There is no one qualitative method, but rather a number of research approaches which fall under the umbrella of ‘qualitative methods’. The various social science disciplines tend to have different conventions on best practice in qualitative research. However SS&M has prepared the following general guidance for the writing and assessment of papers which present qualitative data (either alone or in combination with quantitative methods). General principles of good practice for all research will also apply.
Fitness for purpose
Are the methods of the research appropriate to the nature of the question(s) being asked, i.e.
- Does the research seek to understand social processes or social structures &/or to illuminate subjective experiences or meanings?
- Are the settings, groups or individuals being examined of a type which cannot be pre-selected, or the possible outcomes not specified (or hypothesised) in advance?
Methodology and methods
- All papers must include a dedicated methods section which specifies, as appropriate, the sample recruitment strategy, sample size, and analytical strategy.
Principles of selection
Qualitative research is often based on or includes non-probability sampling. The unit(s) of research may include one or a combination of people, events, institutions, samples of natural behaviour, conversations, written and visual material, etc.
- The selection of these should be theoretically justified e.g. it should be made clear how respondents were selected
- There should be a rationale for the sources of the data (e.g respondents/participants, settings, documents)
- Consideration should be given to whether the sources of data (e.g people, organisations, documents) were unusual in some important way
- Any limitations of the data should be discussed (such as non response, refusal to take part)
The research process
In most papers there should be consideration of
- The access process
- How data were collected and recorded
- Who collected the data
- When the data were collected
- How the research was explained to respondents/participants
- Details of formal ethical approval (i.e. IRB, Research Ethics Committee) should be stated in the main body of the paper. If authors were not required to obtain ethical approval (as is the case in some countries) or unable to obtain attain ethical approval (as sometimes occurs in resource-poor settings) they should explain this. Please anonymise this information as appropriate in the manuscript, and give the information when asked during submission.
- Procedures for securing informed consent should be provided
Any ethical concerns that arose during the research should be discussed.
The process of analysis should be made as transparent as possible (notwithstanding the conceptual and theoretical creativity that typically characterises qualitative research). For example
- How was the analysis conducted
- How were themes, concepts and categories generated from the data
- Whether analysis was computer assisted (and, if so, how)
- Who was involved in the analysis and in what manner
- Assurance of analytic rigour. For example
- Steps taken to guard against selectivity in the use of data
- Inter-rater reliability
- Member and expert checking
- The researcher’s own position should clearly be stated. For example, have they examined their own role, possible bias, and influence on the research (reflexivity)?
Presentation of findings
Consideration of context
The research should be clearly contextualised. For example
- Relevant information about the settings and respondents/participants should be supplied
- The phenomena under study should be integrated into their social context (rather than being abstracted or de-contextualised)
- Any particular/unique influences should be identified and discussed
Presentation of data:
- Quotations, field notes, and other data where appropriate should be identified in a way which enables the reader to judge the range of evidence being used
- Distinctions between the data and their interpretation should be clear
- The iteration between data and explanations of the data (theory generation) should be clear
- Sufficient original evidence should be presented to satisfy the reader of the relationship between the evidence and the conclusions (validity)
- There should be adequate consideration of cases or evidence which might refute the conclusions
Amended February 2010
Unlike positivist or experimental research that utilizes a linear and one-directional sequence of design steps, there is considerable variation in how a qualitative research study is organized. In general, qualitative researchers attempt to describe and interpret human behavior based primarily on the words of selected individuals [a.k.a., “informants” or “respondents”] and/or through the interpretation of their material culture or occupied space. There is a reflexive process underpinning every stage of a qualitative study to ensure that researcher biases, presuppositions, and interpretations are clearly evident, thus ensuring that the reader is better able to interpret the overall validity of the research. According to Maxwell (2009), there are five, not necessarily ordered or sequential, components in qualitative research designs. How they are presented depends upon the research philosophy and theoretical framework of the study, the methods chosen, and the general assumptions underpinning the study.
Describe the central research problem being addressed but avoid describing any anticipated outcomes. Questions to ask yourself are: Why is your study worth doing? What issues do you want to clarify, and what practices and policies do you want it to influence? Why do you want to conduct this study, and why should the reader care about the results?
Questions to ask yourself are: What do you think is going on with the issues, settings, or people you plan to study? What theories, beliefs, and prior research findings will guide or inform your research, and what literature, preliminary studies, and personal experiences will you draw upon for understanding the people or issues you are studying? Note to not only report the results of other studies in your review of the literature, but note the methods used as well. If appropriate, describe why earlier studies using quantitative methods were inadequate in addressing the research problem.
Usually there is a research problem that frames your qualitative study and that influences your decision about what methods to use, but qualitative designs generally lack an accompanying hypothesis or set of assumptions because the findings are emergent and unpredictable. In this context, more specific research questions are generally the result of an interactive design process rather than the starting point for that process. Questions to ask yourself are: What do you specifically want to learn or understand by conducting this study? What do you not know about the things you are studying that you want to learn? What questions will your research attempt to answer, and how are these questions related to one another?
Structured approaches to applying a method or methods to your study help to ensure that there is comparability of data across sources and researchers and, thus, they can be useful in answering questions that deal with differences between phenomena and the explanation for these differences [variance questions]. An unstructured approach allows the researcher to focus on the particular phenomena studied. This facilitates an understanding of the processes that led to specific outcomes, trading generalizability and comparability for internal validity and contextual and evaluative understanding. Questions to ask yourself are: What will you actually do in conducting this study? What approaches and techniques will you use to collect and analyze your data, and how do these constitute an integrated strategy?
In contrast to quantitative studies where the goal is to design, in advance, “controls” such as formal comparisons, sampling strategies, or statistical manipulations to address anticipated and unanticipated threats to validity, qualitative researchers must attempt to rule out most threats to validity after the research has begun by relying on evidence collected during the research process itself in order to effectively argue that any alternative explanations for a phenomenon are implausible. Questions to ask yourself are: How might your results and conclusions be wrong? What are the plausible alternative interpretations and validity threats to these, and how will you deal with these? How can the data that you have, or that you could potentially collect, support or challenge your ideas about what’s going on? Why should we believe your results?
Although Maxwell does not mention a conclusion as one of the components of a qualitative research design, you should formally conclude your study. Briefly reiterate the goals of your study and the ways in which your research addressed them. Discuss the benefits of your study and how stakeholders can use your results. Also, note the limitations of your study and, if appropriate, place them in the context of areas in need of further research.
Chenail, Ronald J. Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. Nova Southeastern University; Heath, A. W. The Proposal in Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report 3 (March 1997); Marshall, Catherine and Gretchen B. Rossman. Designing Qualitative Research. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999; Maxwell, Joseph A. "Designing a Qualitative Study." In The SAGE Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods. Leonard Bickman and Debra J. Rog, eds. 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009), p. 214-253; Qualitative Research Methods. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Yin, Robert K. Qualitative Research from Start to Finish. 2nd edition. New York: Guilford, 2015.