Qualitative Studies

Overview of what is a qualitative study and how to recognize, find and critically appraise.

Qualitative Research Studies: Introduction


Research design decides how research materials will be collected. One or more research methods, for example -- experiment, survey, interview, etc. -- are chosen depending on the research objectives. In some research contexts, a survey may be suitable. In other instances, interviews or case studies or observation might be more appropriate. Research design actually provides insights into “how” to conduct research using a particular research methodology. Basically, every researcher has a list of research questions that need to be assessed that can be done with research design.

So research design can be defined as a framework of research methods and techniques applied by a researcher to incorporate different elements & components of research in a systematic manner. Most significantly, research design provides insights into how to Conduct Research using a particular research methodology. 

Qualitative Methods try to gather detailed, rich data allowing for an in-depth understanding of research phenomena.  Seeks the “why” rather than the “how.”

Qualitative Data Collection

Data obtained using qualitative data collection methods can be used to find new ideas, opportunities, and problems, test their value and accuracy, formulate predictions, explore a certain field in more detail, and explain the numbers obtained using quantitative data collection techniques.

Since qualitative data collection methods usually do not involve numbers and mathematical calculations, qualitative data is often seen as more subjective, but at the same time, it allows a greater depth of understanding.

Aspers, P., Corte, U. What is Qualitative in Qualitative ResearchQual Sociol 42, 139–160 (2019). 


Types of Qualitative Studies

Qualitative study methods are semi-structured or unstructured, usually involve small sample sizes and lack strong scientific controls.

Qualitative Study Methods

Qualitative study methods employ many of the same methods as quantitative data collection, except that instead of structured or closed, they are semi- or unstructured and open-ended.  Some of the most common qualitative  study techniques include open-ended surveys and questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, observation, case studies, and so on.

There is generally five types of qualitative data collection:

  • Ethnography research: Involves semi-structure or unstructured interviews with open-ended questions; participant and non-participant observation; collected materials including documents, books, papers, audio, images, videos etc.
  • Phenomenological research: In-depth interviewing which involves conducting intensive individual interviews with a small number of respondents to explore their perspectives on a particular idea, program, or situation.  The participant interviews may be structured, semi-structured or unstructured; it also includes reflective journals; written oral self-reports; and participant’s aesthetic expressions.
  • Grounded theory research: Data collection methods often include in-depth interviews using open-ended questions. Questions can be adjusted as theory emerges. Participant observation and focus groups may also be used as well as collecting and studying …  including documents, books, papers, audio, images, artifacts; videos etc. used by participants in their daily lives.
  • Narrative: Participant or non-participant interview, aesthetic expressions; one’s own and other’s observation; storytelling; letter writing; autobiographic writing; collected materials …..; personal information such as values. Narrative analysis focuses on different elements to make diverse but equally substantial and meaningful interpretations and conclusions. It is a genre of analytical frames used by researchers to interpret information with the context of research shared by all in daily life. 
  • Case study: Focus groups; semi-structured or unstructured interviews with open-ended questions; participant and non-participant observation; collected materials


Nayar, S., & Stanley, D. M. (Eds.). (2015). Qualitative research methodologies for occupational science and therapy. London: Routledge.

Frank, G., & Polkinghorne, D. (2010). Qualitative Research in Occupational Therapy: From the First to the Second Generation. OTJR (Thorofare, N.J.), 30(2), 51-57.

How To Search for Qualitative Studies

Databases categorize their records using subject terms or controlled vocabularies. These Subject Headings vary for each database.

