How do you determine the research design


1. To research means to decide

Research processes are the result of a wide variety of decisions that have to be made again and again in the planning of projects, but especially during their implementation:

What is my research question?
On the basis of which people, groups, institutions, places, situations can the question be examined?
With which survey instruments can it be answered? (Interviews, group discussion procedures, participant observation, etc.)
How do I develop my data collection tools? (Interview guidelines, group discussion stimuli, observation focuses)
What kind of data documentation do I use? (Transcription systems / revision of observation protocols)
How do I evaluate my data? (reconstructive / content analysis)
How do I present results? (case reconstructive / contrasting / thematic / narrative)
How can I draw the connecting lines between empiricism and theory?

It is not uncommon for the willingness to revise an initially made decision in the course of the data collection - for example by reformulating guideline questions or using other methods - to a specific quality. The decision-making processes in qualitative social research are more circular than linear. Above all, this should avoid an attitude in which what does not fit is made to fit.

2. Three strategies for making relevant decisions

Good research decisions are tied to the central quality criterion of "appropriateness of the subject matter". For researchers, this means that they constantly grapple with self-critical questions: Am I doing justice to the subject of my research? Are my chosen survey instruments appropriate for the research field? Am I imposing something on the field with the methodology used that does not correspond to its 'natural' appearance? Does my role as a researcher make sense for everyone present and does it fit into the usual processes? Does the applied evaluation access allow me the necessary openness to understand the interpretations of my respondents?

2.1 Early in the 'field'

To many researchers, the goal of proceeding in a manner appropriate to the subject appears like squaring the circle. After all, the urgently needed knowledge about the field must first be gathered in order to derive well-founded, subject-appropriate decisions. It is all the more important to get an impression of the research field through literature, preliminary discussions, and first observations in exploratory settings before defining and realizing the research design (Przyborski / Wohlrab-Sahr 2014, 39-40). For a planned study in which the professional understanding of employees of open child and youth welfare is to be examined, it can be helpful as a researcher in one of the youth centers to first get an idea of ​​the everyday encounters and activities there. The leading question is always concisely formulated by the ethnologist Clifford Geertz: "What the hell is going on?" (Geertz). So to ask yourself with a strange look: "What the hell is going on here"? Get an impression of your research field early on and let yourself be inspired by the methods of participatory observation.

2.2 Be creative

Depending on what is actually going on, the institutions, locations, groups and individuals to be researched challenge us researchers to find creative ways of using methods. Ultimately, it is important to establish a rather complex fit between the researched group, the interest in knowledge, the methods used and the possible role of the researcher in the entire process. On the one hand, qualitative social research offers a spectrum of methodologically proven survey instruments that can be used; At the same time, it is important to deal with the fact that this is not a question of 'neutral' instruments, but that each of these approaches produces a certain type of result and thus forms a specific view of the object of investigation. This is another reason why triangulation, i.e. the combination of different methodological approaches, makes sense in larger-scale research projects in order to create multiple perspectives.

Precisely because there cannot be a 'blueprint' for the development of research designs, a number of examples are presented below for inspiration:

In order to understand the structures of a black ghetto, Loïc Wacquant subscribes to a radical form of participatory observation and for years sore his knuckles in a boxing club on Chicago's South Side (cf. Wacquant 2006/2009).

Nena Helfferich et al. In the survey of homeless women in the Freiburg area, they use so-called 'narrative maps', so they let the interviewees record when they are where in the city when they tell their stories, in order to be able to understand and visually map their social spatial use (cf. 2000).

For his research on the health care of people with gender-compliant appearances in medical contexts, Todd Sekuler interviewed doctors and trans * activists. Before each interview, he records his deliberately varying self-presentation in the form of a selfie in order to later reflect on his own approach to conforming behavior and gender-identifying clothing norms in terms of research ethics (cf. Sekuler 2014).

In her sociological analysis of love, Stephanie Bethmann does not work with couple or individual interviews, as is usual in this field, but consciously relies on the methodology of the group discussion process in order to track down the social context-relatedness of the supposed dyad structure of love relationships (Bethmann 2013).

2.3 Take irritation seriously

If the field access is barely successful, if the respondents speak hesitantly in interviews or if one repeatedly gets the impression in the participant observation that one has just missed the actually 'important' scene, this often leads to frustration for researchers. It is not uncommon for the time pressure to increase with qualification work and thus also the need to produce a useful result. Apparent disturbances and irritations in particular often provide central clues. Processes of misunderstanding between researcher and field often clarify implicit expectations on the part of the researcher, which otherwise remain unreflected. Jan Kruse demonstrates this vividly with a difficult interview situation in which the interviewer gives the initial impulse "Tell me how you met your current partner", whereupon the interviewee laboriously works on an explanation of how their arranged relative marriage came about instead of her story to be able to develop freely and without orientation to the norm of serial couple monogamy (cf. Kruse 2009). The reflective analysis of this introductory sequence provides the researcher with an important clue to her own assumptions of normality contained in the opening question. She can then reformulate her guideline and ask more appropriately, i.e. in this case more openly.

Basically, it is important to take irritations and disappointment of expectations seriously, not to hide them as undesirable disturbances, but to use them. If we are not surprised, irritated or alienated in research, that should even make us skeptical. If research only confirms what we already know to believe, we are probably over-familiar with our field of research and need to use more distancing strategies.


  • Bethmann, Stephanie 2013: Love. A sociological critique of togetherness. Juventa.
  • Kruse, Jan (2009): Qualitative Social Research - Read Intercultural: The Reflection of Self-Interpretation in the Act of Understanding Others [30 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Social Research / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 10 (1), Article 16, fqs0901162.
  • Przyborski, Aglaja / Wohlrab-Saar, Monika (2014): Qualitative social research. A work book. Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag.
  • Sekuler, Todd (2014): Deception and disappointment: on questions of self-presentation in ethnographic research. In: Hella von Unger / Petra Narimani / Rosaline M'Bayo: Research ethics in qualitative research. Reflexivity, perspectives, positions. Springer VS.
  • Wacquant, Loïc (2006): Body & soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wacquant, Loïc (2009): Chicago fade: Putting the researcher's body back into play. City, 13 (4), 510-516.


Article written by Debora Niermann (2017)


Niermann, Debora (2017). Develop research design. QUASUS. Qualitative method portal for qualitative social, teaching and school research. URL (