Phenomenology, grounded theory, or ethnography: which approach is best?

When considering which method of qualitative research to use, it really is the question that matters. Take the example: What is the experience of waiting for service in a hospital emergency room? Asking this will undoubtedly raise more unknowns than answers. We will frame the question three ways in order to fit phenomenology, grounded theory, and ethnography.
If we leave the it unchanged, the experience of waiting for service in a hospital emergency room (ER) is best suited for an approach such as phenomenology. This broad design probes people’s general experience and perceived meanings associated with phenomena (Smith, 2008). Knowing how people identify with waiting in the ER can provide researchers with data to improve hospital experiences.
There are three basic elements to phenomenology. The first is a process known as bracketing. Researchers must table their preconceived ideas in order to gain more representative views of other people’s perspectives and beliefs, which leads to the second second element of phenomenology known as intuiting. These two foundational principles enable collected data to be qualified through the third step, analyzing and describing. This is when the researcher categorizes and extracts significant meaning from an experience. Once variables of the experience are qualified, more specific methods of inquiry could be used. Two of these methods are grounded theory and ethnography.
The grounded theory is not suited for the general experience of waiting in an ER since it is geared toward accounting or understanding people’s actions in a scenario (Polit & Beck, 2012). If the question was framed: How do people cope with the experience of waiting for service in a hospital room, then the grounded theory could be used to identify coping mechanisms or people’s actions within the experience of waiting in the ER.
If the question was designed to identify the behaviors of a specific population, ethnography could be used. Ethnography is the evaluation of a specific culture’s framework within phenomena (Hoey, 2011). The data would be all over the place if we used the general population. A target population needs to be identified before using an ethnographic approach. Our country is the great melting pot, so the question would need restructuring. One example of an ethnographic approach could be: How do Amish people experience waiting for service in a hospital emergency room?
Phenomenology, grounded theory, and ethnography are all excellent research methods in their own right. It is the framing of the question that determines the method of inquiry and the ability to explain the silhouettes that shape our human experience.
Hoey, B. (2011). What is ethnography? Retrieved February 20, 2012 from
Polit, D. and Beck, C. (2012). Nursing research: Generating and assessing evidence for nursing practice [9th ed.]. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Smith, D. (2008). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Phenomenology. Retrieved February 20, 2012 from