8.4 Qualitative research questions

Learning Objectives

  • List the key terms associated with qualitative research questions
  • Distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research questions


Qualitative research questions differ from quantitative research questions. Qualitative research questions seek to explore or describe phenomena, not provide a neat nomothetic explanation, so they are often more general and vaguely worded. They may include only one concept, though many include more than one. Instead of asking how one variable causes changes in another, we are instead trying to understand the experiences, understandings, and meanings that people have about the concepts in our research question.

Let’s work through an example from our last section. In Table 8.1, a student asked, “What is the relationship between sexual orientation or gender identity and homelessness for late adolescents in foster care?” In this question, it is pretty clear that the student believes that adolescents in foster care who identify as LGBTQ may be at greater risk for homelessness. This is a nomothetic causal relationship—LGBTQ status causes homelessness.


two people thinking about each other with the word empathy above

However, what if the student were less interested in predicting homelessness based on LGBTQ status and more interested in understanding the stories of LGBTQ foster care youth that may be at risk for homelessness? In that case, the researcher would be building an idiographic causal explanation. The youths whom the researcher interviews may share stories of how their foster families, caseworkers, and others treated them. They may share stories about how they thought of their own sexuality or gender identity and how it changed over time. They may have different ideas about what it means to transition out of foster care.

Qualitative questions usually look different than quantitative questions because they search for idiographic causal relationships. Table 8.3 below takes the final research questions from Table 8.1 and adapts them for qualitative research. The guidelines for research questions previously described in this chapter still apply, but there are some new elements to qualitative research questions that are not present in quantitative questions. First, qualitative research questions often ask about lived experience, personal experience, understanding, meaning, and stories. These keywords indicate that you will be using qualitative methods. Second, qualitative research questions may be more general and less specific. Instead of asking how one concept causes another, we are asking about how people understand or feel about a concept. They may also contain only one variable, rather than asking about relationships between multiple variables.

Table 8.3 Qualitative research questions
Quantitative Research Questions Qualitative Research Questions
How does witnessing domestic violence impact a child’s romantic relationships in adulthood? How do people who witness domestic violence understand how it affects their current relationships?
What is the relationship between sexual orientation or gender identity and homelessness for late adolescents in foster care? What is the experience of identifying as LGBTQ in the foster care system?
How does income inequality affect ambivalence in high-density urban areas? What does racial ambivalence mean to residents of an urban neighborhood with high income inequality?
How does race impact rates of mental health diagnosis for children in foster care? How do African-Americans experience seeking help for mental health concerns?

Qualitative research questions have one final feature that distinguishes them from quantitative research questions. They can change over the course of a study. Qualitative research is a reflexive process, one in which the researcher adapts their approach based on what participants say and do. The researcher must constantly evaluate whether their question is important and relevant to the participants. As the researcher gains information from participants, it is normal for the focus of the inquiry to shift.

For example, a qualitative researcher may want to study how a new truancy rule impacts youth at risk of expulsion. However, after interviewing some of the youth in their community, a researcher might find that the rule is actually irrelevant to their behavior and thoughts. Instead, their participants will direct the discussion to their frustration with the school administrators or their family’s economic insecurity. This is a natural part of qualitative research, and it is normal for research questions and hypothesis to evolve based on the information gleaned from participants.


Key Takeaways

  • Qualitative research questions often contain words like lived experience, personal experience, understanding, meaning, and stories.
  • Qualitative research questions can change and evolve as the researcher conducts the study.


Image attributions

Empathy by  Sean MacEntee  CC-BY-2.0



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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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