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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 21  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 76-80

Quality in qualitative research: An overview

Professor, Sacred Heart Nursing College, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Date of Submission27-May-2020
Date of Decision07-Jun-2020
Date of Acceptance08-Jun-2020
Date of Web Publication14-Sep-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Devakirubai Earnest
Professor, Sacred Heart Nursing College, Madurai, Tamil Nadu
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/IJCN.IJCN_48_20

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The issues surrounding the quality of qualitative research are many, and there are different perspectives to the same. This has led to the proliferation of terminologies, criteria and frameworks to judge the quality, which causes confusion for novice qualitative researchers. This article highlights the following: (1) three issues in the quality of qualitative research (rigour and validity versus trustworthiness, generic standards versus tradition specific standards, and the process evaluation versus post hoc evaluation); (2) Lincoln and Guba's qualitative framework and (3) quality enhancement strategies.

Keywords: Qualitative research, quality, rigor

How to cite this article:
Earnest D. Quality in qualitative research: An overview. Indian J Cont Nsg Edn 2020;21:76-80

How to cite this URL:
Earnest D. Quality in qualitative research: An overview. Indian J Cont Nsg Edn [serial online] 2020 [cited 2022 Dec 6];21:76-80. Available from: https://www.ijcne.org/text.asp?2020/21/1/76/295045

  Introduction Top

The concern for quality always takes centre stage throughout the steps of any research. Increasing demand for qualitative research in recent years has increased the demand for demonstration of quality in qualitative research.[1] What constitutes quality in qualitative research has been the topic of debate for two to three decades and this has led to the proliferation of numerous terminologies, criteria, and frameworks.[2] Quality in qualitative research has always been a perplexing issue for novice qualitative researchers since there are innumerable articles on the same with different perspectives.[3] The purpose of this article is to present the issues surrounding the quality of qualitative research, an overview of different criteria and frameworks, and strategies to ensure rigor or trustworthiness in qualitative research.

  Quality in Qualitative Research Top

Despite numerous criteria and frameworks available to assess the quality of qualitative research, there is little consensus among researchers about what constitutes quality. For a long time, scholars across practice and social disciplines desired to define and categorise a qualitative study as good, valid, and/or trustworthy by describing the codifying techniques used for ensuring and recognising good studies. Despite all the efforts, they felt that no consensus could be achieved on quality criteria, and there was also a question of its need.[3] There are several distinct perspectives on the quality of qualitative research, according to Dingwall et al.,[4] and the three issues from this classic article will be addressed.

  • Arguments about rigor and validity versus trustworthiness
  • Qualitative criteria: Generic versus tradition specific standards
  • During the process versus post hoc evaluation.

  Arguments About Rigor and Validity Versus Trustworthiness Top

Rigor has its origin in quantitative research. 'Without rigor, research is worthless, becomes fiction and loses its utility'.[5] A major dispute has involved whether 'rigour' and 'validity' are appropriate to use in qualitative research. Some reject these concepts and terms totally, some think they are appropriate, and some look for parallel terms. Examples of terms that came up to replace validity and rigor are goodness, truth value, trustworthiness and integrity.

There are two classic articles on rigour in qualitative research.[6] In 1993 article, Sandelowski and Barroso [7] acknowledged that the term rigor could mean inflexibility and rigidity and that researchers should not be too preoccupied with it; she added that the choice was ours: whether to make rigor a rigor mortis or not. Indeed, excessive rigor may hinder creativity and artistry.[8] The use of the term validity in qualitative research was defended by others like Whitmore and Mandle [9] and Morse et al.[5] However, Sparks (2001) described four issues related to the use of validity in qualitative research. First, within a reflection perspective, validity is an appropriate term to use in qualitative and quantitative research; secondly, in a parallel perspective, validity assumes the development of separate criteria for qualitative enquiry. This resulted in the development of standards for 'trustworthiness' of qualitative research that parallels the term reliability and validity in quantitative research. Thirdly, diversification of meanings perspective, in which new forms of validity that do not have reference points in quantitative research are established; for example, 'catalytic validity' by Lather [10] in connection with critical and feminist research. Fourth, letting-go-of validity perspective, which involves a total abandonment of the concept of validity.

Currently, qualitative researchers prefer the term trustworthiness instead of rigor and validity. Trustworthiness in qualitative research means methodological soundness and adequacy.[11] Trustworthiness is defined as the degree of confidence that the researcher has that their qualitative data and findings are credible, transferable and dependable.[12] Barusch et al.[13] suggest that this term gives the qualitative researchers at least an opportunity to explain to others the credibility of their research.

