Decolonizing Research Practice: Indigenous Methodologies, Aboriginal Methods, and Knowledge/Knowing,” Mike Evans, Adrian Miller, Peter Hutchinson, and Carlene Dingwall review Indigenous approaches to research that are fundamentally rooted in the traditions and knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples themselves. The authors suggest Indigenous methodologies and methods have become both systems for generating knowledge and ways of responding to the processes of colonization. They describe two approaches drawn from the work of two Indigenous scholars with their communities in Australia and Canada. They hope this work leads not only to better, more pertinent research that is well disseminated but also to improvement in the situations of Indigenous communities and peoples.

The third section of this handbook, “Narrative Inquiry, Field Research, and Interview Methods,” provides chapters on a range of methods for collecting data directly from people (groups or individuals) or by systematically observing people engaged in activities in natural settings.

Part 3 begins with Chapter 11 , “Practicing Narrative Inquiry,” by Arthur P. Bochner and Nicholas A. Riggs. Arguably, this is a chapter that could have appeared just as easily in Part 2 because narrative is as much an approach to research as a method, or in Part 4 because narrative inquiry can be employed in the context of text- or arts-based research, or even in Part 6 as an approach to analysis. This chapter focuses on the development of the turn toward narrative in the human sciences. The authors trace the rise of narrative inquiry as it evolved in the aftermath of the crisis of representation in the social sciences, locating the explosion of interest in stories and storytelling in changing population demographics and the debunking of venerable notions about scientific knowledge. They show how narrative inquiry offered an opportunity to humanize the human sciences, placing people, meaning, and personal identity at the center of inquiry; inviting the development of reflexive, relational, dialogic, and interpretive methodologies; and drawing attention to the need to focus not only on the actual but also on the possible and the good. The chapter attempts to synthesize the changing methodological orientations of qualitative researchers associated with narrative inquiry, as well as their ethical commitments. In the second half of the chapter, the focus shifts to the divergent standpoints of small-story and big-story researchers; the differences between narrative analysis and narratives-under-analysis; and various narrative practices that seek to help people form better relationships, overcome oppressive canonical identities, amplify or reclaim moral agency, and cope better with contingencies and difficulties experienced over the course of life.

Chapter 12 , “Ethnography,” by Anthony Kwame Harrison, presents a new take on a classic method of qualitative research. Embracing the trope of ethnography-as-narrative, this chapter uses the mythic story of Bronislaw Malinowski’s—the reputed “founding father” of the ethnographic approach—early career and fieldwork as a vehicle through which to explore key aspects of ethnography’s history and development into a distinct form of qualitative research. Through a series of intervallic steps—in and out of Malinowski’s path from Poland to the “Cambridge School” and eventually to the western Pacific—Harrison traces the legacy of ethnography to its current position as a critical, historically informed, and unfailingly evolving research endeavor. Harrison suggests that, as a method continually reflected on and revised, ethnography is boundless.

In Chapter 13 , “The Purposes, Practices, and Principles of Autoethnographic Research,” Carolyn Ellis and Tony E. Adams define autoethnography according to their practice of the method, and they describe its history and emergence within qualitative social research and within psychology. They propose general guiding principles for those seeking to do autoethnography, such as using personal experience, acknowledging existing research, understanding and critiquing cultural experience, using insider knowledge, breaking silence, and maneuvering through pain, confusion, anger, and uncertainty. They present autoethnography as a process and as a product, one that can take a variety of representational forms. After offering ways to evaluate and critique autoethnography, they conclude with a discussion of autoethnography as an orientation to the living of life and an approach that has the potential of making life better—for the writer, reader, participant, and larger culture.

Switching gears from generating data from one’s own experiences to interviewing others, the next three chapters detail different methods of interview. Chapter 14 , “Unstructured and Semistructured Interviewing,” by Svend Brinkmann, provides an introduction to qualitative interviewing as a social practice with a cultural history. Issues addressed include different levels of structure, numbers of participants, media of interviewing, and also interviewer styles. A more detailed exposition of semistructured life world interviewing is offered, as Brinkmann suggests this is arguably the standard form of qualitative interviewing today. The next chapter is “Oral History Interviewing: Issues and Possibilities” by Valerie J. Janesick. As she explains, oral history resides in storytelling and involves the collection of stories, statements, and reminiscences of a person or persons who have firsthand knowledge of any number of experiences. Oral history offers qualitative researchers a way to capture the lived experiences of participants. The techniques of oral history may include interviews, document analysis, photographs, and video. Three major issues that emerge are those of social justice, arts-based approaches to oral history, and transdisciplinarity. Janesick notes that, in the current climate, there are endless possibilities in terms of using digital techniques for data presentation, data analysis, and dissemination. In Chapter 16 , “Focus Group Research: Retrospect and Prospect,” by George Kamberelis and Greg Dimitriadis, we turn to a method of group interviewing. First, the authors highlight the historical origins, tensions, and continuities/discontinuities of focus group research. Second, they suggest that focus group research embodies three primary, related functions: an inquiry function, a pedagogical function, and a political function. Third, they explore issues including mitigating the researcher’s authority; disclosing the constitutive power of discourse; approximating the natural; filling in knowledge gaps and saturating understanding; drawing out complexity, nuance, and contradiction; disclosing eclipsed connections; and creating opportunities for political activism. Fourth, they discuss contemporary threats to focus group work, and they conclude with what they see as new research frontiers for focus group research, especially in relation to new information technologies.

Part 3 concludes with Erica Tucker’s chapter “Museum Studies” which, as an entire area of study, arguably could have been placed in other sections of the handbook (such as the next section on multimethod research). However, given that museum studies often involve ethnographic observations in natural settings, I conclude Part 3 with this chapter. Tucker reviews the major research methods used to study museums, including gallery analyses and interviews with museum visitors, professionals, and stakeholders, as well as ethnographic fieldwork. Drawing from a range of case studies conducted by museum practitioners, anthropologists, historians, and other museum studies scholars, the author explores how these qualitative methods can be adapted to the study of exhibits, programs, and museums as knowledge-generating institutions. Approaches to research design, data analyses, and representation are also examined.

The next section of the handbook, “Text, Arts-Based, and Internet Methods,” considers how qualitative researchers work with nonliving data or through mediated forms. Although these methods are at times considered unobtrusive (because the data exist independent of the research; e.g., in the case of content analyzing newspapers), there are also many participatory approaches that are considered (such as participatory arts-based research).

Chapter 18 , “Content Analysis,” by Lindsay Prior, focuses on the ways in which content analysis can be used to investigate and describe interview and textual data. The author considers the method in both qualitative and quantitative social research. Examples of four different kinds of data are subjected to content analysis. Using a distinctive style of content analysis that calls on the notion of semantic networks, Prior shows how the method can be used either independently or in conjunction with other forms of inquiry (including various styles of discourse analysis) to analyze data and also how it can be used to verify and underpin claims that arise out of analysis. The chapter ends with an overview of the different ways in which the study of “content”—especially the study of document content—can be positioned in social scientific research projects.

Chapter 19 , “Photography as a Research Method,” by Gunilla Holm, reviews the development of photography as a research method in social sciences. Holm describes the different types of photographs used, such as archival photographs, photographs taken by the researcher, and photographs taken by participants. The uses of different approaches to obtain photographs and issues of interest concerning each approach are presented. The most common approaches to analyze photographs, such as content analysis, discourse analysis, and ethnographic analysis, are described. Questions surrounding interpretation and ethical practice are also considered.

Chapter 20 , “Arts-Based Research Practice: Merging Social Research and the Creative Arts,” by Gioia Chilton and Patricia Leavy, offers an overview of the emerging genre of arts-based research (ABR). ABR adapts the tenets of the creative arts in social research in order to approach research questions in new ways, ask new questions, and make research findings publicly accessible, evocative, and engaged. The authors provide a retrospective and prospective overview of the field, including a review of the some of the pioneers of ABR, methodological principles, robust examples of ABR within different artistic genres, assessment criteria, and the future of the field.

The final chapter in this section of the handbook is “Qualitative Approaches in Internet-Mediated Research: Opportunities, Issues, Possibilities” by Claire Hewson. Internet-mediated research (IMR) has grown expansively over the past decade, in both its scope and range of methodological possibilities and in its breadth of penetration across disciplines and research domains. However, the use of IMR approaches to support qualitative research has lagged behind its application in supporting quantitative methods. This chapter discusses the possibilities and scope for using IMR methods in qualitative research and considers some of the issues and debates that have led some qualitative researchers to be reluctant to consider this approach as a viable alternative to traditional offline methods. Hewson adopts an optimistic stance on the potential for qualitative IMR and outlines a range of possible methods and strategies, punctuated with examples of successful (as well as less successful) studies. The chapter also covers practical issues and offers a commentary on the possible future of IMR.

Part 5 of the handbook, “Multimethod, Mixed Method, and Participatory Designs,” focuses on approaches to research that typically rely on the use of more than one method of data collection and/or the participation of nonacademic stakeholders. Several of the chapters in this section could easily have been placed in Part 2 of the handbook because they can be viewed as “approaches” to research. Again, this illustrates how fluid the field of qualitative research is, with its overlaps in definitions and practice. Notwithstanding the suggestion that some of these chapters cover broad approaches to research, I have placed them in this section of the handbook because they generally involve the use of more than one method.

Chapter 22 , “Case Study Research: In-Depth Understanding in Context,” by Helen R. Simons, explores case study as a major approach to research and evaluation. After first noting various contexts in which case studies are commonly used, the chapter focuses on case study research directly. Strengths and potential problematic issues are outlined, as are key phases of the process. The chapter emphasizes how important it is to design the case, to collect and interpret data in ways that highlight the qualitative, to have an ethical practice that values multiple perspectives and political interests, and to report creatively to facilitate use in policy making and practice. Finally, the chapter explores how to generalize from the singular case. Concluding questions center on the need to think more imaginatively about design and the range of methods and forms of reporting available to persuade audiences to value qualitative ways of knowing in case study research.

In Chapter 23 , “Program Evaluation,” Paul R. Brandon and Anna L. Ah Sam offer a detailed overview of program evaluation situated in the historical context in which this practice has developed. The chapter includes discussion regarding the choice of methods, some of which are used primarily within evaluation approaches to conducting evaluation; the aspects of programs that evaluators typically address; the concept of value; the differences between evaluation and social science research; research on evaluation topics; and the major evaluation issues and concerns that have dominated discussion in the literature.

The following two chapters cover approaches to research that involve community participation. Chapter 24 “Community-Based Research: Understanding the Principles, Practices, Challenges, and Rationale,” by Margaret R. Boyd, reviews the inclusion of community members in research practice. This chapter is an introduction to the historical roots and subdivisions within community-based research (CBR) and discusses the core principles and skills useful when designing and working with community members in a collaborative, innovative, and transformative research partnership. The rationale for working within this research paradigm is discussed as are the challenges researchers and practitioners face when conducting CBR. Boyd suggests CBR challenges the traditional research paradigm by recognizing that complex social problems must involve multiple stakeholders in the research process—not as subjects but as co-investigators and co-authors. It is an “orientation to inquiry” rather than a methodology and reflects a transdisciplinary paradigm by including academics from many different disciplines, community members, activists, and often students in all stages of the research process. As the scholarship and practice of this form of research has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, this chapter looks at both new and emerging issues, as well as at founding questions that continue to draw debate in the contemporary discourse. In Chapter 25 , “Lineages: A Past, Present, and Future of Participatory Action Research,” Sarah Zeller-Berkman provides a historical overview of participatory action research (PAR). Like CBR, this is a social justice–oriented approach to research that transcends method but relies on a variety of qualitative methods. Zeller-Berkman writes that PAR in the twenty-first century asserts a democratization of who has the right to create knowledge, research social conditions, engage in participatory processes, and take action. People using PAR generally believe that knowledge has and will continue to be a source of power. Participatory research is an attempt to shift the balance of power back in favor of people who have historically been denied representational power.

The next chapter in the handbook covers the methodological work being done in the content area of disaster research. 4 In “Qualitative Disaster Research,” Brenda D. Phillips provides an overview of the history of qualitative disaster research since the 1920s. Challenges associated with conducting disaster research, particularly field-based studies, are presented. The chapter also discusses ethical challenges related to homeland security and the emotional impacts of disaster research on humans. Sections then lay out issues specific to the life cycle of disasters (preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery), data gathering techniques commonly used (interviews, documents, observations, visual data), and strategies for data analysis. A final section links efforts to strengthen the trustworthiness and credibility of qualitative research to disaster studies.

The final chapter in this section of the handbook covers mixed-methods research. In Chapter 27 , “Conducting Mixed-Methods Research: Using Dialectical Pluralism and Social Psychological Strategies,” R. Burke Johnson, Tony Onwuegbuzie, Susan Tucker, and Marjorie L. Icenogle first summarize the philosophy of dialectical pluralism (DP). Ontologically, DP views reality as plural and changing. Epistemologically, DP follows a dialectical, dialogical, hermeneutical approach to listening, interacting, and learning from “the other.” Theoretically, DP integrates concepts especially from Rawls (e.g., procedural justice, reasonable pluralism, overlapping consensus, realistic utopia), Dewey (e.g., deliberative democracy, community, inquiry, growth), and Habermas (e.g., communicative rationality, deliberative democracy, discourse ethics, knowledge, public sphere). From empirical research, the authors draw on concepts and findings from social psychological literatures such as conflict management, negotiation, small-group psychology, group counseling, group dynamics, political diplomacy, deliberative democracy, and workplace justice. Dialectal pluralism requires purposeful construction of teams that include multiple/different values and perspectives and stakeholders from the most disadvantaged affected groups. The group process operates from the position of equal power, the use of social psychological strategies, and the working toward win-win solutions.

Part 6 of the handbook, “Analysis, Interpretation, Representation, and Evaluation,” covers a range of topics, including the analysis and interpretation of qualitative data, writing up qualitative research, and issues pertaining to evaluation.

The first two chapters in this section review qualitative data analysis. Chapter 28 , “Coding and Analysis Strategies,” by Johnny Saldaña, provides an overview of selected qualitative data analytic strategies, with a particular focus on codes and coding. Preparatory strategies for a qualitative research study and data management are first outlined. Six coding methods are then profiled using comparable interview data: process coding, in vivo coding, descriptive coding, values coding, dramaturgical coding, and versus coding. Strategies for constructing themes and assertions from the data then follow. Analytic memo writing is woven throughout the preceding as a method for generating additional analytic insight. Next, display- and arts-based strategies are provided, followed by recommended qualitative data analytic software programs and a discussion on verifying the researcher’s analytic findings. Chapter 29 , “Computer-Assisted Analysis of Qualitative Research,” by Christina Silver and Ann F. Lewins, picks up on the discussion of qualitative data analytic software programs (although it should be noted that this chapter also considers how technology can be used in data collection). Silver and Lewins focus on the current state of technological support for qualitative research practice. The chapter focuses on technology and how it assists three main aspects of qualitative research: data collection, preparation, and/or transcription; bibliographic management and systematic literature reviews; and data management and analysis. The main body of the chapter discusses the functionality, role, and implications of Computer Assisted Qualitative Data AnalysiS (CAQDAS) tools. Three recent trends in computer assistance are emphasized: support for visual analysis, support for mixed-methods approaches, and online solutions.

Moving from data analysis to interpretation, Chapter 30 , “Interpretation Strategies: Appropriate Concepts,” by Allen Trent and Jeasik Cho, presents a wide range of concepts related to interpretation in qualitative research. The chapter examines the meaning and importance of interpretation in qualitative inquiry and explores the ways methodology, data, and the self/researcher as instrument interact and impact interpretive processes. Additionally, the chapter presents a series of strategies for qualitative researchers engaged in the process of interpretation. The chapter closes by presenting a framework for qualitative researchers designed to inform their interpretations. The framework includes attention to the key qualitative research concepts transparency, reflexivity, analysis, validity, evidence, and literature. Four questions frame the chapter: What is interpretation and why are interpretive strategies important in qualitative research? How do methodology, data, and the researcher/self impact interpretation in qualitative research? How do qualitative researchers engage in the process of interpretation? And, in what ways can a framework for interpretation strategies support qualitative researchers across multiple methodologies and paradigms?

Chapter 31 , “Writing Up Qualitative Research,” by Jane Gilgun, provides guidelines for writing journal articles based on qualitative approaches. The guidelines are a part of the tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology and the author’s experience as an author and reviewer. The guidelines include understanding experiences in context, immersion, interpretations grounded in accounts of informants’ lived experiences, and conceiving of research as action-oriented. Gilgun suggests excellent write-ups have “grab”; that is, accounts that jump off the page and convey a sense of lived experiences. Although most of the chapter addresses the writing of conventional research reports, there is some coverage of writing articles that report findings resulting from ethnographies, autoethnographies, performances, poetry, and photography and other media.

The final chapter in this section of the handbook, “Evaluating Qualitative Research,” by Jeasik Cho and Allen Trent, addresses a wide range of theories and practices related to the evaluation of qualitative research (EQR). The authors present six categories of EQR: (1) a positivist category; (2) Lincoln and Guba’s alternative category; (3) a “subtle-realist” category developed by Hammersley, Atkinson, and Seale; (4) a general EQR category; (5) a category of post-criteriology; and (6) a post-validity category. The authors offer several evaluation strategies for EQR by providing a variety of examples. They also discuss a path forward for EQR. They conclude with a holistic view of EQR needed to collectively construct/confront inner and outer challenges to qualitative paradigms in the twenty-first century.

The final section of the handbook, “Conclusion: Politics and The Public,” offers some final thoughts about the politics of qualitative research, the importance of public scholarship, and the future of qualitative research in a transdisciplinary context.

In Chapter 33 , “The Politics of Research,” Michael D. Giardina and Joshua I. Newman critically interrogate the politics of research currently dominating US higher education, a politics that is shaped as much by theoretical and methodological questions and debates as it is by prevailing social, cultural, political, and economic forces. The authors’ arguments are guided by four primary questions: How and to what do the cultural and political priorities of the free-marketized, corporate university impact, direct, or confound the conduct of research? How and to what extent does politics situate methodologies? How and to what extent is the research act impinged on by such particularities as institutional review boards, national funding councils, scholarly journals, and the promotion and tenure process? And, how and where do we as academics fit into this new research climate? Giardina and Newman also provide a series of practical recommendations for professors and students alike who seek to actively confront and challenge the academic–industrial complex.

The closing chapter, “A Brief Statement on the Public and the Future of Qualitative Research,” offers some final comments about the future of qualitative research. I suggest that there is a widespread move from a disciplinary to a transdisciplinary research structure in which problems of importance are at the center of research practices (see Leavy, 2011 ). Within this context, qualitative researchers are well positioned to advance because of their ability to develop responsive and flexible research designs and present their work in multiple formats. Furthermore, I note how the broader move toward public scholarship is propelling both the practice of qualitative research and the teaching of qualitative methods.

Thank you to Dr. Tony Adams for providing his thoughtful and most helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this chapter.

There is qualitative work that can be pointed to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, it was the use of ethnography and related methods in the 1920s by researchers at the University of Chicago who were primarily studying urbanization (popularly deemed “The Chicago School of Sociology”) that prompted the use of qualitative methods in sociology departments around the United States. In the 1960s, the qualitative tradition fully emerged.

Chapter 2 of this handbook, “Historical Overview of Qualitative Research in the Social Sciences,” by Brinkmann, Jacobsen, and Kristiansen, provides a rich discussion of the history of qualitative research in relation to quantitative research.

There has been little documentation of the methodological work done in this field and therefore this chapter represents a significant contribution to the literature on both qualitative research and disaster studies.

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Qualitative Research : Definition

Qualitative research is the naturalistic study of social meanings and processes, using interviews, observations, and the analysis of texts and images.  In contrast to quantitative researchers, whose statistical methods enable broad generalizations about populations (for example, comparisons of the percentages of U.S. demographic groups who vote in particular ways), qualitative researchers use in-depth studies of the social world to analyze how and why groups think and act in particular ways (for instance, case studies of the experiences that shape political views).   

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Writing Research Background

Research background is a brief outline of the most important studies that have been conducted so far presented in a chronological order. Research background part in introduction chapter can be also headed ‘Background of the Study.” Research background should also include a brief discussion of major theories and models related to the research problem.

Specifically, when writing research background you can discuss major theories and models related to your research problem in a chronological order to outline historical developments in the research area.  When writing research background, you also need to demonstrate how your research relates to what has been done so far in the research area.

