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Qualitative Research Design

An Interactive Approach Third Edition

Joseph A. Maxwell George Mason University
© 2013   232 pages   SAGE Publications, Inc   
Volume 41
Complimentary Review Copy
Available on CourseSmart Course Smart
Individual Purchasers
Paperback ISBN: 9781412981194 $62.00
This book provides researchers and students with a user-friendly, step-by-step guide to planning qualitative research. It shows how the components of design interact with each other, and provides a strategy for creating coherent and workable relationships among these design components, highlighting key design issues. Written in an informal, jargon-free style, the book incorporates examples and hands-on exercises.

Qualitative Research Design

An Interactive Approach

Third Edition
Joseph A. Maxwell George Mason University
© 2013   232 pages   SAGE Publications, Inc  
Volume 41

Available Formats

ISBN:   9781412981194 Paperback Suggested Retail Price:   $62.00 Bookstore Price:   $49.60

Previous Editions Published by SAGE

Second Edition: © 2005
First Edition: © 1996

Substantial Content Revisions

A major impetus for a new edition of this book was the opportunity to expand it somewhat beyond the page limits of the earlier series on Applied Social Research Methods, for which it was originally written. However, many readers of the previous editions have said that they appreciated the conciseness of the book, so I didn’t want to lose this virtue. Consequently, much of the new material in this edition consists of additional examples of my students’ work, including a second example of a dissertation proposal (Appendix B).

Another impetus has been the ongoing development of qualitative research1, with a flourishing of new approaches, including arts-based approaches, to how it is conducted and presented. I haven’t attempted to deal comprehensively with these, which would have ballooned the book well past what I felt was an appropriate length, as well as taking it beyond an introductory level. If you want to investigate these developments, the SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research (Given, 2008), the SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th edition (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011) and the journal Qualitative Inquiry are good places to start. I’ve tried to indicate, in Chapters 1 and 3, how I see my approach to design as compatible with some of these developments, in particular with aspects of postmodernism and with the approach known as bricolage, and I have substantially rewritten and expanded my discussion of research paradigms, in Chapter 2.

However, I am also sceptical of some of these developments, particularly those that adopt a radical constructivist and relativist stance that denies the existence of any “reality” that our research attempts to understand, and that rejects any conception of “validity” (or related terms) that addresses the relationship between our research conclusions and the phenomena that we study. While I am enough of a postmodernist to believe that every theory and conclusion is our own construction, with no claim to “objective” or absolute truth, and argue in Chapter 2 that no theory can capture the full complexity of the things we study, I refuse to abandon the goal of gaining a better understanding of the physical, social, and cultural world in which we live, or the possibility of developing credible explanations for these phenomena.

This position is grounded in my third impetus for revising this book: my increasing awareness of how my own perspective on qualitative research has been informed by a philosophical realism about the things we study. I have developed this perspective at length in my book A Realist Approach for Qualitative Research (2011), arguing that the “critical realist” position I have taken is not only compatible with most qualitative researchers’ actual practices, but can be valuable in helping researchers with some difficult theoretical, methodological, and political issues that they face. However, I offer this as a useful perspective among other perspectives, not as the single correct paradigm for qualitative research. As the writing teacher Peter Elbow (1973, 2006) argued, it is important to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” with any theory or position you encounter, trying to see both its advantages and its distortions or blind spots. For this reason, I want the present book to be of practical value to students and researchers who hold a variety of positions on these issues. The model of qualitative research design that I develop here is compatible with a range of philosophical perspectives, and I believe it is broadly applicable to most qualitative research.

My greater awareness of the implications of a critical realist stance have led me to revise or expand other parts of the book—in particular, the discussion of theory in Chapter 3; developing (and revising) research questions in Chapter 4; research relationships and ethics, developing interview questions, and data analysis, in Chapter 5; the concept of validity in Chapter 6; and the appropriate functions and content of a literature review in a research proposal, in Chapter 7. I’ve also continued to compulsively tinker with the language of the book, striving to make what I say clearer. I would be grateful for any feedback you can give me on how the book could be made more useful to you.

Finally, I realized in revising this work that I had said almost nothing explicitly about how I define qualitative research—what I see as most essential about a qualitative approach. I say more about this in Chapter 2. However, a brief definition would be that qualitative research is research that is intended to help you better understand 1) the meanings and perspectives of the people you study—seeing the world from their point of view, rather than simply from your own; 2) how these perspectives are shaped by, and shape, their physical, social, and cultural contexts; and 3) the specific processes that are involved in maintaining or altering these phenomena and relationships. All three of these aspects of qualitative research, but particularly the last one, contrast with most quantitative approaches to research, which are based on seeing the phenomena studied in terms of variables—properties of things that can vary, and can thus be measured and compared across contexts. I see most of the more obvious aspects of qualitative research—its inductive, open-ended approach, its reliance on textual or visual rather than numerical data, its primary goal of particular understanding rather than generalization across persons and settings—as due to these three main features of qualitative inquiry. (For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see Maxwell, 2011b.)


1. Some qualitative practitioners prefer the term “inquiry” to “research,” seeing the latter as too closely associated with a quantitative or positivist approach. I agree with their concerns (see Maxwell, 2004a, b), and I understand that some types of qualitative inquiry are more humanistic than scientific, but I prefer to argue for a broader definition of “research” that includes a range of qualitative approaches.

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