Member Checking & the Importance of Context

Unique attributes of qualitative research-Context

A social constructionist orientation to qualitative research leans heavily on many of the unique attributes of qualitative research. Along with the absence of  “truth,” the importance of meaning, the participant-researcher relationship, and flexibility of design, context plays an important role as the social constructionist researcher goes about collecting, analyzing and interpreting, as well as reporting qualitative data. As depicted in the Total Quality Framework, the phases of the research process are connected and support each other to the extent that the integrity of the contextually-rich data is maintained throughout.

Lincoln and Guba (1985) are often cited for their discussion of “member checks” or “member checking,” one of five approaches they advocate toward adding credibility to qualitative research. The authors describe the member check as “the most crucial technique for establishing credibility” (p. 314) because it requires the researcher to go back to participants (e.g., by way of a written summary or transcript, in-depth interview, group discussion) and gain participants’ input on the researcher’s data, analytic categories, interpretations, and conclusions. This, according to Lincoln and Guba (1985), allows the researcher to “assess intentionality” on the part of the participant while also allowing participants the “opportunity to correct errors” and/or give additional information, among other things.

Member checking has become a component in many qualitative research designs over the decades; however, it has also been the subject of much controversy. These criticisms range from pragmatic and practical aspects of member checking — e.g., Morse (2015) talks about the “awkward position” that member checking places on the researcher when a participant does not agree with the analysis, leaving the researcher in a quandary as to how or if to alter the analysis and interpretation — to concerns for the potential emotional harm or burden inflicted on participants (Candela, 2019; Morse, 2015; Motulsky, 2020), to issues of quality and data integrity — for example,

“Investigators who want to be responsive to the particular concerns of their participants may be forced to restrain their results to a more descriptive level in order to address participants’ individual concerns. Therefore, member checks may actually invalidate the work of the researcher and keep the level of analysis inappropriately close to the data.” (Morse et al., 2002, p. 16)

An integral consideration associated with data quality and member checking goes back to the importance of context. When interview and focus group participants share their lived experiences with the researcher(s), it is within the context of the interview and discussion environments that are defined by a myriad of factors, including the participant-researcher relationship (e.g., rapport), the research topic and interview/discussion guide, the mode, the time of day, the “mood,” and any number of other details that contribute to the particular responses — and the contextual nuances of these responses — that a researcher collects from a participant at any moment in time. As a result, the idea of going back to participants at a different point in time, within a different environment — that is, in a different context — and expecting them to think and respond as they did in the original interview/discussion is unreasonable.

An effective member checking technique that gains participants’ intentionality while also maintaining context is a question-answer validity approach during the research event. Question-answer validity is

“A form of member checking by which the in-depth interviewer or focus group moderator paraphrases interviewees’/participants’ comments to confirm or clarify the intended meaning. This technique also enables the interviewer to ascertain whether a participant has interpreted the interviewer’s question as it was intended.” (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, p. 361)

This in-the-moment, question-answer technique strengthens the validity of the data within the data-gathering environment, while also achieving three key goals of member checking: “It provides the opportunity to assess intentionality”; “It gives the [participant] an immediate opportunity to correct errors of fact and challenge what are perceived to be wrong interpretations”; and “It provides the [participant] the opportunity to volunteer additional information” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 314).

The importance of context and its role in quality outcomes permeates qualitative research design. Member checking by way of the question-answer validity technique is one of the many approaches that helps to preserve the contextual integrity of qualitative data, leading to thematic analyses that deliver useful interpretations and recommendations.

Candela, A. G. (2019). Exploring the function of member checking. The Qualitative Report, 24(3).

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

Morse, J. M. (2015). Critical analysis of strategies for determining rigor in qualitative inquiry. Qualitative Health Research, 25(9), 1212–1222.

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.

Motulsky, S.L. (2020). “Is member checking the gold standard of quality in qualitative research?”         [Conference session]. APA Conference, virtual.

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

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