Research background is written after the literature review. Therefore, literature review has to be the first and the longest stage in the research process, even before the formulation of research aims and objectives, right after the selection of the research area. Once the research area is selected, the literature review is commenced in order to identify gaps in the research area.

Research aims and objectives need to be closely associated with the elimination of this gap in the literature. The main difference between background of the study and literature review is that the former only provides general information about what has been done so far in the research area, whereas the latter elaborates and critically reviews previous works.

Writing Research Background

John Dudovskiy

Criteria for Good Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Review

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  • Volume 31 , pages 679–689, ( 2022 )

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what is background of the study in qualitative research

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This review aims to synthesize a published set of evaluative criteria for good qualitative research. The aim is to shed light on existing standards for assessing the rigor of qualitative research encompassing a range of epistemological and ontological standpoints. Using a systematic search strategy, published journal articles that deliberate criteria for rigorous research were identified. Then, references of relevant articles were surveyed to find noteworthy, distinct, and well-defined pointers to good qualitative research. This review presents an investigative assessment of the pivotal features in qualitative research that can permit the readers to pass judgment on its quality and to condemn it as good research when objectively and adequately utilized. Overall, this review underlines the crux of qualitative research and accentuates the necessity to evaluate such research by the very tenets of its being. It also offers some prospects and recommendations to improve the quality of qualitative research. Based on the findings of this review, it is concluded that quality criteria are the aftereffect of socio-institutional procedures and existing paradigmatic conducts. Owing to the paradigmatic diversity of qualitative research, a single and specific set of quality criteria is neither feasible nor anticipated. Since qualitative research is not a cohesive discipline, researchers need to educate and familiarize themselves with applicable norms and decisive factors to evaluate qualitative research from within its theoretical and methodological framework of origin.

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what is background of the study in qualitative research

Good Qualitative Research: Opening up the Debate

Beyond qualitative/quantitative structuralism: the positivist qualitative research and the paradigmatic disclaimer.

what is background of the study in qualitative research

What is Qualitative in Research

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.


“… It is important to regularly dialogue about what makes for good qualitative research” (Tracy, 2010 , p. 837)

To decide what represents good qualitative research is highly debatable. There are numerous methods that are contained within qualitative research and that are established on diverse philosophical perspectives. Bryman et al., ( 2008 , p. 262) suggest that “It is widely assumed that whereas quality criteria for quantitative research are well‐known and widely agreed, this is not the case for qualitative research.” Hence, the question “how to evaluate the quality of qualitative research” has been continuously debated. There are many areas of science and technology wherein these debates on the assessment of qualitative research have taken place. Examples include various areas of psychology: general psychology (Madill et al., 2000 ); counseling psychology (Morrow, 2005 ); and clinical psychology (Barker & Pistrang, 2005 ), and other disciplines of social sciences: social policy (Bryman et al., 2008 ); health research (Sparkes, 2001 ); business and management research (Johnson et al., 2006 ); information systems (Klein & Myers, 1999 ); and environmental studies (Reid & Gough, 2000 ). In the literature, these debates are enthused by the impression that the blanket application of criteria for good qualitative research developed around the positivist paradigm is improper. Such debates are based on the wide range of philosophical backgrounds within which qualitative research is conducted (e.g., Sandberg, 2000 ; Schwandt, 1996 ). The existence of methodological diversity led to the formulation of different sets of criteria applicable to qualitative research.

Among qualitative researchers, the dilemma of governing the measures to assess the quality of research is not a new phenomenon, especially when the virtuous triad of objectivity, reliability, and validity (Spencer et al., 2004 ) are not adequate. Occasionally, the criteria of quantitative research are used to evaluate qualitative research (Cohen & Crabtree, 2008 ; Lather, 2004 ). Indeed, Howe ( 2004 ) claims that the prevailing paradigm in educational research is scientifically based experimental research. Hypotheses and conjectures about the preeminence of quantitative research can weaken the worth and usefulness of qualitative research by neglecting the prominence of harmonizing match for purpose on research paradigm, the epistemological stance of the researcher, and the choice of methodology. Researchers have been reprimanded concerning this in “paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences” (Lincoln & Guba, 2000 ).

In general, qualitative research tends to come from a very different paradigmatic stance and intrinsically demands distinctive and out-of-the-ordinary criteria for evaluating good research and varieties of research contributions that can be made. This review attempts to present a series of evaluative criteria for qualitative researchers, arguing that their choice of criteria needs to be compatible with the unique nature of the research in question (its methodology, aims, and assumptions). This review aims to assist researchers in identifying some of the indispensable features or markers of high-quality qualitative research. In a nutshell, the purpose of this systematic literature review is to analyze the existing knowledge on high-quality qualitative research and to verify the existence of research studies dealing with the critical assessment of qualitative research based on the concept of diverse paradigmatic stances. Contrary to the existing reviews, this review also suggests some critical directions to follow to improve the quality of qualitative research in different epistemological and ontological perspectives. This review is also intended to provide guidelines for the acceleration of future developments and dialogues among qualitative researchers in the context of assessing the qualitative research.

The rest of this review article is structured in the following fashion: Sect.  Methods describes the method followed for performing this review. Section Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Studies provides a comprehensive description of the criteria for evaluating qualitative studies. This section is followed by a summary of the strategies to improve the quality of qualitative research in Sect.  Improving Quality: Strategies . Section  How to Assess the Quality of the Research Findings? provides details on how to assess the quality of the research findings. After that, some of the quality checklists (as tools to evaluate quality) are discussed in Sect.  Quality Checklists: Tools for Assessing the Quality . At last, the review ends with the concluding remarks presented in Sect.  Conclusions, Future Directions and Outlook . Some prospects in qualitative research for enhancing its quality and usefulness in the social and techno-scientific research community are also presented in Sect.  Conclusions, Future Directions and Outlook .

For this review, a comprehensive literature search was performed from many databases using generic search terms such as Qualitative Research , Criteria , etc . The following databases were chosen for the literature search based on the high number of results: IEEE Explore, ScienceDirect, PubMed, Google Scholar, and Web of Science. The following keywords (and their combinations using Boolean connectives OR/AND) were adopted for the literature search: qualitative research, criteria, quality, assessment, and validity. The synonyms for these keywords were collected and arranged in a logical structure (see Table 1 ). All publications in journals and conference proceedings later than 1950 till 2021 were considered for the search. Other articles extracted from the references of the papers identified in the electronic search were also included. A large number of publications on qualitative research were retrieved during the initial screening. Hence, to include the searches with the main focus on criteria for good qualitative research, an inclusion criterion was utilized in the search string.

From the selected databases, the search retrieved a total of 765 publications. Then, the duplicate records were removed. After that, based on the title and abstract, the remaining 426 publications were screened for their relevance by using the following inclusion and exclusion criteria (see Table 2 ). Publications focusing on evaluation criteria for good qualitative research were included, whereas those works which delivered theoretical concepts on qualitative research were excluded. Based on the screening and eligibility, 45 research articles were identified that offered explicit criteria for evaluating the quality of qualitative research and were found to be relevant to this review.

Figure  1 illustrates the complete review process in the form of PRISMA flow diagram. PRISMA, i.e., “preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses” is employed in systematic reviews to refine the quality of reporting.

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram illustrating the search and inclusion process. N represents the number of records

Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Studies

Fundamental criteria: general research quality.

Various researchers have put forward criteria for evaluating qualitative research, which have been summarized in Table 3 . Also, the criteria outlined in Table 4 effectively deliver the various approaches to evaluate and assess the quality of qualitative work. The entries in Table 4 are based on Tracy’s “Eight big‐tent criteria for excellent qualitative research” (Tracy, 2010 ). Tracy argues that high-quality qualitative work should formulate criteria focusing on the worthiness, relevance, timeliness, significance, morality, and practicality of the research topic, and the ethical stance of the research itself. Researchers have also suggested a series of questions as guiding principles to assess the quality of a qualitative study (Mays & Pope, 2020 ). Nassaji ( 2020 ) argues that good qualitative research should be robust, well informed, and thoroughly documented.

Qualitative Research: Interpretive Paradigms

All qualitative researchers follow highly abstract principles which bring together beliefs about ontology, epistemology, and methodology. These beliefs govern how the researcher perceives and acts. The net, which encompasses the researcher’s epistemological, ontological, and methodological premises, is referred to as a paradigm, or an interpretive structure, a “Basic set of beliefs that guides action” (Guba, 1990 ). Four major interpretive paradigms structure the qualitative research: positivist and postpositivist, constructivist interpretive, critical (Marxist, emancipatory), and feminist poststructural. The complexity of these four abstract paradigms increases at the level of concrete, specific interpretive communities. Table 5 presents these paradigms and their assumptions, including their criteria for evaluating research, and the typical form that an interpretive or theoretical statement assumes in each paradigm. Moreover, for evaluating qualitative research, quantitative conceptualizations of reliability and validity are proven to be incompatible (Horsburgh, 2003 ). In addition, a series of questions have been put forward in the literature to assist a reviewer (who is proficient in qualitative methods) for meticulous assessment and endorsement of qualitative research (Morse, 2003 ). Hammersley ( 2007 ) also suggests that guiding principles for qualitative research are advantageous, but methodological pluralism should not be simply acknowledged for all qualitative approaches. Seale ( 1999 ) also points out the significance of methodological cognizance in research studies.

Table 5 reflects that criteria for assessing the quality of qualitative research are the aftermath of socio-institutional practices and existing paradigmatic standpoints. Owing to the paradigmatic diversity of qualitative research, a single set of quality criteria is neither possible nor desirable. Hence, the researchers must be reflexive about the criteria they use in the various roles they play within their research community.

Improving Quality: Strategies

Another critical question is “How can the qualitative researchers ensure that the abovementioned quality criteria can be met?” Lincoln and Guba ( 1986 ) delineated several strategies to intensify each criteria of trustworthiness. Other researchers (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016 ; Shenton, 2004 ) also presented such strategies. A brief description of these strategies is shown in Table 6 .

It is worth mentioning that generalizability is also an integral part of qualitative research (Hays & McKibben, 2021 ). In general, the guiding principle pertaining to generalizability speaks about inducing and comprehending knowledge to synthesize interpretive components of an underlying context. Table 7 summarizes the main metasynthesis steps required to ascertain generalizability in qualitative research.

Figure  2 reflects the crucial components of a conceptual framework and their contribution to decisions regarding research design, implementation, and applications of results to future thinking, study, and practice (Johnson et al., 2020 ). The synergy and interrelationship of these components signifies their role to different stances of a qualitative research study.

figure 2

Essential elements of a conceptual framework

In a nutshell, to assess the rationale of a study, its conceptual framework and research question(s), quality criteria must take account of the following: lucid context for the problem statement in the introduction; well-articulated research problems and questions; precise conceptual framework; distinct research purpose; and clear presentation and investigation of the paradigms. These criteria would expedite the quality of qualitative research.

How to Assess the Quality of the Research Findings?

The inclusion of quotes or similar research data enhances the confirmability in the write-up of the findings. The use of expressions (for instance, “80% of all respondents agreed that” or “only one of the interviewees mentioned that”) may also quantify qualitative findings (Stenfors et al., 2020 ). On the other hand, the persuasive reason for “why this may not help in intensifying the research” has also been provided (Monrouxe & Rees, 2020 ). Further, the Discussion and Conclusion sections of an article also prove robust markers of high-quality qualitative research, as elucidated in Table 8 .

Quality Checklists: Tools for Assessing the Quality

Numerous checklists are available to speed up the assessment of the quality of qualitative research. However, if used uncritically and recklessly concerning the research context, these checklists may be counterproductive. I recommend that such lists and guiding principles may assist in pinpointing the markers of high-quality qualitative research. However, considering enormous variations in the authors’ theoretical and philosophical contexts, I would emphasize that high dependability on such checklists may say little about whether the findings can be applied in your setting. A combination of such checklists might be appropriate for novice researchers. Some of these checklists are listed below:

The most commonly used framework is Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) (Tong et al., 2007 ). This framework is recommended by some journals to be followed by the authors during article submission.

Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR) is another checklist that has been created particularly for medical education (O’Brien et al., 2014 ).

Also, Tracy ( 2010 ) and Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP, 2021 ) offer criteria for qualitative research relevant across methods and approaches.

Further, researchers have also outlined different criteria as hallmarks of high-quality qualitative research. For instance, the “Road Trip Checklist” (Epp & Otnes, 2021 ) provides a quick reference to specific questions to address different elements of high-quality qualitative research.

Conclusions, Future Directions, and Outlook

This work presents a broad review of the criteria for good qualitative research. In addition, this article presents an exploratory analysis of the essential elements in qualitative research that can enable the readers of qualitative work to judge it as good research when objectively and adequately utilized. In this review, some of the essential markers that indicate high-quality qualitative research have been highlighted. I scope them narrowly to achieve rigor in qualitative research and note that they do not completely cover the broader considerations necessary for high-quality research. This review points out that a universal and versatile one-size-fits-all guideline for evaluating the quality of qualitative research does not exist. In other words, this review also emphasizes the non-existence of a set of common guidelines among qualitative researchers. In unison, this review reinforces that each qualitative approach should be treated uniquely on account of its own distinctive features for different epistemological and disciplinary positions. Owing to the sensitivity of the worth of qualitative research towards the specific context and the type of paradigmatic stance, researchers should themselves analyze what approaches can be and must be tailored to ensemble the distinct characteristics of the phenomenon under investigation. Although this article does not assert to put forward a magic bullet and to provide a one-stop solution for dealing with dilemmas about how, why, or whether to evaluate the “goodness” of qualitative research, it offers a platform to assist the researchers in improving their qualitative studies. This work provides an assembly of concerns to reflect on, a series of questions to ask, and multiple sets of criteria to look at, when attempting to determine the quality of qualitative research. Overall, this review underlines the crux of qualitative research and accentuates the need to evaluate such research by the very tenets of its being. Bringing together the vital arguments and delineating the requirements that good qualitative research should satisfy, this review strives to equip the researchers as well as reviewers to make well-versed judgment about the worth and significance of the qualitative research under scrutiny. In a nutshell, a comprehensive portrayal of the research process (from the context of research to the research objectives, research questions and design, speculative foundations, and from approaches of collecting data to analyzing the results, to deriving inferences) frequently proliferates the quality of a qualitative research.

Prospects : A Road Ahead for Qualitative Research

Irrefutably, qualitative research is a vivacious and evolving discipline wherein different epistemological and disciplinary positions have their own characteristics and importance. In addition, not surprisingly, owing to the sprouting and varied features of qualitative research, no consensus has been pulled off till date. Researchers have reflected various concerns and proposed several recommendations for editors and reviewers on conducting reviews of critical qualitative research (Levitt et al., 2021 ; McGinley et al., 2021 ). Following are some prospects and a few recommendations put forward towards the maturation of qualitative research and its quality evaluation:

In general, most of the manuscript and grant reviewers are not qualitative experts. Hence, it is more likely that they would prefer to adopt a broad set of criteria. However, researchers and reviewers need to keep in mind that it is inappropriate to utilize the same approaches and conducts among all qualitative research. Therefore, future work needs to focus on educating researchers and reviewers about the criteria to evaluate qualitative research from within the suitable theoretical and methodological context.

There is an urgent need to refurbish and augment critical assessment of some well-known and widely accepted tools (including checklists such as COREQ, SRQR) to interrogate their applicability on different aspects (along with their epistemological ramifications).

Efforts should be made towards creating more space for creativity, experimentation, and a dialogue between the diverse traditions of qualitative research. This would potentially help to avoid the enforcement of one's own set of quality criteria on the work carried out by others.

Moreover, journal reviewers need to be aware of various methodological practices and philosophical debates.

It is pivotal to highlight the expressions and considerations of qualitative researchers and bring them into a more open and transparent dialogue about assessing qualitative research in techno-scientific, academic, sociocultural, and political rooms.

Frequent debates on the use of evaluative criteria are required to solve some potentially resolved issues (including the applicability of a single set of criteria in multi-disciplinary aspects). Such debates would not only benefit the group of qualitative researchers themselves, but primarily assist in augmenting the well-being and vivacity of the entire discipline.

To conclude, I speculate that the criteria, and my perspective, may transfer to other methods, approaches, and contexts. I hope that they spark dialog and debate – about criteria for excellent qualitative research and the underpinnings of the discipline more broadly – and, therefore, help improve the quality of a qualitative study. Further, I anticipate that this review will assist the researchers to contemplate on the quality of their own research, to substantiate research design and help the reviewers to review qualitative research for journals. On a final note, I pinpoint the need to formulate a framework (encompassing the prerequisites of a qualitative study) by the cohesive efforts of qualitative researchers of different disciplines with different theoretic-paradigmatic origins. I believe that tailoring such a framework (of guiding principles) paves the way for qualitative researchers to consolidate the status of qualitative research in the wide-ranging open science debate. Dialogue on this issue across different approaches is crucial for the impending prospects of socio-techno-educational research.

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Yadav, D. Criteria for Good Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Review. Asia-Pacific Edu Res 31 , 679–689 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40299-021-00619-0

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s40299-021-00619-0

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Background of the Study

Ai generator.

what is background of the study in qualitative research

The background of the study provides a comprehensive overview of the research problem, including the context , significance, and gaps in existing knowledge. It sets the stage for the research by outlining the historical, theoretical, and practical aspects that have led to the current investigation, highlighting the importance of addressing the identified issues.

What is the Background of a Study? 

The background of a study provides context by explaining the research problem, highlighting gaps in existing knowledge, and establishing the study’s significance. It sets the stage for the research objective , offering a foundation for understanding the study’s purpose and relevance within the broader academic discourse.

Background of the Study Format

The background of the study is a foundational section in any research paper or thesis . Here is a structured format to follow:

1. Introduction

  • Briefly introduce the topic and its relevance.
  • Mention the research problem or question.

2. Contextual Framework

  • Provide historical background.
  • Discuss relevant theories and models.
  • Explain the practical context.

3. Literature Review

  • Summarize key studies related to the topic.
  • Highlight significant findings and their implications.
  • Identify gaps in the existing literature.

4. Rationale

  • Explain why the study is necessary.
  • Discuss the significance and potential impact.
  • Justify the research focus and scope.

5. Objectives and Research Questions

  • State the primary objective of the study.
  • List the specific research questions.

6. Conclusion

  • Summarize the importance of the background.
  • Emphasize how it sets the stage for the research.
Introduction The increasing incidence of climate change and its effects on global agriculture has raised significant concerns among researchers. This study focuses on the impact of climate change on crop yields. Contextual Framework Historically, agricultural practices have adapted to gradual climate changes. However, recent rapid shifts have outpaced these adaptations, necessitating urgent research. Theoretical models of climate adaptation provide a foundation for understanding these changes. Literature Review Recent studies show mixed results on the extent of climate change impacts on agriculture. While some regions experience reduced yields, others report minimal changes. These discrepancies highlight the need for a focused study on regional impacts. Rationale This research is crucial for developing strategies to mitigate adverse effects on agriculture. Understanding specific regional impacts can help tailor interventions, making this study highly significant for policymakers and farmers. Objectives and Research Questions To assess the impact of climate change on crop yields in the Midwest. What are the main climate factors affecting agriculture in this region? How can farmers adapt to these changes effectively? Conclusion The background of the study underscores its relevance and importance, providing a solid foundation for the research. By addressing identified gaps, this study aims to contribute valuable insights into climate change adaptation strategies in agriculture.

Background of the Study Examples

Impact of social media on academic performance, effects of urbanization on local ecosystems, role of nutrition in early childhood development.


More Background of the Study Examples

  • Online Learning and Reading Skills
  • Mindfulness at Work
  • Parental Role in Preventing Childhood Obesity
  • Green Building and Energy Efficiency
  • Peer Tutoring in High Schools
  • Remote Work and Work-Life Balance
  • Technology in Healthcare

Background of the Study in Research Example


Background of the Study in Qualitative Research Example


Importance of Background of the Study

The background of the study is essential for several reasons:

  • Context Establishment : It sets the stage for the research by outlining the historical, theoretical, and practical contexts.
  • Literature Review : It provides a summary of existing literature, highlighting what is already known and identifying gaps in knowledge.
  • Research Justification : It explains why the study is necessary, showcasing its relevance and significance.
  • Research Direction : It guides the research questions and objectives, ensuring the study is focused and coherent.
  • Foundation for Methodology : It lays the groundwork for the research methodology, explaining the choice of methods and approaches.
  • Informing Stakeholders : It helps stakeholders understand the importance and potential impact of the research.

