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Evaluating Qualitative Research for Social Work Practitioners

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Abstract

In the field of social work, practitioners must remain well informed regarding research advances in their respective areas. Proponents of evidence-based practice expect social workers to engage in practice informed by the best available evidence. Research studies conducted through the lens of qualitative inquiry provide important contributions to the social work knowledge base. In many cases, these studies can represent the best available research regarding emerging problems or application of evidence to diverse populations. Yet, despite the relevance of qualitative research, many social workers receive minimal training regarding qualitative methodology hindering their ability to conduct and evaluate research that uses qualitative methods. The purpose of this article is to provide students and practitioners some orientation regarding qualitative research methods and to highlight potential strategies researchers and consumers of research may use to evaluate the trustworthiness and quality of qualitative research. Specifically, the concept of trustworthiness is defined in the context of qualitative inquiry and questions social work practitioners can ask when evaluating the quality and applicability of a qualitative research study are provided.
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Cynthia A. Lietz, Ph.D., and Luis E. Zayas, Ph.D., are Assistant Professors in the School of Social Work at Arizona State
University in Phoenix.
Copyright © 2010 Advances in Social Work Vol. 11 No. 2 (Fall 2010), 188-202
Evaluating Qualitative Research for Social Work Practitioners
Cynthia A. Lietz
Luis E. Zayas
Abstract: In the field of social work, practitioners must remain well informed regarding
research advances in their respective areas. Proponents of evidence-based practice
expect social workers to engage in practice informed by the best available evidence.
Research studies conducted through the lens of qualitative inquiry provide important
contributions to the social work knowledge base. In many cases, these studies can
represent the best available research regarding emerging problems or application of
evidence to diverse populations. Yet, despite the relevance of qualitative research, many
social workers receive minimal training regarding qualitative methodology hindering
their ability to conduct and evaluate research that uses qualitative methods. The purpose
of this article is to provide students and practitioners some orientation regarding
qualitative research methods and to highlight potential strategies researchers and
consumers of research may use to evaluate the trustworthiness and quality of qualitative
research. Specifically, the concept of trustworthiness is defined in the context of
qualitative inquiry and questions social work practitioners can ask when evaluating the
quality and applicability of a qualitative research study are provided.
Keywords: Qualitative, research methods, trustworthiness
INTRODUCTION
As social workers intervene with individuals, families, and communities, it is critical
to remain informed regarding the literature base and research advances specific to one’s
field of practice. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW)’s Code of Ethics
(1999) asserts the importance of engaging in practice informed by prevailing research
when it states “social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging
knowledge relevant to social work.” Similarly, the Council on Social Education (CSWE)
recently identified ten core competencies of social work practice, one of which involves
engaging in “research-informed practice and practice-informed research” (Holloway,
Black, Hoffman, & Pierce, 2009, p. 2). Moreover, the evidence-based practice (EBP)
movement has increased the expectation that social workers actively seek research
findings related to their particular domain of practice (Howard, McMillen, & Pollio,
2003; Jenson, 2005). Specifically, EBP asserts social workers make decisions guided by
research evidence working in conjunction with clinical expertise and client preferences
(Gambrill, 2007; Gilgun, 2005; McNeece & Thyer, 2004).
Although most would agree with the importance of identifying and reading research
articles related to one’s area of practice, there are many challenges social workers face as
they seek to achieve this goal (Adams, Matto, & LeCroy, 2009). First, social workers are
under increased pressure to do more in less time. Caseloads are increasing and budget
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2010, 11(2) 189
cuts in many agencies require social workers to serve multiple roles. Additionally, many
practitioners do not have access to library databases and other resources that may have
been available to them while pursuing their education. Coupled with the challenges of
finding the needed time and resources, even once social workers identify current research
articles related to their field of practice, many struggle to ascertain the quality and
applicability of a particular study to their work.
The purpose of this article is to address the question of quality and applicability as it
relates to qualitative research in social work. A growing literature base stemming from
qualitative research studies produce findings of relevance to social work practice.
However, a recent study reviewing master’s level social work syllabi found content
regarding qualitative methods was “generally very limited” (Drisko, 2008, p. 89)
suggesting many social workers receive limited education about evaluating qualitative
methods. To help overcome this limitation, this article seeks to provide social work
practitioners some guidance when assessing the methodological quality of studies that
employ qualitative methods.