Medline/PubMed : MeSH Subject Headings

  • Qualitative Research: Any type of research that employs nonnumeric information to explore individual or group characteristics, producing findings not arrived at by statistical procedures or other quantitative means.  Includes Document Analysis & Hermaneutics.
  • Interviews as Topic: Works about conversations with an individual or individuals held in order to obtain information about their background and other personal biographical data, their attitudes and opinions, etc. It includes works about school admission or job interviews.
  • Focus Groups: A method of data collection and a QUALITATIVE RESEARCH tool in which a small group of individuals are brought together and allowed to interact in a discussion of their opinions about topics, issues, or questions.
  • Grounded Theory: The generation of theories from analysis of empirical data.
  • Nursing Methodology ResearchResearch carried out by nurses concerning techniques and methods to implement projects and to document information, including methods of interviewing patients, collecting data, and forming inferences. The concept includes exploration of methodological issues such as human subjectivity and human experience.
  • Anecdotes As Topic: Works about brief accounts or narratives of an incident or event.
  • Narration: The act, process, or an instance of narrating, i.e., telling a story. In the context of MEDICINE or ETHICS, narration includes relating the particular and the personal in the life story of an individual.
  • Personal Narratives As Topic: Works about accounts of individual experience in relation to a particular field or of participation in related activities.
  • Observational Studies As Topic: Works about clinical studies in which participants may receive diagnostic, therapeutic, or other types of interventions, but the investigator does not assign participants to specific interventions (as in an interventional study).

CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health) : CINAHL Subject Headings 

  • Qualitative Studies: Investigations which use sensory methods such as listening or observing to gather and organize data into patterns or themes.  The following are sub-categories under Qualitative Studies: 
    • Action Research: Research in which problem definition, data collection, factor formulation, planned change, data analysis, and problem redefinition continue in an ongoing cycle.
    • Ethnographic Research: Research which seeks to uncover the symbols and categories that members of a given culture use to interpret their world.
    • Ethnological Research: Comparison and contrasting of cultures and societies as a whole.
    • Ethnonursing Research: The study and analysis of a designated culture's viewpoints, beliefs, and practices about nursing care behavior.
    • Grounded Theory: A qualitative method developed by Glaser and Strauss to unite theory construction and data analysis.
    • Naturalist Inquiry: The use of the natural setting in research to enable understanding the whole rather than only part of the reality being studied.
    • Phenomenological Research: Research designed to discover and understand the meaning of human life experiences.
  • Focus Groups: Small groups of individuals brought together to discuss their opinions regarding specific issues, topics, and questions.
  • Interviews: Face-to-face or telephone meetings with subjects for the purpose of gathering information.
  • Narratives: Descriptions or interpretations of events, usually in an informal manner. Often used as a data collection method for research. Do not confuse with STORYTELLING, a form of literature or telling a real or imagined story to an audience or listener.
  • Descriptive Research: Research studies that have as their main objective the accurate portrayal of the characteristics of persons, situations, or groups, and the frequency with which certain phenomena occur.
  • Observational Methods: Methods of data collection in which the investigator witnesses and records behaviors of interest.
  • Projective Techniques: A variety of methods for measuring by providing respondents with unstructured stimuli to which to respond.

In CINHAL, on the Advanced Search page, there are Search Options.  Scroll down to the Clinical Queries drop down box and choose to limit the search to Qualitative-High Sensitivity; Qualitative-High Specificity; Qualitative-Best Balance. High Sensitivity is the broadest search, to include ALL relevant material, but may also include less relevant materials. High Specificity is the most targeted search to include only the most relevant result set, but may miss some relevant materials. Best Balance retrieves the best balance between Sensitivity and Specificity.

PsycINFO: Subject Headings

  • Qualitative Methods: A broad class of research methodology that describes and interprets descriptive data in the form of natural language and expressions of experiences.  The following are sub-categories under Qualitative Methods:
    • Grounded Theory
    • Narrative Analysis
    • Thematic Analysis: A qualitative research strategy for identifying, analyzing, and reporting identifiable patterns or clusters within data.
    • Focus Group
    • Focus Group Interview
    • Semi-Structured Interview
    • Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis: A systematic qualitative approach in which a researcher explores how individual's make sense of particular experiences, events, and states, primarily through the analysis of data from structured and semi-structured interviews.
  • Qualitative Measures: Measures or tests employing qualitative methods and/or data, such as narratives, interviews, and focus groups.

As with CINAHL, you can limit to Methodology.  Click on Additional Limits, scroll down to "Methodology" and choose "Qualitative Study", "Focus Groups" or "Interview".