How is the Background of a Study Different From the Introduction?

The background of a study and the introduction serve distinct but complementary purposes in a research paper. Here’s how they differ:

  • Provides detailed context for the research problem.
  • Explains the historical, theoretical, and practical background of the topic.
  • Identifies gaps in existing knowledge that the study aims to fill.
  • Includes a comprehensive literature review.
  • Discusses relevant theories, models, and previous research findings.
  • Sets the stage for the study by explaining why it is important and necessary.
  • Typically more detailed and longer than the introduction.
  • Provides in-depth information to help readers understand the broader context of the research.


  • Introduces the topic and the research problem in a concise manner.
  • Captures the reader’s interest and sets the stage for the rest of the paper.
  • States the research objectives, questions, and sometimes hypotheses.
  • Brief overview of the topic and its significance.
  • Clear statement of the research problem.
  • Outline of the study’s objectives and research questions.
  • May include a brief mention of the methodology and scope.
  • Typically shorter and more succinct than the background.
  • Provides a snapshot of what the study is about without going into detailed literature review or theoretical background.

Example to Illustrate the Difference

Introduction Example : The rapid growth of social media usage among students has raised concerns about its impact on academic performance. This study aims to investigate how social media influences students’ grades and study habits. By examining different platforms and usage patterns, the research seeks to provide insights into whether social media acts as a distraction or a beneficial tool for learning. Background of the Study Example : Social media has transformed communication and information sharing, particularly among young people. Historically, educational environments have seen various technological impacts, from the introduction of computers to the widespread use of the internet. Theories of digital learning suggest both positive and negative effects of technology on education. Previous studies have shown mixed results; some indicate that social media can enhance collaborative learning and resource access, while others point to decreased academic performance due to distraction. Despite these findings, there is limited research on the long-term effects of specific social media platforms on academic outcomes. This study addresses these gaps by exploring how different types of social media usage impact student performance, aiming to provide a nuanced understanding of this contemporary issue.

Where is the Background of a Study Placed in a Research Paper? 

The background of a study is typically placed within the Introduction section of a research paper, but it can also be a separate section immediately following the introduction. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of where the background of the study can be placed:

Within the Introduction

  • In many research papers, the background of the study is woven into the introduction. It provides context and justification for the research problem, leading up to the statement of the research objectives and questions.
  • Starts with a general introduction to the topic.
  • Provides background information and context.
  • Reviews relevant literature and identifies gaps.
  • States the research problem, objectives, and questions.

As a Separate Section

  • In more detailed or longer research papers, the background of the study can be a standalone section that comes immediately after the introduction. This allows for a more comprehensive presentation of the context, literature review, and theoretical framework.
  • Introduction : Briefly introduces the topic and states the research problem.
  • Background of the Study : Provides detailed context, literature review, theoretical background, and justification for the research.
  • Research Objectives and Questions : Clearly states the aims and specific questions the research seeks to answer.

How to Write a Background of the Study

How to Write a Background of the Study

Writing a background of the study involves providing a comprehensive overview of the research problem, context, and significance. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to write an effective background of the study:

Introduce the Topic

Begin with a General Introduction : Start by introducing the broad topic to give readers an overview of the field. Example : “Social media has revolutionized communication and information sharing in the digital age.”

Provide Context

Historical Background : Explain the historical development of the topic. Example : “Historically, communication technologies have significantly influenced educational practices, from the introduction of the internet to the advent of mobile learning.” Theoretical Framework : Mention relevant theories and models. Example : “Theories such as social constructivism and digital learning provide a basis for understanding how students interact and learn through social media.”

Review Relevant Literature

Summarize Key Studies : Provide a summary of significant studies related to your topic. Example : “Previous research has shown mixed results regarding the impact of social media on academic performance. Some studies suggest that social media can be a distraction, leading to lower grades, while others indicate it can enhance learning through collaboration.” Identify Gaps in Knowledge : Highlight gaps or inconsistencies in the existing literature. Example : “Despite extensive research, there is limited understanding of the long-term effects of specific social media platforms on student performance.”

Explain the Rationale

Justify the Need for the Study : Explain why your study is necessary and important. Example : “Assessing the impact of social media on academic performance is crucial for developing effective educational strategies and policies. This study aims to fill the existing knowledge gaps by providing detailed insights into how different platforms affect student learning outcomes.”

State the Research Objectives and Questions

List the Objectives : Clearly state the main objectives of your study. Example : “The primary objectives of this study are to analyze the relationship between social media usage and academic performance and to identify the most and least beneficial platforms for students.” Pose Research Questions : Include specific research questions that guide your study. Example : “What are the main factors influencing the impact of social media on academic performance? How can students balance social media use and academic responsibilities?”

Conclude with the Importance of the Study

Summarize the Significance : Emphasize how your study will contribute to the field. Example : “This study’s findings will provide valuable insights into the role of social media in education, informing educators and policymakers on how to leverage these tools effectively to enhance student learning outcomes.”

How to avoid mistakes in writing the Background of a Study 

Avoiding mistakes in writing the background of a study involves careful planning, thorough research, and attention to detail. Here are some tips to help you avoid common mistakes:

1. Lack of Clarity and Focus

  • Example : If your research is about the impact of social media on student performance, don’t delve into unrelated topics like general internet usage unless directly relevant.

2. Insufficient Literature Review

  • Example : Use databases like Google Scholar, PubMed, or your institution’s library to find peer-reviewed articles and credible sources.

3. Overwhelming with Too Much Information

  • Example : Summarize key studies and avoid detailed descriptions of every study you come across.

4. Failure to Identify Gaps in Knowledge

  • Example : “While several studies have explored social media’s impact on general communication skills, few have examined its specific effects on academic performance among high school students.”

5. Lack of Theoretical Framework

  • Example : “The study is grounded in social constructivism, which suggests that learning occurs through social interactions, making it relevant to examine how social media platforms facilitate these interactions.”

6. Inadequate Justification for the Study

  • Example : “Understanding the impact of social media on academic performance is crucial for developing effective educational strategies and policies.”

7. Poor Organization and Structure

  • Example : Use clear headings like “Introduction,” “Contextual Framework,” “Literature Review,” “Rationale,” and “Research Objectives and Questions.”

8. Using Jargon and Complex Language

  • Example : Instead of “The pedagogical implications of digital media necessitate a paradigmatic shift,” say “Digital media impacts teaching methods, requiring changes in how we educate.”

9. Ignoring the Research Objectives and Questions

  • Example : “This background review highlights the need to investigate how different social media platforms affect high school students’ study habits, directly addressing the research questions outlined.”

10. Neglecting to Update References

  • Example : Instead of relying solely on sources from over a decade ago, incorporate recent studies that reflect current trends and findings.

What is the background of the study?

The background of the study provides context, explains the research problem, reviews relevant literature, and identifies gaps the study aims to fill.

Why is the background of the study important?

It establishes the context and significance of the research, justifies the study, and helps readers understand the broader academic landscape and gaps the research addresses.

How does the background of the study differ from the introduction?

The background provides detailed context and literature review, while the introduction briefly presents the research problem, objectives, and significance.

What should be included in the background of the study?

Include historical context, theoretical framework, literature review, gaps in knowledge, and the rationale for the study.

Where is the background of the study placed in a research paper?

It is typically integrated within the introduction or presented as a separate section following the introduction.

How long should the background of the study be?

The length varies, but it should be detailed enough to provide context and justification, typically a few paragraphs to several pages.

How do you write a strong background of the study?

Conduct thorough research, organize logically, include relevant theories and studies, identify gaps, and justify the research’s importance.

Can the background of the study include preliminary data?

Yes, including preliminary data can strengthen the background by demonstrating initial findings and supporting the research rationale.

How do you identify gaps in the literature?

Conduct a comprehensive literature review, compare findings, and note inconsistencies, unexplored areas, or outdated research that your study will address.

Should the background of the study be written in chronological order?

Not necessarily. Organize logically by themes, concepts, or research gaps rather than strictly chronologically to provide a coherent context for your study.


Text prompt

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Qualitative Study


  • 1 University of Nebraska Medical Center
  • 2 GDB Research and Statistical Consulting
  • 3 GDB Research and Statistical Consulting/McLaren Macomb Hospital
  • PMID: 29262162
  • Bookshelf ID: NBK470395

Qualitative research is a type of research that explores and provides deeper insights into real-world problems. Instead of collecting numerical data points or intervening or introducing treatments just like in quantitative research, qualitative research helps generate hypothenar to further investigate and understand quantitative data. Qualitative research gathers participants' experiences, perceptions, and behavior. It answers the hows and whys instead of how many or how much. It could be structured as a standalone study, purely relying on qualitative data, or part of mixed-methods research that combines qualitative and quantitative data. This review introduces the readers to some basic concepts, definitions, terminology, and applications of qualitative research.

Qualitative research, at its core, asks open-ended questions whose answers are not easily put into numbers, such as "how" and "why." Due to the open-ended nature of the research questions, qualitative research design is often not linear like quantitative design. One of the strengths of qualitative research is its ability to explain processes and patterns of human behavior that can be difficult to quantify. Phenomena such as experiences, attitudes, and behaviors can be complex to capture accurately and quantitatively. In contrast, a qualitative approach allows participants themselves to explain how, why, or what they were thinking, feeling, and experiencing at a particular time or during an event of interest. Quantifying qualitative data certainly is possible, but at its core, qualitative data is looking for themes and patterns that can be difficult to quantify, and it is essential to ensure that the context and narrative of qualitative work are not lost by trying to quantify something that is not meant to be quantified.

However, while qualitative research is sometimes placed in opposition to quantitative research, where they are necessarily opposites and therefore "compete" against each other and the philosophical paradigms associated with each other, qualitative and quantitative work are neither necessarily opposites, nor are they incompatible. While qualitative and quantitative approaches are different, they are not necessarily opposites and certainly not mutually exclusive. For instance, qualitative research can help expand and deepen understanding of data or results obtained from quantitative analysis. For example, say a quantitative analysis has determined a correlation between length of stay and level of patient satisfaction, but why does this correlation exist? This dual-focus scenario shows one way in which qualitative and quantitative research could be integrated.

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What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

Patrik aspers.

1 Department of Sociology, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

2 Seminar for Sociology, Universität St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland

3 Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway

What is qualitative research? If we look for a precise definition of qualitative research, and specifically for one that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature is meager. In this article we systematically search, identify and analyze a sample of 89 sources using or attempting to define the term “qualitative.” Then, drawing on ideas we find scattered across existing work, and based on Becker’s classic study of marijuana consumption, we formulate and illustrate a definition that tries to capture its core elements. We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. This formulation is developed as a tool to help improve research designs while stressing that a qualitative dimension is present in quantitative work as well. Additionally, it can facilitate teaching, communication between researchers, diminish the gap between qualitative and quantitative researchers, help to address critiques of qualitative methods, and be used as a standard of evaluation of qualitative research.

If we assume that there is something called qualitative research, what exactly is this qualitative feature? And how could we evaluate qualitative research as good or not? Is it fundamentally different from quantitative research? In practice, most active qualitative researchers working with empirical material intuitively know what is involved in doing qualitative research, yet perhaps surprisingly, a clear definition addressing its key feature is still missing.

To address the question of what is qualitative we turn to the accounts of “qualitative research” in textbooks and also in empirical work. In his classic, explorative, interview study of deviance Howard Becker ( 1963 ) asks ‘How does one become a marijuana user?’ In contrast to pre-dispositional and psychological-individualistic theories of deviant behavior, Becker’s inherently social explanation contends that becoming a user of this substance is the result of a three-phase sequential learning process. First, potential users need to learn how to smoke it properly to produce the “correct” effects. If not, they are likely to stop experimenting with it. Second, they need to discover the effects associated with it; in other words, to get “high,” individuals not only have to experience what the drug does, but also to become aware that those sensations are related to using it. Third, they require learning to savor the feelings related to its consumption – to develop an acquired taste. Becker, who played music himself, gets close to the phenomenon by observing, taking part, and by talking to people consuming the drug: “half of the fifty interviews were conducted with musicians, the other half covered a wide range of people, including laborers, machinists, and people in the professions” (Becker 1963 :56).

Another central aspect derived through the common-to-all-research interplay between induction and deduction (Becker 2017 ), is that during the course of his research Becker adds scientifically meaningful new distinctions in the form of three phases—distinctions, or findings if you will, that strongly affect the course of his research: its focus, the material that he collects, and which eventually impact his findings. Each phase typically unfolds through social interaction, and often with input from experienced users in “a sequence of social experiences during which the person acquires a conception of the meaning of the behavior, and perceptions and judgments of objects and situations, all of which make the activity possible and desirable” (Becker 1963 :235). In this study the increased understanding of smoking dope is a result of a combination of the meaning of the actors, and the conceptual distinctions that Becker introduces based on the views expressed by his respondents. Understanding is the result of research and is due to an iterative process in which data, concepts and evidence are connected with one another (Becker 2017 ).

Indeed, there are many definitions of qualitative research, but if we look for a definition that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature across the broad field of social science is meager. The main reason behind this article lies in the paradox, which, to put it bluntly, is that researchers act as if they know what it is, but they cannot formulate a coherent definition. Sociologists and others will of course continue to conduct good studies that show the relevance and value of qualitative research addressing scientific and practical problems in society. However, our paper is grounded in the idea that providing a clear definition will help us improve the work that we do. Among researchers who practice qualitative research there is clearly much knowledge. We suggest that a definition makes this knowledge more explicit. If the first rationale for writing this paper refers to the “internal” aim of improving qualitative research, the second refers to the increased “external” pressure that especially many qualitative researchers feel; pressure that comes both from society as well as from other scientific approaches. There is a strong core in qualitative research, and leading researchers tend to agree on what it is and how it is done. Our critique is not directed at the practice of qualitative research, but we do claim that the type of systematic work we do has not yet been done, and that it is useful to improve the field and its status in relation to quantitative research.

The literature on the “internal” aim of improving, or at least clarifying qualitative research is large, and we do not claim to be the first to notice the vagueness of the term “qualitative” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ). Also, others have noted that there is no single definition of it (Long and Godfrey 2004 :182), that there are many different views on qualitative research (Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11; Jovanović 2011 :3), and that more generally, we need to define its meaning (Best 2004 :54). Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ), for example, as well as Nelson et al. (1992:2 cited in Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11), and Flick ( 2007 :ix–x), have recognized that the term is problematic: “Actually, the term ‘qualitative research’ is confusing because it can mean different things to different people” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :10–11). Hammersley has discussed the possibility of addressing the problem, but states that “the task of providing an account of the distinctive features of qualitative research is far from straightforward” ( 2013 :2). This confusion, as he has recently further argued (Hammersley 2018 ), is also salient in relation to ethnography where different philosophical and methodological approaches lead to a lack of agreement about what it means.

Others (e.g. Hammersley 2018 ; Fine and Hancock 2017 ) have also identified the treat to qualitative research that comes from external forces, seen from the point of view of “qualitative research.” This threat can be further divided into that which comes from inside academia, such as the critique voiced by “quantitative research” and outside of academia, including, for example, New Public Management. Hammersley ( 2018 ), zooming in on one type of qualitative research, ethnography, has argued that it is under treat. Similarly to Fine ( 2003 ), and before him Gans ( 1999 ), he writes that ethnography’ has acquired a range of meanings, and comes in many different versions, these often reflecting sharply divergent epistemological orientations. And already more than twenty years ago while reviewing Denzin and Lincoln’ s Handbook of Qualitative Methods Fine argued:

While this increasing centrality [of qualitative research] might lead one to believe that consensual standards have developed, this belief would be misleading. As the methodology becomes more widely accepted, querulous challengers have raised fundamental questions that collectively have undercut the traditional models of how qualitative research is to be fashioned and presented (1995:417).

According to Hammersley, there are today “serious treats to the practice of ethnographic work, on almost any definition” ( 2018 :1). He lists five external treats: (1) that social research must be accountable and able to show its impact on society; (2) the current emphasis on “big data” and the emphasis on quantitative data and evidence; (3) the labor market pressure in academia that leaves less time for fieldwork (see also Fine and Hancock 2017 ); (4) problems of access to fields; and (5) the increased ethical scrutiny of projects, to which ethnography is particularly exposed. Hammersley discusses some more or less insufficient existing definitions of ethnography.

The current situation, as Hammersley and others note—and in relation not only to ethnography but also qualitative research in general, and as our empirical study shows—is not just unsatisfactory, it may even be harmful for the entire field of qualitative research, and does not help social science at large. We suggest that the lack of clarity of qualitative research is a real problem that must be addressed.

Towards a Definition of Qualitative Research

Seen in an historical light, what is today called qualitative, or sometimes ethnographic, interpretative research – or a number of other terms – has more or less always existed. At the time the founders of sociology – Simmel, Weber, Durkheim and, before them, Marx – were writing, and during the era of the Methodenstreit (“dispute about methods”) in which the German historical school emphasized scientific methods (cf. Swedberg 1990 ), we can at least speak of qualitative forerunners.

Perhaps the most extended discussion of what later became known as qualitative methods in a classic work is Bronisław Malinowski’s ( 1922 ) Argonauts in the Western Pacific , although even this study does not explicitly address the meaning of “qualitative.” In Weber’s ([1921–-22] 1978) work we find a tension between scientific explanations that are based on observation and quantification and interpretative research (see also Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 ).

If we look through major sociology journals like the American Sociological Review , American Journal of Sociology , or Social Forces we will not find the term qualitative sociology before the 1970s. And certainly before then much of what we consider qualitative classics in sociology, like Becker’ study ( 1963 ), had already been produced. Indeed, the Chicago School often combined qualitative and quantitative data within the same study (Fine 1995 ). Our point being that before a disciplinary self-awareness the term quantitative preceded qualitative, and the articulation of the former was a political move to claim scientific status (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ). In the US the World War II seem to have sparked a critique of sociological work, including “qualitative work,” that did not follow the scientific canon (Rawls 2018 ), which was underpinned by a scientifically oriented and value free philosophy of science. As a result the attempts and practice of integrating qualitative and quantitative sociology at Chicago lost ground to sociology that was more oriented to surveys and quantitative work at Columbia under Merton-Lazarsfeld. The quantitative tradition was also able to present textbooks (Lundberg 1951 ) that facilitated the use this approach and its “methods.” The practices of the qualitative tradition, by and large, remained tacit or was part of the mentoring transferred from the renowned masters to their students.

This glimpse into history leads us back to the lack of a coherent account condensed in a definition of qualitative research. Many of the attempts to define the term do not meet the requirements of a proper definition: A definition should be clear, avoid tautology, demarcate its domain in relation to the environment, and ideally only use words in its definiens that themselves are not in need of definition (Hempel 1966 ). A definition can enhance precision and thus clarity by identifying the core of the phenomenon. Preferably, a definition should be short. The typical definition we have found, however, is an ostensive definition, which indicates what qualitative research is about without informing us about what it actually is :

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2)

Flick claims that the label “qualitative research” is indeed used as an umbrella for a number of approaches ( 2007 :2–4; 2002 :6), and it is not difficult to identify research fitting this designation. Moreover, whatever it is, it has grown dramatically over the past five decades. In addition, courses have been developed, methods have flourished, arguments about its future have been advanced (for example, Denzin and Lincoln 1994) and criticized (for example, Snow and Morrill 1995 ), and dedicated journals and books have mushroomed. Most social scientists have a clear idea of research and how it differs from journalism, politics and other activities. But the question of what is qualitative in qualitative research is either eluded or eschewed.

We maintain that this lacuna hinders systematic knowledge production based on qualitative research. Paul Lazarsfeld noted the lack of “codification” as early as 1955 when he reviewed 100 qualitative studies in order to offer a codification of the practices (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). Since then many texts on “qualitative research” and its methods have been published, including recent attempts (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ) similar to Lazarsfeld’s. These studies have tried to extract what is qualitative by looking at the large number of empirical “qualitative” studies. Our novel strategy complements these endeavors by taking another approach and looking at the attempts to codify these practices in the form of a definition, as well as to a minor extent take Becker’s study as an exemplar of what qualitative researchers actually do, and what the characteristic of being ‘qualitative’ denotes and implies. We claim that qualitative researchers, if there is such a thing as “qualitative research,” should be able to codify their practices in a condensed, yet general way expressed in language.