QUALITATIVE METHODOLOGY
Qualitative research represents a “family of methods” stemming from a variety of
traditions (Padgett, 2008 p. 1). Denzin and Lincoln (2008) explain, “qualitative
researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret,
phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (p. 4). Qualitative inquiry
developed through a rich history of research seeking contextualized, in-depth descriptions
that offer increased understanding.
Although qualitative inquiry is consistent in its naturalistic approach, researchers
adopt a variety of perspectives that inform their work. Many qualitative research articles
will identify or implicitly embrace a philosophical stance or paradigm to frame their
work, such as post-positivist, social constructivist, or critical theory (Creswell & Miller,
2000; Morrow, 2007). Understanding the perspective used to guide the study will help
the reader understand the epistemological position of the researchers and the methods
used to answer the research question (Drisko, 1997). For example, post-positivist
research seeks methods that are systematic, constructivist research asserts all knowledge
is co-constructed thus prioritizing depth over methodological structure, and the critical
paradigm calls for collaboration and corroboration with research participants (Creswell &
Miller, 2000). These paradigmatic stances impact the way researchers conceptualize their
qualitative studies (Morrow, 2007). Therefore, as Caelli, Ray, and Mill (2003) suggest,
“each qualitative approach needs to be evaluated in a manner that is congruent with its
epistemological and methodological origins” (p. 7).
Creswell (1998) identifies five qualitative inquiry traditions: ethnography,
phenomenology, biography/narrative, grounded theory, and case studies. Others also
discuss critical, feminist, and action research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008; DePoy, Hartman,
& Haslett, 1999; Olesen, 2000), and new approaches continue to emerge. Many suggest
embracing one of these approaches when conceptualizing a qualitative study is one way
of enhancing the quality of the project as these frameworks rest on established
Lietz, Zayas/EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH 190
philosophical foundations. Also, certain strategies for rigor are deemed more suitable
than others based on the study’s approach (Padgett 2008). However, there has been a
recent increase in qualitative studies using generalized qualitative methods rather than a
specific tradition. Some suggest these generalized studies can produce useful findings
when conducted systematically, even if they do not embrace one of the recognized
qualitative approaches (Caelli et al., 2003; Patton, 2002).
QUALITATIVE AND QUANTITATIVE RESEARCH: COMMONALITIES
AND DIFFERENCES
Research seeks the development of knowledge derived from empirical evidence. Data
are collected and analyzed through procedures that are reported for review and
evaluation, an important part of the scientific tradition. Despite these commonalities,
there remain some specific differences between quantitative and qualitative research
(Frankel, 1999; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Rubin & Babbie, 2010). First, their purposes are
often different. Quantitative research often seeks through measurement to test
hypotheses, to determine outcomes and to draw generalizable conclusions to a defined
population. Qualitative research tends to be interpretivist and seeks to understand a
phenomenon in its context in greater depth (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008; Morrow, 2007). It
seeks to elucidate the nature of social practices, relationships, and beliefs along with the
meaning of human experiences from the participants’ point of view. Generally,
qualitative studies differ from quantitative studies in that they are inductive rather than
deductive, and they consider experiences within context rather than controlling for
variables as in an experiment (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Lincoln & Guba, 1986).
Quantitative studies may administer a standardized instrument to measure a variable with
closed-ended items developed and tested for their ability to produce valid and reliable
data. On the other hand, qualitative inquiry employs data collection strategies such as in-
depth interviews, participant observation, and archival reviews (Polkinghorne, 2005).
Understanding these differences is the first step in evaluating research articles as it is
essential that there is congruency between the purpose of the research and the methods
chosen to achieve those aims (Frankel, 1999).
Once practitioners gain some clarity regarding the fundamental commonalities and
differences between quantitative and qualitative research, social workers need to develop
an understanding regarding how to evaluate the quality of studies conducted within each
methodological tradition. Critique is a part of the research tradition. It is expected that
researchers conduct their projects through procedures that are presented to the research
community allowing readers to draw conclusions from findings that are appropriate
considering each study’s limitations. In quantitative research, studies are evaluated
according to the level of reliability and validity related to the measurement procedures,
the internal validity established through the design of the study, and the external validity
or the degree to which the sampling procedures allowed for generalizability (Creswell,
2008; Lincoln & Guba, 1986; Rubin & Babbie, 2010). In qualitative research, the process
for ascertaining the quality of research is quite different according to its varied purposes
and methods. The following section describes criteria used to evaluate qualitative
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2010, 11(2) 191
research along with the strategies used by researchers to increase the quality of their
qualitative studies.
EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
The issue of evaluating qualitative research can prompt a lengthy debate about varied
perspectives regarding epistemology and whether the activity of truth finding is even
possible (Emden & Sandelowski, 1998; 1999; Kincheloe, 2001; Whittemore, Chase, &
Mandle, 2001). Although we acknowledge the importance and relevance of this ongoing
debate, our purpose here is not to engage in a philosophical discussion regarding ways of
knowing, but to instead provide practitioners some practical ways for looking at the
quality of qualitative research. We acknowledge there are differences of opinion on these
issues. Therefore, we chose to utilize the ideas of Lincoln and Guba (1985) when
discussing the topic of evaluating quality. Whittemore, Chase, and Mandle (2001)
conclude Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) criteria to be the “gold standard” with “staying
power” (p. 527). Their conceptualization represents the most cited standards for
evaluating qualitative work and provides some practical direction for practitioners.
Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) seminal work identified criteria evaluating qualitative
research. They suggest that qualitative studies should achieve “trustworthiness;” a study
that represents as closely as possible the perspectives of the research participants.
Consider that a research team wants to understand the experience of youth who age out of
foster care and choose to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with a sample of young
adults who identify with this experience. The researchers may have some preconceived
ideas regarding what these participants might share. Despite these ideas, the study is
trustworthy if steps are taken in the research procedures to ensure the perspectives of
these participants are authentically gathered and accurately represented in the findings.
Lincoln and Guba (1985) address this by considering four concepts that work together to
achieve trustworthiness – credibility, transferability, auditability, and confirmability.
These concepts are defined further to provide guidelines practitioners can use when
evaluating qualitative studies. A series of strategies researchers can use to enhance the
quality of qualitative research are also discussed.
Credibility
Credibility refers to the degree to which a study’s findings represent the meanings of
the research participants (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Drisko (1997) suggests qualitative
“interpretations must be authentic and accurate to the descriptions of the primary
participants” (p. 191). Padgett (2008) explains that, to achieve credibility, qualitative
research must manage the risk of research reactivity and bias. Research reactivity refers
to the potential for the researcher or the study procedures to exert an impact on the
participants thereby changing the findings of the study. For example, a researcher
interested in family violence may design a study that videotapes family interactions for
the purpose of understanding the nature of relationships shaped by aggression. However,
the presence of the camera when researching a socially undesirable behavior will likely
affect the way families interact. When researchers analyze these tapes, they will observe
a family’s interaction while being recorded, not a true representation of how that family
Lietz, Zayas/EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH 192
may have behaved if the camera were not present. Research reactivity can also occur
based on how researchers develop and ask interview questions, display affirming or non-
affirming non-verbal communication, or even through their degree of participation when
engaging in observations. In order to manage this threat, qualitative researchers need to
remain aware of how the research procedures may exert an influence on the credibility of
the data.
In addition to reactivity, researchers also remain mindful regarding the potential
impact of their own bias. Researcher bias involves how researchers’ socio-political
locations and preconceived ideas may shape the way they design the study and engage in
analysis, thereby potentially leading to a misrepresentation of the data (Lietz, Langer, &
Furman, 2006). For example, if a researcher wants to explore client satisfaction with a
parent training program, the researcher may conduct a focus group in which participants
discuss their experiences. If the researcher has a stake in the outcome, she may be
tempted to engage in interviewing that encourages discussion of successful outcomes
while failing to attend or draw out comments related to negative impressions of the
program. Researcher bias can affect other aspects of a research project beyond data
collection. The research question, decisions about research procedures, and the process of
data analysis are all influenced to some degree by the experience, knowledge base and
standpoint from which one comes to a research project (Horsburgh, 2003).
As qualitative researchers seek to achieve credibility, there are strategies that can be
used to manage the threats of research reactivity and bias. To manage research reactivity,
researchers may try to make their data gathering efforts less conspicuous and intrusive
without deception. For example, video-recorders may be concealed or employed more
discretely with knowledge of the participants. Researchers conducting participant-
observation may choose at times to act less as a ‘participant’ and more as an ‘observer’ to
minimize reactivity. Junker (1960) describes a continuum of degrees of engagement that
ranges from complete participant to observer as participant to participant as observer
and to complete observer. Remaining mindful regarding the potential impacts research
procedures can have on the findings is an important part of conceptualizing a qualitative
research study.
