Qualitative research designs provide future-oriented plans for undertaking research. Designs should describe how to effectively address and answer a specific research question using qualitative data and qualitative analysis techniques. Designs connect research objectives to observations, data, methods, interpretations, and research outcomes. Qualitative research designs focus initially on collecting data to provide a naturalistic view of social phenomena and understand the meaning the social world holds from the point of view of social actors in real settings. The outcomes of qualitative research designs are situated narratives of peoples’ activities in real settings, reasoned explanations of behavior, discoveries of new phenomena, and creating and testing of theories.
A three-level framework can be used to describe the layers of qualitative research design and conceptualize its multifaceted nature. Note, however, that qualitative research is a flexible and not fixed process, unlike conventional positivist research designs that are unchanged after data collection commences. Flexibility provides qualitative research with the capacity to alter foci during the research process and make new and emerging discoveries.
The first or methods layer of the research design process uses social science methods to rigorously describe organizational phenomena and provide evidence that is useful for explaining phenomena and developing theory. Description is done using empirical research methods for data collection including case studies, interviews, participant observation, ethnography, and collection of texts, records, and documents.
The second or methodological layer of research design offers three formal logical strategies to analyze data and address research questions: (a) induction to answer descriptive “what” questions; (b) deduction and hypothesis testing to address theory oriented “why” questions; and (c) abduction to understand questions about what, how, and why phenomena occur.
The third or social science paradigm layer of research design is formed by broad social science traditions and approaches that reflect distinct theoretical epistemologies—theories of knowledge—and diverse empirical research practices. These perspectives include positivism, interpretive induction, and interpretive abduction (interpretive science). There are also scholarly research perspectives that reflect on and challenge or seek to change management thinking and practice, rather than producing rigorous empirical research or evidence based findings. These perspectives include critical research, postmodern research, and organization development.
Three additional issues are important to future qualitative research designs. First, there is renewed interest in the value of covert research undertaken without the informed consent of participants. Second, there is an ongoing discussion of the best style to use for reporting qualitative research. Third, there are new ways to integrate qualitative and quantitative data. These are needed to better address the interplay of qualitative and quantitative phenomena that are both found in everyday discourse, a phenomenon that has been overlooked.