Lingering problems of “generalizability” and “how many cases do I need” (Small 2009 ) are blocking advancement – in this line of work qualitative approaches are said to differ considerably from quantitative ones, while some of the former unsuccessfully mimic principles related to the latter (Small 2009 ). Additionally, quantitative researchers sometimes unfairly criticize the first based on their own quality criteria. Scholars like Goertz and Mahoney ( 2012 ) have successfully focused on the different norms and practices beyond what they argue are essentially two different cultures: those working with either qualitative or quantitative methods. Instead, similarly to Becker ( 2017 ) who has recently questioned the usefulness of the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research, we focus on similarities.

The current situation also impedes both students and researchers in focusing their studies and understanding each other’s work (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). A third consequence is providing an opening for critiques by scholars operating within different traditions (Valsiner 2000 :101). A fourth issue is that the “implicit use of methods in qualitative research makes the field far less standardized than the quantitative paradigm” (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 :9). Relatedly, the National Science Foundation in the US organized two workshops in 2004 and 2005 to address the scientific foundations of qualitative research involving strategies to improve it and to develop standards of evaluation in qualitative research. However, a specific focus on its distinguishing feature of being “qualitative” while being implicitly acknowledged, was discussed only briefly (for example, Best 2004 ).

In 2014 a theme issue was published in this journal on “Methods, Materials, and Meanings: Designing Cultural Analysis,” discussing central issues in (cultural) qualitative research (Berezin 2014 ; Biernacki 2014 ; Glaeser 2014 ; Lamont and Swidler 2014 ; Spillman 2014). We agree with many of the arguments put forward, such as the risk of methodological tribalism, and that we should not waste energy on debating methods separated from research questions. Nonetheless, a clarification of the relation to what is called “quantitative research” is of outmost importance to avoid misunderstandings and misguided debates between “qualitative” and “quantitative” researchers. Our strategy means that researchers, “qualitative” or “quantitative” they may be, in their actual practice may combine qualitative work and quantitative work.

In this article we accomplish three tasks. First, we systematically survey the literature for meanings of qualitative research by looking at how researchers have defined it. Drawing upon existing knowledge we find that the different meanings and ideas of qualitative research are not yet coherently integrated into one satisfactory definition. Next, we advance our contribution by offering a definition of qualitative research and illustrate its meaning and use partially by expanding on the brief example introduced earlier related to Becker’s work ( 1963 ). We offer a systematic analysis of central themes of what researchers consider to be the core of “qualitative,” regardless of style of work. These themes – which we summarize in terms of four keywords: distinction, process, closeness, improved understanding – constitute part of our literature review, in which each one appears, sometimes with others, but never all in the same definition. They serve as the foundation of our contribution. Our categories are overlapping. Their use is primarily to organize the large amount of definitions we have identified and analyzed, and not necessarily to draw a clear distinction between them. Finally, we continue the elaboration discussed above on the advantages of a clear definition of qualitative research.

In a hermeneutic fashion we propose that there is something meaningful that deserves to be labelled “qualitative research” (Gadamer 1990 ). To approach the question “What is qualitative in qualitative research?” we have surveyed the literature. In conducting our survey we first traced the word’s etymology in dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks of the social sciences and of methods and textbooks, mainly in English, which is common to methodology courses. It should be noted that we have zoomed in on sociology and its literature. This discipline has been the site of the largest debate and development of methods that can be called “qualitative,” which suggests that this field should be examined in great detail.

In an ideal situation we should expect that one good definition, or at least some common ideas, would have emerged over the years. This common core of qualitative research should be so accepted that it would appear in at least some textbooks. Since this is not what we found, we decided to pursue an inductive approach to capture maximal variation in the field of qualitative research; we searched in a selection of handbooks, textbooks, book chapters, and books, to which we added the analysis of journal articles. Our sample comprises a total of 89 references.

In practice we focused on the discipline that has had a clear discussion of methods, namely sociology. We also conducted a broad search in the JSTOR database to identify scholarly sociology articles published between 1998 and 2017 in English with a focus on defining or explaining qualitative research. We specifically zoom in on this time frame because we would have expect that this more mature period would have produced clear discussions on the meaning of qualitative research. To find these articles we combined a number of keywords to search the content and/or the title: qualitative (which was always included), definition, empirical, research, methodology, studies, fieldwork, interview and observation .

As a second phase of our research we searched within nine major sociological journals ( American Journal of Sociology , Sociological Theory , American Sociological Review , Contemporary Sociology , Sociological Forum , Sociological Theory , Qualitative Research , Qualitative Sociology and Qualitative Sociology Review ) for articles also published during the past 19 years (1998–2017) that had the term “qualitative” in the title and attempted to define qualitative research.

Lastly we picked two additional journals, Qualitative Research and Qualitative Sociology , in which we could expect to find texts addressing the notion of “qualitative.” From Qualitative Research we chose Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2014, and from Qualitative Sociology we chose Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2017. Within each of these we selected the first article; then we picked the second article of three prior issues. Again we went back another three issues and investigated article number three. Finally we went back another three issues and perused article number four. This selection criteria was used to get a manageable sample for the analysis.

The coding process of the 89 references we gathered in our selected review began soon after the first round of material was gathered, and we reduced the complexity created by our maximum variation sampling (Snow and Anderson 1993 :22) to four different categories within which questions on the nature and properties of qualitative research were discussed. We call them: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Qualitative Research, Fieldwork, and Grounded Theory. This – which may appear as an illogical grouping – merely reflects the “context” in which the matter of “qualitative” is discussed. If the selection process of the material – books and articles – was informed by pre-knowledge, we used an inductive strategy to code the material. When studying our material, we identified four central notions related to “qualitative” that appear in various combinations in the literature which indicate what is the core of qualitative research. We have labeled them: “distinctions”, “process,” “closeness,” and “improved understanding.” During the research process the categories and notions were improved, refined, changed, and reordered. The coding ended when a sense of saturation in the material arose. In the presentation below all quotations and references come from our empirical material of texts on qualitative research.

Analysis – What is Qualitative Research?

In this section we describe the four categories we identified in the coding, how they differently discuss qualitative research, as well as their overall content. Some salient quotations are selected to represent the type of text sorted under each of the four categories. What we present are examples from the literature.

Qualitative and Quantitative

This analytic category comprises quotations comparing qualitative and quantitative research, a distinction that is frequently used (Brown 2010 :231); in effect this is a conceptual pair that structures the discussion and that may be associated with opposing interests. While the general goal of quantitative and qualitative research is the same – to understand the world better – their methodologies and focus in certain respects differ substantially (Becker 1966 :55). Quantity refers to that property of something that can be determined by measurement. In a dictionary of Statistics and Methodology we find that “(a) When referring to *variables, ‘qualitative’ is another term for *categorical or *nominal. (b) When speaking of kinds of research, ‘qualitative’ refers to studies of subjects that are hard to quantify, such as art history. Qualitative research tends to be a residual category for almost any kind of non-quantitative research” (Stiles 1998:183). But it should be obvious that one could employ a quantitative approach when studying, for example, art history.

The same dictionary states that quantitative is “said of variables or research that can be handled numerically, usually (too sharply) contrasted with *qualitative variables and research” (Stiles 1998:184). From a qualitative perspective “quantitative research” is about numbers and counting, and from a quantitative perspective qualitative research is everything that is not about numbers. But this does not say much about what is “qualitative.” If we turn to encyclopedias we find that in the 1932 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there is no mention of “qualitative.” In the Encyclopedia from 1968 we can read:


Some, like Alford, divide researchers into methodologists or, in his words, “quantitative and qualitative specialists” (Alford 1998 :12). Qualitative research uses a variety of methods, such as intensive interviews or in-depth analysis of historical materials, and it is concerned with a comprehensive account of some event or unit (King et al. 1994 :4). Like quantitative research it can be utilized to study a variety of issues, but it tends to focus on meanings and motivations that underlie cultural symbols, personal experiences, phenomena and detailed understanding of processes in the social world. In short, qualitative research centers on understanding processes, experiences, and the meanings people assign to things (Kalof et al. 2008 :79).

Others simply say that qualitative methods are inherently unscientific (Jovanović 2011 :19). Hood, for instance, argues that words are intrinsically less precise than numbers, and that they are therefore more prone to subjective analysis, leading to biased results (Hood 2006 :219). Qualitative methodologies have raised concerns over the limitations of quantitative templates (Brady et al. 2004 :4). Scholars such as King et al. ( 1994 ), for instance, argue that non-statistical research can produce more reliable results if researchers pay attention to the rules of scientific inference commonly stated in quantitative research. Also, researchers such as Becker ( 1966 :59; 1970 :42–43) have asserted that, if conducted properly, qualitative research and in particular ethnographic field methods, can lead to more accurate results than quantitative studies, in particular, survey research and laboratory experiments.

Some researchers, such as Kalof, Dan, and Dietz ( 2008 :79) claim that the boundaries between the two approaches are becoming blurred, and Small ( 2009 ) argues that currently much qualitative research (especially in North America) tries unsuccessfully and unnecessarily to emulate quantitative standards. For others, qualitative research tends to be more humanistic and discursive (King et al. 1994 :4). Ragin ( 1994 ), and similarly also Becker, ( 1996 :53), Marchel and Owens ( 2007 :303) think that the main distinction between the two styles is overstated and does not rest on the simple dichotomy of “numbers versus words” (Ragin 1994 :xii). Some claim that quantitative data can be utilized to discover associations, but in order to unveil cause and effect a complex research design involving the use of qualitative approaches needs to be devised (Gilbert 2009 :35). Consequently, qualitative data are useful for understanding the nuances lying beyond those processes as they unfold (Gilbert 2009 :35). Others contend that qualitative research is particularly well suited both to identify causality and to uncover fine descriptive distinctions (Fine and Hallett 2014 ; Lichterman and Isaac Reed 2014 ; Katz 2015 ).

There are other ways to separate these two traditions, including normative statements about what qualitative research should be (that is, better or worse than quantitative approaches, concerned with scientific approaches to societal change or vice versa; Snow and Morrill 1995 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ), or whether it should develop falsifiable statements; Best 2004 ).

We propose that quantitative research is largely concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ); the analysis concerns the relations between variables. These categories are primarily not questioned in the study, only their frequency or degree, or the correlations between them (cf. Franzosi 2016 ). If a researcher studies wage differences between women and men, he or she works with given categories: x number of men are compared with y number of women, with a certain wage attributed to each person. The idea is not to move beyond the given categories of wage, men and women; they are the starting point as well as the end point, and undergo no “qualitative change.” Qualitative research, in contrast, investigates relations between categories that are themselves subject to change in the research process. Returning to Becker’s study ( 1963 ), we see that he questioned pre-dispositional theories of deviant behavior working with pre-determined variables such as an individual’s combination of personal qualities or emotional problems. His take, in contrast, was to understand marijuana consumption by developing “variables” as part of the investigation. Thereby he presented new variables, or as we would say today, theoretical concepts, but which are grounded in the empirical material.

Qualitative Research

This category contains quotations that refer to descriptions of qualitative research without making comparisons with quantitative research. Researchers such as Denzin and Lincoln, who have written a series of influential handbooks on qualitative methods (1994; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ; 2005 ), citing Nelson et al. (1992:4), argue that because qualitative research is “interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and sometimes counterdisciplinary” it is difficult to derive one single definition of it (Jovanović 2011 :3). According to them, in fact, “the field” is “many things at the same time,” involving contradictions, tensions over its focus, methods, and how to derive interpretations and findings ( 2003 : 11). Similarly, others, such as Flick ( 2007 :ix–x) contend that agreeing on an accepted definition has increasingly become problematic, and that qualitative research has possibly matured different identities. However, Best holds that “the proliferation of many sorts of activities under the label of qualitative sociology threatens to confuse our discussions” ( 2004 :54). Atkinson’s position is more definite: “the current state of qualitative research and research methods is confused” ( 2005 :3–4).

Qualitative research is about interpretation (Blumer 1969 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ), or Verstehen [understanding] (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ). It is “multi-method,” involving the collection and use of a variety of empirical materials (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Silverman 2013 ) and approaches (Silverman 2005 ; Flick 2007 ). It focuses not only on the objective nature of behavior but also on its subjective meanings: individuals’ own accounts of their attitudes, motivations, behavior (McIntyre 2005 :127; Creswell 2009 ), events and situations (Bryman 1989) – what people say and do in specific places and institutions (Goodwin and Horowitz 2002 :35–36) in social and temporal contexts (Morrill and Fine 1997). For this reason, following Weber ([1921-22] 1978), it can be described as an interpretative science (McIntyre 2005 :127). But could quantitative research also be concerned with these questions? Also, as pointed out below, does all qualitative research focus on subjective meaning, as some scholars suggest?

Others also distinguish qualitative research by claiming that it collects data using a naturalistic approach (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2; Creswell 2009 ), focusing on the meaning actors ascribe to their actions. But again, does all qualitative research need to be collected in situ? And does qualitative research have to be inherently concerned with meaning? Flick ( 2007 ), referring to Denzin and Lincoln ( 2005 ), mentions conversation analysis as an example of qualitative research that is not concerned with the meanings people bring to a situation, but rather with the formal organization of talk. Still others, such as Ragin ( 1994 :85), note that qualitative research is often (especially early on in the project, we would add) less structured than other kinds of social research – a characteristic connected to its flexibility and that can lead both to potentially better, but also worse results. But is this not a feature of this type of research, rather than a defining description of its essence? Wouldn’t this comment also apply, albeit to varying degrees, to quantitative research?

In addition, Strauss ( 2003 ), along with others, such as Alvesson and Kärreman ( 2011 :10–76), argue that qualitative researchers struggle to capture and represent complex phenomena partially because they tend to collect a large amount of data. While his analysis is correct at some points – “It is necessary to do detailed, intensive, microscopic examination of the data in order to bring out the amazing complexity of what lies in, behind, and beyond those data” (Strauss 2003 :10) – much of his analysis concerns the supposed focus of qualitative research and its challenges, rather than exactly what it is about. But even in this instance we would make a weak case arguing that these are strictly the defining features of qualitative research. Some researchers seem to focus on the approach or the methods used, or even on the way material is analyzed. Several researchers stress the naturalistic assumption of investigating the world, suggesting that meaning and interpretation appear to be a core matter of qualitative research.

We can also see that in this category there is no consensus about specific qualitative methods nor about qualitative data. Many emphasize interpretation, but quantitative research, too, involves interpretation; the results of a regression analysis, for example, certainly have to be interpreted, and the form of meta-analysis that factor analysis provides indeed requires interpretation However, there is no interpretation of quantitative raw data, i.e., numbers in tables. One common thread is that qualitative researchers have to get to grips with their data in order to understand what is being studied in great detail, irrespective of the type of empirical material that is being analyzed. This observation is connected to the fact that qualitative researchers routinely make several adjustments of focus and research design as their studies progress, in many cases until the very end of the project (Kalof et al. 2008 ). If you, like Becker, do not start out with a detailed theory, adjustments such as the emergence and refinement of research questions will occur during the research process. We have thus found a number of useful reflections about qualitative research scattered across different sources, but none of them effectively describe the defining characteristics of this approach.

Although qualitative research does not appear to be defined in terms of a specific method, it is certainly common that fieldwork, i.e., research that entails that the researcher spends considerable time in the field that is studied and use the knowledge gained as data, is seen as emblematic of or even identical to qualitative research. But because we understand that fieldwork tends to focus primarily on the collection and analysis of qualitative data, we expected to find within it discussions on the meaning of “qualitative.” But, again, this was not the case.

Instead, we found material on the history of this approach (for example, Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ; Atkinson et al. 2001), including how it has changed; for example, by adopting a more self-reflexive practice (Heyl 2001), as well as the different nomenclature that has been adopted, such as fieldwork, ethnography, qualitative research, naturalistic research, participant observation and so on (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ; Gans 1999 ).

We retrieved definitions of ethnography, such as “the study of people acting in the natural courses of their daily lives,” involving a “resocialization of the researcher” (Emerson 1988 :1) through intense immersion in others’ social worlds (see also examples in Hammersley 2018 ). This may be accomplished by direct observation and also participation (Neuman 2007 :276), although others, such as Denzin ( 1970 :185), have long recognized other types of observation, including non-participant (“fly on the wall”). In this category we have also isolated claims and opposing views, arguing that this type of research is distinguished primarily by where it is conducted (natural settings) (Hughes 1971:496), and how it is carried out (a variety of methods are applied) or, for some most importantly, by involving an active, empathetic immersion in those being studied (Emerson 1988 :2). We also retrieved descriptions of the goals it attends in relation to how it is taught (understanding subjective meanings of the people studied, primarily develop theory, or contribute to social change) (see for example, Corte and Irwin 2017 ; Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 :281; Trier-Bieniek 2012 :639) by collecting the richest possible data (Lofland et al. 2006 ) to derive “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973 ), and/or to aim at theoretical statements of general scope and applicability (for example, Emerson 1988 ; Fine 2003 ). We have identified guidelines on how to evaluate it (for example Becker 1996 ; Lamont 2004 ) and have retrieved instructions on how it should be conducted (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ). For instance, analysis should take place while the data gathering unfolds (Emerson 1988 ; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007 ; Lofland et al. 2006 ), observations should be of long duration (Becker 1970 :54; Goffman 1989 ), and data should be of high quantity (Becker 1970 :52–53), as well as other questionable distinctions between fieldwork and other methods:

Field studies differ from other methods of research in that the researcher performs the task of selecting topics, decides what questions to ask, and forges interest in the course of the research itself . This is in sharp contrast to many ‘theory-driven’ and ‘hypothesis-testing’ methods. (Lofland and Lofland 1995 :5)

But could not, for example, a strictly interview-based study be carried out with the same amount of flexibility, such as sequential interviewing (for example, Small 2009 )? Once again, are quantitative approaches really as inflexible as some qualitative researchers think? Moreover, this category stresses the role of the actors’ meaning, which requires knowledge and close interaction with people, their practices and their lifeworld.

It is clear that field studies – which are seen by some as the “gold standard” of qualitative research – are nonetheless only one way of doing qualitative research. There are other methods, but it is not clear why some are more qualitative than others, or why they are better or worse. Fieldwork is characterized by interaction with the field (the material) and understanding of the phenomenon that is being studied. In Becker’s case, he had general experience from fields in which marihuana was used, based on which he did interviews with actual users in several fields.

Grounded Theory

Another major category we identified in our sample is Grounded Theory. We found descriptions of it most clearly in Glaser and Strauss’ ([1967] 2010 ) original articulation, Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ) and Charmaz ( 2006 ), as well as many other accounts of what it is for: generating and testing theory (Strauss 2003 :xi). We identified explanations of how this task can be accomplished – such as through two main procedures: constant comparison and theoretical sampling (Emerson 1998:96), and how using it has helped researchers to “think differently” (for example, Strauss and Corbin 1998 :1). We also read descriptions of its main traits, what it entails and fosters – for instance, an exceptional flexibility, an inductive approach (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :31–33; 1990; Esterberg 2002 :7), an ability to step back and critically analyze situations, recognize tendencies towards bias, think abstractly and be open to criticism, enhance sensitivity towards the words and actions of respondents, and develop a sense of absorption and devotion to the research process (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :5–6). Accordingly, we identified discussions of the value of triangulating different methods (both using and not using grounded theory), including quantitative ones, and theories to achieve theoretical development (most comprehensively in Denzin 1970 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Timmermans and Tavory 2012 ). We have also located arguments about how its practice helps to systematize data collection, analysis and presentation of results (Glaser and Strauss [1967] 2010 :16).

Grounded theory offers a systematic approach which requires researchers to get close to the field; closeness is a requirement of identifying questions and developing new concepts or making further distinctions with regard to old concepts. In contrast to other qualitative approaches, grounded theory emphasizes the detailed coding process, and the numerous fine-tuned distinctions that the researcher makes during the process. Within this category, too, we could not find a satisfying discussion of the meaning of qualitative research.