In addition to reactivity, qualitative researchers manage the threat of researcher bias
as they seek to achieve credibility. To manage such bias, researchers engage in reflexivity
and seek to build self-awareness regarding their own influence on the research project
(Drisko, 1997). Reflexivity is defined by Horsburgh (2003) as “active acknowledgement
by the researcher that her/his own actions and decisions will inevitably impact upon the
meaning and context of the experience under investigation” (p. 308). Reflexivity involves
a thoughtful consideration of one’s standpoint through reflection that may occur through
keeping a written journal and engaging in dialog with peers (Johnson & Waterfield,
2004). Lietz and colleagues (2006) conducted a study that analyzed autobiographical
accounts regarding Jewish identity. The researchers describe extensive efforts to remain
reflexive. Specifically, a journal was kept during the analysis process that recorded the
analysts reactions to what was being read. In addition, the research team met and engaged
in lengthy debates about how the differences in spiritual identity within the research team
brought diverse perspectives of the transcripts. Ultimately, the journal and meetings
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2010, 11(2) 193
brought a spirit of openness and accountability to the research process that the authors
found highly important to their ability to offer a credible portrayal of the qualitative data.
Reflexivity is not an activity that occurs at one point in time, but instead represents a
process that unfolds throughout the entire research process (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004).
Evidence of reflexivity may be discussed in the methods section of an article. Some
authors may also include a statement of self disclosure where the researchers
acknowledge their own bias and report their potential influence on the findings.
Reflexivity is a critical part of managing research reactivity and bias and should be
evident in the research article. Creswell and Miller (2000) suggest this is particularly
relevant for studies stemming from a critical paradigm, although we contend reflexivity is
an appropriate strategy to enhance trustworthiness in any qualitative research regardless
of approach.
Other strategies to increase credibility include triangulation, member checking, and
thick descriptions. Padgett (2008) defines triangulation as a concept adapted from
navigational science involving the use of “two or more sources to achieve a
comprehensive picture of a fixed point of reference” (p. 186). By gathering data from
multiple sources (data triangulation) or utilizing multiple analysts to review the data
(observer triangulation), qualitative researchers are able to achieve what Drisko (1997)
refers to as “completeness” or an exhaustive response to the research question. Data
triangulation might involve gathering data at multiple points in time or using varied data
collection strategies such as interviews, focus groups, or observations (Creswell & Miller,
2000). Triangulation by observer involves having more than one researcher analyze the
data to be sure important ideas are not missed and that there is some consistency to how
data analysis is linked to the findings. Some projects may involve multiple observers and
interviewers working independently to collect the same type of data. For projects
stemming from a post-positivist perspective, training should be provided to standardize
their approach and minimize bias and variability in the way data is collected. Having a
list of guiding questions, for example, helps to focus the observations of multiple
observers in recording the phenomenon of interest. Padgett (2008) suggests that
triangulation is particularly relevant with case studies and grounded-theory approaches,
including mixed method studies (methodological triangulation).
When performing certain qualitative data analyses, such as content analysis, it may
also be important to compute the intra- or inter-rater reliability of coders or analysts
(Shek, Tang & Han, 2005). Particularly studies coming from the post-positivist
perspective prioritize the use of systematic procedures (Creswell & Miller, 2000).
However, for qualitative traditions which assert reality is constructed intersubjectively,
computing inter-rater reliability is not consistent with the philosophical underpinnings of
this position. When evaluating qualitative research, it is important to remember that
credibility stems from the “intended inquiry purposes;” thus credible research decisions
are consistent with one’s purpose (Patton, 2002, p. 266), requiring practitioners to think
critically and contextually when judging methodological decision making.
Member checking involves corroborating the research findings by seeking feedback
from the research participants (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Padgett, 2008). Member
Lietz, Zayas/EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH 194
checking can involve including selected research participants in the data analysis or
returning to a sample of participants with a draft of the findings to ascertain their sense of
agreement with the findings (Shenton, 2004). For example, a researcher interested in
resilience may interview adults who grew up in high risk circumstances to understand
how some individuals come to cope effectively with adversity over time. The research
team may identify a subset of their sample to provide feedback about the analysis. These
individuals are provided a description of the preliminary analysis and are encouraged to
offer feedback regarding whether the findings appear to reflect their own experiences. In
some cases, specific questions may be used to guide this discussion when the researchers
are seeking to clarify the meaning of certain quotes or accounts.
