Reliability, in the sense of being able to obtain identical findings from repeated executions of a qualitative research design, is debatable. Validity, however, is another matter. Validity, in the sense of whether the qualitative researcher is collecting the information (data) he or she claims to be gathering (i.e., the accuracy of the data), is a topic worthy of much more discussion in the research community, or at the least a greater emphasis in our qualitative research designs. While qualitative researchers may not be able to replicate their studies, they surely have the means to consider the authenticity of the data.
There was a Research Design Review post back in 2010 that discussed the importance and appropriateness of validity in qualitative research, including the idea that there are ready-made techniques for looking at validity in qualitative research and that, in some ways, validity is already built into our research methods. To illustrate how qualitative researchers typically incorporate validity into their research, the 2010 post offered this example:
The focus group moderator has control of question administration by the fact that questions can be probed for clarification and mis-(or unintended) interpretations of questions can be unearthed on the spot. This ability enables the researcher to realize the true meaning of questions asked, understand the alternative interpretations, and thereby add greater veracity and transparency into the design.
This, of course, is just one example. There are other ways in which qualitative researchers have the ability to validate outcomes, such as:
- “Member checking” – The ethnographer interviews individuals subsequent to an observation to help explain observational data; or the narrative researcher shares his or her interpretation of the story with the narrator to judge its accuracy against the narrator’s intent.
- Triangulation – The data resulting from a series of in-depth interviews are reviewed alongside the outcomes from focus groups conducted on the same subject matter and with the same research objective.
- Peer review – The researcher provides the transcripts from an online bulletin board study with a knowledgeable colleague and asks for an independent interpretation of the data.
- Deviant case analysis – The case study researcher examines the data from the multiple methods used to investigate the case with an eye on particular outcomes that refute or otherwise contradict the prevailing findings.
It would be a step forward if the notion of validity – the specific measures to explore it and the effect this effort has on the quality of the research – was a regular ingredient in qualitative research designs and the proposals written for funding. Qualitative research is complex and messy, but that does not mean that we cannot show the true colors of our outcomes by way of the many validation techniques at our disposal.