Defining Qualitative Research

In sum, our analysis shows that some notions reappear in the discussion of qualitative research, such as understanding, interpretation, “getting close” and making distinctions. These notions capture aspects of what we think is “qualitative.” However, a comprehensive definition that is useful and that can further develop the field is lacking, and not even a clear picture of its essential elements appears. In other words no definition emerges from our data, and in our research process we have moved back and forth between our empirical data and the attempt to present a definition. Our concrete strategy, as stated above, is to relate qualitative and quantitative research, or more specifically, qualitative and quantitative work. We use an ideal-typical notion of quantitative research which relies on taken for granted and numbered variables. This means that the data consists of variables on different scales, such as ordinal, but frequently ratio and absolute scales, and the representation of the numbers to the variables, i.e. the justification of the assignment of numbers to object or phenomenon, are not questioned, though the validity may be questioned. In this section we return to the notion of quality and try to clarify it while presenting our contribution.

Broadly, research refers to the activity performed by people trained to obtain knowledge through systematic procedures. Notions such as “objectivity” and “reflexivity,” “systematic,” “theory,” “evidence” and “openness” are here taken for granted in any type of research. Next, building on our empirical analysis we explain the four notions that we have identified as central to qualitative work: distinctions, process, closeness, and improved understanding. In discussing them, ultimately in relation to one another, we make their meaning even more precise. Our idea, in short, is that only when these ideas that we present separately for analytic purposes are brought together can we speak of qualitative research.


We believe that the possibility of making new distinctions is one the defining characteristics of qualitative research. It clearly sets it apart from quantitative analysis which works with taken-for-granted variables, albeit as mentioned, meta-analyses, for example, factor analysis may result in new variables. “Quality” refers essentially to distinctions, as already pointed out by Aristotle. He discusses the term “qualitative” commenting: “By a quality I mean that in virtue of which things are said to be qualified somehow” (Aristotle 1984:14). Quality is about what something is or has, which means that the distinction from its environment is crucial. We see qualitative research as a process in which significant new distinctions are made to the scholarly community; to make distinctions is a key aspect of obtaining new knowledge; a point, as we will see, that also has implications for “quantitative research.” The notion of being “significant” is paramount. New distinctions by themselves are not enough; just adding concepts only increases complexity without furthering our knowledge. The significance of new distinctions is judged against the communal knowledge of the research community. To enable this discussion and judgements central elements of rational discussion are required (cf. Habermas [1981] 1987 ; Davidsson [ 1988 ] 2001) to identify what is new and relevant scientific knowledge. Relatedly, Ragin alludes to the idea of new and useful knowledge at a more concrete level: “Qualitative methods are appropriate for in-depth examination of cases because they aid the identification of key features of cases. Most qualitative methods enhance data” (1994:79). When Becker ( 1963 ) studied deviant behavior and investigated how people became marihuana smokers, he made distinctions between the ways in which people learned how to smoke. This is a classic example of how the strategy of “getting close” to the material, for example the text, people or pictures that are subject to analysis, may enable researchers to obtain deeper insight and new knowledge by making distinctions – in this instance on the initial notion of learning how to smoke. Others have stressed the making of distinctions in relation to coding or theorizing. Emerson et al. ( 1995 ), for example, hold that “qualitative coding is a way of opening up avenues of inquiry,” meaning that the researcher identifies and develops concepts and analytic insights through close examination of and reflection on data (Emerson et al. 1995 :151). Goodwin and Horowitz highlight making distinctions in relation to theory-building writing: “Close engagement with their cases typically requires qualitative researchers to adapt existing theories or to make new conceptual distinctions or theoretical arguments to accommodate new data” ( 2002 : 37). In the ideal-typical quantitative research only existing and so to speak, given, variables would be used. If this is the case no new distinction are made. But, would not also many “quantitative” researchers make new distinctions?

Process does not merely suggest that research takes time. It mainly implies that qualitative new knowledge results from a process that involves several phases, and above all iteration. Qualitative research is about oscillation between theory and evidence, analysis and generating material, between first- and second -order constructs (Schütz 1962 :59), between getting in contact with something, finding sources, becoming deeply familiar with a topic, and then distilling and communicating some of its essential features. The main point is that the categories that the researcher uses, and perhaps takes for granted at the beginning of the research process, usually undergo qualitative changes resulting from what is found. Becker describes how he tested hypotheses and let the jargon of the users develop into theoretical concepts. This happens over time while the study is being conducted, exemplifying what we mean by process.

In the research process, a pilot-study may be used to get a first glance of, for example, the field, how to approach it, and what methods can be used, after which the method and theory are chosen or refined before the main study begins. Thus, the empirical material is often central from the start of the project and frequently leads to adjustments by the researcher. Likewise, during the main study categories are not fixed; the empirical material is seen in light of the theory used, but it is also given the opportunity to kick back, thereby resisting attempts to apply theoretical straightjackets (Becker 1970 :43). In this process, coding and analysis are interwoven, and thus are often important steps for getting closer to the phenomenon and deciding what to focus on next. Becker began his research by interviewing musicians close to him, then asking them to refer him to other musicians, and later on doubling his original sample of about 25 to include individuals in other professions (Becker 1973:46). Additionally, he made use of some participant observation, documents, and interviews with opiate users made available to him by colleagues. As his inductive theory of deviance evolved, Becker expanded his sample in order to fine tune it, and test the accuracy and generality of his hypotheses. In addition, he introduced a negative case and discussed the null hypothesis ( 1963 :44). His phasic career model is thus based on a research design that embraces processual work. Typically, process means to move between “theory” and “material” but also to deal with negative cases, and Becker ( 1998 ) describes how discovering these negative cases impacted his research design and ultimately its findings.

Obviously, all research is process-oriented to some degree. The point is that the ideal-typical quantitative process does not imply change of the data, and iteration between data, evidence, hypotheses, empirical work, and theory. The data, quantified variables, are, in most cases fixed. Merging of data, which of course can be done in a quantitative research process, does not mean new data. New hypotheses are frequently tested, but the “raw data is often the “the same.” Obviously, over time new datasets are made available and put into use.

Another characteristic that is emphasized in our sample is that qualitative researchers – and in particular ethnographers – can, or as Goffman put it, ought to ( 1989 ), get closer to the phenomenon being studied and their data than quantitative researchers (for example, Silverman 2009 :85). Put differently, essentially because of their methods qualitative researchers get into direct close contact with those being investigated and/or the material, such as texts, being analyzed. Becker started out his interview study, as we noted, by talking to those he knew in the field of music to get closer to the phenomenon he was studying. By conducting interviews he got even closer. Had he done more observations, he would undoubtedly have got even closer to the field.

Additionally, ethnographers’ design enables researchers to follow the field over time, and the research they do is almost by definition longitudinal, though the time in the field is studied obviously differs between studies. The general characteristic of closeness over time maximizes the chances of unexpected events, new data (related, for example, to archival research as additional sources, and for ethnography for situations not necessarily previously thought of as instrumental – what Mannay and Morgan ( 2015 ) term the “waiting field”), serendipity (Merton and Barber 2004 ; Åkerström 2013 ), and possibly reactivity, as well as the opportunity to observe disrupted patterns that translate into exemplars of negative cases. Two classic examples of this are Becker’s finding of what medical students call “crocks” (Becker et al. 1961 :317), and Geertz’s ( 1973 ) study of “deep play” in Balinese society.

By getting and staying so close to their data – be it pictures, text or humans interacting (Becker was himself a musician) – for a long time, as the research progressively focuses, qualitative researchers are prompted to continually test their hunches, presuppositions and hypotheses. They test them against a reality that often (but certainly not always), and practically, as well as metaphorically, talks back, whether by validating them, or disqualifying their premises – correctly, as well as incorrectly (Fine 2003 ; Becker 1970 ). This testing nonetheless often leads to new directions for the research. Becker, for example, says that he was initially reading psychological theories, but when facing the data he develops a theory that looks at, you may say, everything but psychological dispositions to explain the use of marihuana. Especially researchers involved with ethnographic methods have a fairly unique opportunity to dig up and then test (in a circular, continuous and temporal way) new research questions and findings as the research progresses, and thereby to derive previously unimagined and uncharted distinctions by getting closer to the phenomenon under study.

Let us stress that getting close is by no means restricted to ethnography. The notion of hermeneutic circle and hermeneutics as a general way of understanding implies that we must get close to the details in order to get the big picture. This also means that qualitative researchers can literally also make use of details of pictures as evidence (cf. Harper 2002). Thus, researchers may get closer both when generating the material or when analyzing it.

Quantitative research, we maintain, in the ideal-typical representation cannot get closer to the data. The data is essentially numbers in tables making up the variables (Franzosi 2016 :138). The data may originally have been “qualitative,” but once reduced to numbers there can only be a type of “hermeneutics” about what the number may stand for. The numbers themselves, however, are non-ambiguous. Thus, in quantitative research, interpretation, if done, is not about the data itself—the numbers—but what the numbers stand for. It follows that the interpretation is essentially done in a more “speculative” mode without direct empirical evidence (cf. Becker 2017 ).

Improved Understanding

While distinction, process and getting closer refer to the qualitative work of the researcher, improved understanding refers to its conditions and outcome of this work. Understanding cuts deeper than explanation, which to some may mean a causally verified correlation between variables. The notion of explanation presupposes the notion of understanding since explanation does not include an idea of how knowledge is gained (Manicas 2006 : 15). Understanding, we argue, is the core concept of what we call the outcome of the process when research has made use of all the other elements that were integrated in the research. Understanding, then, has a special status in qualitative research since it refers both to the conditions of knowledge and the outcome of the process. Understanding can to some extent be seen as the condition of explanation and occurs in a process of interpretation, which naturally refers to meaning (Gadamer 1990 ). It is fundamentally connected to knowing, and to the knowing of how to do things (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ). Conceptually the term hermeneutics is used to account for this process. Heidegger ties hermeneutics to human being and not possible to separate from the understanding of being ( 1988 ). Here we use it in a broader sense, and more connected to method in general (cf. Seiffert 1992 ). The abovementioned aspects – for example, “objectivity” and “reflexivity” – of the approach are conditions of scientific understanding. Understanding is the result of a circular process and means that the parts are understood in light of the whole, and vice versa. Understanding presupposes pre-understanding, or in other words, some knowledge of the phenomenon studied. The pre-understanding, even in the form of prejudices, are in qualitative research process, which we see as iterative, questioned, which gradually or suddenly change due to the iteration of data, evidence and concepts. However, qualitative research generates understanding in the iterative process when the researcher gets closer to the data, e.g., by going back and forth between field and analysis in a process that generates new data that changes the evidence, and, ultimately, the findings. Questioning, to ask questions, and put what one assumes—prejudices and presumption—in question, is central to understand something (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ; Gadamer 1990 :368–384). We propose that this iterative process in which the process of understanding occurs is characteristic of qualitative research.

Improved understanding means that we obtain scientific knowledge of something that we as a scholarly community did not know before, or that we get to know something better. It means that we understand more about how parts are related to one another, and to other things we already understand (see also Fine and Hallett 2014 ). Understanding is an important condition for qualitative research. It is not enough to identify correlations, make distinctions, and work in a process in which one gets close to the field or phenomena. Understanding is accomplished when the elements are integrated in an iterative process.

It is, moreover, possible to understand many things, and researchers, just like children, may come to understand new things every day as they engage with the world. This subjective condition of understanding – namely, that a person gains a better understanding of something –is easily met. To be qualified as “scientific,” the understanding must be general and useful to many; it must be public. But even this generally accessible understanding is not enough in order to speak of “scientific understanding.” Though we as a collective can increase understanding of everything in virtually all potential directions as a result also of qualitative work, we refrain from this “objective” way of understanding, which has no means of discriminating between what we gain in understanding. Scientific understanding means that it is deemed relevant from the scientific horizon (compare Schütz 1962 : 35–38, 46, 63), and that it rests on the pre-understanding that the scientists have and must have in order to understand. In other words, the understanding gained must be deemed useful by other researchers, so that they can build on it. We thus see understanding from a pragmatic, rather than a subjective or objective perspective. Improved understanding is related to the question(s) at hand. Understanding, in order to represent an improvement, must be an improvement in relation to the existing body of knowledge of the scientific community (James [ 1907 ] 1955). Scientific understanding is, by definition, collective, as expressed in Weber’s famous note on objectivity, namely that scientific work aims at truths “which … can claim, even for a Chinese, the validity appropriate to an empirical analysis” ([1904] 1949 :59). By qualifying “improved understanding” we argue that it is a general defining characteristic of qualitative research. Becker‘s ( 1966 ) study and other research of deviant behavior increased our understanding of the social learning processes of how individuals start a behavior. And it also added new knowledge about the labeling of deviant behavior as a social process. Few studies, of course, make the same large contribution as Becker’s, but are nonetheless qualitative research.

Understanding in the phenomenological sense, which is a hallmark of qualitative research, we argue, requires meaning and this meaning is derived from the context, and above all the data being analyzed. The ideal-typical quantitative research operates with given variables with different numbers. This type of material is not enough to establish meaning at the level that truly justifies understanding. In other words, many social science explanations offer ideas about correlations or even causal relations, but this does not mean that the meaning at the level of the data analyzed, is understood. This leads us to say that there are indeed many explanations that meet the criteria of understanding, for example the explanation of how one becomes a marihuana smoker presented by Becker. However, we may also understand a phenomenon without explaining it, and we may have potential explanations, or better correlations, that are not really understood.

We may speak more generally of quantitative research and its data to clarify what we see as an important distinction. The “raw data” that quantitative research—as an idealtypical activity, refers to is not available for further analysis; the numbers, once created, are not to be questioned (Franzosi 2016 : 138). If the researcher is to do “more” or “change” something, this will be done by conjectures based on theoretical knowledge or based on the researcher’s lifeworld. Both qualitative and quantitative research is based on the lifeworld, and all researchers use prejudices and pre-understanding in the research process. This idea is present in the works of Heidegger ( 2001 ) and Heisenberg (cited in Franzosi 2010 :619). Qualitative research, as we argued, involves the interaction and questioning of concepts (theory), data, and evidence.

Ragin ( 2004 :22) points out that “a good definition of qualitative research should be inclusive and should emphasize its key strengths and features, not what it lacks (for example, the use of sophisticated quantitative techniques).” We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. Qualitative research, as defined here, is consequently a combination of two criteria: (i) how to do things –namely, generating and analyzing empirical material, in an iterative process in which one gets closer by making distinctions, and (ii) the outcome –improved understanding novel to the scholarly community. Is our definition applicable to our own study? In this study we have closely read the empirical material that we generated, and the novel distinction of the notion “qualitative research” is the outcome of an iterative process in which both deduction and induction were involved, in which we identified the categories that we analyzed. We thus claim to meet the first criteria, “how to do things.” The second criteria cannot be judged but in a partial way by us, namely that the “outcome” —in concrete form the definition-improves our understanding to others in the scientific community.

We have defined qualitative research, or qualitative scientific work, in relation to quantitative scientific work. Given this definition, qualitative research is about questioning the pre-given (taken for granted) variables, but it is thus also about making new distinctions of any type of phenomenon, for example, by coining new concepts, including the identification of new variables. This process, as we have discussed, is carried out in relation to empirical material, previous research, and thus in relation to theory. Theory and previous research cannot be escaped or bracketed. According to hermeneutic principles all scientific work is grounded in the lifeworld, and as social scientists we can thus never fully bracket our pre-understanding.

We have proposed that quantitative research, as an idealtype, is concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ). Variables are epistemically fixed, but can vary in terms of dimensions, such as frequency or number. Age is an example; as a variable it can take on different numbers. In relation to quantitative research, qualitative research does not reduce its material to number and variables. If this is done the process of comes to a halt, the researcher gets more distanced from her data, and it makes it no longer possible to make new distinctions that increase our understanding. We have above discussed the components of our definition in relation to quantitative research. Our conclusion is that in the research that is called quantitative there are frequent and necessary qualitative elements.

Further, comparative empirical research on researchers primarily working with ”quantitative” approaches and those working with ”qualitative” approaches, we propose, would perhaps show that there are many similarities in practices of these two approaches. This is not to deny dissimilarities, or the different epistemic and ontic presuppositions that may be more or less strongly associated with the two different strands (see Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ). Our point is nonetheless that prejudices and preconceptions about researchers are unproductive, and that as other researchers have argued, differences may be exaggerated (e.g., Becker 1996 : 53, 2017 ; Marchel and Owens 2007 :303; Ragin 1994 ), and that a qualitative dimension is present in both kinds of work.

Several things follow from our findings. The most important result is the relation to quantitative research. In our analysis we have separated qualitative research from quantitative research. The point is not to label individual researchers, methods, projects, or works as either “quantitative” or “qualitative.” By analyzing, i.e., taking apart, the notions of quantitative and qualitative, we hope to have shown the elements of qualitative research. Our definition captures the elements, and how they, when combined in practice, generate understanding. As many of the quotations we have used suggest, one conclusion of our study holds that qualitative approaches are not inherently connected with a specific method. Put differently, none of the methods that are frequently labelled “qualitative,” such as interviews or participant observation, are inherently “qualitative.” What matters, given our definition, is whether one works qualitatively or quantitatively in the research process, until the results are produced. Consequently, our analysis also suggests that those researchers working with what in the literature and in jargon is often called “quantitative research” are almost bound to make use of what we have identified as qualitative elements in any research project. Our findings also suggest that many” quantitative” researchers, at least to some extent, are engaged with qualitative work, such as when research questions are developed, variables are constructed and combined, and hypotheses are formulated. Furthermore, a research project may hover between “qualitative” and “quantitative” or start out as “qualitative” and later move into a “quantitative” (a distinct strategy that is not similar to “mixed methods” or just simply combining induction and deduction). More generally speaking, the categories of “qualitative” and “quantitative,” unfortunately, often cover up practices, and it may lead to “camps” of researchers opposing one another. For example, regardless of the researcher is primarily oriented to “quantitative” or “qualitative” research, the role of theory is neglected (cf. Swedberg 2017 ). Our results open up for an interaction not characterized by differences, but by different emphasis, and similarities.

Let us take two examples to briefly indicate how qualitative elements can fruitfully be combined with quantitative. Franzosi ( 2010 ) has discussed the relations between quantitative and qualitative approaches, and more specifically the relation between words and numbers. He analyzes texts and argues that scientific meaning cannot be reduced to numbers. Put differently, the meaning of the numbers is to be understood by what is taken for granted, and what is part of the lifeworld (Schütz 1962 ). Franzosi shows how one can go about using qualitative and quantitative methods and data to address scientific questions analyzing violence in Italy at the time when fascism was rising (1919–1922). Aspers ( 2006 ) studied the meaning of fashion photographers. He uses an empirical phenomenological approach, and establishes meaning at the level of actors. In a second step this meaning, and the different ideal-typical photographers constructed as a result of participant observation and interviews, are tested using quantitative data from a database; in the first phase to verify the different ideal-types, in the second phase to use these types to establish new knowledge about the types. In both of these cases—and more examples can be found—authors move from qualitative data and try to keep the meaning established when using the quantitative data.

A second main result of our study is that a definition, and we provided one, offers a way for research to clarify, and even evaluate, what is done. Hence, our definition can guide researchers and students, informing them on how to think about concrete research problems they face, and to show what it means to get closer in a process in which new distinctions are made. The definition can also be used to evaluate the results, given that it is a standard of evaluation (cf. Hammersley 2007 ), to see whether new distinctions are made and whether this improves our understanding of what is researched, in addition to the evaluation of how the research was conducted. By making what is qualitative research explicit it becomes easier to communicate findings, and it is thereby much harder to fly under the radar with substandard research since there are standards of evaluation which make it easier to separate “good” from “not so good” qualitative research.

To conclude, our analysis, which ends with a definition of qualitative research can thus both address the “internal” issues of what is qualitative research, and the “external” critiques that make it harder to do qualitative research, to which both pressure from quantitative methods and general changes in society contribute.


Financial Support for this research is given by the European Research Council, CEV (263699). The authors are grateful to Susann Krieglsteiner for assistance in collecting the data. The paper has benefitted from the many useful comments by the three reviewers and the editor, comments by members of the Uppsala Laboratory of Economic Sociology, as well as Jukka Gronow, Sebastian Kohl, Marcin Serafin, Richard Swedberg, Anders Vassenden and Turid Rødne.


is professor of sociology at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University and Universität St. Gallen. His main focus is economic sociology, and in particular, markets. He has published numerous articles and books, including Orderly Fashion (Princeton University Press 2010), Markets (Polity Press 2011) and Re-Imagining Economic Sociology (edited with N. Dodd, Oxford University Press 2015). His book Ethnographic Methods (in Swedish) has already gone through several editions.

is associate professor of sociology at the Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger. His research has been published in journals such as Social Psychology Quarterly, Sociological Theory, Teaching Sociology, and Music and Arts in Action. As an ethnographer he is working on a book on he social world of big-wave surfing.

