Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry

There are a number of approaches or strategies that can be used in qualitative research but the most commonly used qualitative approaches to research are the following:

Ethnography involves studying a particular group or population in the natural setting or in their habitat. It aims to describe, analyze, and interpret behavior patterns, belief systems, and unique language of people in a particular culture and ethnicity. Observational techniques are used to gather data from the subjects as they are naturally observed. There are no alterations done in the environment of the research subjects. Studies that involve ethnography usually takes a long period of time to be finished. It is best used in studying culture-sharing groups in their natural environment. The culture-sharing group may be a school, a family, or a community. It can also be a representative of a large activity or event (e.g., students participating in a religious retreat). Examples of this approach may be a study of the life of indigenous people in a particular locality or a study of school practices and challenges to deliver relevant and meaningful education to students.


There are several approaches and strategies in conducting qualitative research. It is up to the researchers what appropriate strategy to choose for them to achieve their goal. They may combine two or more of these approaches if it is deemed necessary. Researchers should not be limited by only one strategy or approach to seek answers for their inquiry.

Grounded theory is commonly used to elicit different ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the respondents when a unified theoretical explanation is needed about an event, an action, or a process that fits the situation or actual work in practice. The grounded theory or explanation is a better alternative than its equivalent theory taken “off the shelf” because it is generated from the persons concerned in their actual habitat, academic setting, or work environment. It usually involves a series of data gathering procedures to validate the information gathered from the participants. This approach may be taken if one is interested to study how high-performing senior high school students develop interest in pursuing a career in research.

Case study is done when a researcher would want to know the deeper details about a certain situation, event, activity, process, and even a group of individuals. The analysis unit in this approach may be a single case or multicases, resulting to a within-site research or a multisite study, respectively. A series of thorough and in-depth data collection procedures from multiple sources of information is done. Over a consistent period of time, researchers employ a variety of data gathering techniques such as observations, interviews, and anecdotal documentations to address the research objectives. Examples of case studies include a study on the role of the school in assimilation of immigrant orphans or a study that deals with finding out the reason why it is difficult for some people to withdraw from their vices.

Phenomenology describes the common meaning of several individuals’ lived experiences about a phenomenon. Primarily, the purpose of this approach is to generate a universal description of a phenomenon from its several individual contexts. Drawing out relationships and patterns of gathered data are done to gain deeper understanding about the experiences of the research respondents. When the general context of students’ experience about grief, bullying, and discrimination is desired, this approach may be appropriate.

Historical approach is a systematic collection and evaluation of information, which may include documents, stories, and artifacts to describe, explain, and eventually understand events and actions that happened in the past. Evaluation of documents involves external and internal criticisms.

External criticism refers to the examination of the authenticity of the materials. Questions like “Who wrote the document and for what purpose the document was written?,” “When, where, and under what circumstances the document was written?:’ and “Do other forms of the document exist?” are asked.

Internal criticism means examination of the accuracy of the information in the document and the truthfulness of the author. Presence at and participation in the event, and competence of the author are important factors in this evaluation. Researchers use this information to critically analyze the cause for the current situation and to be able to recommend possible solution that could resolve the issues and problems. This approach is best used to gather information about a particular historical event (e.g., the 1986 EDSA revolution, martial law period).

The following are the steps recommended in identifying the appropriate approach to qualitative inquiry:

  1. Identify the specific strategy of inquiry that will be used.
  2. Provide some background information about the strategy, such as discipline, origin, applications, and definition.
  3. Discuss why it is an appropriate strategy to use in the proposed study.
  4. Identify how the use of the strategy will be helpful as to the types of questions asked, the form of data collection, the steps of data analysis, and the final write-up.