Transparent Qualitative Research: The Total Quality Framework Transparency Component

The Total Quality Framework (TQF)* contributes to the conversation in the qualitative research community by providing researchers with a way to think about their qualitative designs – along with strategies or techniques – for the purpose of enhancing the quality of research outcomes. The TQF is a comprehensive approach that considers all stages of the research process – from data collection to the final “product.” Recent articles in Research Design Review discussed two of the four components of the TQF – specifically, the Credibility component and the Analyzability component. The Credibility component pertains to data collection and consists of Scope (having to do with sampling and coverage) and Data Gathering (having to do with minimizing potential bias, nonresponse, and other factors that may weaken the validity of the data). The Analyzability component of the TQF is focused on the Processing of qualitative data (e.g., the quality by which the initial “raw” data is transformed) as well as Verification of research findings and interpretations (e.g., by way of deviant cases, peer debriefs, the reflexive journal).

The third component of the TQF has to do with the next phase in a qualitative research design – that is, reporting. When the data has been collected and thoroughly processed and verified, the qualitative researcher is left with the job of effectively communicating what went on in the research study and how the researcher drew interpretations from the analysis. Importantly, the job of reporting goes beyond conveying the research findings and the researcher’s interpretations and recommendations, but also gives details of the research design having to do with Scope and Data Gathering (i.e., Credibility) as well as Processing and Verification (i.e., Analyzability). As discussed in this 2013 RDR article, the benefit of a detailed discussion of Credibility and Analyzability lies in its ability to fully inform the user of the quality strategies or techniques that were (or were not) incorporated into the design and, among other things, allow the user to evaluate the transferability of the research design, i.e., how well it might be used in a comparable context.

The elaboration of study details is referred to as “thick description” which is a term originally coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle and then adopted by Clifford Geertz to describe the work being done in ethnography (Ponterotto, 2006). In this respect, Geertz (2003) talks about the “multiplicity of complex conceptual structures” (p. 150) in ethnographic research, stating that “ethnography is thick description” (p. 156, emphasis added). Similarly, the “multiplicity” of design decisions that qualitative researchers make before, during, and at the completion of a qualitative study warrant a thick description in the final reporting document that explodes with rich details by which the user can essentially re-live the research process. In doing so, the user is able to evaluate his/her confidence in the research process as well as the researcher’s final interpretations and the applicability of the research to other contexts (i.e., transferability).

The TQF Transparency component has been discussed elsewhere in RDR – see “Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency” – as has the concept of thick description – see “25 Ingredients to “Thicken” Description & Enrich Transparency in Ethnography.” The specific elements of a thick description will vary from method to method and study to study. There are, however, common aspects of a qualitative research design that should be reported, some of which are the

  • Researcher’s assumptions regarding the necessary scope of the study.
  • Decisions that were made related to sampling.
  • Representativeness of the participants to the population and why that was or was not a concern.
  • Level of cooperation and tactics that were used to maximize cooperation.
  • Ethical considerations.
  • Researcher/interviewer training.
  • Interview/focus group guide development.
  • Decisions that were made in the field, particularly decisions that changed the initial study design.
  • Field notes and the researcher’s reflexive journal.
  • Transcription process.
  • Data processing protocol and verification procedures.

As with Credibility and Analyzability, the Transparency component of the TQF is not intended to prescribe procedures or steps to follow in the reporting process but rather offer researchers a way of thinking about how to incorporate a complete accounting of a research study for the benefit of the user (e.g., the researcher, the research sponsor, a colleague working on a similar topic). It is by way of this thick description that qualitative researchers demonstrate their commitment to transparency while providing an audit trail of the relevant materials. This transparent approach to reporting expands the life of any given study and achieves the ultimate goal of allowing the user to do something of value with the outcomes. That brings us to the fourth and final TQF component, Usefulness.

* The Total Quality Framework is fully discussed in Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

Geertz, C. (2003). Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. In Y. S. Lincoln & N. K. Denzin (Eds.), Turning points in qualitative research: Tying knots in a handkerchief (Vol. 3, pp. 143–168). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Ponterotto, J. G. (2006). Brief note on the origins, evolution, and meaning of the qualitative research concept “thick description.” The Qualitative Report, 11(3), 538–549. Retrieved from http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR11-3/ponterotto.pdf

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