Meaning

Actively Conducting an Analysis to Construct an Interpretation

It is not uncommon for researchers who are reporting the results of their quantitative studies to go beyond describing their numerical data and attempt to interpret the meaning associated with this data. For example, in a survey concerning services at a healthcare facility, the portion of respondents who selected the midpoint on a five-point scale to rate the improvement of these services from the year before might be interpreted as having a neutral opinion, i.e., these respondents believe the caliber of services has remained the same, neither better nor worse than a year earlier. And yet there are other interpretations of the midpoint response that may be equally viable. These respondents may not know whether the services have improved or not (e.g., they were not qualified to answer the question). Or, these respondents may believe that the services have gotten worse but are reluctant to give a negative opinion.

Survey researchers fall into this gray area of interpretation because they often lack the tools to build a knowledgeable understanding of vague data types, such as scale midpoints. Unless the study is a hybrid research design (i.e., a quantitative study that incorporates qualitative components), the researcher is left to guess respondents’ meaning.

In contrast, the unique attributes of qualitative research methods offer researchers the tools they need to construct informed interpretations of their data. By way of context, latent (coupled with manifest) meanings, the participant-researcher relationship, and other fundamentals associated with qualitative research, the trained researcher collects thick data from which to build an interpretation that addresses the research objectives in a profound and valuable manner for the users of the research.

Qualitative data analysis is a process by which the researcher is actively involved in the creation of themes from the data and the interpretation within and across themes to construct results that move the topic of investigation forward in some meaningful way. This active involvement is central to what it means to conduct qualitative research. Faithful to the principles that define qualitative research, researchers do not rest on manifest content, such as words alone, or on automated tools that exploit the obvious, such as word clouds.

This is another way of saying — as stated in this article on sample size and saturation — that “themes do not simply pop up…but rather are the result of actively conducting an analysis to construct an interpretation.” As Staller (2015) states, “In lieu of the language of ‘discovering’ things with its positivistic roots, the researcher is actually interpreting the evidence” (p. 147).

Braun and Clarke (2006, 2016, 2019, 2021) have written extensively about the idea that “themes do not passively emerge” (2019, p. 594, italics in original) from thematic analysis and that meaning

is not inherent or self-evident in data, that meaning resides at the intersection of the data and the researcher’s contextual and theoretically embedded interpretative practices – in short, that meaning requires interpretation. (2021, p. 210)

An article posted in 2018 in Research Design Review“The Important Role of ‘Buckets’ in Qualitative Data Analysis” — illustrates this point. The article discusses the analytical step of creating categories (or “buckets”) of codes representing shared constructs prior to building themes. As an example, the discussion focuses on three categories that were developed from an in-depth interview study with financial managers — Technology, Partner, Communication. The researcher constructed themes by looking within and across categories, considering the meaning and context associated with each code. One such theme was “strong partnership,” as illustrated below.

Themes from buckets

The theme “strong partnership” did not simply emerge from the data, it was not lying in the data waiting to be discovered. Rather, the researcher utilized their analytical skills, in conjunction with their constructed understanding of each participant’s contribution to the data, to create contextually sound, meaningful themes such as “strong partnership.” Then, with the depth of definition associated with each theme, the researcher looked within and across themes to build an interpretation of the research data targeted at the research objectives, and provided the users of the research with a meaningful path forward.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2016). (Mis)conceptualising themes, thematic analysis, and other problems with Fugard and Potts’ (2015) sample-size tool for thematic analysis. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19(6), 739–743. https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2016.1195588

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, Vol. 11, pp. 589–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628806

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2021). To saturate or not to saturate? Questioning data saturation as a useful concept for thematic analysis and sample-size rationales. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(2), 201–216. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1704846

Staller, K. M. (2015). Qualitative analysis: The art of building bridging relationships. Qualitative Social Work, 14(2), 145–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325015571210

Meaning & Essence of Qual Research

Among the 21 articles published in Research Design Review in 2018, five focused on a few fundamental aspects of the qualitative research approach. These articles address such topics as the meaning researchers give to qualitative research and whether researchers are really conducting qualitative “research” or uncovering qualitative “information.” These articles also include a discussion about the idea that a consideration of qualitative methods is separate from attention to paradigm orientation, and two articles are directed at what it means to be “literate” in qualitative research design and how rigor throughout the quality chain results in useful outcomes by way of new hypotheses, next steps, and/or applications to other contexts.

The compilation of these five articles is available for download by clicking on the title — “The Meaning & Essence of Qualitative Research: Five Articles from Research Design Review Published in 2018.” This is only one of many compilations that have been put together in the month of January since 2012 to cover articles published the previous year. In January 2018, for example, a compilation of 20 articles covering a wide assortment of topics in qualitative research was published. A similar compilation was put together in January 2017. In other years, the compilation includes articles pertaining to both qualitative and quantitative design, such as “Designing Research to Understand How People Think: The Bridge that Connects Quantitative & Qualitative Research” published in January 2014.

 

 

What is Your Meaning of “Qualitative Research”?

There is good reason to wonder what researchers mean when they talk about “qualitative research.” This is not a trite bemusement. Indeed, there is Qualitative Meaningoften an unspoken underlying premise in most discussions of “qualitative research” that researchers harbor a mutually agreed-to concept of what qualitative research is, when in fact this is not the case. Attend a qualitative research conference session and you will find that the presenter predictably delves into the particular subject matter without a hint of the researcher’s definition of “qualitative research,” leaving attendees with the arduous (and misguided) task of linking their own concept of qualitative research with the presenter’s discussion.

There are a number of ways that researchers may conceptualize or define qualitative research. For instance, some may define qualitative research simply by its unique set of methods, e.g., focus group discussions, in-depth interviews, ethnography; whereby, a focus group study is deemed qualitative research regardless of the skills of the moderator or how the data are treated or reported to end users. Similarly, qualitative research may be understood solely by the interview format, e.g., a semi-structured in-depth interview (IDI) constitutes qualitative research while a structured IDI not so much (and actually leans towards a more quantitative approach).

Another understanding of qualitative research may center on the intent or types of questions being asked. For example, I have heard quantitative researchers refer to their design decisions (such as weighing project costs with research quality) as qualitative research. And some researchers may think that any approach that is self-reflective in nature (such as autoethnography) is qualitative research. Some researchers also use labels Read Full Text