The goal of qualitative research is to gain a deep understanding of a situation or organization rather than to gather and analyze numeric and predictive information. According to research design expert Professor John W. Cresswell, during qualitative research you are seeking to discover, explore, identify or describe. You are not seeking to prove, influence, relate or measure (see reference 1, synthesis of slides 14, 16, 17).

The Problem

To find a topic, start by looking for a problem. It’s not enough to decide you want to write about “clean eating,” you need to identify a problem, such as “How do people choose what to eat?” or “Why won’t grocery stores carry more organic food?” Identifying your overriding question will help you focus and develop your hypothesis and research questions. You also must be able to express why it is important to have an answer to your overriding question (see reference 2, page 451). This is the development of your purpose statement and rationale.

Your Passion

What are you passionate about? Where would you like to make a difference? You are going to spend a lot of time doing a qualitative study. Choosing a topic you care about will keep you interested and could result in you making a difference where it matters to you. You might want to consider action research where you work, which is designed to change professional practice in order to solve a problem or improve organizational operations (see reference 4) .


Considering the settings available to you is another way to select a topic. To what places do you have convenient and regular access? What places will you be able to get permission from participants? If you want to answer a research question by observing people, where can you go where you will not be noticed? If you want to interview people, where can you go where you can easily approach people without disruption and within the regulations of the setting? Your topic is only as good as the setting.


In order to study people, you have to gain their permission after thoroughly advising them of such things as who you are, how you will keep their responses confidential, and what happens if they want to quit. You also have to get approval from your university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB increases its scrutiny, and therefore the timeline, if you are using subjects from a protected class: children (unless in a school where only normal education practices will be used), prisoners (even data collected by someone else), pregnant women, fetuses, cognitively impaired persons and mentally disabled persons (see reference 3). If time is a consideration for you, avoid subjects from the protected classes.