Thursday, 27 November 2014

Kate Young writes for SPHPM

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This week we are featuring a guest post from Kate Young - a researcher at the Jean Hailes Research Unit. 

Once upon a time there was a PhD student—let’s call her Kelly—who decided she would examine women’s experiences of endometriosis . Kelly, in conjunction with her two magnificent supervisors, thought hard about what the most appropriate methodology* would be to do this. It was decided that a qualitative approach was the most suitable option as it could best capture the complexities of living with a gendered chronic illness (i.e. an illness specific to one sex more than the other due to biological and social variables).

Kate Kelly went on to design a rigorous study that attracted funding, publications, and media attention. Despite this success she encountered colleagues, clinicians, and members of the public who were confused as to why she would ask women about their experiences when she could do ‘real’ research by conducting large scale surveys and analysing hospital data.

Here comes the plot twist: Kelly is me, Kate. Shocking, I know. Aside from the (completely unnecessary) use of a false name, all of the above has happened to me. When I was asked to write a post for the eminent SPHPM blog my supervisor, Dr Maggie Kirkman, and I jumped at the chance to clarify two of the most common misconceptions around qualitative research that we have encountered.

Misconception 1: Qualitative research is what you do before the ‘real’ research can start with quantitative methods (a.k.a. the superior research paradigm).

Qualitative research and quantitative research are fundamentally different or, to get a bit more technical, they occupy different epistemological positions. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, including what can be known, who has authority over the knowledge, and how we know it.

Quantitative research generally takes a positivist approach which endorses the belief that society operates according to general laws much like the physical world (e.g. Newton’s law of gravity). Based on this understanding you can extrapolate findings to the wider population. The researcher is understood to be an impartial, objective party who stands outside the world being researched.

Qualitative research takes an interpretivist approach not based on such laws. In this approach, there is no general reality that we all experience; one’s perspective changes what is experienced and what it means. Researchers accept that they are part of the social world being investigated and must try to understand the influence of their own perspectives on how the research is conducted and interpreted.

Both methodologies use systematic empirical observation and both generate empirical evidence. They just do so in different ways that often complement each other (rather than compete), providing further dimensions to our understanding of certain phenomena.

Misconception 2: Qualitative research is not generalisable (and is therefore inferior to research using quantitative methods).

When people say this they have often made the mistake of applying the criteria to determine generalisability for quantitative research to qualitative research which, as you will recognise from the importance of different perspectives, is inappropriate.

In qualitative research it is the insight into experience and meaning that is important, not the demographic characteristics of those included nor the calculation of the percentage of people to whom the results might apply. The goal is to understand a phenomenon from each participant’s perspective and thus to yield insight into diverse perspectives. Participant recruitment involves purposive selection to ensure inclusion of a range of experiences and ‘negatives examples’ (people who might have a different experience or for whom the experience has a different meaning). For example, in my study I recruited women to whom possible infertility was of little importance and did not define them, as well as women to whom possible infertility was very important. Such diverse accounts allow us to capture a large range of experiences.

The possible “generalisibility” arises when others in the population can be seen to follow similar patterns or derive similar meaning from their experiences. Although the time-consuming demands of qualitative research methods necessitate having relatively small numbers of participants, the accumulation of research results builds more comprehensive pictures of the phenomenon being studied.

We hope you found this post useful. Maggie and I are always up for a chat about qualitative research if you have any questions or would like to know more about it. You can find us in the Jean Hailes Research Unit or can email us (;

*Many people often confuse this term for method. Methodology is the theory about the research methods you use (e.g. qualitative research with a phenomenological approach) whereas method is the actual research methods or ‘tools’ you use to conduct the research (e.g. in-depth interviews, focus groups).


Giacomini, M. K. (2001). The rocky road: Qualitative research as evidence. EBM Notebook, 6, 4-6.

Kirkman, M. (2002). What's the plot? Applying narrative theory to research in psychology. Australian Psychologist, 37(1), 30-38

Morse, J.M. (1999). Qualitative Generalizability. Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 5-6.

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