NOTE!: Be aware of Inconsistent indexing. The above subject headings as not always indexed (i.e. added to articles) for qualitative research nor is the publication type/methodology.  So, to successfully find qualitative articles you also need to add keywords to your search strategy or if you are getting too few results, leave off the Clinical Queries or Methodology filters.

Free text keywords

Use selective free text keywords to search in Titles, Abstracts or Keywords of records held in the databases to identify Qualitative Research.  Examples:

phenomenological life experiences focus groups interview
lived experience grounded theory action research case study
discourse analysis ethnographic narrative observational
qualitative diaries

attitude/attitudes to/on ...

(death, health, etc.)

video recordings

When searching, do a combination of subject terms and keywords depending on the type of qualitative study you are looking for:


Qualitative Research [MeSH] OR (qualitative AND (research OR study OR method))

(Grounded Theory[MeSH] OR "grounded theory")

then combine it with your topic of interest

post-traumatic stress disorder OR PTSD

brain injury, OR BTI OR "traumatic, brain injury"

How to Critically Analyze Qualitative Studies

 A critical analysis of a qualitative study considers the “fit” of the research question with the qualitative method used in the study. There are many checklists available for the assessment of qualitative research studies.  Here are a few:

NOTE:  When using these checklists, be sure to use them critically and with careful consideration of the research context.  In other words, use the checklists as the beginning point in assessing the article and then re-assess the article based on whether the findings can be applied in your setting/population/disease/condition.

Additional Resources

Moorley, C., & Cathala, X. (2019). How to appraise qualitative researchEvidence-Based Nursing22(1), 10-13.   (open access)

Stenfors, T., Kajamaa, A. and Bennett, D. (2020), How to … assess the quality of qualitative research. Clin Teach, 17: 596-599.

Greenhalgh, T., & Taylor, R. (1997). How to read a paper: Papers that go beyond numbers (qualitative research). BMj315(7110), 740-743. 

Jeanfreau, S. G., & Jack, L., Jr (2010). Appraising qualitative research in health education: guidelines for public health educators. Health promotion practice11(5), 612–617. 

Research Series - Critical appraisal of qualitative research when reading papers Jul 22, 2022 Virtual Tutor; Research Series (Elsevier Health Education) YouTube Video 10:04 min [This episode Professor Dall'Ora will be looking at qualitative research in more detail. In particular how to critically appraise qualitative studies.]

Hanes K. Chapter 4: Critical appraisal of qualitative research. In: Noyes J, Booth A, Hannes K, Harden A, Harris J, Lewin S, Lockwood C (editors), Supplementary Guidance for Inclusion of Qualitative Research in Cochrane Systematic Reviews of Interventions. Version 1 (updated August 2011). Cochrane Collaboration Qualitative Methods Group, 2011. 

David Tod, Andrew Booth & Brett Smith (2022) Critical appraisal, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 15:1, 52-72 (open access)

Validity & Reliability in Qualitative Studies

Validity & Reliability

Validity in qualitative research means the “appropriateness” of the tools, processes, and data -- are the tools, processes and data measuring what it is intended to measure to answer the research question?  Assessing for validity is looking to see if the research question is "valid" for the desired outcome -- whether the choice of of the methodology used was appropriate for answering the research question, was the study design valid for the methodology, were the appropriate sampling and data analysis used and finally, were the results and conclusions valid for the sample and within the context of the research question. 

In contrast, reliability concerns the degree of consistency in the results if the study, using the same methodology, can be repeated over and over.

The Basics of Validity and Reliability in Research by Joe O'Brian & Anders Orn, Research Collective.com

Brewer, M., & Crano, W. (2014). Research Design and Issues of Validity. In H. Reis & C. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of Research Methods in Social and Personality Psychology (pp. 11-26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Golafshani, N. (2003). Understanding Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report8(4), 597-606. 

Cypress, Brigitte S. EdD, RN, CCRN. Rigor or Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research: Perspectives, Strategies, Reconceptualization, and Recommendations. Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing 36(4):p 253-263, 7/8 2017. 

Leung L. (2015). Validity, reliability, and generalizability in qualitative researchJournal of family medicine and primary care4(3), 324–327. 

