The field of qualitative research is very broad, with many different theoretical approaches and research methods. This guideline aims to offer you a short introduction to this field and to make you attentive towards some important aspects. Many references for further reading are offered, as well as several examples of qualitative research.
Overall, qualitative studies mostly aim to answer questions about the ‘what’, ‘how’ of ‘why’ of a phenomenon, instead of questions on ‘how many’ or ‘how much’. These studies are mainly about the nature of a phenomenon and perceptions or experiences of respondents. Qualitative research methods are particularly appropriate if you want to study the meaning of interactions, processes, behaviours, feelings, attitudes and experiences or if you want to give a detailed in-depth description of a situation or a case.
It is strongly advised to read the complete guideline before starting a qualitative study, because an important feature of qualitative research is that it is an iterative process. This means that data collection and analysis take place simultaneously and the researcher can also go back to the previous phase. The analysis of the material starts as soon as the first data have been collected. In a way, this analysis guides subsequent data collection. The researcher starts with a few global insights or sensitizing concepts that provide an initial frame for the initiation of the search process. After having become acquainted with the field, these insights or preliminary concepts can become important focus points for the research questions, and finally focused work can be undertaken using the specific research questions.
The novice qualitative researcher, with little prior knowledge of social science theory, is advised to read Green & Thorogood (2010). They give an introduction to qualitative methods in health research and describe the designing, conducting and writing stage: Green, J. & Thorogood N. (2010) Qualitative Methods for Health Research. Third edition. London: Sage Publications.
- Denzin, N.K & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds.) (2011) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. Fifth edition. London: Sage.
Offers information on many different aspects and forms of qualitative research, for instance different paradigms and perspectives, strategies of inquiry, methods of data collection and analysis, and representation.
- Given, L.M. (2008) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. London: SAGE.
Provides entries on every major facet of qualitative methods, divided into topical categories including approaches and methodologies, theoretical and philosophical frameworks, research design, data collection, data analysis, gaining access to research participants, and research ethics.
- Kuper, A. & Levinson, W. (2008) Critically appraising qualitative research. BMJ, 337: a1035.
Offers guidance for readers on how to assess a study that uses qualitative research methods.
- Pope, C. & Mays, N. (eds) (2006) Qualitative research in health care. Third Editions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, BMJ Books.
This edition of Qualitative Research in Health Care offers a clear and accessible introduction to conducting and interpreting qualitative research, incorporating examples, references and chapters relevant for a comprehensive introduction to the subject.
- Baarda, B. et al. (2013) Basisboek kwalitatief onderzoek. Groningen/Houten: Noordhoff.
- Boeije, H., Hart, H. ‘t & Hox, J. (2016) Onderzoeksmethoden. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom.
- Maso, I. & Smaling, A. (1998) Kwalitatief onderzoek: praktijk en theorie. Amsterdam: Boom.
- Mortelmans, D. (2009) Handboek kwalitatieve onderzoeksmethoden. Tweede druk. Leuven/Den Haag: Acco
- Wester, F. (1987) Strategieën voor kwalitatief onderzoek. Muiderberg: Coutinho. ISBN: 90-6283-896-0.
- Netwerk Kwalitatief Onderzoek AMC – UvA (2002) Richtlijnen voor kwaliteitsborging in gezondheids(zorg)onderzoek: Kwalitatief onderzoek. Amsterdam: AMC.
A comprehensive checklist describing aspects of designing and implementing qualitative research (in Dutch).
Differences between qualitative and quantitative research
For researchers familiar with quantitative research, it is important to realize there are some fundamental differences between qualitative and quantitative research. These references offer insightful overviews:
- Frambach, J. et al. (2013) AM Last Page: Quality Criteria in Qualitative and Quantitative Research. Academic Medicine, 88, 4, 552.
While qualitative and quantitative research share similar standards for good evidence (quality criteria), the conception and operationalization of these quality criteria differ between the two. This page provides an overview of these criteria and a number of techniques that researchers can use to meet them.
- Kuper, A. & Levinson, W. (2008) An introduction to reading and appraising qualitative research. BMJ, 337, a288.
This article explores the difference between qualitative and quantitative research and the need for doctors to be able to interpret and appraise qualitative research.
- Castillo-Page, L. et al. (2012) AM Last page: Understanding Qualitative and Quantitative Research Paradigms. Academic Medicine, 87, 3: 386.
Gives an overview of different research paradigms:
Mixed methods research
In mixed methods research, qualitative and quantitative research is combined. For example, qualitative research can be used to gain more insight into a relatively unknown phenomenon or topic and this can be used to develop a survey. Or qualitative research can help to get a better understanding of quantitative results. According to Creswell and Clark (2011: 5) mixed methods ‘focuses on collecting, analyzing, and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or series of studies. Its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone.’
- Cresswell, J.W. & Plano Clark, V.L. (2011) Designing and conducting mixed methods research. Thousand Oaks: Sage publications.
