Theory and Practice

Qualitative approaches use words, pictures, drawings and activities to understand the embodied experiences of people. They help us under “why” and the “how” behind the quantitative numbers.

For GESI, qualitative approaches are crucial to drawing out the lived experience of the marginalised.

They are especially useful in exploring the experiences of excluded peoples and therefore useful for Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) related to Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) outcomes. 

Many GESI related aspects such as taboos, norms, cultural issues and the experiences of individuals are difficult to quantify or count and are often best explored through storytelling or other qualitative tools. These aspects also require careful attention to avoid harm.

By placing participants in the driving seat, qualitative methods can expand our understanding and enrich our viewpoints.

Explore key definitions in the glossary.



How do I select between quantitative or qualitative approaches?

Often is best not to choose one approach, but to use a variety of strategies. However, it is important to understand what each type of approach can explore.

Mixing quantitative and qualitative strategies can create a richer analysis.


Are qualitative approaches trustworthy?

Quantitative and qualitative strategies also have different expressions of quality.

Quantitative studies aim for scientific rigour, while qualitative studies aim for trustworthiness. This includes aspects such as credibility, dependability, confirmability and transferability. It also includes reflexivity where evaluators reflect on their own engagement.

Just like with quantitative MEL, good qualitative MEL has strong documentation, multiple people, good engagement with other similar research and clear evidence.

Good, quality MEL is defined through four principles which can be applied to both qualitative and quantitative strategies:

  • truth value (are the conclusions accurate)
  • consistency (is the evidence clear)
  • neutrality (does the evidence look at both sides)
  • applicability (can the conclusions be applied for other applications)

How can my team foster trustworthy qualitative MEL?

Proper planning, documentation and collaboration are all tools to strengthen qualitative research.

Planning Checklist

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Integrity Checklist

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Do-no-harm Strategy

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Qualitative approaches can be used in four different ways for monitoring and evaluation.

Retrospective studies ask individuals to reflect back on their lives. Such studies can be done at any time throughout a project.

Longitudinal studies follow individuals throughout the study, engaging with them multiple times.

Before and after (also known as pre- and post-test) studies engage with individuals both before and after an intervention.

Comparative studies use a ‘control’ group in order to contrast impacts for individuals who experience an intervention with those who don’t.

Learn more

Learn more about qualitative approaches in this webinar series.

Thematic Analysis

In this webinar, we explore three methods of qualitative data analysis and discuss practical tips.


Questions and Opportunities

This is the second of three webinars focused on qualitative MEL (monitoring, evaluation and learning) within the Water for Women fund.

In this webinar we explore:

  • Concerns and questions about qual MEL (3:26)
  • Curated methods (30:00)

Introduction to Qualitative MEL

This is the first of three webinars focused on qualitative MEL (monitoring, evaluation and learning) within the Water for Women fund.

In this webinar we explore:

  • Results from the needs assessment (5:24)
  • Introduction to qualitative MEL (18:12)
  • 5 Tips and Tricks for remote MEL (43:15)

Glossary and Acronyms

  • Approaches – Within this website, we refer to approaches as overarching strategies that shape MEL. The tools, techniques and methods sit under the overall approach (or methodology) that has been chosen (for example, card sorting as a tool for Q-Methodology)
  • Change Agents – Change agents can include government, private sector and civil society actors, including either groups or individuals. These actors are sometimes called ‘boundary partners’ in other M&E terminology (DFAT 2017). This is separate from beneficiaries/end users who are often covered in our MEL strategies.
  • Domain – Within this website, we refer to domains as broad research themes related to GESI outcomes. For example decision making, participation or voice.
  • Evaluation – The systematic periodic assessment of progress to determine the worth, value and merit of Fund progress and performance towards project outcomes and goals.
  • GEDSI – Gender Equality and Social Inclusion. This acronym is used to describe aspects of development programming which focuses on creating social change around gender and social inequalities.
  • MEL – Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. This acronym is used within development programming to describe the process of assessing and applying findings. It focuses on improving interventions through information. Other teams use the acronyms MEAL (which adds accountability) or M&E (which does not explicitly include learning).
  • Methods Within this website, we refer to methods as the ways in which research is being conducted. For example interviews, focus groups, transect walks or workshops.
  • Monitoring –  The continuous and systematic collection and analysis of data.
  • Techniques – Within this website, we refer to techniques as the ways in which research can be done. For example card sorting, participatory activities and generating insights.
  • ToC – Theory of Change. A ToC is an explanation of the changes that your organisation (or a project) wants to make in the world, and the logical steps that you plan to take to get there. It is a way of clearly identifying the assumptions that are made related to how change happens. For example, assuming that a person will act in a certain way in response to your influence, or that a community will take up an initiative.
  • Tools – Within this website, we refer to tools as both digital and physical items that support research. For example digital analysis platforms, cards, and checklists.
  • WASH – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. This acronym is used within international development to describe the sector which focuses on improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene.

Recommended Reading

Research Design

Data Collection