Understanding Reliability and Validity. Writing@CSU


Additional Resources

Rosumeck, S., Wagner, M., Wallraf, S., & Euler, U. (2020). A validation study revealed differences in design and performance of search filters for qualitative research in PsycINFO and CINAHL. Journal of clinical epidemiology128, 101–108. 

Wagner, M., Rosumeck, S., Küffmeier, C., Döring, K., & Euler, U. (2020). A validation study revealed differences in design and performance of MEDLINE search filters for qualitative researchJournal of clinical epidemiology120, 17–24.

Franzel, B., Schwiegershausen, M., Heusser, P. et al. How to locate and appraise qualitative research in complementary and alternative medicine. BMC Complement Altern Med 13, 125 (2013). 

Finfgeld-Connett, D. and Johnson, E.D. (2013), Literature search strategies for conducting knowledge-building and theory-generating qualitative systematic reviews. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 69: 194-204. 

Rogers, M, Bethel, A, Abbott, R. Locating qualitative studies in dementia on MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and PsycINFO: A comparison of search strategies. Res Syn Meth. 2018; 9: 579– 586. 

Booth, A. Searching for qualitative research for inclusion in systematic reviews: a structured methodological reviewSyst Rev 5, 74 (2016). 

Noyes, J., Hannes, K., Booth, A., Harris, J., Harden, A., Popay, J., ... & Pantoja, T. (2015). Qualitative research and Cochrane reviews.


Citing Sources


Citations are brief notations in the body of a research paper that point to a source in the bibliography or references cited section.

If your paper quotes, paraphrases, summarizes the work of someone else, you need to use citations.

Citation style guides such as APA, Chicago and MLA provide detailed instructions on how citations and bibliographies should be formatted.


Health Sciences Research Toolkit

Resources, tips, and guidelines to help you through the research process.

Finding Information

Library Research Checklist
Helpful hints for starting a library research project.

Search Strategy Checklist and Tips
Helpful tips on how to develop a literature search strategy.

Boolean Operators: A Cheat Sheet
Boolean logic (named after mathematician George Boole) is a system of logic to designed to yield optimal search results. The Boolean operators, AND, OR, and NOT, help you construct a logical search. Boolean operators act on sets -- groups of records containing a particular word or concept.

Literature Searching
Overview and tips on how to conduct a literature search.

Health Statistics and Data Sources
Health related statistics and data sources are increasingly available on the Internet. They can be found already neatly packaged, or as raw data sets. The most reliable data comes from governmental sources or health-care professional organizations.

Evaluating Information

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources in the Health Sciences
Understand what are considered primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

Scholarly vs Popular Journals/Magazines
How to determine what are scholarly journals vs trade or popular magazines.

Identifying Peer-Reviewed Journals
A “peer-reviewed” or “refereed” journal is one in which the articles it contains have been examined by people with credentials in the article’s field of study before it is published.

Evaluating Web  Resources
When searching for information on the Internet, it is important to be aware of the quality of the information being presented to you. Keep in mind that anyone can host a web site. To be sure that the information you are looking at is credible and of value.

Conducting Research Through An Anti-Racism Lens
This guide is for students, staff, and faculty who are incorporating an anti-racist lens at all stages of the research life cycle.

Understanding Research Study Designs
Covers case studies, randomized control trials, systematic reviews and meta-analysis.

Qualitative Studies
Overview of what is a qualitative study and how to recognize, find and critically appraise.

Writing and Publishing

Citing Sources
Citations are brief notations in the body of a research paper that point to a source in the bibliography or references cited section.

Structure of a Research Paper
Reports of research studies usually follow the IMRAD format. IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, [and] Discussion) is a mnemonic for the major components of a scientific paper. These elements are included in the overall structure of a research paper.

Top Reasons for Non-Acceptance of Scientific Articles
Avoid these mistakes when preparing an article for publication.

Annotated Bibliographies
Guide on how to create an annotated bibliography.

Writing guides, Style Manuals and the Publication Process in the Biological and Health Sciences
Style manuals, citation guides as well as information on public access policies, copyright and plagiarism.

Last Updated: Aug 28, 2023 9:45 AM