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Patrik Aspers, Email: [email protected] .

Ugo Corte, Email: [email protected] .

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  • Published: 29 May 2024

Exploring the use of body worn cameras in acute mental health wards: a mixed-method evaluation of a pilot intervention

  • Una Foye 1 , 2 ,
  • Keiran Wilson 1 , 2 ,
  • Jessica Jepps 1 , 2 ,
  • James Blease 1 ,
  • Ellen Thomas 3 ,
  • Leroy McAnuff 3 ,
  • Sharon McKenzie 3 ,
  • Katherine Barrett 3 ,
  • Lilli Underwood 3 ,
  • Geoff Brennan 1 , 2 &
  • Alan Simpson 1 , 2  

BMC Health Services Research volume  24 , Article number:  681 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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Body worn cameras (BWC) are mobile audio and video capture devices that can be secured to clothing allowing the wearer to record some of what they see and hear. This technology is being introduced in a range of healthcare settings as part of larger violence reduction strategies aimed at reducing incidents of aggression and violence on inpatient wards, however limited evidence exists to understand if this technology achieves such goals.

This study aimed to evaluate the implementation of BWCs on two inpatient mental health wards, including the impact on incidents, the acceptability to staff and patients, the sustainability of the resource use and ability to manage the use of BWCs on these wards.

The study used a mixed-methods design comparing quantitative measures including ward activity and routinely collected incident data at three time-points before during and after the pilot implementation of BWCs on one acute ward and one psychiatric intensive care unit, alongside pre and post pilot qualitative interviews with patients and staff, analysed using a framework based on the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research.

Results showed no clear relationship between the use of BWCs and rates or severity of incidents on either ward, with limited impact of using BWCs on levels of incidents. Qualitative findings noted mixed perceptions about the use of BWCs and highlighted the complexity of implementing such technology as a violence reduction method within a busy healthcare setting Furthermore, the qualitative data collected during this pilot period highlighted the potential systemic and contextual factors such as low staffing that may impact on the incident data presented.

This study sheds light on the complexities of using such BWCs as a tool for ‘maximising safety’ on mental health settings. The findings suggest that BWCs have a limited impact on levels of incidents on wards, something that is likely to be largely influenced by the process of implementation as well as a range of contextual factors. As a result, it is likely that while BWCs may see successes in one hospital site this is not guaranteed for another site as such factors will have a considerable impact on efficacy, acceptability, and feasibility.

Peer Review reports

Body worn cameras (BWC) are mobile audio and video capture devices that can be secured to clothing allowing the wearer to record some of what they see and hear. In England, these have been introduced in the National Health Service (NHS) as part of a violence reduction strategy [ 1 ] which emphasises the reduction of aggression and violence against staff. The NHS Staff Survey 2022 found that 14.7% of NHS staff had experienced at least one incident of physical violence from patients, relatives or other members of the public in the previous 12 months. Violent attacks on staff were found to contribute to almost half of staff illness [ 2 ]. Levels of violence against staff working in mental health trusts remain much higher than other types of healthcare providers [ 3 ]. Numerous reports internationally highlight the increased risks faced by staff working in psychiatric care [ 4 ], though studies have reported that both ward staff and mental health patients experience violence and feeling unsafe on inpatient wards [ 5 , 6 ].

Body worn cameras have been in use for over a decade within law enforcement, where they hoped to provide transparency and accountability within use-of-force incidents and in the event of citizen complaints against police [ 7 ]. It was believed that video surveillance would help identify integral problems within the organisation, improve documentation of evidence, reduce use-of-force incidents, improve police-community relations, and provide training opportunities for officers [ 8 ]. However, a recent extensive international systematic review by Lum et al. [ 9 ], found that despite the successes noted in early evaluations, the way BWCs are currently used by police may not substantially affect most officer or citizen behaviours. Irrespective of these findings, other public services such as train operators have been implementing BWCs for security purposes, with reductions reported in the number of assaults on railway staff [ 10 ].

A recent systematic review of BWC use in public sector services established that there is a poor evidence base supporting the use of BWCs in the reduction of violence and aggression [ 11 ]. Yet, we are seeing a swift increase in the use of BWCs in mental health settings with that aim, with few studies conducted on the use of BWC technology in inpatient mental health wards, and even fewer studies exploring staff or patients’ views. Two evaluations conducted in England reported mixed results with both increases and decreases in violence and aggression found, and variation between types of wards. There is some suggestion of a reduction in more serious incidents and the use of restraint, but quality of evidence is low [ 12 , 13 ].

The use of BWCs in mental healthcare settings for safety and security remains a contentious topic due to the lack of evidence regarding the influence that such technology has on preventing violence and aggression and the complex philosophical and ethical issues raised, particularly where many patients may lack capacity and/or are detained under mental health legislation [ 14 ]. Additionally, there are concerns that BWCs may be used as a ‘quick fix’ for staff shortages rather than addressing the wider systemic and resourcing issues facing services [ 15 ]. With little independent evaluation of body-worn cameras in mental health settings, many of these concerns remain unanswered. There is also limited understanding of this technology from an implementation perspective. Therefore, in this study we aimed to conduct an independent evaluation of the introduction of BWCs as a violence reduction intervention on two inpatient mental health wards during a six-month pilot period to explore the impact of using the technology, alongside an exploration of the facilitators and barriers to implementation.

Research aim(s)

To evaluate the implementation of BWCs on two inpatient mental health wards, including the impact on incidents, the acceptability to staff and patients, the sustainability of the resource use and ability to manage the use of BWCs on these wards.

Patient and public involvement

The research team included a researcher and independent consultant, each with lived experience of mental health inpatient care. In addition, we recruited and facilitated a six member Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP). This group was made up of patients and carers, some of whom had experienced the use of BWCs. Members were of diverse ethnic backgrounds and included four women and two men. The LEAP provided guidance and support for the research team in developing an understanding of the various potential impacts of the use of BWCs on inpatient mental health wards. Members contributed to the design of the study, development of the interview schedule, practice interviews prior to data collection on the wards, and supported the analysis and interpretation of the data, taking part in coding sessions to identify themes in the interview transcripts. The LEAP met once a month for two hours and was chaired by the Lived Experience Research Assistant and Lived Experience Consultant. Participants in the LEAP were provided with training and paid for their time.

The pilot introduction of the body worn cameras was conducted within a London mental health Trust consisting of four hospital sites with 17 acute wards. The research team were made aware of extensive preparatory work and planning that was conducted at a directorate and senior management level prior to camera implementation, including lived experience involvement and consultation, and the development of relevant policies and protocols inclusive of a human rights assessment and legal consultation.

The pilot period ran from 25th April to 25th October 2022. Reveal (a company who supply BWCs nationally across the UK) provided the Trust with 12 Calla BWCs for a flat fee that covered use of the cameras, cloud-based storage of footage, management software, and any support/maintenance required during the pilot period. Cameras were introduced to two wards based on two hospital sites, with six cameras provided to each of the wards on the same date. Training on using the BWCs was provided by the BWC company to staff working on both wards prior to starting the pilot period. Ward one was a 20-bed male acute inpatient ward, representing the most common ward setting where cameras have been introduced. Ward two was a ten-bed male Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), representing smaller and more secure wards in which patients are likely to present as more unwell and where there are higher staff to patient ratios.

To answer our research questions, we used a mixed-methods design [ 16 ]. Using this design allowed us to investigate the impact of implementing BWCs in mental health settings on a range of quantitative and qualitative outcomes. This mixed methods design allows the study to statistically evaluate the effectiveness of using BWCs in these settings on key dependent variables (i.e., rates of violence and aggression, and incidents of conflict and containment) alongside qualitatively exploring the impact that the implementation of such technology has on patients and staff.

To ensure that the study was able to capture the impact and effect of implementation of the cameras, a repeated measures design was utilised to capture data at three phases on these wards:

Pre-pilot data: data prior of the implementation of the BWCs (quantitative and qualitative data).

Pilot period data: data collected during the six-month pilot period when BWCs were implemented on the wards (quantitative and qualitative data).

Post-pilot: data collected after the pilot period ended and cameras had been removed from the wards (quantitative data only).

Quantitative methods

Quantitative data was collected at all three data collection periods:

Pre-period: Data spanning six months prior to the implementation of BWCs (Nov 21 to May 22).

Pilot period: Data spanning the six months of the Trusts pilot period of using BWCs on the wards (June 22 to Nov 22).

Post-pilot: Data spanning the six months following the pilot period, when BWCs had been removed (Dec 22 to May 23).

Quantitative measures

To analyse the impact of BWC implementation, we collected two types of incident data related to violence and aggression and use of containment measures, including BWCs. Combined, these data provide a view of a wide range of incidents and events happening across the wards prior to, during, and after the implementation and removal of the BWCs.

The patient-staff conflict checklist

The Patient-staff Conflict Checklist (PCC-SR) [ 17 ] is an end of shift report that is completed by nurses to collate the frequency of conflict and containment events. This measure has been used successfully in several studies on inpatient wards [ 18 , 19 , 20 ].The checklist consists of 21 conflict behaviour items, including physical and verbal aggression, general rule breaking (e.g., smoking, refusing to attend to personal hygiene), eight containment measures (e.g., special observation, seclusion, physical restraint, time out), and staffing levels. In tests based on use with case note material, the PCC-SR has demonstrated an interrater reliability of 0.69 [ 21 ] and has shown a significant association with rates of officially reported incidents [ 22 ].

The checklist was revised for this study to include questions related to the use of BWCs ( e.g., how many uses of BWCs happened during the shift when a warning was given and the BWC was not used; when a warning was given and the BWC was used; when the BWC was switched on with no warning given ) in order to provide insight into how the cameras were being used on each ward (see appendix 1). Ward staff were asked to complete the checklist online at the end of each shift.

Routinely collected incident data (via datix system)

To supplement the PCC-SR-R, we also used routinely collected incident data from both wards for all three data collection phases. This data is gathered as part of routine practice by ward staff members via the Datix system Datix [ 23 ] is a risk management system used widely across mental health wards and Trusts in the UK to gather information on processes and errors. Previous studies have utilised routinely collect data via this system [ 24 , 25 ]. Incidents recorded in various Datix categories were included in this study (see Table  1 ). Incidents were anonymised before being provided to the research team to ensure confidentiality.

Routinely collected data included:

Recorded incidents of violence and aggression.

Recorded use of restrictive practices including seclusion, restraint, and intra-muscular medication/rapid tranquilisations.

Patient numbers.

Staffing levels.

Numbers of staff attending BWC training.

Quantitative data analysis

Incident reports.

Incident reports retrieved from Datix were binary coded into aggregate variables to examine violence and aggression, self-harm, and other conflict as outlined in Table  1 . Multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVA) were used to identify differences in type of incident (violence against person, violence against object, verbal aggression, self-harm, conflict) for each ward. MANOVA was also used to examine differences in incident outcomes (severity, use of restrictive practice, police involvement) across pre-trial, trial, and post-trial periods for each ward. Incident severity was scored by ward staff on a four-point scale (1 = No adverse outcome, 2 = Low severity, 3 = Moderate severity, 4 = Severe). Use of restrictive practice and police involvement were binary coded for presence or absence. Analyses were conducted using SPSS [ 26 ].

Patient-staff conflict checklist shift-report – revised (PCC-SR-R; )

Data were condensed into weeks for analysis rather than shifts to account for variability in PCC-SR-R submission by shift. Linear regressions assessed the relationship between BWC use and incident outcome (severity, use of restrictive practice, police involvement).

Qualitative methods

We used semi-structured qualitative interviews to explore participants’ experiences of BWCs on the ward to understand the impact of their use as well as to identify any salient issues for patients, staff and visitors that align with the measures utilised within the quantitative aspect of this study. These interviews were conducted at two time points: pre-pilot and at the end of the six-month pilot period.

Sample selection, eligibility, and recruitment

Convenience sampling was used to recruit staff and patients on wards. Researchers approached ward managers to distribute information sheets to staff, who shared that information with patients. Staff self-selected to participate in the study by liaising directly with the research team. Patients that were identified as close to discharge and having capacity to consent were approached by a clinical member of the team who was briefed on the study inclusion criteria (see Table  2 ). The staff member spoke with the patient about the study and provided them with a copy of the information sheet to consider. If patients consented, a member of the research team approached the participant to provide more information on the study and answer questions. After initial contact with the research team, participants were given a 24-hour period to consider whether they wanted to participate before being invited for an interview.

Participants were invited to take part in an interview within a private space on the ward. Interviews were scheduled for one hour with an additional 15 min before and after to obtain informed consent and answer any questions. Participation was voluntary and participants were free to withdraw at any time. To thank patients for their time, we offered a £10 voucher following the interview. Interviews were audio-recorded and saved to an encrypted server. Interview recordings were transcribed by an external company, and the research team checked the transcripts for accuracy and pseudonymised all participants. All transcripts were allocated a unique ID number and imported to MicroSoft Excel [ 27 ] for analysis.

Qualitative data analysis

Qualitative data were analysed using a framework analysis [ 28 ] informed by implementation science frameworks. Our coding framework used the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR) [ 29 ], which is comprised of five major domains including: Intervention Characteristics, Implementation Processes, Outer Setting, Inner Setting, and Characteristics of the Individual. Each domain consists of several constructs that reflect the evidence base of the types of factors that are most likely to influence implementation of interventions. The CFIR is frequently used to design and conduct implementation evaluations and is commonly used for complex health care delivery interventions to understand barriers and facilitators to implementation. Based on its description, the CFIR is an effective model to address our research question, particularly given the complexity of the implementation of surveillance technology such as BWCs in this acute care setting.

The initial analytic stage was undertaken by eight members of the study team with each researcher charting data summaries onto the framework for each of the interviews they had conducted on MicroSoft Excel [ 27 ]. Sub-themes within each broad deductive theme from our initial framework were then derived inductively through further coding and collaborative discussion within the research team, inclusive of Lived Experience Researcher colleagues. Pseudonyms were assigned to each participant during the anonymisation of transcripts along with key identifiers to provide context for illustrative quotes (e.g., P = patient, S = staff, A = acute ward, I = Intensive Care, Pre = pre-BWC implementation interview, Post = Post BWC implementation interview).

All participants gave their informed consent for inclusion before they participated in the study. The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and the protocol was approved by the Health Research Authority: London - Camden & Kings Cross Research Ethics Committee (IRAS Project ID 322,268, REC Reference 23/LO/0337).

Quantitative results

Exploring how body worn cameras were used during the pilot period.

Analysis of the PCC-SR-R provides information about how the BWCs were used on a day-to-day basis during the pilot period. Out of 543 total shift reports completed, BWC use was reported 50 times, indicating that BWCs were used on less than 10% of shifts overall; 78% of those deployments were on the Acute ward (see Figure 1 ). Overall, the majority of deployments happened as activations without a warning being given ( n  = 30, 60% of activations), 19 times the BWC was deployed with a warning but the camera was not activated (38%), and only one was the camera activated without a warning being given (2%).

figure 1

BWC use by ward per week of pilot (no data available before week 6 on Ward 1)

According to the PCC-SR-R, a total of 227 incidents of aggression occurred during the pilot period across both wards (see Table  3 ). Overall, there were small statistically significant correlations between BWC usage and certain types of conflict, aggression, and restrictive practice. Results found that BWC use was positively correlated with verbal aggression and use of physical restraint. BWC use was moderately positively correlated with verbal aggression ( r  = .37, p  < .001). This indicates that BWCs were more likely to be used in incidents involving verbal aggression, which do not tend to be documented in Datix. Similarly, BWC use was moderately positively correlated with physical restraint ( r  = .31, p  < .001) indicating that they were also more likely to be used alongside physical restraint.

Exploring the impact of BWCs utilising routinely collected ward data

Acute ward results.

Routine data collected via Datix records were used to examine differences in frequency of conflict and aggression, incident severity, and use of containment measures before, during, and after introduction of BWCs on each trial ward (see Table  4 ).

There was no effect of trial period on incident type ( F (10, 592) = 1.703, p  = .077, Wilk’s Λ = 0.945), meaning there was no discernible difference in the type of incidents that occurred (E.g., verbal aggression, physical aggression) before, during, and after the pilot phase.

Incident outcomes

There was an effect of trial period on incident outcomes ( F (6, 596) = 10.900, p  < .001, Wilk’s Λ = 0.812). Incident severity was statistically significantly higher in the trial and post-trial periods compared to the pre-trial period. Use of restrictive practice was significantly lower in the post-trial period compared to the pre-trial and trial period. Police involvement was also lower in the post-trial period compared to the pre-trial and trial periods (see Table  5 ).

Results for the psychiatric intensive care unit

There was an effect of trial period on incident type ( F (10, 490) = 4.252, p  < .001, Wilk’s Λ = 0.847). Verbal aggression was statistically significantly higher in the post-trial period compared to the pre and trial periods. Self-harm was statistically significantly higher in the trial period compared to the pre-trial and post-trial periods. There were no differences in violence against a person ( p  = .162), violence against an object or conflict behaviour (see Table  4 ).

There was a statistically significant difference in incident outcome across the trial periods ( F (6, 494) = 12.907, p  < .001, Wilk’s Λ = 0.747). There was no difference in incident severity or police involvement. However, use of restrictive practice was statistically significantly higher in the pre-trial period, reducing in the test period, and reducing further in the post-trial period (see Table  5 ).

Qualitative findings

A total of 22 participants took part in interviews: five patients and 16 staff members. During the pre-pilot interviews a total of nine staff took part (five in the acute ward, four in the PICU ward) and two patients (both from the acute ward). After the pilot period, a total of eight staff took part (four from each ward) and three patients (all from the acute ward). Table  6 includes a full description of participants.

Below we have presented the key themes aligning to the five core CFIR categories of Intervention Characteristics, Characteristics of Individuals, The Process of Implementation, the Inner Setting, and The Outer Setting (see Table  7 ).

Intervention characteristics

Design and usability of wearing a bwc on the ward.

When discussing the use of the BWCs, staff noted a range of design issues related to the cameras that they said impacted on their use and acceptance of the cameras. This included the nature of the camera pulling on clothing necklines (a particular issue for female staff working on male wards), and overheating causing discomfort and irritation to skin, challenges with infection control, as well as the issue of cameras in a mental health setting where they can be easily grabbed, thrown and broken during an incident. Staff often cited these design issues as related to the lack of proactive use of the cameras on the wards.

There were issues around the devices getting overheated or about it going on your clothing, it pulls down the top… we had one person who was leading on it, whenever he was around, of course, the camera was being used, but if he wasn’t there, people weren’t as proactive in using the camera. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

There were also issues with staff forgetting to wear the cameras, forgetting to switch them on during incidents, and forgetting to charge them at the end of the shift, reducing the potential use of the cameras by other staff. These were perceived as key logistical issues prior to the pilot and were reported as issues at the end of the pilot by several staff on the wards.

The practicalities of will they actually turn it on in those sorts of incidents, I don’t know. Just little stuff as well, like if they don’t put it back on the docking station, so you think you’re charging it for next shift but then it’s not charged and the battery is dead, that’s one less camera to use, so little stuff. Jamal (m), Staff, A, Pre.

In relation to usability, staff noted that the cameras were small and easy to use given their simple single switch interface. It was felt that not having to upload and manage the data themselves made cameras more user friendly and usable by staff members. Protocols put into place such as signing the cameras in and out, and allocation for use during shifts were likened to procedures in place for other security measures therefore the implementation of this for the BWCs was viewed as easy for many staff.

It’s just like the ASCOM alarms that we wear. There’s a system to sign in and sign out, and that’s it. Alice (f), Staff, A, Pre.

While staff were generally positive about the usability of the cameras, some were cautious of with concerns for those less confident with technology.

… you have to be conscious that there’s some people – it’s quite easy to use, but I can say that because I’m alright using devices and all that but there’s some that are older age or not that familiar with using devices that may struggle with using it… they’re feeling a bit anxious and a bit scared, if they’re not familiar with it then they won’t use it. Jamal (m), Staff, A, Pre.

Evidence strength and quality: do BWCs change anything?

There were conflicting reports regarding the potential benefits of using BWCs on the wards, with both staff and patients reporting mixed perceptions as to whether the cameras might reduce violence and aggression. In the pre-pilot interviews, some staff reported feeling that the BWCs may have a positive impact on reducing physical violence.

