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Research 101: Qualitative Research Approaches

Hear from LibParlor contributor Paul Worrell about a handful of qualitative research methods that can be employed in LIS research.

Paul Worrell is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Denver.  He is currently the Reference and Instruction Librarian at McKendree University in Lebanon, IL outside St. Louis.

As an elementary teacher turned librarian, I embrace my teaching identity above all other roles.  This experience helped me acclimate quickly to library instruction, but I still struggle when it comes to other aspects of librarianship.  From my undergraduate experience, I believed “research” meant collecting articles and books and using quotes in my papers.  I had not considered being the actual researcher, having to create a research question and conduct a study myself. Then an elective course in library school transformed my notions of what research is and can be.

Dr. Bruce Uhrmacher teaches many courses in Research Methods and Statistics and Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Denver.  Among these offerings is “Introduction to Qualitative Research”.  Chosen as an elective for LIS students, I expected another course of research papers and lecture.  Instead, we used real world examples and in-depth collaboration to explore qualitative research. Dr. Uhrmacher organized our course around six qualitative approaches.  Most of these methods are described in by Creswell (2012) in Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches, supplemented by one final approach from Dr. Uhrmacher’s own background.

We each formed a research question that anchored our discussion and understanding of each approach. I chose to explore how students participating in athletics engage with the library and develop information-seeking skills and behaviors.

My initial research question: How does participating in athletics affect students’ information seeking behaviors and needs?

My goal for this post is to share my experience adapting this topic to our six qualitative approaches, offering you a brief introduction to each.  

Narrative Study

The narrative approach to qualitative research centers on exploring the stories and lived experiences of individuals.  In class, we practiced conducting in-depth, probing interviews where the researcher builds a rapport with the participant.  We read about how narrative research can span months or even go beyond a year’s time, while primarily focusing on 1-4 people’s stories.  Other research methods include observation, note taking, and careful coding of themes.

For my research topic, I would focus on two or three specific student athletes, and tell their stories through interviews and observations over a school year.  Unlike other methods, it would be important to capture their experiences and present my research in a way that brings the reader into the participants’ daily lives interacting with the library.

Narrative Study in a nutshell: Tells a few individuals’ stories.  Extended period of observation. In-depth interviews. Writing immerses the reader.


This approach was a stark contrast to the simplicity of narrative.  Phenomenology seeks to understand the essence of an experience or phenomena.  The researcher hopes to get to the “what” and the “how”; in other words, you carefully observe and log what is occurring and then extract themes for how the participants experience it.  Research methods thus rely heavily on interviews and observation, but use a larger number of participants who share the experience. Another unique piece of phenomenology is the attempt to bracket out one’s biases and obtain the purest essence of the experience.

My research would require about 10-15 student athletes for a phenomenological approach.  Before beginning, I would journal about my own thoughts and biases relating to how being in athletics impacts library skills and use.  I would then conduct several interviews over a semester with each student, as well as observe their behaviors and interactions with the library.  

Phenomenology in a nutshell: Looks for the essence of an experience.  Code data to find the “what” and the “how”.  Attempts to bracket out researcher bias.


Our class activity for this approach involved going on campus and people watching.  We briefly tried to immerse ourselves in the culture and lives of the students.  Researchers use the ethnography approach to uncover the shared beliefs, themes, and behaviors of a population.  Often a researcher spends a time living among the culture, gaining insight into through participation.

Using an ethnographic approach would allow me to explore the shared values, beliefs, and behaviors of student athletes with regard to the library.   To do so I could choose a specific athletic team and follow their day-to-day activities such as study groups, practices, and games.  I would attempt to gather their shared cultural experience through these observations as well as interviews.

Ethnography in a nutshell: Uncovers shared beliefs, values, and behaviors. Requires long-term immersion in the group. Roots in Cultural Anthropology.

Grounded Theory

The title of this approach says it all. Using the viewpoint of the participants, you establish a new process for understanding a topic.  In our class discussion, we talked about letting the theory emerge naturally from the study, and the importance of acknowledging our preconceived notions.  Grounded Theory is unique in that researchers often do not consult other literature until after data collection and analysis so as not to skew the study.

In adapting my research, I would use multiple rounds of interviews with a wide variety of student athletes to explore how they develop information behaviors.  Revisiting the same individuals would help me assess and refine my emerging theory.  Similar to phenomenology, you use In-depth coding to refine the theory.  These methods appeal to researchers who like to categorize, analyze, and organize data.

Grounded Theory in a nutshell: Open-minded and seeking a new thought-process.  Involves multiple rounds of interviewing.  Uses detailed coding processes.

Criticism and Connoisseurship

The only approach not stemming from Creswell (2012) is Criticism and Connoisseurship.  Coming from arts-based education, this approach is similar to a consultant coming in to save a floundering company.  The researcher is someone with a background or experience in the topic area (connoisseur) who uses a framework to provide an in-depth research exploration (criticism).  Typical methods include observations with detailed journaling by the researcher as well as interviews and artifact collection.

I applied the criticism approach to my topic by using an education framework of intentions, operations, and reception.  I would therefore explore how the student athletes perceive the library’s services, as intended or otherwise.  This type of qualitative research usually involves multiple sites rather than individuals.  Using my expertise as a teaching librarian as my connoisseurship, I would gather data from several universities with substantial athletic programs.

Criticism and Connoisseurship in a nutshell: Harnesses the expertise of the researcher. Balks at the idea of neutrality.  Involves rich description and data analysis.

Case Study

Dr. Uhrmacher saved the seemingly simplest approach for our final week, however case studies involve more depth than you might think.  Similar to narrative study, a case study approach seeks to tell the story of one specific instance representing the research topic.  Researchers do not attempt to ascribe this one case’s factors upon all others; rather they want to understand the nuance of this unique setting.

For my research study, I would therefore pick one institution with a high population of student athletes and explore how their library seeks to serve their information needs.  Through interviews, artifact and document collection, and observations of both students and library staff I would seek to provide an in-depth account of how participating in athletics impacts information seeking at one university.

Case Study in a nutshell: Researcher seeks out a unique setting.  Often uses a bound timeframe.  Goal is to understand one instance, rather than ascribing to all.

These descriptions only scratch the surface of qualitative research, but I was blown away when I first learned about them.  I also found myself surprised at how similar the methods of data collection were.  Overall, these approaches are not hard and fast, nor are they mutually exclusive.  To learn more about the research topics presented here, check out the original sources below.

Featured Resources:

Creswell, J. W. (2012).  Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd Ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Eisner, E.W. (2017). The Enlightened Eye : Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Featured image “Research” by Nick Youngson [C.C. BY-SA 3.0], via The Blue Diamond Gallery

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The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

3 comments on “Research 101: Qualitative Research Approaches

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