Some Qualitative Methodologies

This blog post will differentiate among the following qualitative designs:

    • Phenomenology (e.g. Georgi, Moustakas, etc.)
    • Grounded theory (e.g. Glaser, Strauss, etc.)
    • Ethnography (e.g. White, Benedict, Mead, etc.)
    • Case Studies (e.g. Yin, etc.)

The Implicit goal of qualitative data analysis is truth, objectivity, trustworthiness, and accuracy of data (Glaser, 2004). All methods have the observer usually exercising little bias in their thoughts to help further their analysis or development of their core theory.  Researchers here are observers taking notes to help them in their study.

Phenomenology (Giorgi, 2006): It is the study of experiential phenomena through encountering an instance of it, describing it, and using free imagination variation to determine its essence. Thus, making the phenomena more generalizable.  Though it should be noted that the experience should exist without preconceived biases (a neutral party), and one way of doing so is listing out your entire biases related to the phenomena.  This removal of biases will help limit the claims to the way we experienced the phenomena.

Grounded Theory (Glaser, 2004): It is the study of a set of grounded concepts, which create a core theory/category that forms a hypothesis.  Data is collected, but as it is analyzed “line by line”, the researcher asks: “What is this data a study of?”, “What category does this incident indicate?”, “What is actually happening in the data?”, “What is the main concern being faced by the participants?”, and “What Accounts for the continual resolving of this concern?”  These questions are asked within the most minimum of preconception.  The use of literature is treated as another source of data to be integrated into the analysis and core theory/category.  However, literature is not used before the emergence of a core theory/category arises from the data.

Ethnography (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994, Mead, 1933): It is studying the customs of people and cultures, usually on a few numbers of cases (maybe one case), through analyzing unstructured data (not previously coded) with no aim of testing a hypothesis.  Analysis of the data may revolve quantification and statistics on the explicit interpretation of the data.

Thus, grounded theory seeks to find meaning in data and find a core concept/category/theory/variable.  Ethnography tends to seek meaning in the customs of people, which can exist in a single case study.  Phenomenology seeks to study the phenomena that have occurred while keeping in mind all the possible variables that can influence it.  So, a certain topic can be explored using each of these methods, and they are looking at the same problem just with different preconceptions (or lack thereof), thus adding to the further understanding of that topic.  These are all collection of data methods, whereas case studies are a research strategy.

A problem needs to arise in order for research to occur.  A gap in knowledge can be seen as a problem.  Thus, case studies are a strategy that can be used to help shine some light at that gap and using any of the techniques aforementioned the research can try to fill in that gap of knowledge.  If you are aiming for grounded theory, you may have a ton of case studies to look through to seek common themes, whereas ethnography may be concerned about one or two cases and what happened in those cases.  Phenomenology can use as many case studies necessary to explore any particular phenomena in question.

Case Studies Research (Yin, 1981): Can contain both qualitative and quantitative data (e.g. fieldwork, records, reports, verbal reports, observations, memos, etc.), and it is independent of any particular data collection method.  Case studies concern themselves in a real-life phenomenon, and when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not known, yet aim to be either exploratory, descriptive and/or explanatory.  It is a strategy similar to experiments, simulations, and histories.

Since, case studies can be “an accurate rendition of the facts of the case” (Yin, 1981), most of that data cannot be described quantitatively in a quick manner. Sometimes, descriptions and qualitative data paint the picture of what is being studied much more clearly than if we were to do this with just numbers.  Can you picture that over a million people saw the ball drop on Time Square in 2015, or 14 blocks of thousands of people adorned in foam Planet Fitness hats and waving purple noodle balloons, eagerly cheered as the ball dropped on Time Square in 2015. This is why most case study research involves the collection of qualitative data.


  • Atkinson, P., & Hammersley, M. (1994). Ethnography and participant observation. Handbook of qualitative research, 1(23), 248-261.
  • Glaser, B. G., & Holton, J. (2004, May). Remodeling grounded theory. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 5, No. 2).
  • Giorgi, A. (2008). Difficulties encountered in the application of the phenomenological method in the social sciences. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 8(1).
  • Mead, M. (1933). More comprehensive field methods. American Anthropologist, 35(1), 1-15.
  • Yin, R. K. (1981). The case study crisis: Some answers. Administrative science quarterly, 58-65.