Developing a qualitative research project: Connecting the research question to the appropriate method


by Kenneth Nehrbass

Before you choose your qualitative method, you need to know your research question. Research questions tend to be a bit “formulaic.” This “formula” allows informed readers to quickly identify the kind of research method that is used in the study. You may have seen research questions that start with “What factors impact…?” or “What are participants’ experiences with…?” Words like “impact” or “experience” or “perceptions” are highly nuanced, as they have been honed by qualitative researchers over the decades.

See which formula below best matches your research question. This will help you identify the best qualitative method for your study; and it will help you think through what your findings and discussion sections will look like. [1]

Your research question’s “formula:”  ExamplesThe method that correlates with this “formula”:  What findings and discussions within this methodology look like:  
“What are people’s attitudes, perceptions, understandings or challenges related to ABC?” 
1. How do missionaries perceive and respond to anti-Western sentiment?

2. What obstacles and opportunities do Chinese evangelists face in East Africa?   
Method: Descriptive Qualitative study or “Basic Qualitative study”  

Data collection:

Interviews where you discover commonalities
Reduction to themes
And a discussion of how this compares to literature on the themes  

Themes from the examples in column 1:

1. Missionaries leverage positive stereotypes and distance themselves from negative ones (Nehrbass, 2016)

2. Language and cultural distance are barriers for Chinese pastors; but cultural ‘mediators’ overcome the challenge (Gong and Nehrbass, 2017)  
“What factors impact participants’ (varying) attitudes about XYZ?”

1. What factors impact Chinese foreign students’ various attitudes about studying at Christian School in the USA?

2. What factors impact Melanesians’ various attitudes about animistic religions?  
Method: Grounded Theory[2]  

Data collection:

Interviews of a participant group with variation, so you discover commonalities and differences among participants  
Development of a theory that explains different attitudes or responses of participants
And a discussion of how this compares to literature on the theoretical codes  

Theory from the examples in column 1:

1. Chinese foreign students’ attitudes about a Christian school in the USA are less impacted by curriculum, and more impacted by the relationships they make with other students and faculty (Chamberlain, 2017)

2. Melanesian attitudes about animistic religions are impacted by their views of the Bible, and their views of conversion. (Nehrbass, 2012).  
“What factors led to X?”How did prominent Korean-American leaders rise to fame?  Method: Grounded Theory   [3]

Data collection:

Interviews where you gather experiences and attitudes  
Reduction to a process
And a discussion of how this compares to literature on the theoretical codes  

Theory from the example in column 1:

Prominent Korean-American leaders rise to fame through internal factors (attitudes, skills) and external factors (achievement, heritage) (Kim, 2009)  
“How did organization ABC do something interesting?”

1. How did the municipality of Olszytn respond to COVID restrictions?

2. How does Embraer aviation company foster innovation?  
Method: Case Study (or a “Multiple Case Study”) [4]  

Data collection:

Interviews of members of the organization at different levels of leadership
financial records
press releases  
Reduction to a theory
And a discussion of how this compares to literature on the themes or theoretical codes  

Theory from the examples in column 1:

1 The municipality of Olszytn decreased recreational activities and changed locations (Senetra and Szczepańska, 2022).

2. Embraer uses Group elicitation method to foster innovation (Torkashvand, 2022).  
“What makes S0-and-so such an interesting person?”What was it about Steve Jobs that led to the founding of Apple?    Method: Biography [5]   

Data collection:

Interviews of the subject
Interviews of those who interacted with the subject
archival data
published sources
Reduction to themes or  a theory
Discusses literature throughout  

Theory from the example in column 1:

Steve Jobs was ruthless about achieving, at the expense of personal relationships (Isaacson, 2011)  
“What is it like to experience XYZ?”  