  Qualitative Criteria: Generic Versus Tradition Specific Criteria Top

The literature review on the quality of qualitative research presents many perspectives in relation to criteria. The perspectives described by Rolfe [14] and others capture the essence of the ongoing debate on qualitative criteria and the main perspectives are:

  • Qualitative research can be judged by the same criteria used for quantitative research
  • Qualitative research should be judged using specific criteria designed for qualitative research
  • No predetermined criteria should be used to judge the quality of qualitative research
  • There should be tradition specific criteria to judge qualitative research, for example, Watson and Girard [15] proposed that quality standards must be 'congruent with the philosophical underpinnings supporting the research tradition endorsed' (p. 875) [Table 1].
Table 1: Examples of quality criteria used in assessing quantitative and qualitative research

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  During the Process Versus Post Hocevaluation Top

The third issue is whether the quality of qualitative research has to be evaluated during the inquiry process or at the end of the research. Detailed discussion on this issue is beyond the scope of this article.

Given the lack of consensus, and the heated debate supporting and contesting various frameworks, it is difficult to get definitive guidance. Hence, the following sections will present information about Lincoln and Guba's [16] classic framework and describe various strategies to enhance quality in qualitative research.

  Lincoln and Guba's Framework Top

Lincoln and Guba [16] suggested four criteria to ensure trustworthiness in qualitative research: credibility, dependability, confirmability, and transferability; these four criteria parallels the positivists' criteria of internal validity, reliability, objectivity, and external validity respectively. In 1994, Lincoln and Guba [16] added a fifth criterion called 'authenticity' that is unique to the constructivist paradigm. The meaning of each of the criteria is portrayed in [Table 2].
Table 2: Description of Lincoln and Guba's Quality Criteria

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  Quality Enhancement Strategies in Qualitative Inquiry Top

Regardless of the numerous criteria and confusion that exist in assessing the quality of qualitative research,various strategies have been proposed to enhance the quality of qualitative inquiry. They are: prolonged engagement, persistent observation, reflexivity strategies, member checking, triangulation, peer debriefing, audit or decision trail, inquiry audit, searching for confirming evidence, searching for disconfirming evidence and alternative explanations, thick description and researcher credibility.

  Prolonged Engagement Top

Investing sufficient time in collecting/generating qualitative data are called prolonged engagement, and this helps in ensuring in-depth understanding of the phenomenon, testing for misinformation and distortion, ensuring saturation of data thus avoiding premature closure, gaining entry in to the unknown, and in gaining trust and rapport. The authority and skill of the researcher is essential in eliciting the 'right kind' of data and prolonged engagement provides scope to the phenomenon being studied.[25]

  Persistent Observation Top

Persistent observation refers to the researcher's focus on the characteristics or aspects of a situation or a conversation that are relevant to the phenomenon being studied. Persistent observation is to identify those characteristics and elements in the situation that are most relevant to the problem or issue being pursued and focusing on them in detail. Persistent observation provides a depth of understanding of the 'salient factors'.[16]

  Reflexivity Top

The process of critical self-reflection or self-critical stance about oneself as researcher (own biases, preferences, preconceptions), and how the research relationship is established and maintained (relationship to the participant and how the relationship affects participants' answers to questions) is called reflexivity.[11] Reflexivity is ongoing through data collection, analysis, interpretation and write up. The methods by which reflexivity can be maintained is to maintain reflexive journal (recorded from the outset of the study and in an ongoing fashion) of the thoughts about the impact of previous life experiences and previous readings about the phenomenon under inquiry,[26] researchers being interviewed themselves,[27] and conduction of 'bracketing interview'-where the researcher enters the interview relationship with an open mind.[28]

  Member Checking Top

Member checking, also known as participant or respondent validation is a process in which the data or results are returned to participants to check for accuracy and meaning of their accounts and resonance of evolving concepts with their experience.[29] The specific purposes of this procedure are to find out whether the reality of the participants is presented, to provide opportunities for them to correct mistakes, to assess the researcher's understanding and interpretation of the data and to give the participants' the opportunity to challenge the ideas of the researcher. Member checking may also provide an opportunity for participants to have a reflection of experiences.[30]

  Audit Trail or Decision Trail Top

Lincoln and Guba developed the concept of an audit trail. An audit trail is the systematic and detailed record of the decisions made before and during the research and description of the research process; that is transparently describing the decisions taken from the start of a research project to the development and reporting of the findings.[11] An audit trail helps an inquiry auditor to come to conclusions about the data. Rodgers and Cowles [31] suggest four types of documentation in relation to an audit trail. Although published decades ago, the types are still referred to widely. They are: Contextual documents-contain excerpts from field notes of observation and interviewing, description of the setting, people and location; methodological documents – includes methodological decision-making and the rationale for these decisions; analytic documents – consist of reflections on the analysis of data and the theoretical insights gained; personal response documents – describe the thought process and demonstrate the self-awareness of the researcher.

