Qualitative Research Methodologies in Social Studies


Not all information can be measured and quantified, which has created the need for qualitative research. There are four popular qualitative research methodologies, including phenomenology, ethnography, history, and grounded theory. This paper seeks to describe these approaches with attention to their purposes and relevant research questions.


Phenomenological research is focused on investigating particular phenomena to understand their essence. Particularly, the purpose of phenomenology is to explore the phenomenon of interest by carefully selecting research subjects that have experiences with it and studying this phenomenon from their perspective (Jameel et al., 2018). Regarding similarities, phenomenology overlaps with ethnography since both methodologies prioritize experiences as a source of information (Jameel et al., 2018).

However, different from ethnography, phenomenological research produces less generalizable results because it focuses on people’s individual rather than collective experiences. As for the most suitable research questions, phenomenological investigations are mainly conducted to gain a detailed account of poorly-explored subjective phenomena (Mojahan, 2018). Specifically, questions about the subjective experiences of mourning one’s spouse’s or child’s death in particular circumstances present viable examples.


Ethnographic research involves conducting direct observations of the research subjects of interest in their essential cultural environments and documenting particular interactions and reactions for further analysis. Therefore, the overall function of this methodology is the exploration of cultural phenomena and the identification of themes that further an understanding of certain cultural groups’ behaviors, attitudes, and communication patterns (Jameel et al., 2018).

Ethnography shares certain similarities with phenomenology since both are concerned with experiences. However, unlike grounded theory, ethnographic research is not necessarily focused on explaining the observations. The methods of ethnographic inquiry are best suited to address the questions focused on the holistic examination of specific experiences and studying them in their natural settings rather than asking participants to interpret anything. Aside from sociocultural phenomena, this approach allows answering research questions linked with product improvement by observing the target market’s needs and difficulties surrounding product use.

Grounded Theory

Being a relatively recently developed methodology, grounded theory is a systematic approach that deals with theory generation. Its primary purpose is to establish “a framework or an explanation of a process of action grounded in the data” (Jameel et al., 2018, p. 3).

This methodology uses a deductive approach to theory development and does not involve empirical testing of the created theory (Mojahan, 2018). It shares similarities with phenomenology in terms of interviewing strategies. In both methodologies, interviews include participants’ descriptions of relevant experiences and interviewers’ attempts to ensure clarity and the required level of specificity rather than the search for any intertextual meanings (Mojahan, 2018). However, grounded theory is notably different from the other qualitative methodologies due to the unique selection of analytical procedures, such as open, selective, and axial coding (Mojahan, 2018). Due to these features, it is applicable to research questions about poorly explored phenomena and social processes that have not been explained.


History refers to research endeavors that allow exploring particular events by describing their roots and development over time. With its various methods, including archival research, the methodology serves the purpose of discovering past events and relating them to the future and the present (Mojahan, 2018). Unlike all other approaches to qualitative research, history makes it impossible to manipulate any variables since it is designed to analyze unchangeable events in the past (Mojahan, 2018). Similarly to grounded theory, the information in history research is obtained systematically. Thus, history is the most appropriate when it comes to questions relating to the causes or consequences of particular historical events.


Finally, the reviewed methodologies fulfill various purposes, ranging from keeping track of certain situations’ development to exploring people’s ways to make sense of their experiences. The research approaches’ aims and limitations are related to the types of research questions. Thus, an adequate understanding of the paradigms’ characteristics is required for research question formulation.


Jameel, B., Shaheen, S., & Majid, U. (2018). Introduction to qualitative research for novice investigators. Undergraduate Research in Natural and Clinical Science and Technology Journal, 2(6), 1-6. Web.

Mohajan, H. K. (2018). Qualitative research methodology in social sciences and related subjects. Journal of Economic Development, Environment and People, 7(1), 23-48.

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