While some identify member checking to be one of the most valuable strategies for
increasing trustworthiness in qualitative research (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Lietz et al.,
2006), others acknowledge that member checking can raise practical concerns such as not
being able to locate research participants or assuming that a sample of members’
experiences are similar enough that they will all agree to the findings (Padgett, 2008).
Despite these concerns, member checking is particularly important for studies stemming
from the critical paradigm as these studies seek collaboration and corroboration with
research participants (Creswell & Miller, 2000).
The notion of thick description derives from the tradition of interpretive ethnography
in anthropology, and involves “deep, dense, detailed accounts” of a phenomenon of
inquiry with particular consideration of the context(s) in which it occurs (Denzin, 1989,
p. 83). According to Geertz (1975), cultures are “webs of significance” and their analysis
involves “an interpretive one in search of meaning” (p. 5). In this tradition, to adequately
study a phenomenon, it is important to obtain ample and contextual documentation from
which to derive knowledgeable and insightful interpretations. Specifically, Creswell and
Miller (2000) explain:
The purpose of thick description is that it creates verisimilitude, statements that
produce for the readers the feelings that they have experienced, or could
experience, the events being described in a study. Thus credibility is established
through the lens of readers who read a narrative account, and are transported
into a setting or situation (p. 128-129).
Thick description is deemed particularly significant in constructivist research and in
ethnographic studies. However, adequate description of the context and research
procedures is relevant for qualitative research regardless of paradigmatic positions.
One strategy used to support the process of obtaining thick descriptions includes
prolonged engagement. This involves conducting multiple interviews or spending
extended time observing participants to achieve a complete look at the experience
(Lincoln & Guba, 1986). While seeking to establish credibility, researchers may
document the training of interviewers or observers, the frequency, duration, and intensity
of data collection efforts, probing techniques, whether interviews were audio-recorded or
notes were taken, and whether data saturation was achieved. Ample use and discussion of
examples of thematic findings is also helpful. Although many journals cannot
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2010, 11(2) 195
accommodate lengthy descriptions, it remains the author’s responsibility to adequately
describe efforts taken to thoroughly account for the participants’ experiences.
Transferability
Transferability refers to the degree to which the findings are applicable or useful to
theory, practice and future research (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Sandelowski (1986) refers
to this concept as “fittingness” suggesting transferability has to do with the degree to
which findings fit situations outside of the study and are found meaningful. Qualitative
research studies are not generalizable according to quantitative standards, because
probability sampling is not employed. Instead, qualitative studies typically use purposive
sampling to seek a specific group of participants who have experienced the phenomenon
being studied. The number of research participants is typically smaller than quantitative
studies, because as researchers seek to study experiences in-depth, the quality and
exhaustive nature of each case becomes more important than the number of participants
(Polkinghorne, 1995). In addition, constructivists challenge the relevance of
generalizability in qualitative research, “arguing that an emphasis on generalizing strips
away the context that imbues a qualitative study with credibility” (Padgett, 2008, p. 182).
Although qualitative researchers do not seek generalizability, transferability is
achieved when the findings have applicability to another setting, to theory, to practice, or
to future research. Devers (1999) suggests for findings to achieve transferability, “…the
contexts must be similar. Therefore, it is the role of the researcher to identify key aspects
of the context from which the findings emerge and the extent to which they may be
applicable to other contexts” (p. 1165). Therefore, as researchers seek to achieve
transferability, thick descriptions are again relevant allowing readers to understand ways
findings may be applicable to other settings (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Lincoln & Guba,
1986; Shenton, 2004). The study’s context should be described in detail and should relate
to the context of other groups or settings (Devers, 1999). For example, in a current study,
Zayas and colleagues are documenting the challenges that quality assurance professionals
experienced in performing their functions in community-based behavioral health
agencies. These study findings along with the suggestions that followed may be
applicable in and transferable to other community agencies that provide similar services
with comparable staff, resources, and clientele.
Finally, when assessing transferability, credibility is again important. Just as a study
that produces reliable, but invalid data is not useful in quantitative research, qualitative
studies that produce transferable findings that are not credible do not contribute to the
knowledgebase.
