Denzin and Lincoln (1994) provided a generic definition of qualitative research, that is, "Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalist approach to its subject matter." The 'multimethod in focus' is described as "the combination of multiple methods, empirical materials, perspectives and observers in a single study is best understood, then as a strategy that adds rigor, breadth, and depth to any investigation." (Flick, 1992).

Creswell (1998) gave his definition of qualitative research focusing on the methodological nature, the complexity of the end product and its nature of the naturalistic inquiry:

"Qualitative research is an inquiry process of understanding based on distinct methodological traditions of inquiry that explore a social or human problem. The research builds a complex, holistic pictures, analyzes words, reports detailed views of informants, and conducted the study in natural setting." (p. 15)

Creswell (1998) categories five traditions of qualitative research:


Exploring the life of an individual

Understanding the essence of experiences about a phenomenon

Developing a theory grounded in data from the field

Describing and interpreting a cultural and social group

Case Study

Developing an in-depth analysis of a single case or multiple cases


Gall, Borg, and Gall (1996) defined qualitative research as the "inquiry that is grounded in the assumption that individuals construct social reality in the form of individuals construct social reality in the form of meanings and interpretations, and that these constructions tend to be transitory and situational. The dominant methodology is to discover these meanings and interpretations by studying cases intensively in natural settings an subjecting the resulting data to analytical induction."

Generally speaking, qualitative research is oriented toward understanding of a natural world, and is highly interpretive in nature. The purpose of a qualitative research is not to verify a causal relationship by falsifying a no-relationship hypothesis. Instead, it recognizes the multifaceted interpretations of human experience, and the iterative relation within social and cultural systems. The focus of a qualitative research is on understanding how people make sense of their world with exploitation of different aspects and different expressions. It provides both the researchers and the participants with a discovering experience.

What are the characteristics of qualitative research?
Denzin and Lincoln (1994) used a metaphor of bricoleur as researcher and bricololage as a solution using different tools in qualitative research:

Ragin's (1987) comparative list of the characteristics of qualitative research had the following descriptions:

What are the rationales of doing a qualitative research?
Creswell (1998) gave his reasons why to undertake a qualitative study:

Denzin and Lincoln (1994, 2000) divided the history of qualitative research into five phases in the 20th century:

  1. Traditional period (1900-WWII): there are four major beliefs and commitments:
  2. The modernist Phase (Postwar to 1970s): qualitative research started to be formalized; postpositivism functioned as a powerful epistemological paradigm in this moment
  3. Blurred Genres (1970-1986): qualitative researcher had a full complement of paradigms, methods, and strategies to employ in their research.
  4. Crisis of Representation (mid-1908s): qualitative research in this period calls into question the issues of gender, class, and race; critical and feminist epistemologies
  5. The fifth Moment (the present): this phase is defined and shaped by the dual crisis of representation and legitimization that confronts the qualitative researcher. The questions include whether the qualitative researchers can directly capture lived experience, and how qualitative studies to be evaluated in the poststructural moment.

What are the criteria to judge the value of the research?
In quantitative research, reliability, validity, generalizability and objectivity are the criteria. In qualitative study, Rossman and Rallis (1998) makes the judgment in terms of the following principles:

  1. The truth value of the research: to judge the truth value depends on "how adequately multiple understandings are presented and whether they ring true, i.e. to have face validity. Five strategies are suggested to obtain this truthfulness:
  2. The rigor of the research: in quantitative research: being replicable is one of the criteria to judge quantitative research. In qualitative research, it is the thinking process of the researcher that really matters. Was the study well conceived and conducted? Are the decisions clear? Was sufficient evidence gathered and presented? Was the researcher rigorous in searching for alternative explanations for what was learned? Are different interpretations put forward and assessed?
  3. The significance of the research, i.e. its applicability to other situation. "To establish the usefulness of a study, provide rich, thick description of your theoretical and methodological orientation and the process as well as the results." (Rossman & Rallis, 1998)

Concept of Triangulation
Triangulation is a tool to support the researcher's construction. It is a process by which the researcher can guard against the accusation that a study's findings are simply an artifact of a single method, a single source, or a single investigator's biases. The function of triangulation is to locate and reveal the understanding of the object under investigation from "different aspects of empirical reality" (Denzin, 1978). Denzin (1978) has identified four basic types of triangulation:

  1. Data triangulation: Checking out the consistency of different data sources, i.e. comparing and cross-checking the consistency of information derived at different times and by different means within qualitative methods. For example, compare observational data with the interview data; compare what people say in public with what they say in private; check for consistency of what people say about the same thing over time; compare the perspectives of people from different points of view. However, such comparison does not always mean to find the consistency. Instead, sometimes it helps to study and to understand when and why there are differences.
  2. Investigator triangulation: Using several different researchers or evaluators to review the findings in order to reduce potential bias.
  3. Theory triangulation: Using multiple perspectives or theories to interpret the data, i.e. examining the data from the perspectives of different stakeholder positions with different theories of actions.
  4. Methodological triangulation: Checking out the consistency of findings generated by different data-collection method

The issues for qualitative research are more about transferability, faithfulness, and dependability rather than reliability and validity. As a qualitative researcher, your job is to give thick descriptions so that readers are able to make decisions to see whether the results of the inquiry are transferable. The conceptual analysis must be faithfully derived from the data and be checked out against the consistency of different data sources. Moreover, because the meaning of communication depends on knowing the relevant context, and contexts are consciously designed to evoke multiple meanings (Dye, 1998), qualitative research must develop thorough and comprehensive descriptions of the context. With trustworthiness, it is important for researchers to pose the questions about neutrality: How can one establish the degree to which the findings of an inquiry are determined by the participants and conditions of the inquiry and not by the biases, motivations, interests or perspectives of the inquirer (Lincoln and Guba, 1985)? It does not mean that there must be exclusion of presuppositions. Rather, qualitative researchers need to recognize their thoughts as an inalienable factor that guides their interpretation. The recognition of the inevitability of subjectivity also yields the process of triangulation that utilizes the use of multiple sources, methods, investigators, and theories (Creswell, 1998, Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Patton, 1990) to ensure the credibility of the research."

Patton (1990) advises that there are three issues that a credible qualitative study needs to address:
1. What techniques and methods were used to ensure the integrity, validity and accuracy of the findings?
2. What does the researcher bring to the study in terms of qualifications, experience, and perspective?
3. What paradigm orientation and assumptions undergrid the study?


Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five designs. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln. (eds.). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Educational Research: An Introduction ( 6th ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E., G. (2000). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions and emerging confluences. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 163-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods ( 2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Ragin, C. C. (1987). The comparative method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rossman, R. B., & Ralllis, S. F. (1998). Learning in the field: An introduction to qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Smith, P., & Ragan, T. J. (1999). Instructional Design. 2nd ed. John, Wiley & Sons, Inc.