  Enquiry Audit Top

An enquiry audit involves a scrutiny of the data and relevant supporting documents by an external reviewer; that is, having a researcher not involved in the research process examines both the process and product of the research study. The purpose is to evaluate the accuracy and evaluate whether or not the findings, interpretations and conclusions are supported by the data. After the audit trail materials are gathered, the inquiry auditor proceeds to audit, in a manner similar to financial audit, and this serves as a tool for persuading others that the qualitative findings are trustworthy.[25]

  Peer Review or Debriefing Top

Peer debriefing involves sessions with peers who are competent in qualitative research procedures to review, analyse and explore various aspects of the inquiry.[32] The following may be done in a peer debriefing session: Present written or oral summaries of the data, emergent categories or themes, interpretations of the data; taped interviews might be played; or transcripts given to read. Peer review helps in the detection of bias, inappropriate subjectivity, competing explanations, and appropriateness and completeness of theme detection and conceptualisation.[33]

  Thick Description Top

The thick description refers to a rich, thorough description of the research setting, and the transactions and processes observed during the inquiry. Thick description necessitates prolonged engagement and persistent observation. It involves the art of writing and rewriting.[11] Thorne and Darbyshire [34] cautioned against 'lachrymal validity' (reports that makes the readers shed tears) and reports that are 'bloodless' (reports that are superficially descriptive without application of inductive analysis). If there is to be transferability, sufficient information about context and data that explains the phenomenon should be provided by the researcher.[25]

  Searching for Disconfirming Evidence and Alternative Explanations Top

This is a powerful verification procedure and occurs at the intersection of data collection and data analysis. This involves a systematic search and critical analysis of data that will challenge the emerging categorisation or explanation. It means thinking about other possibilities. Data that confirm as well as those that challenge and disconfirm have to be examined. This happens through purposeful or theoretical sampling methods.[25] Lincoln and Guba [16] called it negative case analysis and the goal of this is to continuously refine the emerging categorization, thus the hypothesis and theory, until it fits all cases; Patton [35] also encourages a systematic exploration for rival themes and explanations.

  Researcher Credibility Top

In qualitative inquiry, data are mediated through the researchers who are not only the data collecting instruments but also the creators of the analytic process.[11] Therefore, it becomes essential to report researcher qualification, experience, and reflexivity in establishing confidence in the findings.[25],[35]

  Triangulation Top

Triangulation is a process by which the phenomenon or topic under study is examined from different perspectives or it is an approach to research that uses a combination of more than one research strategy in a single investigation.[11] Triangulation ensures completeness and consistency of data collected and confirms the findings of the research. The different types of triangulation, as discussed by Carter et al.[36] are summarised in [Table 3].
Table 3: Types of triangulation

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In addition to the above criteria, conducting high-quality research is not only about what researchers do to ensure rigor (e.g., methods and strategies) but includes who the researchers are. As Morse et al.[5] indicate, 'Research is only as good as the investigator' (p. 10). Researcher attributes that are important to conducting quality qualitative inquiry are commitment to transparency, commitment to thoroughness and diligence, commitment to verification, commitment to reflexivity, commitment to participant-driven enquiry and commitment to insightful interpretations.[25]

  Conclusion Top

Quality in qualitative research continues to evolve as the controversies continue. Whatever terms health researchers apply to establish the quality of their qualitative research, qualitative researchers have to demonstrate that their research has a truth value, and they should be consistent in the language, concepts and methods to achieve, demonstrate, and articulate the quality of their research. Quality is a responsibility.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3]


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  In this article
Quality in Quali...
Arguments About ...
Qualitative Crit...
During the Proce...
Lincoln and Guba...
Quality Enhancem...
Prolonged Engagement
Persistent Obser...
Member Checking
Audit Trail or D...
Enquiry Audit
Peer Review or D...
Thick Description
Searching for Di...
Researcher Credi...
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