Sunday, 24 January 2016

What makes good quality qualitative research for me?

The first readings I had to complete for my first EdD weekend all revolved around the concept of the validity of research. How do we measure (if indeed we can?) what “good” qualitative research is? There were a range of viewpoints, depending on the philosophical and methodological viewpoints of the authors. I could see that each made sense in its own context. However, I didn’t really have any background understanding to critique the ideas adequately, and nor did I then know which way my own research would take me.

Since then, I’ve made the decision to use IPA, and feel comfortable with the relationship between this and my own views on truth and knowledge. I’ve been thinking back as to how I can ensure the quality of the research I am about to undertake. In my quantitative research past, I’ve been concerned over methods, statistics, reproducibility etc. But now, as they say, for something completely different.

Smith and the other IPA stalwarts discuss quality, but in my limited timescale and support for this small scale research, use of other people to determine whether my interpretations are appropriate is not possible. I’ve seen several papers mention Yardley (2000) in relation to quality, so I’ve had a look at her paper. Her thoughts are interesting and relevant, and above all, achievable in my timescale.

Yardley, L. (2000). Dilemmas in qualitative health research. Psychology and Health, 15(2), 215-228.

The suggested reason for the increase in the use of qualitative methodologies (QMs) in health psychology is that it provides a detailed exploration of the experiences of the participant. Yardley clearly identifies that these are true methodologies, with differing underlying assumptions, rather than just a proliferation of methods of data collection and analysis.

The author highlights the reason for the paper as to how to evaluate qualitative research. She suggests that there is a gap in the understanding of how to evaluate qualitative studies in accredited health psychology. Yardley identifies that qualitative research is defined as ‘not quantitative’, rather than the diverse range of qualitative methodologies having a unified definition. Even within a single tradition, such as phenomenology, there is diversity in its assumptions and approaches.

Yardley suggests that it is the very subjectivity allowed by qualitative work that leads to it being used so extensively. However, because meaning is constructed and negotiate between researcher and participant, the imposition of set criteria for truth would restrict the construction of knowledge and could prejudice particular groups who subscribe to alternative criteria for truth. Therefore, a standardised procedure for performing qualitative methodologies cannot be entertained.

There is a concern in the field of health psychology that QMs most closely resembling quantitative methodologies are gaining precedence over other methods because of familiarity in terms of quality and measurements/assessments of validity. Another concern is a tendency to be drawn towards those methodologies providing a framework within which to complete research, leading to isolated methodologies without the flexibility to understand the benefits of other approaches.

This is something which does niggle away at me. I’m not really fully sure why I chose IPA as a methodology. It seemed ‘right’ for the question I wanted to answer. However, I do wonder whether I am drawn to it because, compared to other methodologies, it seems to provide a ‘process’ through which to work. The guidelines are broad and inclusive, but nevertheless, perhaps I am clinging to the set procedures of quantitative research. Perhaps in later work I should explore some in more detail other areas of phenomenology such as van Manen.

Yardley discusses the issue of quality control, suggesting that we cannot apply quantitative standards of quality, such as representative sampling, reliability and replicability, to QMs. These would be unlikely to be achievable and may also not be desirable. She believes that structured coding and interpretation fashioned by rules means that there is a loss of nuance in the rich data provided by QMs. Nevertheless, a means of ascertaining the quality of qualitative research is needed, so that the work can be judged accordingly.

The author identifies what she believes are four characteristics of good quality research, along with some examples of how these can be achieved. The four characteristics are:

1.       Sensitivity to context;

2.       Commitment and rigour;

3.       Transparency and coherence;

4.       Impact and importance.

Yardley suggests these characteristics but stresses that they are not meant to be applied rigidly. Indeed in order to be useable in a range of QMs they must be flexible.

Sensitivity to context:

The author acknowledges the vital aspect of context within qualitative research. However, whilst it is important to have an understanding of related theories and relevant literature, this knowledge must not cloud the researcher’s interpretation of the data. Areas of divergence from theory must be sufficiently explored, as well as those data which do link the specific study to more abstract theories and generalisations discussed in previous research.

The social and cultural context of participants and researchers must also be considered. Contextualisation of findings can shed new light on meanings. The social context of the data gathering needs to be considered including the shared understandings and conversations between researcher and participant and consideration of the researcher’s position in relation to the participant is vital.

A concern for the perceived power imbalance between researcher and participant is required. Whilst some QMs seek the viewpoint of the participants on the researcher’s interpretations to determine the ‘truth’ of the interpretation (perhaps an example of this is the Patricia Hill Collins reading from week 1), it must be remembered that the opinions of the participant should not over-ride the academic independence of the researcher.


Commitment is suggested through the longer-term involvement of the researcher with the topic being researched, as well as an appropriate ability in the methodology of research and immersion within the data.


This is, Yardley suggests, indicated by the completeness of the data analysis and a sufficient amount of data collection. This will vary depending on the chosen methodology – grounded theory will require more participants than IPA. Within phenomenological research, there should be sufficient depth of interpretation, not just surface level analysis.

Transparency and coherence:

This explores the persuasiveness of the research in constructing a reality. Another area to consider to provide coherence is whether the research question and the philosophical underpinnings of the research are appropriate.

Transparency is achieved through thorough documentation of the process of data collection and analysis and provision of rich data, that is, extensive excerpts. Within IPA, it’s my understanding that this is at least in part provided by the tables of themes and annotated transcripts produced as part of the analysis process. Reflexivity is also needed to demonstrate transparency – identifying the experiences and motivations which underlie the research.

Impact and importance:

The impact of the research is a key factor in determining its value. The value may be theoretical but may also have a wider impact within other fields. There may also be a socio-cultural impact to the research. Yardley suggests that an advantage for QMs in health research is their close link to practice. This would, presumably, be similar within educational research.

Yardley concludes by stressing the importance of integrity in QM, whilst taking into account the diversity of these methodologies.

Further reading?

Stern (1997) Strategies for overcoming the rage of rejection. In Morse (ed.), Completing a qualitative project: details and dialogue (pp. 135-145). This covers how to get over editors rejecting work for publication. Its relevance is, perhaps, stressing that you need to clearly demonstrate to the reviewer/reader how you expect your research to be measured against concepts of quality. If you're explicit, there's less room for misunderstanding.