Maxwell Qualitative Research Design: The Conceptual Framework

Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Chapter 3: Conceptual Framework: What Do You Think Is Going On?


  • "Your research problem functions (in combination with your goals) to justify your study, to show people why your research is important (p. 34)."
  • The literature review should not just summarize. It needs to contain literature that is relevant to your study. It is not a book report.
  • "In constructing a conceptual framework, your purpose is not only descriptive, but also critical; you need to understand (and clearly communicate in your proposal) what problems (including ethical problems) there have been with previous research and theory, what contradictions or holes you have found in existing views, and how your study can make an original contribution to our understanding (p. 35)."
  • "You need to treat 'the literature' not as an authority to be deferred to, but as a useful but fallible source of ideas about what's going on, and to attempt to see alternative ways of framing the issues (p. 35)."
  • Connecting with a Research Paradigm

    • Paradigm "...refers to a set of very general philosophical assumptions about the nature of the world (ontology) and how we can understand it (epistemology), assumptions that tend to be shared by researchers working in a specific field or tradition (p. 36)."
    • "Paradigms also typically include specific methodological strategies linked to these assumptions, and identify particular studies that are seen as exemplifying these assumptions and methods (p. 36)."
    • The research question helps to select the paradigm. If the two are in conflict, tension will persist in the study. Both need to be aligned.
  • Experiential Knowledge

    • "Separating your research from other aspects of your life cuts you off from a major source of insights, hypotheses, and validity checks (p. 38)."
    • Critical subjectivity, first termed by Reason (source not cited), refers to one's ability to acknowledge and honor subjectivity that is derived from personal experience. It should be treated as an asset rather than a detriment.
    • "Any view is a view from some perspective, and therefore is shaped by the location (social and theoretical) and 'lens' of the observer (p. 39)."
  • Prior Theory and Research

    • "It is a simplification of the world, but a simplification aimed at clarifying and explaining some aspect of how it works. Theory is a statement about what is going on with the phenomena that you want to understand (p. 42)."
  • The Uses of Existing Theory

    • Maxwell uses two analogies to describe theory - as a coat closet and as a spotlight.
    • Theory is a coat closet (p. 43).  Theory is like a coat closet because it gives you something on which you can "hang" your research.
    • Theory is a spotlight (p. 43).  Theory is like a spotlight because it highlights what you should see. "It draws your attention to particular events or phenomena, and sheds light on relationships that might otherwise go unnoticed or misunderstood (p. 43)."
    • Researchers need to use the literature. They should be constantly examining and re-examining how the literature is shaping or influencing their work. The converse is also true. Researchers need to examine and re-examine how their work is shaping the field.
  • Concept Maps

    • Resources for concept maps are Miles and Huberman 1994 and Strauss 1987.
    • "...a concept map of a theory is a visual display of that theory - a picture of what the theory says is going on with the phenomenon you're studying. These maps do not depict the study itself, nor are they a specific part of either a research design or a proposal (p. 47)."
    • "...concept mapping is a tool for developing the conceptual framework for your design... a concept map consists of two things: concepts and the relationships among these (p. 47)."
    • Concept maps make visible your implicit beliefs or theories. Concept maps can also help you develop theory because they make your thinking visible. They are a work in progress and need to be revisited throughout the study. 
    • When creating a concept map, be concrete and specific rather than abstract and general.
    • "Remember that a concept map is not an end in itself; it is a tool for developing theory and making that theory more explicit (p. 54)."
  • Other Uses of Existing Research
  • Pilot and Exploratory Studies

    • "One important use that pilot studies have in qualitative research is to develop an understanding of the concepts and theories held by the people you are studying - what is often called 'interpretation' (p. 58)."
  • Thought Experiments


  • Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
  • Reason, P. (1994). Three approaches to participative inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 324-339). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Schram, T. H. (2003).  Conceptualizing qualitative inquiry. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall. 
  • Strauss, A. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.