I think it’s going to reduce violence and aggression on the ward…I don’t think they’ll want to punch you…they might be verbally abusive but in terms of physical that might reduce. Sarah (f), Staff, I, Pre.

Patients however noted that the cameras might hold staff to account of their own behaviours and therefore may improve care, however they felt that this impact would wear off after the first few months after which people might forget about the cameras being there.

Now they’ve got the body cams, it’s going to be a lot of changes. They’ll think, ‘Ooh well he’s on tape’. So, it might do something to their conscience, they actually start to listen to patients… until the novelty wears off and it might go back to square one again. Ian (m), Patient, A, Pre.

One staff member suggested that incident rates had reduced following introduction of the BWCs, but they remained unsure as to whether this was due to the cameras, reflecting that violence and aggression on wards can be related to many factors.

I know our violence and aggression has reduced significantly since the start of the cameras pilot… I don’t know, because obviously wearing the camera’s one thing, but if they weren’t in use, I don’t know maybe just the presence of the camera made a difference. But yeah, it’s hard to tell. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

In contrast, several staff reported that they had seen limited evidence for such changes.

I used it yesterday. He was aggressive and I used it, but he even when I was using [it] he doesn’t care about the camera… it didn’t make any difference… It doesn’t stop them to do anything, this camera does not stop them to do anything. Abraham (m), Staff, I, Post.

Some staff suggested that in some circumstances the cameras increased patient agitation and created incidents, so there was a need to consider whether the BWCs were going to instigate aggression in some circumstances.

There has been with a few patients because they will threaten you. They will tell you, ‘if you turn it on, I’m gonna smash your head in’. So incidents like that, I will not turn it on… Yeah, or some of them will just tell you, ‘if you come close by, I’m going to pull that off your chest’. So things like that, I just stay back. Ada (f), Staff, A, Post.

One rationale for a potential lack of effectiveness was noted by both staff and patients and was related to the levels of acute illness being experienced by patients which meant that for many they were too unwell to have insight into their own actions or those of staff switching on the cameras.

We’ve had instances where patients are so unwell that they just don’t care. You switch on the camera, whether you switch it on or not, it doesn’t really change the behaviour. ‘All right, okay, whatever switch it on’. They’re so unwell, they’re not really understanding. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post. It might make [staff] feel safer as a placebo effect, but I don’t think it would necessarily make them safer… I think the people that are likely to attack a member of staff are crazy enough that they’re not gonna even consider the camera as a factor. Harry (m), Patient, A, Pre.

This lack of evidence that the cameras were necessarily effective in reducing incident rates or severity of incidents may have had an impact on staff buy-in and the use of the cameras as a result. One staff member reflected that having feedback from senior management about the impact and evidence would have been useful during the pilot period to inform ward staff whether the cameras were influencing things or not.

Staff want feedback. I don’t think we’ve had any since we’ve had the cameras… it would be nice to get feedback from, I don’t know, whoever is watching it, and stuff like that. Ada (f), Staff, A, Post.

Relative advantage: are BWCs effective and efficient for the ward?

Due to a combination of personal beliefs related to BWCs, the lack of evidence of their impact on violence and aggression, and other elements of care and culture on the wards, a number of staff and patients explored alternative interventions and approaches that may be more beneficial than BWCs. Both staff and patients suggested that Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) as an intervention that provided the transparency of using cameras and video footage but with an independent perspective. This was felt by many to remove the bias that could be introduced in BWC use as the video capture didn’t require staff control of the filming.

I feel like [BWCs] puts all the power and trust into the hands of the staff and I feel that it would be better to have CCTV on the ward because CCTV is neutral. Harry (m), Patient, A, Pre. I have control over that [BWC recording] … It kind of gives that split as well between staff and patients. You can tell me or I can tell you when to switch it on. Whereas I feel like a CCTV camera is there all the time. Nobody’s asking to switch it on. It’s there. If you wanted to review the footage you can request it, anyone can request to view the footage for a legitimate reason. Whereas the camera can come across as if you’re threatening. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

In addition, some participants reflected that the nature and design of BWCs meant that unless staff were present for an incident it wouldn’t be captured, whereas CCTV has the advantage of being always present.

If there’s CCTV, then it’s the same thing, you get me. Like, if its body worn cameras that people can always do things away from staff. They can always go down to that corridor to have their fight or go to the side where staff ain’t gonna see them to have their fight, but with CCTV you can’t do that. Elijah (m), Patient, A, Post.

In addition to exploring technological and video-based interventions, many staff noted that the key tool to violence reduction had to be the use of de-escalation skills, noting that the use of communication and positive relationships had to be the primary tool before other interventions such as BWCs or CCTV.

We do a lot of verbal de-escalation. So we got our destress room now still open. That has a punch bag, and it’s got sensory tiles, and the aim and hope is that when people do get frustrated, because we’re all human. We all get annoyed at anything or many little things in life. There is the aim that they go into that room and start punching the bag instead of property and damaging furniture. But we also are working really hard on verbal de-escalation and actually trying to listen to patients and talk to them before anything else. And that’s helped a lot. And between this kind of shared, or role modelling, where while we’re showing staff, actually even spending an extra 20 min is okay. If it means you’re not going to end up having to restrain a patient. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

By using communication skills and de-escalation techniques skilfully, some staff felt there was no need to utilise the BWCs. One concern with the introduction of the BWCs for staff was that the use of this technology may negatively impact on trust and relationships and the use of de-escalation.

Some situations I feel like it can make a situation worse sometimes… I think a lot of situations can be avoided if you just talk with people…. Trying to find out why they’re angry, trying to just kind of see it from their point of view, understand them… I think maybe additional training for verbal de-escalation is needed first. Patrick (m), Staff, A, Post.

Characteristics of individuals

Staff and patients’ knowledge and beliefs about the intervention.

Overall, there were mixed views among both staff and patients as to whether cameras would reduce incidents, prior to and after the pilot period. When considering the possible impact on violence and aggressive incidents there was a view among staff that there was the need for a nuanced and person-centred view.

All the patients that come in, they’re different you know. They have different perceptions; they like different things… everyone is different. So, it just depends. We might go live, and then we have good feedback because the patients they are open and the understand why we have it, and then as they get discharged and new patients come in it might not go as well. It just depends. Serene (f), Staff, A, Pre.

As a result of the desire to be person-centred in the use of such interventions, one staff member noted that they weighed-up such consequences for the patient before using the BWC and would make decisions not to use the camera where they thought it may have a negative impact.

Actually, with this body worn camera, as I did mention, if a patient is unwell, that doesn’t, the patient will not have the capacity to I mean, say yes, you cannot just put it on like that. Yeah, I know it’s for evidence, but when something happens, you first have to attend to the patient. You first have to attend to the patient before this camera is, for me. Ruby (f), Staff, I, Post.

Some staff questioned the existing evidence and theories as to why BWCs work to reduce incidents, and instead noted that for some people it will instigate an incident, while others may be triggered by a camera.

I’m on the fence of how that is going to work because I know the evidence is that by telling a patient ‘look if you keep escalating I’m gonna have to turn this on’, but I know several of our patients would kind of take that as a dare and escalate just to spite so that you would turn it on. Diana (f), Staff, A, Pre.

In contrast, some staff felt the cameras helped them feel safer on wards due to transparency of footage as evidence for both staff and patients.

They [staff] need to use it for protection, for recording evidence, that type of thing… They can record instances for later evidence. Yeah, for them as well. Safer for them and for patients because you can also have the right to get them to record, because a patient might be in the wrong but sometimes it may be the staff is in the wrong position. And that’s achieving safety for patients as well. Yeah, I think it works both ways. Dylan (m), Patient, A, Post.

Positive buy-in was also related to the potential use of the intervention as a training, learning or reflective tool for staff to improve practice and care and promote positive staff behaviour.

If you know that your actions might be filmed one way or the other, that would make me to step up your behaviour to patients… if you know that your actions can be viewed, if the authority wants to, then you behave properly with patients so I think that will improve the quality of the care to patient. Davide (m), Staff, I, Pre.

While there were some positive attitudes towards the cameras, there remained considerable concerns among participants regarding the transparency of camera use to collate evidence in relation to incidents as it was widely noted that the cameras remain in staff control therefore there is an issue in relation to bias and power.

I do think my gut would say that it wouldn’t necessarily be well received. Because also I think people feel like prisoners in here, that’s how some of the patients have described their experience, so in terms of the power dynamic and also just – I think that can make one feel a bit, even worse, basically, you know? Leslie (m), Staff, A, Pre.

These issues lead to staff reporting they didn’t want to wear the camera.

I’d feel quite uncomfortable wearing one to be honest. Leslie (m), Staff, A, Pre.

The staff control of the cameras had a particular impact on patient acceptability of the intervention as it led to some patients viewing BWCs as being an intervention for staff advantage and staff safety, thus increasing a ‘them and us’ culture and leading to patient resistance to the cameras. This was particularly salient for those with prior negative experiences of police use of cameras or mistrust in staff.

I feel like the fact that the body worn cameras is gonna be similar to how the police use them, if a staff member has negative intent toward a patient, they would be able to instigate an incident and then turn the camera on and use the consequences of what they’ve instigated to expect restraint or injection or whatever else might happen. So, I feel like it would be putting all the power and trust into the hands of the staff and I feel that it would be better to have CCTV on the ward because CCTV is neutral. Whereas, the body worn camera, especially with some of the personality conflicts/bad attitudes, impressions I’ve had from certain members of staff since I’ve been here, I feel like body worn cameras might be abused in that way possible. Harry (m), Patient, A, Pre.

Perceived unintended consequences and impact on care

Prior to the implementation there were concerns from staff that the introduction of BWCs could have consequences beyond the intended use of reducing violence and aggression, unintentionally affecting a range of factors that may impact on the overall delivery of care. There was a key concern regarding the potential negative impact that cameras may have for patients who have paranoia or psychosis as well as for those who may have prior traumatic experiences of being filmed.

It might have negative impacts on these patients because I’m thinking about kind of patients with schizophrenia and things like that who already have paranoid delusions, thinking that people are after them, thinking that people are spying on them, people are watching them, and then seeing kind of cameras around. It might have negative impacts on them. Tayla (f), Staff, I, Pre. When I was admitted I was going through psychosis… I don’t want to be filmed and things like that. So you just see a camera, a guy with a camera on, you are like, are you filming me? Elijah (m), Patient, A, Post.

There was also a considerable concern among both staff and patients that the use of cameras would have a negative impact on the therapeutic relationship between staff and patients. This was felt to be related to the implication that the cameras enhanced a ‘them and us’ dynamic due to the power differential that staff controlling the cameras can create, likened to policing and criminalisation of patients. With the potential of a negative impact on relationships between staff and patients, staff suggested they may be disinclined to use BWCs if it would stop patients speaking to them or approaching them if they needed support.

Yeah, I think it would probably damage [the therapeutic relationship] because I think what’s probably quite helpful is things that maybe create less of a power difference. I think to some extent, [the BWC] might hinder that ability. Like for example imagine going to a therapist and them just like ‘I’ve got this camera in the corner of the room and it’s gonna be filming our session and just in case – or like, just in case I feel that you might get aggressive with me’. Um, I don’t think that’s going to help the therapeutic relationship! Jamal (m), Staff, A, Pre. When you get body worn cameras on there, the relationship as well between staff and patients, is just gonna instantly change because you’re looking like police! Elijah (m), Patient, A, Post.

In contrast, a minority of staff felt that the presence of cameras may improve relationships as they provide transparency of staff behaviour and would encourage staff to behave well and provide high quality care for patients.

It will also help how, improve the way we look at the patients… because if you know that your actions might be filmed one way or the other, that would make me to step up your behaviour you know… you behave properly with patients so I think that will improve the quality of the care to patient. More efficiently, more caring to patient. Davide (m), Staff, I, Pre.

The process of implementation

Planning: top-down implementation.

Staff perceived that BWC implementation directives had been given by senior management or policy stakeholders whom they felt viewed the process from a position of limited understanding due to a lack of ‘frontline’ mental health service experience. This led to a lack of faith amongst staff, and a perception that funds were being misspent.

They sit up there, they just roll it out and see how it works, how it goes. They waste a whole lot of money, millions or whatever, thousands of pounds in it, and then they see that ‘Oh, it’s not gonna work’. They take it back and all of that. Before coming out with it, you need to come speak to us… they just sit up there drinking tea and coffee, and then they’re just like, Oh, yeah, well, let’s do it this way…come stay with these people, work with them, for just I give you a 12 h shift, stay with them. Richard (m), Staff, I, Post.

This was exacerbated when staff felt there was a lack of consultation or explanation.

we don’t always get the ins and outs of certain things…We know that the cameras are coming in and stuff like that, but you know, and obviously it’s gone through every avenue to make sure that it’s fine. But then sometimes we don’t always know the ins and outs to then explain to people why we have the cameras. Patrick (m), Staff, A, Post.

It was also highlighted that due to multiple initiatives being implemented and directives handed down in parallel, staff felt negative towards interventions more widely, with the BWCs being ‘ just another thing to do’ , adding to workload for staff and reducing enthusiasm to use the cameras.

it’s not just to do with the camera, I just think there’s lots of changes happening at once, and there’s loads of new things being constantly introduced that people are just thinking oh it’s another thing. I think that’s what it is more than the camera itself. Alice (f), Staff, A, Pre.

Execution: training, Use and Ward Visibility

Overall, there was a lack of consistency amongst staff in their understanding of the purpose and processes of using the BWCs on the wards.

What do you do, do you record every single thing or, I don’t know. Do you record like, if a patient said, I want to talk to you, confidential, you go sit in a room, do you record things like those or is it just violence and aggression? Ada (f), Staff, A, Post.

The lack of clarity regarding the purpose of the intervention and the appropriate use of the cameras was felt to impact staffs’ attitudes and acceptance of using them and contributed to a lack of transparency or perhaps trust regarding the use of any subsequent video footage.

I think if the importance of the recording was explained a bit more…and how it would improve things, I think people would use it more… that’s why I don’t think it’s always used sometimes… if you’re not sure why some of it’s important, then you’re not going to see the value…I think if you’re gonna keep with them, it’s about updating the training, teaching staff when to use it, then where does that information go? How does that look in terms of improving? Just a bit of transparency, I think. But when you don’t know certain things it’s a bit hard to get behind something or back it, you know? Patrick (m), Staff, A, Post.

The lack of information about the purpose and processes related to the intervention was also seen among patients, with most patients noting that they hadn’t received information about the cameras during their admissions.

No information at all. I don’t think any of the patients know about it. Toby (m), Patient, A, Post.

While training was provided it was widely felt that it was insufficient to provide understanding about the purpose of the cameras or the more in-depth processes beyond operational aspects such as charging and docking. Several staff interviewed were unaware of the training, while others noted that they had an informal run-through by colleagues rather than anything formal.

What training are you talking about?… I wasn’t here, so I was taught by my colleague. I mean, from what I was taught, to operate the camera, and to give a warning to the patient that you’re going to use the camera. Nevis (f), Staff, A, Post.

Longer training with further details beyond operational use was felt to be needed by staff.

I think the training should have to be longer, even if it’s like an hour or something… Like what situations deem the camera to be… more information on the cameras, when to use it, why it’s used, and I think if the importance of the recording was explained a bit more and what it was doing and how that recording would go and how it would improve things. Patrick (m), Staff, A, Post.

Furthermore, there was a need for training to be on a rolling basis given the use of bank staff who were not trained to use the cameras or to understand the proper processes or purpose of using the BWCs, which could leave them vulnerable to misuse or abuse.

We have bank staff [who aren’t trained] so they say ‘I don’t know how to use that camera you are giving me’. Nevis (f), Staff, A, Post.

The inner setting

Ward context: acceptance of violence and aggression is part of the job.

It was widely believed by staff that the nature of working on a mental health ward included accepting that violence and aggression was part of the job. This was not seen as an acceptance of violence but more that the job was providing care for individuals who are mentally unwell, and confusion, fear, frustration and aggression can be part of that. As a result, there was an ambivalence among some staff that the introduction of cameras would change this.

I think like in this line of work, there’s always that potential for like risky behaviours to happen. I’m not sure if putting the camera on will make much difference. Patrick (m), Staff, A, Post.

Staff noted that because of the nature of the job, staff are used to managing these situations and they understood that it was part of the job; therefore, it was unlikely that they would record everything that on paper might be considered an incident.

There’s also enough things that happen here, so I don’t think they would record [the incidents] because it’s just another day here. You know what I’m saying… [staff] can just say, ‘Stop, go back to your room and leave it at that and that kind of be the end of it’. Dylan (m), Patient, A, Post. We are trained for it. Eveline (f), Staff, I, Pre.

This acceptance that incidents are a hazard of mental healthcare was linked to staff’s acknowledgment that many factors make up the complexity of violence and aggression including the nature of individual patients, acuity levels, ward atmosphere, staffing levels, access to activities, leave and outside space. The interplay of multiple factors creates a context in which frustrations and incidents are likely, thus become part of the everyday and ‘normal’ life on the ward for staff and patients alike.

I feel like, you know, how in GP services you say, zero tolerance to abusive language, or any kind of harassment. I don’t think there is that on a psychiatric ward you are kind of expected to take all the abuse and just get on with it. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

With staff reported having a higher threshold for these behaviours it was perceived that this was likely to impact on the efficiency of the intervention as staff would be less likely to consider a situation as violent but more ‘ part of the job’ .

Reactive nature of the ward and incidents

Most participants noted that the ward context is always changing with people being admitted and discharged, with daily staff changes and wider turnover of staff, so things are never static and can change at any point. This reflects the dynamic nature of the ward which creates a complex moving picture that staff need to consider and react to.

[the atmosphere] it’s very good at the moment. If you had asked me this two weeks ago, I would say, ‘Oh, my gosh’. But it changes… The type of patient can make your whole ward change… it depends on the client group we have at the time. Nevis (f), Staff, A, Post.

Staff noted that a key limitation of using the cameras to reduce incidents was the reactive nature of the environment and care being provided. This was felt to impact on the feasibility and use of the cameras as staff noted that they often react to what is happening rather than thinking to ‘ put the camera on first ’. It was felt by staff with experience of reacting to incidents that the failure to use BWCs during these processes were linked to staff’s instincts and training to focus on patients as a priority.

Say for instance, you’re in the office, and two patients start fighting, or a patient attacks someone and, all you’re thinking about is to go there to stop the person. You’re not thinking about putting on any camera. You understand? So sometimes it’s halfway through it, somebody might say, ‘Has anybody switched the camera on’? And that’s the time you start recording… If something happens immediately, you’re not thinking about the camera at that time, you’re just thinking to just go, so yeah. Nevis (f), Staff, A, Post.

Incidents happen quickly and often surprise staff, therefore staff react instantly so are not thinking about new processes such as recording on the cameras as this would slow things down or is not in the reactive nature needed by staff during such incidents.

When you’re in the middle of an incident and your adrenaline’s high, you’re focusing on the incident itself. It’s very difficult for you to now remember, remind yourself to switch on the camera because you’re thinking, patient safety, staff safety, who’s coming to relieve you? What’s going on? Who’s at the door? Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

In addition, the need for an immediate response meant that it was felt that by the time staff remember to, or have the chance to, switch the camera on it was often too late.

Sometimes in the heat of moments and stuff like that, or if the situation’s happening, sometimes you don’t always think to, you know, put your camera on. Patrick (m), Staff, A, Post.

Outer setting

Resources: staffing.

Issues related to staffing were highlighted by several participants as a key problem facing mental health wards thus leading to staff having higher workloads, and higher rates of bank and agency staff being used on shift and feeling burnt-out.

Out of all the wards I’ve been on I’d say this is the worst. It’s primarily because the staff are overworked…it seems like they spend more time doing paperwork than they do interacting with the patients. Harry (m), Patient, A, Pre. We’re in a bit of a crisis at the minute, we’re really, really understaffed. We’re struggling to cover shifts, so the staff are generally quite burnt out. We’ve had a number of people that have just left all at once, so that had an impact… Staff do get frustrated if they’re burnt out from lack of staff and what have you. Alice (f), Staff, A, Pre.

It was noted by one participant that the link of a new intervention with extra workload was likely to have a negative impact on its acceptability due to these increasing demands.

