In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Qualitative Research Design

  • Introduction
  • Qualitative Design in Political Science

Education Qualitative Research Design
Joseph Maxwell, Margaret Chmiel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0126


“Research design” generally refers to the process and results of planning a study, rather than the practical details of conducting the research. However, the phrase has meant different things to different authors. There are at least three distinct conceptions of research design in the qualitative literature, although works on qualitative research design (and actual studies) may employ more than one conception. The first, typological conception, sees “designs” as discrete types of qualitative research plans, analogous to the types of experimental designs. In this view, designing a qualitative study primarily involves selecting a particular design from an array of types, and using the result as a template for planning a specific study. These types may be seen as overall approaches to, or paradigms for, qualitative research, or as specific types of research plans within such approaches. The second conception is of design as a linear or cyclic sequence of steps in planning and conducting a study; some authors include intermediate feedback loops linking some steps with previous ones. These steps often closely match the sections of a research proposal, and some authors almost equate design with the development or organization of a proposal. The third, systemic conception of design, takes the idea of feedback or recursiveness even further, seeing the design of a study as an interactive process in which any of the components may influence any of the others. In this view, the components are seen not as discrete steps in a sequence, but as parts of a single entity, linked in an interactive web (e.g., Joseph A. Maxwell’s Qualitative research design: An interactive approach; see Maxwell 2012, cited under Books on Qualitative Research Design). This conception incorporates the fact that in qualitative research, the activities of formulating goals, developing theory, modifying or adding research questions, collecting and analyzing data, and addressing validity threats do not necessarily occur in a fixed order, and may all be going on simultaneously.


Almost all of the important and useful examination of qualitative design is in books, rather than journal papers or reference works. We have separated the books into four groups: books specifically on qualitative research design, books on qualitative research more generally, books on social research methods, and books on particular aspects of, or approaches to, qualitative research. However, these categories are a continuum, rather than being sharply distinguished. In addition, some works with “design” in their titles are actually general works on qualitative research, while other works with more general titles focus on qualitative design in the senses described in the Introduction. There are no journals devoted to qualitative research design, and we could not locate any journal articles dealing specifically with this topic.

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