1. What is it like to raise an autistic child in the public school system?

2. What is the experience of principals who have children and a spouse who works?  
Method: Phenomenology  

Data collection:

Interviews where you discover common ‘lived experiences”
Reduction to a central understanding
And a discussion of how this compares to literature on the central experience  

Central understanding from the examples in column 1:

1. Raising autistic children can be like a pioneer overcoming obstacles (Barrow, 2017).

2. Raising a child in a dual income home is characterized by stress and coping strategies (Zeeck, 2012).
“What is something timely that can be said about this culture or sub-culture?”What role do hymns play in helping Nigerian Christians deal with suffering?Method: Ethnography  [6]  

Data collection:

Participant observation
Photos and cultural “artifacts” like song scripts or legends
Reduction to themes or a theory
And a discussion of how this compares to sociological research  

Themes from the example in column 1:

Indigenously composed hymns provide hope, as well as framework for understanding suffering (Chinne and Nehrbass, 2020).  
“What was the result of my intervention in ABC organization?How do patient care groups at a hospital in Ireland react to a program to care for those with epilepsy?    Method: Action-Reflection [7]   

Data collection:

Interviews of the stakeholders
Meetings from minutes (related to the intervention)  
Reduction to themes or  a theory
And a discussion on the literature related to the themes or theoretical codes  

Theory from the example in column 1:

Stakeholders discovered obstacles in their relationships, due to bias (Varley et al., 2020).  

For more resources on scholarship, see the CBU TLC webpage on scholarship.


Barrow (2017). “A Phenomenological Study of the Lived Experiences of Parents of Young Children with Autism Receiving of Parents of Young Children with Autism Receiving Special Education Services.” [Unpublished Ed.D. dissertation] Portland State University.

Chamberlain, M. A. (2017). Factors impacting openness to Christianity among Chinese graduate students who attended a Christian university in the United States. [Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation] La Mirada, CA: Biola University

Chinne, Z. and Nehrbass, K. (2020). “A Vernacular Theology of the Cross in Nigeria’s Middle Belt: How Hymns Strengthen the Church Amid Religiously-motivated Violence.” in J. Ireland and M. Raven (eds.) Practicing Hope: Missions and Global Crises (pp. 1-18). Littleton, CO: William Carey Publishing.

Gong, W. and Nehrbass, K. (2017). Reaching out to diaspora Chinese in East Africa: Barriers and Bridges. Missiology, 45 (3) pp. 236-251.

Isaacson,  W. (2011). Steve Jobs: the exclusive biography. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Kim, K. K. (. (2009). The education and cultivation of intercultural leaders: A study of twelve prominent native born Koreans. [Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation]. La Mirada, CA: Biola University

Nehrbass, K. (2012). Christianity and animism in Melanesia: Four approaches to Gospel and Culture. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Press.

Nehrbass, K. (2016). “The impact of images of US Americans on mission strategy” in Ed Smither and Rochelle Scheuermann (eds). Controversies in Mission: EMS monograph series (pp. 142-164). Littleton, CO: William Carey Library Press.

Senetra, A & Szczepańska, A. (2022). Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Led to Permanent Persistent Changes in Recreational Activity? A Case Study of a Municipal Beach. Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series, 18(55), 49–66.

Torkashvand, G. (2022). Participatory design as a tool to foster innovation: A case study of an aviation company. INCOSE International Symposium, 32, 171–181

Varley, J., Kiersey, R., Power, R., Byrne, J.-P., Doherty, C., Saris, J., Lambert, V., & Fitzsimons, M. (2020). Igniting intersectoral collaboration in chronic disease management: a participatory action research study on epilepsy care in Ireland. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 34(4), 500–508.

[1] There are certainly qualitative research projects which diverge from the paradigm above. In those cases, the researcher may be an “out-of-the-box” thinker, may be operating with a less common methodological background, or may have a poorly formed research question.  Additionally, some of these methods can also be quantitative or mixed methods. Case studies and action-reflection, for example, can both involve quantitative methods.

[2] This requires a depth of understanding of each participant in the study, in order to draw conclusions about how different factors affected them differently. If your data is not rich enough to develop an explanatory theory, consider redesigning this study as a descriptive qualitative study.

[3] You cannot prove causality; you discover categories that emerge from data, and  develop a theory that explains those categories. If your data is not rich enough to explain a process, consider redesigning this study as a descriptive qualitative study.

[4]While it may be convenient to do a case study on your own organization, it may not be strategic to do so. Do case studies on organizations that are best suited to answer a worthwhile research question.

[5] Only attempt this if you can get rich data from multiple sources.

[6]This requires prolonged field experience, and readers will expect you to operate with a “theoretical lens” within the social sciences.

[7] This requires you to have a position of influence in an organization for a time period that is long enough to complete the study. Changes as a result of the action-reflection may be new knowledge, or adjustments to an intervention.

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