People automatically link the camera to then the additional paperwork that goes alongside it. It’s like, ‘Oh god, if we do this, we’ve got to do that’, and that could play a part. Petra (f), Staff, A, Post.

One staff member noted that the staffing issue meant there were more likely to be bank staff on wards so the care of patients may be affected as temporary staff may be less able to build meaningful therapeutic relationships.

So obviously there is the basic impact on safety of not having adequate staffing, but then there’s the impact of having a lot of bank staff. So obviously when you have permanent staff they get to know the patients more, we’re able to give them the more individualised care that we ideally should be giving them, but we can’t do that with bank staff. Diana (f), Staff, A, Pre.

It was also suggested that staffing levels and mix often made it more difficult to provide activities or facilitate escorted leave which can lead to patients feeling frustrated and becoming more aggressive.

So you know there is enough staff to facilitate the actual shift, so you know when there’s less staff like you say you’ve got people knocking at the door, but then you don’t have staff to take people out on leave straight away, that all has a rippling effect! Serene (f), Staff, A, Pre.

Wider systemic issues

Overall, there was a concern that the introduction of BWCs would not impact on wider, underlying factors that may contribute to frustration, aggression and incidents on wards. Providing a more enhanced level of care and better addressing the needs of patients was felt to be central to helping people but also reducing the frustration that patients feel when on the ward.

… for violence and aggression, [focus on] the mental health side of things like therapy and psychology should be compulsory. It shouldn’t be something you apply for and have to wait three or four weeks for. I think every person should, more than three or four weeks even, months even… we need psychology and therapists. That’s what will stop most violence, because psychologists and a therapist can edit the way that they speak to people because they’ve been given that skill depending on the way the person behaves. So that’s what we need regularly… not like all this dancing therapy, yoga therapy. That’s a person, that you come and you actually sit down and talk through your shit with them. That will help! Elijah (m), Patient, A, Post. There’s a lack of routine and I think there’s a lack of positive interaction between the patient and the staff as well. The only time you interact with a member of staff is if you’re hassling them for something, you have to hassle for every little thing, and it becomes a sort of, frustration inducing and like I’m a very calm person, but I found myself getting very fucking angry, to be honest, on this ward just because out of pure frustration… there’s bigger problems than body worn cameras going on. Harry (m), Patient, A, Pre.

Staff agreed that there was a need to invest in staff and training rather than new technologies or innovations as it is staff and their skills behind the camera.

It’s not the camera that will do all of that. It’s not making the difference. It’s a very good, very beautiful device, probably doing its job in its own way. But it’s more about investing in the staff, giving them that training and making them reflect on every day-to-day shift. Richard (m), Staff, I, Post.

There was felt to be a need to support staff more in delivering care within wards that can be challenging and where patients are unwell to ensure that staff feel safe. While in some circumstances the cameras made some staff feel safer, greater support from management would be more beneficial in making staff feel valued.

In this study exploring the implementation and use of body-worn cameras on mental health wards, we employed two methods for collecting and comparing data on incidents and use of containment measures, including BWCs, on one acute ward and one psychiatric intensive care unit. We found no clear relationship between the use of BWCs and rates or severity of incidents on either ward. While BWCs may be used when there are incidents of both physical and verbal aggression, results indicate that they may also provoke verbal aggression, as was suggested during some interviews within this study. This should be a concern, as strong evidence that being repeatedly subject to verbal aggression and abuse can lead to burnout and withdrawal of care by staff [ 30 ]. These mixed findings reflect results that were reported in two earlier studies of BWCs on mental health wards [ 12 , 13 ]. However, the very low use of the cameras, on just 10 per cent of the shifts where data was obtained, makes it even more difficult to draw any conclusions.

While the data shows limited impact of using BWCs on levels of incidents, we did find that during the pilot period BWC use tended to occur alongside physical restraint, but the direction of relationship is unclear as staff were asked to use BWCs when planning an intervention such as restraint. This relationship with restraint reflected the findings on several wards in a previous study [ 13 ], while contrasting with those reported in a second study that found reductions in incidents involving restraint during the evaluation period [ 12 ]. Such a mix of findings highlights the complexity of using BWCs as a violence reduction method within a busy healthcare setting in which several interacting components and contextual factors, and behaviours by staff and patients can affect outcomes [ 31 ]. The qualitative data collected during this pilot period highlighted the potential systemic and contextual factors such as low staffing that may have a confounding impact on the incident data presented in this simple form.

The findings presented within this evaluation provide some insights into the process of implementing BWCs as a safety intervention in mental health services and highlight some of the challenges and barriers faced. The use of implementation science to evaluate the piloting of BWCs on wards helps to demonstrate how multiple elements including a variety of contextual and systemic factors can have a considerable impact and thus change how a technology may vary not only between hospitals, but even across wards in the same hospital. By understanding the elements that may and do occur during the process of implementing such interventions, we can better understand if and how BWCs might be used in the future.

Within this pilot, extensive preparatory work conducted at a directorate and senior management level did not translate during the process of implementation at a ward level, which appeared to impact on the use of BWCs by individuals on the wards. This highlights that there is a need to utilise implementation science approaches in planning the implementation of new technologies or interventions and to investigate elements related to behavioural change and context rather than just the desired and actual effects of the intervention itself.

While ward staff and patients identified the potential for BWCs to enhance safety on the wards, participants distrusted their deployment and expressed concerns about ethical issues and possible harmful consequences of their use on therapeutic relationships, care provided and patient wellbeing. These themes reflect previous findings from a national interview study of patient and staff perspectives and experiences of BWCs in inpatient mental health wards [ 14 ]. Given these issues, alternatives such as increasing de-escalation skills were identified by staff as possible routes that may be more beneficial in these settings. Furthermore, other approaches such as safety huddles have also been highlighted within the literature as potential means to improve patient safety by looking ahead at what can be attended to or averted [ 32 ].

Furthermore, it is important to consider that the presence of power imbalances and the pre-existing culture on the ward have considerable implications for safety approaches and must be considered, as exemplified by the preferences by both staff and patients in this evaluation for more perceived ‘impartial’ interventions such as CCTV. As identified within previous studies [ 14 ], BWCs can have different implications for psychological safety, particularly for vulnerable patients who already feel criminalised in an environment with asymmetrical power imbalances between staff and patients. This is particularly salient when considering aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity, and gender both in terms of the identities of the patient group but also in terms of the staff/patient relationship.

While preferences in this study note CCTV as more ‘impartial’, work by Desai [ 33 ] draws on the literature about the use of surveillance cameras in other settings (such as public streets) as well as on psychiatric wards and concludes that CCTV monitoring is fraught with difficulties and challenges, and that ‘watching’ patients and staff through the lens of a camera can distort the reality of what is happening within a ward environment. In her recently published book, Desai [ 34 ] develops this theme to explore the impacts of being watched on both patients and staff through her ethnographic research in psychiatric intensive care units. She highlights concerns over the criminalisation of patient behaviour, safeguarding concerns in relation to the way women’s bodies and behaviours are viewed and judged, and the undermining by CCTV of ethical mental health practice by staff who attempt to engage in thoughtful, constructive, therapeutic interactions with patients in face-to-face encounters. Appenzeller et al.’s [ 35 ] review found that whilst the presence of CCTV appeared to increase subjective feelings of safety amongst patients and visitors, there was no objective evidence that video surveillance increases security, and that staff may develop an over-reliance on the technology.

In addition, our findings add to the existing literature which notes that alternative interventions and approaches that address underlying contextual and systemic issues related to improving care on inpatient wards require attention to address the underlying factors related to incidents, e.g., flashpoints [ 36 ]. Evidence suggests that factors leading to incidents can be predicted; therefore, there is a need to enable staff to work in a proactive way to anticipate and prevent incidents rather than view incidents as purely reactive [ 37 , 38 , 39 ]. Such skills-based and relational approaches are likely to impact more on improving safety and reducing incidents by addressing the complex and multi-faceted issue of incidents on inpatient mental health wards [ 40 ].

These findings highlight that interventions such as BWCs are not used within a vacuum, and that hospitals are complex contexts in which there are a range of unique populations, processes, and microsystems that are multi-faceted [ 41 ]. As a result, interventions will encounter both universal, specific, and local barriers that will impact on its functioning in the real world. This is salient because research suggests that camera use inside mental health wards is based on a perception of the violent nature of the mental health patient, a perception that not only influences practice but also impacts how patients experience the ward [ 33 ]. As a result, there needs to be careful consideration of the use of any new and innovative intervention aimed at improving safety within mental health settings that have limited research supporting their efficacy.


While the study provides important insights into the efficacy and acceptability of introducing BWCs onto inpatient mental health wards, there were several limitations. Firstly, the analysis of incident data is limited in its nature as it only presents surface level information about incidents without wider contextual information. Results using such data should be cautiously interpreted as they do not account for confounding factors, such as staffing, acuity, ward culture or ward atmosphere, that are likely to contribute to incidents of violence and aggression. For example, while there was a statistically significant decrease in restrictive practice on the PICU across the study period, we know that BWCs were not widely used on that ward, so this is likely due to a confounding variable that was not accounted for in the study design.

Secondly, the study faced limitations in relation to recruitment, particularly with patients. Researchers’ access to wards was challenging due to high staff turnover and high rates of acuity, meaning many patients were not deemed well enough to be able to consent to take part in the study. In addition, the low use of the cameras on wards meant that many patients, and some staff, had not seen the BWCs in use. Similarly, patients had been provided limited information about the pilot, so their ability to engage in the research and describe their own experiences with BWCs was restricted.

Thirdly, analysis captures the active use of the BWC, however it does not fully capture the impact of staff wearing the cameras even where they do not actively use them. While our qualitative analysis provides insight into the limitation of such passive use, it is likely that the presence of the cameras being worn by staff, even when turned off, may have an impact on both staff and patient behaviours. This may explain trends in the data that did not reach significance but warrant further investigation in relation to the presence of BWCs, nonetheless.

Finally, researchers had planned to collect quantitative surveys from staff and patients in relation to their experiences of the ward atmosphere and climate, views related to therapeutic relationships on the ward, levels of burnout among staff, views on care, and attitudes to containment measures. Due to issues related to staff time, patient acuity, and poor engagement from staff leading to challenges accessing the wards, the collection of such survey data was unfeasible, and this element of the study was discontinued. As a result, we have not reported this aspect in our paper. This limitation reflects the busy nature of inpatient mental health wards with pressures on staff and high levels of ill health among patients. As such, traditional methodologies for evaluation are unlikely to elicit data that is comprehensive and meaningful. Alternative approaches may need to be considered.

Future directions

With BWCs being increasingly used across inpatient mental health services [ 14 ], it is important that further research and evaluation is conducted. To date, there is limited data regarding the effectiveness of this technology in relation to violence reduction; however, there may be other beneficial uses in relation to safeguarding and training [ 13 ]. Future research should consider alternative methods that ensure contextual factors are accounted for and that patient voices can be maximised. For example, focus groups with patients currently admitted to a mental health ward or interviews with those who have recently been on a ward that has used the cameras, would bypass problems encountered with capacity to consent in the present study. Furthermore, ethnographic approaches may provide a deeper understanding of the implementation, deployment and impact that BWCs have on wards.

Overall, this research sheds light on the complexities of using BWCs as a tool for ‘maximising safety’ in mental health settings. The findings suggest that BWCs have a limited impact on levels of incidents on wards, something that is likely to be largely influenced by the process of implementation as well as a range of contextual factors, including the staff and patient populations on the wards. As a result, it is likely that while BWCs may see successes in one hospital site this is not guaranteed for another site as such factors will have a considerable impact on efficacy, acceptability, and feasibility. Furthermore, the findings point towards the need for more consideration to be placed on processes of implementation and the complex ethical discussions regarding BWC use from both a patient and a staff perspective.

In conclusion, while there have been advances in digital applications and immersive technologies showing promise of therapeutic benefits for patients and staff more widely, whether BWCs and other surveillance approaches are to be part of that picture remains to be seen and needs to be informed by high-quality, co-produced research that focuses on wider therapeutic aspects of mental healthcare.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy or ethical restrictions.

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We would like to thank The Burdett Trust for Nursing for funding this work. We would also like to acknowledge our wider Lived Experience Advisory Panel and Project Advisory Panel for their contributions and support and would like to thank the staff and service users on the wards we attended for their warmth and participation.

Funding was provided by The Burdett Trust of Nursing. Funders were independent of the research and did not impact findings.

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Mental Health Nursing, Health Service and Population Research Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, Denmark Hill, London, SE5 8AF, UK

Una Foye, Keiran Wilson, Jessica Jepps, James Blease, Geoff Brennan & Alan Simpson

Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care, Mental Health Nursing, King’s College London, London, UK

Una Foye, Keiran Wilson, Jessica Jepps, Geoff Brennan & Alan Simpson

Lived Experience Advisor, London, UK

Ellen Thomas, Leroy McAnuff, Sharon McKenzie, Katherine Barrett & Lilli Underwood

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All authors have read and approved the manuscript. Authors AS, UF, KW, GB created the protocol for the study. KW, JJ, UF conducted the recruitment for the study, and conducted the interviews. UF, JJ, JB, LMA, LU, SMK, KB, ET coded data, and contributed to the analysis. All authors supported drafting and development of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Una Foye .

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical. Ethical approval was granted by the Health Research Authority: London - Camden & Kings Cross Research Ethics Committee (IRAS PROJECT ID 322268, REC Reference 23/LO/0337). All participants provided informed consent prior to enrolment in the study, including consent for publication of anonymised quotes.

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Foye, U., Wilson, K., Jepps, J. et al. Exploring the use of body worn cameras in acute mental health wards: a mixed-method evaluation of a pilot intervention. BMC Health Serv Res 24 , 681 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-024-11085-x

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-024-11085-x

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what is background of the study in qualitative research


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  1. Background of The Study

    Here are the steps to write the background of the study in a research paper: Identify the research problem: Start by identifying the research problem that your study aims to address. This can be a particular issue, a gap in the literature, or a need for further investigation. Conduct a literature review: Conduct a thorough literature review to ...

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    The background of the study is the first section of a research paper and gives context surrounding the research topic. The background explains to the reader where your research journey started, why you got interested in the topic, and how you developed the research question that you will later specify. That means that you first establish the ...

  3. What is the Background of a Study and How Should it be Written?

    The background of a study is the first section of the paper and establishes the context underlying the research. It contains the rationale, the key problem statement, and a brief overview of research questions that are addressed in the rest of the paper. The background forms the crux of the study because it introduces an unaware audience to the ...

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    The background of a study in a research paper helps to establish the research problem or gap in knowledge that the study aims to address, sets the stage for the research question and objectives, and highlights the significance of the research. The background of a study also includes a review of relevant literature, which helps researchers ...

  5. What is Background of the study and Guide on How to Write it

    The structure of a background study in a research paper generally follows a logical sequence to provide context, justification, and an understanding of the research problem. It includes an introduction, ... qualitative interviews, and analysis of user-generated content, this study seeks to shed light on the complex interplay between social ...

  6. A Practical Guide to Writing Quantitative and Qualitative Research

    This statement is based on background research and current knowledge.8,9 The research hypothesis makes a specific prediction about a new phenomenon10 or a formal statement on the expected relationship ... and changed during the qualitative study.3 Research questions are also used more frequently in survey projects than hypotheses in ...

  7. Chapter 1. Introduction

    Although qualitative research studies can and often do change and develop over the course of data collection, it is important to have a good idea of what the aims and goals of your study are at the outset and a good plan of how to achieve those aims and goals. Chapter 2 provides a road map of the process.

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    The background section should discuss your findings in a chronological manner to accentuate the progress in the field and the missing points that need to be addressed. The background should be written as a summary of your interpretation of previous research and what your study proposes to accomplish.

  9. Qualitative Study

    Qualitative research is a type of research that explores and provides deeper insights into real-world problems.[1] Instead of collecting numerical data points or intervening or introducing treatments just like in quantitative research, qualitative research helps generate hypothenar to further investigate and understand quantitative data. Qualitative research gathers participants' experiences ...

  10. Introduction

    Leavy explains qualitative research as a form of bricolage and qualitative researchers as bricoleurs. The remainder of the chapter reviews the contents of the handbook, providing a chapter by chapter summary. Keywords: Qualitative research, paradigm, ontology, epistemology, genre, methods, theory, methodology, ethics, values, reflexivity.

  11. Definition

    Qualitative research is the naturalistic study of social meanings and processes, using interviews, observations, and the analysis of texts and images. In contrast to quantitative researchers, whose statistical methods enable broad generalizations about populations (for example, comparisons of the percentages of U.S. demographic groups who vote in particular ways), qualitative researchers use ...

  12. How to use and assess qualitative research methods

    Abstract. This paper aims to provide an overview of the use and assessment of qualitative research methods in the health sciences. Qualitative research can be defined as the study of the nature of phenomena and is especially appropriate for answering questions of why something is (not) observed, assessing complex multi-component interventions ...

  13. Q: How to write the background to the study in a research paper?

    Answer: The background of the study provides context to the information that you are discussing in your paper. Thus, the background of the study generates the reader's interest in your research question and helps them understand why your study is important. For instance, in case of your study, the background can include a discussion on how ...

  14. What Is Qualitative Research?

    Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences. It can be used to gather in-depth insights into a problem or generate new ideas for research. Qualitative research is the opposite of quantitative research, which involves collecting and ...

  15. Planning Qualitative Research: Design and Decision Making for New

    While many books and articles guide various qualitative research methods and analyses, there is currently no concise resource that explains and differentiates among the most common qualitative approaches. We believe novice qualitative researchers, students planning the design of a qualitative study or taking an introductory qualitative research course, and faculty teaching such courses can ...

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    Qualitative research is a 'big tent' that encompasses various schools of thoughts. There is a general consensus that qualitative research is best used to answer why and howresearch questions, but not how much or to what extent questions. The word 'how can Footnote 5 ' is also frequently used in the research question of a qualitative research; this typically requires open-ended vs ...

  17. Writing Research Background

    Research background is a brief outline of the most important studies that have been conducted so far presented in a chronological order. Research background part in introduction chapter can be also headed 'Background of the Study." Research background should also include a brief discussion of major theories and models related to the research problem.

  18. Criteria for Good Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Review

    This review aims to synthesize a published set of evaluative criteria for good qualitative research. The aim is to shed light on existing standards for assessing the rigor of qualitative research encompassing a range of epistemological and ontological standpoints. Using a systematic search strategy, published journal articles that deliberate criteria for rigorous research were identified. Then ...

  19. Qualitative Research: Getting Started

    Qualitative research methodology is not a single method, but instead offers a variety of different choices to researchers, according to specific parameters of topic, research question, participants, and settings. The method is the way you carry out your research within the paradigm of quantitative or qualitative research.

  20. The Central Role of Theory in Qualitative Research

    The first part of the article provides background by presenting a brief overview of knowledge production, reflexivity, and the use of theory in qualitative research. Sections on the confounded conceptual framework, epistemology, and coding are used to highlight various portions of the research process that can be interwoven with the theoretical ...

  21. Background of the Study

    The background of the study is a foundational section in any research paper or thesis. Here is a structured format to follow: 1. Introduction. Briefly introduce the topic and its relevance. Mention the research problem or question. 2. Contextual Framework. Provide historical background.

  22. Qualitative Study

    Qualitative research is a type of research that explores and provides deeper insights into real-world problems. Instead of collecting numerical data points or intervening or introducing treatments just like in quantitative research, qualitative research helps generate hypothenar to further investigate and understand quantitative data.

  23. Case Study Methodology of Qualitative Research: Key Attributes and

    A case study is one of the most commonly used methodologies of social research. This article attempts to look into the various dimensions of a case study research strategy, the different epistemological strands which determine the particular case study type and approach adopted in the field, discusses the factors which can enhance the effectiveness of a case study research, and the debate ...

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    Research Article. Advantages and disadvantages of digital mental health initiatives in Nigeria - a qualitative interview study. Tiffany Chen Department of Global Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada Correspondence [email protected] ... Background . The impact of COVID-19 and its mitigation measures have ...

  25. What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

    Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.

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    Background Body worn cameras (BWC) are mobile audio and video capture devices that can be secured to clothing allowing the wearer to record some of what they see and hear. This technology is being introduced in a range of healthcare settings as part of larger violence reduction strategies aimed at reducing incidents of aggression and violence on inpatient wards, however limited evidence exists ...

  27. From struggle to strength in African and Middle Eastern newcomers

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