A Quality Approach to Qualitative Content Analysis

The following includes excerpts from Section 1 and Section 4 in “A Quality Approach to Qualitative Content Analysis: Similarities and Differences Compared to Other Qualitative Methods” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 20(3), Art. 31. The Table of Contents for the entire FQS special issue on qualitative content analysis can be found here.

1. Introduction

Scholarly discourse about what it means to collect and analyze qualitative data is a dynamic discussionQualitative Content Analysis in the qualitative community. At the center of this discourse is the shared understanding that qualitative research involves the examination of nuanced connections, along with the social and contextual dimensions, that give meaning to qualitative data. Qualitative researchers strive to discover these nuanced connections and contextual dimensions with all methods, and most assuredly with qualitative content analysis (QCA) (ELO & KYNGÄS, 2008; GRANEHEIM & LUNDMAN, 2004; HSIEH & SHANNON, 2005; LATTER, YERRELL, RYCROFT-MALONE & SHAW, 2000; SCHREIER, 2012; TOWNSEND, AMARSI, BACKMAN, COX & LI, 2011). Yet, in every instance, qualitative researchers are presented with the challenge of conceptualizing and implementing research designs that result in rich contextual data, while also incorporating principles of quality research to maximize the discovery of valid interpretations that lead to the ultimate usefulness (i.e., the “so what?”) of their  research.

In this article I discuss what makes QCA similar to and different from other qualitative research methods from the standpoint of a quality approach. In order to establish the basis from which quality concerns can be discussed, I begin with defining the QCA method (Section 2) and, in so doing, identifying the fundamental similarities and differences between QCA and other methods (Section 3) from the perspective of the ten unique attributes of qualitative research (ROLLER & LAVRAKAS, 2015). With this as a foundation, I continue with a brief contextual discussion of a quality approach to qualitative research and the QCA method (Section 4), followed by an introduction to one such approach, i.e., the total quality framework (TQF) (ibid.), in which I give researchers a way to think about quality design throughout each phase of the qualitative research process (Section 5). With these preparatory sections—defining and contrasting the QCA method with other qualitative methods, discussing quality approaches, and a brief description of the TQF approach—I lay the necessary groundwork for a meaningful discussion of the similarities and differences when adapting the TQF to the QCA method, which is my focus with this article (Section 6).

4. A Quality Approach

A quality approach specific to the QCA method—as opposed to a quality orientation within the quantitative paradigm (KRIPPENDORFF, 2013)—has been put forth by a number of researchers. For instance, GRANEHEIM and LUNDMAN (2004) discuss the trustworthiness of QCA research, leaning on the familiar concepts of credibility, dependability, and transferability made popular by LINCOLN and GUBA (1985). Similarly, ZHANG and WILDEMUTH (2009) discuss the trustworthiness of the QCA method as defined by LINCOLN and GUBA (1985) and include the fourth criterion of confirmability. And, as a final example of how researchers have employed quality standards to the QCA method, FORMAN and DAMSCHRODER (2008) focus on issues of credibility, validity, and reliability throughout a QCA study, e.g., how memos add credibility to the research, how team coding establishes content validity as well as coding reliability, and how the examination and reporting of “negative cases” instills credibility in the findings.

With a few exceptions, a discussion of a quality approach to the QCA method as a way to think about and incorporate quality principles at each phase of the research process has been lacking in the literature. ELO et al. (2014), for example, offer a checklist to improve the trustworthiness of a QCA study at each of three phases, i.e., the preparation, organization, and reporting phases. Also, in his discussion of the internal quality standards associated with qualitative text analysis, KUCKARTZ (2014) outlines essential questions covering a broad scope of the research process, including the selection of method, coding, category development, consideration of outliers (i.e., “any unusual or abnormal cases,” p.154), and justification of the conclusions.

By considering quality standards at each step in the research design, the researcher acknowledges that a quality qualitative research design is only “as strong as its weakest link”; meaning, for example, that a deliberate quality approach to data collection and analysis yet a failure to write a quality transparent final document, effectively masks the integrity of the research and undermines its ultimate value. A holistic quality-centric approach to qualitative research design and, specifically to the QCA method, is my focus in this article. This approach—the total quality framework (ROLLER & LAVRAKAS, 2015)—is introduced and discussed in the remaining sections, with particular attention paid to the similarities and differences between QCA and other qualitative methods when applying this framework.

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