Auditability
Lincoln and Guba (1985) identify the third criteria for evaluating qualitative research
projects as auditability. Auditability refers to the degree to which research procedures are
documented allowing someone outside the project to follow and critique the research
process (Padgett, 2008). While quantitative research requires strict adherence to study
procedures, qualitative methodology does allow for some flexibility. In fact, some
Lietz, Zayas/EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH 196
suggest high quality projects should demonstrate an iterative process that changes as the
study unfolds (Davies & Dodd, 2002; Drisko, 1997; Frankel, 1999; Morrow, 2007). For
example, interview instruments may be revised during early stages of data collection if
questions are not yielding quality information. Proposed sample sizes may be increased
or decreased based on data saturation. Also, codebook development involves painstaking
deliberations among analysts based on their assessment of a certain number and type of
data sources. When, why and how are such consequential decisions made? One way of
addressing the need to make decisions and changes along the way is to provide detailed
documentation throughout the research project. Projects stemming from a post-positivist
perspective will commonly prioritize systematic procedures such as these (Creswell &
Miller, 2000). However, we contend keeping an account of the research procedures and
decisions seems relevant for all approaches.
The strategies used to increase auditability include keeping an audit trail and
engaging in peer debriefing. An audit trail is a written account of the research process
that includes a reporting of what occurred throughout the research project along with a
demonstration of reflexivity. Mullins, Cheung, and Lietz (under review) recently
conducted a project that involved describing families’ descriptions of family preservation
services. In this project, the authors chose to maintain the audit trail through Google
Docs. This document included detailed accounts of each research meeting, the research
decisions that were made throughout the process, and each member’s reactions after
engaging in any coding of the transcripts. By using an online document, any member of
the team was able to go into and add to the document at any time, providing an efficient
way to maintain a detailed account of the project from beginning to end. Although a copy
or excerpts from the audit trail are rarely included in the research article, many authors
will report the maintenance of an audit trail to demonstrate auditability. It can help to
clarify concerns and increase the confidence of other researchers and reviewers about the
conduct of the study.
Additionally, peer debriefing involves consulting with colleagues experienced in
qualitative methodology (Padgett, 2008). By discussing research decisions and
procedures, important feedback can be provided enhancing the quality of the project
(Shenton, 2004). Peer debriefing can help to promote reflexivity allowing researchers to
become more sensitized to the effects of their socio-political position. It can also enhance
the research process by generating new ideas and identifying potential pitfalls related to
the methodology. For example, in the study referenced earlier of Jewish identity (Lietz et
al., 2006), the researcher engaged in the analysis of these autobiographical accounts did
not personally identify with this spiritual tradition. In order to increase reflexivity and
accountability, a decision was made to consult with another qualitative researcher who
was Jewish to provide an insider’s perspective to the data analysis process.
An audit trail is of particular relevance for post-positivist qualitative research while
peer debriefing is seen by some as necessary for projects stemming from a critical
standpoint (Creswell & Miller, 2000). However, some suggest that peer debriefing and
auditing may represent “…potentially contaminating influences that interfere with the
search for deep structures of meaning” in phenomenological approaches (Padgett, 2008,
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2010, 11(2) 197
p. 194). In other words, these approaches are divorced from the lived experience,
possibly leading the researchers away from their intimate interaction with data.
Confirmability
Confirmability refers to the ability of others to confirm or corroborate the findings
(Drisko, 1997; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Shenton (2004) asserts “steps must be taken to
help ensure as far as possible that the work’s findings are the result of the experiences
and ideas of the informants, rather than the characteristics and preferences of the
researcher” (p. 72). To achieve confirmability, a study demonstrates that the findings and
data are clearly linked. There are several strategies that a researcher can use to increase a
study’s confirmability. Already discussed were the benefits of member checking, peer
debriefing, and audit trails. These strategies allow collaborators external to the research
team an opportunity to evaluate or confirm the research procedures.
In addition, negative case analysis is a strategy used when a researcher deliberately
seeks contrasting evidence, a strategy commonly employed in a grounded theory
approach (Padgett, 2008). Frankel (1999) suggests looking at “deviant cases” is “perhaps
most important” when determining whether the qualitative researcher achieved an
adequate look at the research question (p. 344). An example might include a researcher
who is exploring diverse perspectives regarding immigration policy. If the sample
included a group of citizens who favored a particular policy position, negative case
analysis would require a researcher to continue recruitment into the study until alternative
or contrasting perspectives were represented in the findings. Negative case analysis is
relevant not just during sampling but also throughout data analysis. It requires that
analysts seek disconfirming evidence when analyzing their qualitative data. Creswell and
Miller (2000) note that this strategy is especially useful for constructivist research. Drisko
(1997) suggests seeking contradictory evidence and diverse experiences is essential to
achieving a complete or exhaustive exploration of a phenomenon.
