Successful Qualitative Research
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Successful Qualitative Research

A Practical Guide for Beginners

Virginia Braun, Victoria Clarke

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eBook - ePub

Successful Qualitative Research

A Practical Guide for Beginners

Virginia Braun, Victoria Clarke

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About This Book

*Shortlisted for the BPS Book Award 2014 in the Textbook Category* *Winner of the 2014 Distinguished Publication Award (DPA) from the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP)*

Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners is an accessible, practical textbook. It sidesteps detailed theoretical discussion in favor of providing a comprehensive overview of strategic tips and skills for starting and completing successful qualitative research. Uniquely, the authors provide a "patterns framework" to qualitative data analysis in this book, also known as "thematic analysis." The authors walk students through a basic thematic approach, and compare and contrast this with other approaches. This discussion of commonalities, explaining why and when each method should be used, and in the context of looking at patterns, will provide students with complete confidence for their qualitative research journey.

This textbook will be an essential textbook for undergraduates and postgraduates taking a course in qualitative research or using qualitative approaches in a research project.

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Successfully getting started in qualitative research


Some very important starting information

We’re about to introduce you to the wonderful world of qualitative research. It’s vast and exciting, full of new areas to discover. We hope you’ll learn to love and feel as passionate about it as we do. As we know that won’t be the case for everyone, we want you to feel that you really ‘get’ it: that you understand both the purpose and premise of qualitative research, and, crucially, that you know how to actually go about doing a qualitative research project. In order for this to happen, you may need to put aside ideas you have about what research is, and approach this field with ‘open eyes’ – like an explorer who can only understand a completely different culture if they don’t view and judge it by the perspectives and values of their own culture.


The most basic definition of qualitative research is that it uses words as data (see Chapter 2), collected and analysed in all sorts of ways. Quantitative research, in contrast, uses numbers as data and analyses them using statistical techniques. The term qualitative research is used to refer both to techniques (of data collection or data analysis) and to a wider framework for conducting research, or paradigm. Paradigm here refers to the beliefs, assumptions, values and practices shared by a research community (see Kuhn, 1962), and it provides an overarching framework for research. Qualitative research, as we define it, is not just about data and techniques – it’s about the application of qualitative techniques within a qualitative paradigm, which is quite different from a quantitative paradigm (see Table 1.1). It has been referred to as Big Q qualitative research, and contrasted with small q qualitative research (Kidder & Fine, 1987), which is the use of specific qualitative data collection and techniques, not (necessarily) within a qualitative paradigm (see Box 1.1).
Table 1.1 Some broad differences between qualitative and quantitative paradigms
Quantitative Qualitative
Numbers used as data Words – written and spoken language – (and images) used as data
Seeks to identify relationships between variables, to explain or predict – with the aim of generalising the findings to a wider population Seeks to understand and interpret more local meanings; recognises data as gathered in a context; sometimes produces knowledge that contributes to more general understandings
Generates ‘shallow’ but broad data – not a lot of complex detail obtained from each participant, but lots of participants take part (to generate the necessary statistical power) Generates ‘narrow’ but rich data, ‘thick descriptions’ – detailed and complex accounts from each participant; not many take part
Seeks consensus, norms, or general patterns; often aims to reduce diversity of responses to an average response Tends to seek patterns, but accommodates and explores difference and divergence within data
Tends to be theory-testing, and deductive Tends to be theory generating, and inductive (working up from the data)
Values detachment and impartiality (objectivity) Values personal involvement and partiality (subjectivity, reflexivity)
Has a fixed method (harder to change focus once data collection has begun) Method is less fixed (can accommodate a shift in focus in the same study)
Can be completed quickly Tends to take longer to complete because it is interpretative and there is no formula

Adapted (and expanded) from Tolich & Davidson (2003)


The use of qualitative techniques outside a qualitative paradigm (small q qualitative research) happens in different ways:
  • A qualitative research project may be conducted in a realist, positivist way, where the values and assumptions of Big Q qualitative research are rejected.
  • Qualitative methods can be used as a precursor for quantitative research. For example, in a study of the effects of the experiences of depression, US professors of psychiatry and nursing James Coyne and Margaret Calarco (1995) conducted two focus groups and thematically organised participants’ statements into eight categories, drawing on these to develop a survey, which they used to generate the data they analysed.
  • It can be used alongside quantitative methods as part of a mixed methods design (see Mertens, 2005). In many mixed method designs, the qualitative component may be subsumed within a primarily quantitative, realist project, and it is rarely Big Q qualitative research. For instance, in food and farming researcher Charlotte Weatherall and colleagues’ (2003) study of UK consumer’s perceptions of food, farming and buying locally produced goods, the qualitative data from six focus groups were used to identify consumers priorities when buying food, perceptions of farming/food provision, and interest in local food production, and informed the development of a quantitative survey. The qualitative analysis was presented and interpreted alongside the quantitative results. The analysis described the content of what was said, assuming a direct relationship between what people say and what they believe (and do).
  • Qualitative data might be converted to a numerical representation, and analysed quantitatively. For instance, public health researchers Mary Story and Patricia Faulkner (1990) collated a selection of episodes of 11 of the most popular US prime-time TV shows and coded the text of those programmes according to food references. The frequency of codes was compared, and was used to determine messages about food and eating presented during prime-time. Overall, they reported ‘pervasive’ (p. 740) references to food, the majority of which were related to low-nutritional-value snacks, and concluded that the shows and advertising promote poor nutritional practice. The typical method here is content analysis, where qualitative data are coded and analysed numerically, and there is debate about whether it is, or can be, a qualitative method. Many say no – for instance, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005b) barely discusses it; we don’t consider it in this book because we want to focus on wholly qualitative methods. The quantitative focus in content analysis has been substantively critiqued (Mayring, 2004), and more interpretative forms developed – often referred to as qualitative content analysis (e.g. Hsieh & Shannon, 2005; Mayring, 2004), which is similar to thematic analysis.


