Getting started with qualitative inquiry

Newcomers to qualitative inquiry encounter numerous new terms. There are so many approaches to doing qualitative inquiry. Further, authors frequently use terms in different ways. What are ways to navigate the maze of beginning to learn about qualitative inquiry?

First, it helps to build a scaffold, a strategy recommended by Michael Crotty (1998). In qualitative inquiry, this means simplifying ideas to get at the underlying “bones” of the larger structure. As one develops knowledge and skill, these kinds of scaffolds can be disbanded, since in simplification, nuances are lost, and sometimes very complex topics can be misrepresented. To use the metaphor of construction, it would be a mistake to think that the framework for a structure provides a detailed perspective of what a completed building will look like. Yet, when one is beginning to learn about a new topic — whether weaving or weather forecasting — it is a challenge to take in the many nuances and complexities of a new topic all at once. It does help to begin by gaining a broad sense of the larger picture, and be able to identify authors, scholarship and ideas in different areas.

Second, get to know the language. Every community of practice —whether philosophy or fly fishing, research or writing, ethnography or ethnomethodology —has developed a specialized vocabulary for discussing concepts, ideas and practices. This applies to qualitative inquiry also. Developing a dictionary of terms and definitions will help keep track of how key terms are defined and how different scholars define and use terms in their work. There are many resources to help here, including Thomas Schwandt’s Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry (now in its fourth edition); and Lisa Given’s two-volume Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research (Given, 2008). Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research (of which there are four editions) (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, 2005, 2011) provides overviews of numerous approaches to qualitative research. These texts provide introductions to numerous topics and terms used by qualitative researchers.

Third, get to know key scholars. Within the Big Tent of qualitative inquiry, there are many “rings” busy with activity (thank you to Sherry Marx for this metaphor). Once one has gained an overview of the spectrum of qualitative inquiry that exists from interpretive and descriptive work, critical and emancipatory frameworks, postmodern and poststructural approaches, and new materialist ideas, it is helpful to zoom in to learn more about a specific approach.  Just as one might zoom in from a world map using a mapping app on a tablet to a particular city to see the details of a particular address and street, this entails getting to know the founding scholars in an area, the kind of work they do, and what they have published. How does one do research? What tools and strategies are needed? This means reading a lot. To help get started with this, QualPage has links to additional resources as well as bibliographies that provide initial readings relative to different topics of inquiry. You will find them under the “Teaching QUAL” tab at the top of the page.

Fourth, expect to keep learning. Since the field of qualitative inquiry is constantly growing, changing, and innovating, one is always learning new approaches to doing things. That is where review of journals that focus on qualitative inquiry can help. QualPage offers links to various journals that support qualitative inquiry under the “Journals and Publishers” tab. Some of these journals focus on qualitative methodology and theories, whereas others publish research undertaken in specific fields. If you know of a new journal in the field, let me know so I can add this to the page.

Above all, have fun exploring the field of qualitative inquiry. You will find many adventures lie before you.


Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2005). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Given, L. M. (Ed.) (2008). The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (Vol. 2). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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