The Many Facets of a Meaningful Qualitative Report

Reporting in qualitative research, and particularly the element of transparency, has been the topic of various articles in Research Design Review (see “Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency,” “Reporting Ethnography: Storytelling & the Roles Participants Play,” qualitative research reportingand others). While all types of research require complete and accurate reporting, the final report appears to be discussed less frequently compared to other aspects of the research process. This is certainly true in qualitative research. Just a look around RDR will prove the point that a greater emphasis has been paid to other research design areas – such as data collection and analysis – than to the actual reporting of the findings.

This needs to change. One could argue that the final written report is the most important component of the research process, the component that not only serves to document the study from beginning to end but also transforms qualitative research into a tangible, living “being” for the research users to grab hold of and utilize in any number of ways. Without the report, our research might as well not exist. This makes one wonder why relatively scant attention is paid to best practices in reporting and, indeed, why the final report in some research sectors  (e.g., marketing research) is often reduced to a less-than-comprehensive, fully-bulleted PowerPoint slide deck.

For anyone interested in a serious discussion of the many facets of the qualitative report, an excellent resource is Focus Group Discussions by Monique Hennink (2014, Oxford University Press as part of their Understanding Qualitative Research series edited by Patricia Leavy). Although the book is centered on the focus group method, the chapters devoted to reporting offer relevant and useful guidance regardless of the qualitative approach. For example, Hennink’s chapter on “Writing Focus Group Methods,” discusses the challenges researchers face when attempting to give “methodological depth” to their reporting while also writing in a clear and concise manner. Using qualitative terminology such as purposive and emic, for instance, are important to conveying the qualitative orientation (and rigor) of the research; however, these concepts are not universally understood and require some form of explanation.

Following a discussion of challenges, the methods chapter goes on to detail the actual writing of the methods section. Here, Hennink stresses the importance of transparency; specifically, in reporting information on the: study design (e.g., how and why the particular method was chosen), research site(s) (e.g., where the research was conducted, what was the atmosphere or condition of the study environment), recruiting, study participants, data collection, analysis, as well as ethical issues. Equally important in the methods section are discussions emanating from reflexivity, i.e., the researcher’s reflection on possible sources of bias in the data or analysis associated with the research team as well as limitations in the study (e.g., the research was only conducted with women of a certain age).

In her second chapter on writing, Hennink discusses the writing of results with a focus on “developing an argument” from which the narrative of the findings can be told and deciding on a reporting structure (e.g., by topics, population segments) as well as the use of quotations.

Importantly, Hennink discusses the crucial role of context in the reporting of both methods and results. In line with the qualitative research mantra “context is everything,” Hennink encourages the researcher to report contextual details that potentially influenced the method(s) chosen and the research findings, thereby adding a depth of meaning by which users of the research are able to fully understand all aspects of the study. There are many ways the qualitative researcher can discuss context. Context can be discussed with respect to: circumstances that impacted the choice of research method, participants (their sociocultural background), the research environment(s), and the researcher (i.e., reflexivity).

Although the level of reporting advocated by Hennink is at the academic level, there are important lessons here for all qualitative researchers. Qualitative reporting requires a thorough and thoughtful process, one that communicates the richness of the qualitative approach and ultimately maximizes the Usefulness of the outcomes.

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