Naturalistic Inquiry

Lynne E F McKechnie. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Editor: Lisa M Given. Sage Publications, 2008.

Naturalistic inquiry focuses research endeavors on how people behave in natural settings while engaging in life experiences. This type of inquiry stems from the naturalistic paradigm that situates itself opposite the positivist paradigm. The naturalistic paradigm, or naturalism, makes specific claims about epistemology (i.e., how one comes to know), ontology (i.e., the nature of human existence), and axiology (i.e., one’s values) that influence naturalistic inquiry.

Characteristics of Naturalistic Inquiry

There are several characteristics fundamental to naturalistic inquiry. One value central to naturalistic inquiry is that reality is multiple and socially constructed. The concept of multiple realities resists the notion that the truth of human experience is out there waiting for researchers to discover it. Reality is subjective rather than objective. Subjective and multiple realities are possible because all knowledge is socially constructed. The concept of social construction places emphasis on human interaction, and the context in which those interactions occur, as the basis for how one comes to know or understand phenomena. Researchers cannot understand human behavior outside of its context or natural environment such as village life, organizations, night clubs, and classrooms. In addition, the researcher, the people under investigation, and the setting influence each other; thus, no explicit distinction exists between the researcher and the researched. The lack of a distinct boundary between the investigator and informants acknowledges the implicit and explicit influence researchers have on the setting. The relationship between the researcher and the object of inquiry (which includes the people and the context) are interdependent, thus influencing observations and findings.

The relationships between the researcher, research participants, and context inhibit value-free, neutral, or unbiased inquiry. In addition, other preexisting factors contribute to the value-laden nature of research, such as personal experience and interest in a particular topic, because they will shape researchers’ understanding of phenomenon. Naturalistic inquiry is value bound because paradigmatic and theoretical choices guiding inquiry dictate the methods used for data collection, analysis, and interpretation of findings.

Conducting Naturalistic Inquiry

Naturalistic inquiry is based on the notion that context is essential for understanding human behavior, and acquiring knowledge of human experience outside of its natural context is not possible. Conducting research in participants’ natural environments is essential. Researchers must meet participants where they are, in the field, so that data collection occurs while people are engaging in their everyday practices. Research conducted in the field allows investigators to observe participants in action in an effort to obtain a more complete understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. During the process of engaging in naturalistic inquiry, the researcher becomes the instrument for collecting data. Human beings as data collecting instruments are necessary because only humans can gather and evaluate the meaning of complex interactions. Attending to these processes in the field is necessary because the complexity of human interaction is available only in the settings of everyday life, not in a controlled laboratory setting or through created instruments.

Conducting naturalistic inquiry is an inductive and emergent process where researchers build upon and ground their findings in the data collected. The process of conducting naturalistic research, including study design, emerges from experiences in the field while an investigator is actively engaged in inquiry because human phenomena and action cannot be predicted. Thus, observations in the field will influence and promote changes to a study’s design. Researchers entering the field intent on studying a specific behavior may find another type of interaction worthy of investigation. Although study design is inductive and changes as research progresses, strategic planning is necessary for successful inquiry.

Selecting a Site

Selecting a site or multiple sites for investigation should involve purposive or deliberate sampling to ensure that participants have direct experience with the issues or topics under examination. This type of sampling increases the breadth and depth of data collected. There are several techniques for identifying sites for studying human behavior within its natural context. Researchers can study locations to which they already have access and familiarity or seek out unknown settings where gaining access or entry requires permission from the party or parties with the authority to grant access. Once access is granted to an unfamiliar scene or a researcher decides to enter a context in which she or he is a member, the researcher must then engage the various methods she or he will use to collect data systematically.

Data Collection

Naturalistic inquiry employs several qualitative methods for data collection because these approaches capture the complex nuances of human experience. Naturalistic researchers can use ethnography, ethnomethodology, critical ethnography, or autoethnography to conduct naturalistic inquiries. Each of these methodologies includes some type of observation. Researchers complete this observation in the roles of participant-observer, complete participant, observer-participant, or complete observer. The site of field research, including any restraints against how data are recorded, dictates the type of role a researcher uses and will determine a researcher’s level of immersion in the scene. Researchers record observations from the field in the form of fieldnotes. Not all scenes allow investigators to take notes while simultaneously engaging in observation. In these instances, researchers record observations as soon as possible after leaving the field. Experiences are recorded in fieldnotes chronologically. Fieldnotes should describe observations in significant detail, incorporating interactions between and with participants. Fieldnotes include researchers’ impressions, thoughts, and feelings about exchanges. To supplement field-notes, researchers may conduct in-depth interviews with participants. Individuals who can provide the observer with additional insight or historical knowledge about the scene are ideal for in-depth interviews in naturalistic inquiries. Researchers complete the research and leave the scene when observations yield no new information or when observations become redundant (this state is also known as theoretical saturation).


