The “Quality” in Qualitative Research Debate & the Total Quality Framework

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp.15-17).

The field of qualitative research has paid considerable attention in the past half century to the issue of research “quality.” Despite these efforts, there remains a lack of agreement among qualitative researchers about how quality should be defined and how it should be evaluated (cf. Lincoln & Guba, 1985, 1986; Lincoln, 1995; Morse et al., 2002; Reynolds et al., 2011; Rolfe, 2006; Schwandt, Lincoln, & Guba, 2007). Some who seem to question whether quality can be defined and evaluated appear to hold the view that each qualitative research is so singularly unique in terms of how the data are created and how sense is made of these data that striving to assess quality is a wasted effort that never leads to a satisfying outcome about which agreement can be reached. Among other things, this suggests that validity – meaning, “the correctness or credibility of a description, conclusion, explanation, interpretation, or other sort of account” (Maxwell, 2013, p. 122) – is solely in the eye of the beholder and that convincing someone else that a qualitative study has generated valid and actionable findings is more an effort of subjective persuasion than an effort of applying dispassionate logic to whether the methods that were used to gather and analyze the data led to “valid enough” conclusions for the purpose(s) to which they were meant to serve.

Controversy also exists about how to determine the quality of a qualitative study. Arguments are made by some that the quality of a qualitative study is determined solely by the methods and processing that the researchers have used to conduct their studies. Others argue that quality is determined essentially by how consumers of the study judge it (see Morse et al., 2002; Reynolds et al., 2011).

It is within this context of disharmony and controversy that the Total Quality Framework (TQF) was developed. The TQF was designed as a useful tool for qualitative researchers to apply in designing, conducting, and interpreting their research so that the studies are more likely to (a) gather high-quality data, (b) lead to more robust and valid interpretations of the data, and (c) ultimately generate highly useful outcomes.

The TQF also provides a guide for anyone who is consuming the findings and recommendations from a qualitative research study.  As such, the TQF is a tool that helps users of the research form a sense of confidence about the likely accuracy and usefulness of the study’s findings. The intention is not that applying the TQF will yield a dichotomous (i.e., thumbs-up vs. thumbs-down) judgment that a qualitative study is accurate or not accurate, useful or not useful. Rather, the TQF helps the consumers of a given research study to form a sense of confidence that may range from “not at all confident” to “extremely confident” about the study’s validity and usefulness. In this way, the TQF empowers the users of the research to make their own decisions about how much importance should be placed on a qualitative study’s findings.

In sum, the TQF offers a comprehensive and interrelated way of thinking that addresses the major threats that can undermine the accuracy and value of a qualitative research study at each phase of the research process. It is valuable to qualitative researchers who are designing a study, who are conducting a study, or who are interpreting a study. The TQF is intended to provide a framework that empowers anyone interested in applying it to formulate their own conclusions about the likely accuracy and therefore usefulness of a qualitative research study.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1986). But is it rigorous? Trustworthiness and authenticity in naturalistic evaluation. New Directions for Program Evaluation, 30(1), 73–84.

Lincoln, Y. S. (1995). Emerging criteria for quality in qualitative and interpretive research. Qualitative Inquiry, 1(3), 275–289.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Morse, J. M., Barrett, M., Mayan, M., Olson, K., & Spiers, J. (2002). Verification strategies for establishing reliability and validity in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1(2), 13–22.

Reynolds, J., Kizito, J., Ezumah, N., Mangesho, P., Allen, E., & Chandler, C. (2011). Quality assurance of qualitative research: A review of the discourse. Health Research Policy and Systems, 9(1), 43.

Rolfe, G. (2006). Validity, trustworthiness and rigour: Quality and the idea of qualitative research. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 53(3), 304–310.

Schwandt, T. A., Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (2007). Judging interpretations: But is it rigorous? Trustworthiness and authenticity in naturalistic evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation, 114, 11–25.

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