Critical Thinking in Qualitative Research Design

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 20-21).

Many researchers and scholars have advanced strategies, criteria, or frameworks for thinking about and promoting the importance of “the quality” of qualitative research at some stage in the research design. Critical thinking skills in qualitative researchOne such strategy is the framework developed by Levitt et al. (2017) that centers on methodological integrity. Another is the Total Quality Framework (TQF) which has been discussed throughout Research Design Review, as in the article titled “The ‘Quality’ in Qualitative Research Debate & the Total Quality Framework.”

The strategies or ways of thinking about quality in qualitative research that are most relevant to the TQF are those that are (a) paradigm neutral, (b) flexible (i.e., do not adhere to a defined method), and (c) applicable to all phases of the research process. Among these, the work of Lincoln and Guba (e.g., 1981, 1985, 1986, and 1995) is the most noteworthy. Although they profess a paradigm orientation “of the constructionist camp, loosely defined” (Lincoln et al., 2011, p. 116), the quality criteria Lincoln and Guba set forth nearly 30 years ago is particularly pertinent to the TQF in that it advances the concept of trustworthiness as a major criterion for judging whether a qualitative research study is “rigorous.” In their model, trustworthiness addresses the issue of “How can a [qualitative researcher] persuade [someone] that the findings of a [study] are worth paying attention to, worth taking account of?” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 290). That is, what are the criteria upon which such an assessment should be based? In this way, Lincoln and Guba espouse standards that are flexible (i.e., can be adapted depending on the research context) as well as relevant throughout the research process.

In answering, they put forth the criteria of credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. For Lincoln and Guba (1985), credibility is the extent to which the findings of a qualitative research study are internally valid (i.e., accurate). Credibility is established through (a) prolonged engagement, (b) persistent observation, (c) triangulation, (d) peer debriefings, (e) negative case analysis, (f) referential adequacy, and (g) member checks. Transferability refers to the extent to which other researchers or users of the research can determine the applicability of the research design and/or the study findings to other research contexts (e.g., other participants, places, and times). Transferability is primarily established through thick description that is “necessary to enable someone interested in making a transfer to reach a conclusion about whether transfer can be contemplated as a possibility” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 316). Thick description and transferability are key elements of the TQF Transparency component.

Dependability is the degree to which an independent “auditor” can look at the qualitative research process and determine its “acceptability” and, in so doing, create an audit trail of the process. To that end, the Transparency component of the TQF deals directly with the idea of providing the user of the research with an audit trail pertaining to all aspects of the research in the final research document. Confirmability refers to utilizing the same dependability audit to examine the evidence in the data that purportedly supports the researcher’s findings, interpretations, and recommendations.

Regardless of the quality framework researchers use, the important objective is to stretch researchers’ understanding of how design decisions impact the integrity of qualitative data. By developing these kinds of critical thinking skills, researchers ensure a quality approach that ultimately delivers useful outcomes to the users of the research.

Guba, E. G. (1981). Criteria for assessing the trustworthiness of naturalistic inquiries. Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 29(2), 75–91.

Levitt, H. M., Motulsky, S. L., Wertz, F. J., Morrow, S. L., & Ponterotto, J. G. (2017). Recommendations for designing and reviewing qualitative research in psychology: Promoting methodological integrity. Qualitative Psychology, 4(1), 2–22. https://doi.org/10.1037/qup0000082

Lincoln, Y. S. (1995). Emerging criteria for quality in qualitative and interpretive research. Qualitative Inquiry, 1(3), 275–289. https://doi.org/10.1177/107780049500100301

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., Lynham, S. A., & Guba, E. G. (2011). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences, revisited. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 97–128). Sage Publications.

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015).  Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

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