From the Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology: A Principled Approach to Research Design

The February 2017 issue of Qualitative Psychology,  the journal of the Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology (SQIP, a section of Division 5 of the American Psychological Association) starts off with an article titled “Recommendations for Designing and Reviewing Qualitative Research in Psychology: Promoting Methodological Integrity”  (Levitt, Motulsky, Wertz, Morrow, & Ponterotto, 2017). This paper is a report from the SQIP Task Force on Resources for the Publication of Qualitative Research whose purpose it is “to provide resources to support the design and evaluation of qualitative research” and, by way of this paper, offers “a systematic methodological framework that can be useful for reviewers and authors as they design and evaluate research projects” (p. 7).

Importantly, the “methodological framework” recommended by the authors is decidedly not a procedural playbook and not a checklist or a how-to guide. Giving researchers “rules” to follow by way of this or any other framework would be illogical for the simple reason that those who design and evaluate qualitative research do so across a variety of methods as well as from any number of paradigms or orientations, e.g., post-positivist, constructivist-interpretive, critical-ideological, phenomenological, pragmatic, and performative inquiry (Levitt, et al., 2017). Therefore, the generic model offered by the authors is appropriately respectful of the “diversity and complexities of qualitative research” while also encouraging researchers to embrace the inherent benefits – such as flexibility and multi-method solutions – of qualitative inquiry and deemphasizing a more restrictive method-centric approach to research design. In this way, the authors’ framework asks qualitative researchers to focus on the research question in the development and evaluation of qualitative research rather than any particular method.

The recommended framework is grounded in the concept of “methodological integrity” which pertains to the trustworthiness of a research study from the standpoint of methodological principles, including adherence to: the research goals, the researcher’s philosophical orientation or perspective, and the phenomenon under investigation. Methodological integrity consists of two functioning components: “fidelity to the subject matter” and “utility in achieving goals.” The area of fidelity considers how well variations in the subject matter have been captured in the research by way of comprehensive and diverse data sources that adequately reveal variations of a phenomenon, how well the researcher’s interpretations are derived from “good quality” data, and how well the researcher has reached out beyond his/her own perspective during the data collection and analysis processes. With respect to the latter, a recommended practice is reflexivity such as the use and reporting of the researcher’s reflexive journal.

The other component of the recommended framework is the utility of achieving goals. The concept of utility in this context has to do with such issues as: whether interpretations of the data are sufficiently contextualized (i.e., attention is given to the specific context – e.g., location, culture, time period – in which research findings, and variations in research findings, are based); whether the data collection process was maximized to foster insightful analyses (e.g., reducing the potential for interviewer bias); whether the findings extend “meaningful contributions” to the research goals or questions by, for example, challenging or expanding on current notions in the literature; and whether the researcher examined deviant cases or outliers in the data and discussed the sense making of research findings in this context.

In essence, the authors’ methodological framework is a principled approach that gives qualitative researchers a way to think carefully about the integrity of qualitative research data collection and analysis regardless of the method or the researcher’s “world view.” Similar to the Total Quality Framework (TQF), the SQIP task force has not provided a step-by-step prescription for how researchers should go about their research (or rules reviewers should follow when evaluating qualitative studies) but rather a foundation by which researchers can conceptualize and think about the trustworthiness of their research in terms of the quality aspects associated with data collection (or “Credibility” in the TQF) and data analysis (or “Analyzability” in the TQF), including the adequacy of reporting that reveals the application of these quality standards (or “Transparency” in the TQF). Ultimately, this principled approach boils down to the pragmatic question of how useful the research findings are in responding to the research goals (or “Usefulness” in the TQF).

The authors’ promotion of methodological integrity is a much needed and welcome addition to the discussion of qualitative research design. Their recommended approach will hopefully shine a light on a way to think about quality principles in qualitative research design among psychologists as well as qualitative researchers in other disciplines.

Levitt, H. M., Motulsky, S. L., Wertz, F. J., Morrow, S. L., & Ponterotto, J. G. (2016). Recommendations for designing and reviewing qualitative research in psychology: Promoting methodological integrity. Qualitative Psychology, 4(1), 2–22.

Image captured from: http://qualpsy.org/ , the website for the Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology.

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