- Creswell, J.W. (2015) A concise introduction to Mixed Methods Research. Thousand Oaks, Sage publications.
- Curry, L. & Nunez-Smith, M. (2015) Mixed Methods in Health Sciences Research. A Practical Primer. London: SAGE Publications.
This guidebook shows readers how to design, conduct, review, and use mixed methods research findings.
- Morse, J.M. & Cheek, J. (2015) Introducing Qualitatively-Driven Mixed-Methods Designs. Qualitative Health Research, 25 (6): 731-733.
- O’Cathain, A., Murphy E. & Nicholl, J. (2007) Why, and how, mixed methods research is undertaken in health services research in England: a mixed methods study. BMC Health Services Research, 7: 85.
- O’Cathain, A., Murphy E. & Nicholl, J. (2008) The quality of mixed methods studies in health services research. J Health Serv Res Policy, 13, 2, 92-98.
- O’Cathain, A., Murphy E. & Nicholl, J. (2010) Three techniques for integrating data in mixed methods studies. BMJ, 341, c4587.
- Östlund, U. et al. (2011) Combining qualitative and quantitative research within mixed method research design: A methodological review. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 48: 369-383.
- Sparkes, A.C. (2015) Developing mixed methods research in sport and exercise psychology: Critical reflections on five points of controversy. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 49-59.
Critical reflection on mixing methods, addresses several conceptual, practical and pedagogical challenges.
- Boot, C.R.L. et al. (2014) Predictors of work participation with chronic disease in the Netherlands: a mixed method study. Eur J Public Health, 24 (Suppl 2): cku151-073.
- Boot, C.R.L. et al. (2016) Factors important for work participation among older workers with depression, cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis: a mixed method study. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 26, 2, 160-172.
- Ham, A.J. van der et al. (2014) Toward healthy migration: an exploratory study on the resilience of migrant domestic workers from the Philippines. Transcultural Psychiatry, 51, 4, 545-568.
- Theunissen, M-J. et al. (2012) The early identification of risk factors on the pathway to school dropout in the SIODO study: a sequential mixed-methods study. BMC Public Health, 12: 1033.
V3.0: 20 Oct 2017: Revision guideline
V2.0: 12 May 2015: Revision format
V1.2: 1 Dec 2011: Removal of link kwalitatief sterk
V1.1: 1 Jan 2010: English translation
V1.0: 23 Nov 2006: Draft version has been rewritten in full
I. Structure and Approach
The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:
- What is this?
- Why should I read it?
- What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?
Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information that lays a foundation for understanding the research problem. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow your analysis to more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your research problem and the rationale for studying it [often written as a series of key questions] and, whenever possible, a description of the potential outcomes your study can reveal.
These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:
1. Establish an area to research by:
- Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
- Making general statements about the topic, and/or
- Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.
2. Identify a research niche by:
- Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
- Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
- Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
- Continuing a disciplinary tradition.
3. Place your research within the research niche by:
- Stating the intent of your study,
- Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
- Describing important results, and
- Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.
NOTE: Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed. Reviewing and, if necessary, rewriting the introduction ensures that it correctly matches the overall structure of your final paper.
II. Delimitations of the Study
Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your research. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the topic.
Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction. For example, a delimitating statement could read, "Although many factors can be understood to impact the likelihood young people will vote, this study will focus on socioeconomic factors related to the need to work full-time while in school." The point is not to document every possible delimiting factor, but to highlight why previously researched issues related to the topic were not addressed.
Examples of delimitating choices would be:
- The key aims and objectives of your study,
- The research questions that you address,
- The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
- The method(s) of investigation,
- The time period your study covers, and
- Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.
Review each of these decisions. Not only do you clearly establish what you intend to accomplish in your research, but you should also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria understood as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!
NOTE: Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitiations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.
ANOTHER NOTE: Do not view delimitating statements as admitting to an inherent failing or shortcoming in your research. They are an accepted element of academic writing intended to keep the reader focused on the research problem by explicitly defining the conceptual boundaries and scope of your study. It addresses any critical questions in the reader's mind of, "Why the hell didn't the author examine this?"
III. The Narrative Flow
Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:
- Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
- Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent a comprehensive literature review--that comes next. It consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature [with citations] that establishes a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down menu under this tab for "Background Information" regarding types of contexts.
- Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
- Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.
IV. Engaging the Reader
The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab the reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:
- Open with a compelling story,
- Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
- Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
- Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
- Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.
NOTE: Choose only one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.
Freedman, Leora and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Introduction. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Introductions. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; “Writing Introductions.” In Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide. Peter Redman. 4th edition. (London: Sage, 2011), pp. 63-70; Resources for Writers: Introduction Strategies. Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sharpling, Gerald. Writing an Introduction. Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick; Samraj, B. “Introductions in Research Articles: Variations Across Disciplines.” English for Specific Purposes 21 (2002): 1–17; Swales, John and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Skills and Tasks. 2nd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004; Writing Your Introduction. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University.