The Three Dominant Qualities of Qualitative Research

Unique attributes of qualitative research-3 dominant attributes

Among the 10 distinctive attributes associated with qualitative research, there are three that essentially encompass what it means to use qualitative methods – the importance of context, the importance of meaning, and the participant-researcher relationship. In fact, one could argue that these constitute the three dominant qualities of qualitative research in that they help to define or otherwise contribute to the essence of the remaining seven attributes. The “absence of absolute ‘truth’,” for instance, is an important aspect of qualitative research that is closely associated with the research (in-depth interview, focus group, observation) environment where the dominant attributes of context, meaning, and participant-researcher interactions take place. As stated in a November 2016 Research Design Review article, the “absence of absolute ‘truth’”

refers to the idea that the highly contextual and social constructionist nature of qualitative research renders data that is, not absolute “truth” but, useful knowledge that is the matter of the researcher’s own subjective interpretation.

Similarly, there is a close connection between the “researcher as instrument” attribute and the three dominant qualities of context, meaning, and the participant-researcher relationship. A July 2016 RDR article described the association this way:

As the key instrument in gathering qualitative data, the researcher bears a great deal of responsibility for the outcomes.  If for no other reason, this responsibility hinges on the fact that this one attribute plays a central role in the effects associated with three other unique attributes – context, meaning, and the participant-researcher relationship.

Other distinctive characteristics of qualitative research – having to do with skill set, flexibility, the types of questions/issues that are addressed (such as sensitive topics, the inclusion of hard-to-reach population segments), the involved nature of the data, and the online and mobile capabilities – also derive relevance from the three dominant attributes. Having the necessary skill set, for instance, is important to discerning contextual influences and potential bias that may distort meaning; the particular topic of an interview and type of participant create contextual nuances that impact meaning; online and mobile qualitative research modes present distinct challenges related to context, meaning, and the participant-researcher relationship; and, of course, context and meaning supply the fuel that add to the “messiness” of qualitative data.

Of the three dominant attributes, the relationship between the participant and the researcher (the interviewer, the moderator, the observer) has the broadest implications. By sharing the “research space” (however it is defined), participants and researchers enter into a social convention that effectively shapes the reality – the context and the meaning – of the data being collected. This is particularly true in the in-depth interview method when “power dynamics” (Kvale, 2006) within the interview environment creates the possibility of “a one-way dialogue” whereby “the interviewer rules the interview” (p. 484), or there is a power struggle in which both participant and researcher attempt to control what is said or not said.

With few exceptions (e.g., qualitative content analysis), a social component, as determined by the participant-researcher relationship, is embedded in qualitative research methods regardless of mode (face-to-face, online, phone), resulting in dynamics that establish the context and meaning of the data along with the ultimate usefulness of the outcomes. The three dominant attributes – associated with context, meaning, and the participant-researcher relationship – are deeply entangled with each other and together cast an effect on the entire array of distinctive qualities in qualitative research.

Kvale, S. (2006). Dominance through interviews and dialogues. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(3), 480–500.


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