Table 1 provides a summary of research strategies available to increase the
trustworthiness of a qualitative research project. Notwithstanding, no project is expected
to employ all of these strategies. There may be some projects where triangulation seems
particularly relevant, such as mixed-methods studies, whereas member checking may be
critical in another, such as participatory inquiry. As one evaluates the quality of a
qualitative project, while it is not necessary or even appropriate for a researcher to engage
in all of the strategies provided in Table 1, there should be evidence that the researcher
addressed research reactivity/bias and enhanced credibility, transferability, auditability,
and confirmability in accordance with the paradigmatic lens of the project (Creswell &
Miller, 2000).
Lietz, Zayas/EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH 198
Table 1. Research Strategies for Increasing Trustworthiness of Qualitative
Research
Reflexivity A thoughtful consideration of how a researcher’s standpoint
can influence the research.
Observer Triangulation Using more than one researcher to analyze the data.
Data Triangulation Collecting data from multiple sources such as interviews,
focus groups and interviews.
Prolonged Engagement Conducting multiple interviews or spending extended time
with participants to achieve an exhaustive look at the
experience.
Member Checking Including participants in analysis or returning to a sample
of participants to corroborate the findings.
Thick Descriptions A thorough representation of the phenomenon of inquiry
and its context as perceived and experienced by study
participants.
Audit Trail Keeping a detailed written account of the research
procedures.
Peer Debriefing Meeting with mentors or other researchers engaged in
qualitative research to dialogue regarding research
decisions.
Negative Case Analysis Seeking contrasting evidence through sampling and
analysis.
Sources: Lincoln and Guba (1985); Padgett (2008); Shenton (2004)
EVALUATING QUALITATIVE RESEARCH FOR PRACTITIONERS
When evaluating qualitative research, Lincoln and Guba (1985) suggest researchers
plan and conduct their studies seeking to achieve trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is
evaluated according to the degree to which the study is credible, transferable, auditable
and confirmable. Table 1 summarizes ten strategies researchers can use to increase the
quality of their qualitative studies and Table 2 provides a list of questions practitioners
may ask to determine a study’s trustworthiness. Important to remember is that not all
strategies need to be utilized for a study to be trustworthy. It is for the reader to determine
whether the strategies chosen align with the purpose, epistemological positioning, and
design of the project, and whether they adequately manage threats to research reactivity
and bias. In addition, evaluators of qualitative research articles should remain mindful of
the impacts of these threats on both data collection and the analysis of the data.
Regardless of how rigorous data analysis strategies are, data collection procedures must
first collect data that are authentic and as exhaustive as possible, taking a comprehensive
look at an experience in spatio-temporal context. Once a researcher has established that
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Fall 2010, 11(2) 199
data are “thick” and complete, strategies are once again taken to ensure that analytic
processes lead to an accurate representation of the participants’ perspectives.
Table 2. Questions Practitioners Can Ask to Evaluate Trustworthiness of
Qualitative Research Articles
9 Did the research study identify a paradigmatic lens or research tradition in the
article?
9 If there was no tradition, were the purpose and epistemological positions made
clear?
9 Were the methods consistent with the tradition and/or purpose?
9 How was research reactivity and bias managed in the study?
9 What strategies were used to establish the credibility?
9 How extensive or ‘thick’ were the descriptions supporting findings? Was the
context adequately described?
9 Were the findings applicable or useful for your population, setting or area of
practice?
9 Was there evidence of an audit trail and/or peer consultation on the project?
9 How did the researchers corroborate their conclusions?
9 To what degree do you find the research procedures increased the
trustworthiness of the findings?
Considering heightened expectations that social work practitioners are able to
identify, evaluate, and use research in their practice, knowledge of research procedures
has become an essential part of being a social work practitioner. Rigorous qualitative
research can offer important implications for social work practice. The purpose of this
article is to provide social workers some concepts to help frame their evaluation of the
trustworthiness of qualitative research. As practitioners become more confident regarding
their understanding of qualitative methods, they can better ascertain the applicability or
usefulness of qualitative studies in their practice settings.
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Author’s note:
Address correspondence to: Cynthia A. Lietz, School of Social Work, Arizona State
University, 411 N. Central Ave, Suite 800, Phoenix, AZ, 85004-0689. Email:
clietz@asu.edu
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