Explaining one or more aspects of human behavior is the goal of analysis in naturalistic research. Researchers conduct inductive analysis during the data collection process and after leaving the scene use grounded theory and the constant comparative method. This approach allows researchers to situate their findings in the data. Context-specific hypotheses emerge from these findings, and although not generalizable to large populations, propositions are applicable to specific settings and often offer some insight into different but similar settings.


Naturalistic researchers select methods of reporting that allow detailed description of the constructed multiple realities gleaned from the setting. There are three common methods for writing up the case: realist, confessional, and impressionist tales. Written in a distant third-person voice, realist tales place emphasis on the participants’ experiences. Alternatively, confessional tales are first-person accounts of a researcher’s experience in the field. Impressionist tales take greater artistic license than either realist or confessional tales to bring the reader into an unfolding narrative of the field experience. Other methods for reporting findings, such as performance and photography, are also available for presenting findings.

Issues of generalizability, validity, and reliability are raised during the reporting stage of the naturalistic research process, although researchers may receive inquiries from participants and interested others about these issues during all phases of the study. Objectivity, prediction, and control are three of the goals of scientific research; however, they are not the focus of naturalistic inquiry because of the epistemological orientation of naturalism. Claims about cause and effect as they relate to human experience are not an aim of naturalistic inquiry. Thickly describing observed phenomena and illustrating the multiple realities of a scene take precedence. When qualitative researchers, including those who conduct naturalistic inquiry, use the term generalizability, they are referring to the ability to identify common patterns in human interactions rather than to making broad assertions about large populations; some researchers refer to this concept as transferability. How research is conducted and reported answers questions about the validity and reliability (other-wise known as dependability or credibility) of a study. The writing up of research should resonate with participants, reflecting their experiences. Successful reporting of findings from naturalistic inquiry will resonate with participants. Researchers also reveal their positionality for participants and audiences, giving readers insight into the investigator’s personal experiences and biases, increasing the ethos of interpretations.

Ethical Issues

The ethical issues of conducting naturalistic inquiry are vast and are in constant need of negotiation throughout the research process. In addition to gaining access and receiving the proper approval from a researcher’s ethics review board, investigators should seek approval to conduct research from participants. However, researchers should view their ethical responsibilities as only partially complete when they receive informed consent in writing from participants. As the research study design emerges and as changes are made to accommodate these developments, researchers should inform participants. Revisiting the issue of consent throughout a project is important as a researcher gains the trust of participants and personal relationships develop. In addition to protecting the privacy and confidentiality of participants and informants, researchers negotiate the ethics of conducting naturalistic research by returning to the field to share findings and interpretations with participants.


The goal of naturalistic inquiry is to describe and understand human behavior as it occurs in its natural contexts. The naturalistic paradigm that influences inquiry makes several claims about how researchers make sense of human interactions. Naturalistic researchers understand reality as multiple and socially constructed and therefore subjective. Context interacts with human experience to create and shape human reality. Separating knowledge from its natural context is impossible. In order to understand human phenomena, researchers must enter the environments of the people or phenomena they seek to understand. Working in the scene or field links the researcher with the researched; they are inseparable and influence researchers’ understanding of what they observe and how those observations are interpreted. Value-free inquiry is not possible because the researchers cannot separate their experiences from what they observe in the field. No researcher is neutral. These tenets of naturalistic inquiry influence how research is conducted and dictate the types of claims a researcher may make about human phenomena.

Several qualitative methodologies fall under the naturalistic umbrella. These methodologies rely primarily on some form of participant observation, making the human researcher the instrument of data collection. Researchers need to purposively select the participants and scene necessary to respond to their interest in a topic or issue. Once in the field, researchers take fieldnotes documenting their observations. In addition to collecting data in the field, researchers may also conduct in-depth interviews with informants to substantiate or supplement observations. Research is collected until theoretical saturation is reached.

Although situated in observations, study designs in naturalistic inquiry are emergent because human phenomena are unpredictable. In addition, this approach allows researchers the flexibility necessary to make adjustments to the focus of observations. Analysis of data uses grounded theory, allowing researchers to situate findings and interpretation of those findings in the data. Findings are reported in a format that is conducive for describing human behavior in rich terms. Interpretations of findings should represent the experience of participants. Therefore, reports of a study’s findings should resonate with participants. Resonance should not, however, compromise ethics in a naturalistic study. The spirit of naturalistic inquiry requires researchers to pay special attention to their human subjects to gain understanding of human interactions and behavior while maintaining ethical mandates like confidentiality and privacy, be they institutional or relational.