A broad cluster of features and assumptions make up a non-positivist qualitative research paradigm. One thing absolutely fundamental is that it tends not to assume there is only one correct version of reality or knowledge. Instead, it comes from a perspective that argues that there are multiple versions of reality – even for the same person – and that these are very closely linked to the context they occur in. Most qualitative researchers would argue that we should not, even must not, consider knowledge outside of the context in which it was generated. This refers both to the context of data generation, such as an interview setting, and to the broader sociocultural and political contexts of the research. New Zealand psychologists Maree Burns and Nicola Gavey’s (2004) work on the meanings and discourses of body weight, body size and body practices provides a nice illustration of this (which they actually built into their research design). They contextualised their analysis of the talk of women who practise bulimia through also analysing public health messages promoting ‘healthy weight’ (as a response to the ‘obesity epidemic’), and demonstrated a conceptual linking of ‘healthy weight’ to slenderness. This common-sense meaning was deployed by women who practised bulimia to explain and justify their purging and compensating practices (e.g. vomiting, excessive exercise): such practices were framed as about obtaining a ‘healthy’ (i.e. slim) body. Through contextualising the women’s accounts, and specifically analysing public health messages, their analysis provided a compelling insight into the ways something which seems to be a useful message in one domain – that of ‘healthy weight’ – can actually be deployed in very ‘unhealthy’ ways in another.
Other elements of a qualitative paradigm include (Silverman, 2000: 8):
  • the use of qualitative data, and the analysis of words which are not reducible to numbers;
  • the use of more ‘naturally’ occurring data collection methods that more closely resemble real life (compared to other possibilities, such as experiments) – this develops from the idea that we cannot make sense of data in isolation from context;
  • an interest in meanings rather than reports and measures of behaviour or internal cognitions;
  • the use of inductive, theory-generating research;
  • a rejection of the natural sciences as a model of research, including the rejection of the idea of the objective (unbiased) scientist;
  • the recognition that researchers bring their subjectivity (their views, perspectives, frameworks for making sense of the world; their politics, their passions) into the research process – this is seen as a strength rather than a weakness.
So the qualitative paradigm is quite different from the quantitative one. Depending on where you are in your studies, and what you’re studying, this might contradict what you’ve been taught constitutes good research – controlled, rigorous, reliable, validated, quantitative and experimental. We’re teaching you about a whole different world of research that grew as a response and challenge to the perceived limits of that model of research.


Quantitative approaches and ‘the scientific method’ have dominated psychology (in a way that isn’t the case in all other social sciences). It’s tempting to see the emergence of qualitative research in two ways: a) as a new development; and b) as simply offering a complementary data collection and analysis toolkit for quantitative psychology. We would warn against both conclusions, and offer a very brief history of qualitative research in psychology to illustrate why.
From the emergence of psychology as a discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century, it has been marked by contestation over the ‘appropriate’ ways to research and theorise the things we study in psychology. The focus, topic and purpose of psychology itself are similarly contested, but we won’t discuss those here. Qualitative ideas and approaches have been part of psychology from its inception. However, first with behaviourism in the early twentieth century, and subsequently with the cognitive revolution in the second half of the twentieth century, quantitative methods employed within a (post)positivist, experimental paradigm dominated the discipline (Ashworth, 2003; Howitt, 2010). Such approaches situated themselves in opposition to the more subjective, interpretative introspective (qualitative) techniques of early psychology, which became classified as ‘unscientific’ – a criticism of qualitative research which continues to this day, from some quarters, although that of course depends on how we define science itself (Kvale, 1996). What we think of as psychology, and indeed how you do it, has been strongly shaped by the behavioural and cognitive traditions. Within such approaches, psychology should seek to understand and determine an observable, objective (universal) psychological reality.
The dominance of behaviourism and then cognitive experimentalism meant that it wasn’t until the 1980s that qualitative approaches regained a foothold, and subsequently flourished, in some areas of psychology (their history in other social sciences, such as sociology, is different, e.g. Vidich & Lyman, 1994). Their (re)appearance reflected the development of a number of oppositional approaches within the social sciences, which challenged mainstream (post)positivist empiricist research design and practice, and the bases on which psychology and the other social sciences theorised and conceptualised their subjects (Ashworth, 2003; Howitt, 2010). Approaches including feminism (Crawford & Unger, 2004), poststructuralism (Gavey, 1989), postmodernism (Gergen, 1990), social constructionism (Burr, 2003), hermeneutics (Schwandt, 2000) and phenomenology (Langdridge, 2007) in different ways questioned or rejected the idea of an observable, independent (singular and universal) reality, with humans understood as responding to external and internal influences. Instead, the person was theorised as operating within a subjective, interpreted world, the organisation of which offered a certain version of reality. The relationship between person and context was seen as more fluid and reciprocal, with influence in both directions. Qualitative methods were touted as allowing access to people’s subjective worlds and meanings, and to groups marginalised (e.g. by their gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity/culture) and often invisible within western psychology. They were seen as crucial for identifying and theorising different constructed versions of reality, and for the wa...

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