Qualitative Research Methods

This essay will examine the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research methods and discuss their usefulness in psychological research. Ideas discussed in this essay will include: the ability of qualitative research to produce “facts”; the idea that qualitative research can build on and explore other studies and concepts in depth and the usefulness of the individual approach of qualitative research and how it compares with the nomothetic approach of quantitative research methods. Limitations such as the issue of validity will also be discussed.

Qualitative research has many benefits as a research method and in some cases can be more beneficial than its quantitative counterparts. Qualitative research is usually subjective in nature and is generally interested in discovering the reasons “why” an individual behaves or thinks in a certain way (Marks & Yardley, 2004).These meanings and reasons cannot be scientifically proven in the ways of quantitative methods but instead offer an interpretation of the insights of how individuals make sense of their own feelings and ideas and those of others. This contrasts with the objective nature of quantitative research. Quantitative methods provide us with information regarding “what” a group thinks and can be proven statistically (Barnham, 2015).

Historically speaking there seems to be a negative bias associated with qualitative research methods in psychology due to its lack of providing concrete statistically proven facts (Choy, 2014). This highlights a limitation in its potential usefulness regarding psychological research. The lack of “facts” seen in qualitative methods such as grounded theory and discourse analysis is a strong argument for individuals who are solely proprietors of the quantitative method. However, it can be argued that qualitative research methods also, in some way, identify “facts.” These can be considered more subconscious in-depth “mental facts” that can only be attained through thorough discussion and analysis (Barnham,2015). These indicate what the individual is really thinking as by probing and interrogating, more information may come to light than seen in quantitative studies. This may indicate that these “facts” may be on par with or potentially stronger than their quantitative counterparts. For example, in a quantitative study by Rodgers, Skowron & Chabro, 2012) descriptive statistics were used to discover what the motivations were for individuals becoming members of pro-anorexia (pro-ana) websites. Here it was found that 83% of participants agreed that pro-ana websites provided support. Nevertheless, within other qualitative methods such as grounded theory (Yeshua-Katz & Martins, 2013) and Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smethhurst & Kuss, 2016), similar findings were discovered. This could suggest that qualitative methods could also identify “facts” and are therefore just as useful at providing a scientific framework for phenomena as studies that use only quantitative methods.

However, unlike quantitative methods they also have the opportunity to expand on these “facts” and delve into why or how an individual feels supported. This indicates another useful feature of the employment of qualitative methods as due to the ambiguous, flexible nature of qualitative methods, they can greater expand on other studies. In the case of Yeshua-Katz & Martins’ (2013) study, grounded theory identified social support as being key to multiple themes including motivation for blogging and benefits of blogging. This further explained findings of the quantitative analysis by offering insight into the thoughts of the individual, this included feeling misunderstood offline and feeling that the forum provides unconditional support however no one tries to “fix” them.

Quantitative studies are useful in finding statistically significant links between items, however, this can lead to important information being discarded as individuals are often required to fill in restrictive measures such as Likert scales which provide no context or reasoning behind a participant’s answer. In Brett, Heriot-Maitland, McGuire & Peters’ (2013) study the quantitative method regression analyses was employed to identify at what point do psychotic like experiences become distressing. This study found that lower distress was indicative of spiritual appraisals, good social support, understanding and having a neutral response to the occurrence of anomalous experiences. Despite this study providing the reader with a statistically significant link between these variables and how they cause lower distress, we do not have much in-depth information denoting in what way they cause an individual to feel less distress. In a qualitative study analysing a similar concept, IPA was used to identify themes associated with psychotic like occurrences in both clinical and non-clinical populations (Heriot-Maitland, Knight & Peters, 2012). This study found similar conclusions to the previously mentioned study it nevertheless, identified them more fully. For example, in Brett, Herriot-Maitland, McGuire & Peters’ (2013) study appraisals of “other people” were said to cause more distress and appraisals of a “spiritual” nature were indicative of lower distress levels. Whereas Heriot-Maitland, Knight & Peters’ (2012) discovered through the super-ordinate theme of appraisal/incorporation that many of the clinical and non-clinical participants considered multiple appraisal possibilities for their experiences. These featured excerpts stating that individuals were willing to attribute their causes to both medical and spiritual phenomenon and were likely to seek help from both paradigms. Another participant stated that she felt as though she was “balancing a really fine line” regarding the idea of the experiences being psychotic or spiritual. She stated that despite spirituality helping lessen distress, this qualitative study indicated a further analysis of the idea of trust that everything, including herself and the universe is ok. Therefore, it is evident that this study not only builds on the idea of spiritual appraisals but also in what manner these appraisals help lesson distress.

Another useful feature of qualitative research is the idea that it uses an idiographic (individual) approach rather than a nomothetic (group) approach which is consistent with quantitative studies and those featured in much psychological research. This often means that data samples are much smaller than those featured in a quantitative sample, however this limitation creates room for a more rich, individual based analysis. This individualist approach can better address the variability present in quantitative methods as they can identify individual differences within a sample of similar individuals. In the case of IPA the researcher has the chance to work with a small sample of participants each with their own personal experiences and thoughts. In a study by Wagstaff et al (2014) the experience of eight researchers and their journey with IPA was studied. A common strength found here, was the ability for IPA to give the participants a voice. This is useful in the way that each individual person can express their unique views and provide a more complete picture of the topic in question. It is suggested in Wagstaff et al’s (2014) study that this is missing from quantitative research and is often not used to the best of its ability in other such qualitative research. However, due to its idiographic nature it is evident that the data and analyses generated cannot necessarily always be generalised to the greater population or even to other members of a similar group. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that conclusions can’t be generalised at all, it can be suggested that conclusions can be generalised theoretically rather than empirically. Despite not identifying a consistent generalisability across all the population, studies may still be somewhat relevant so long as readers take care to reflect on how applicable the studies are to those in the wider population (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). Practically speaking, In the case of discourse analysis it is difficult to make assumptions between what would happen in a “real” world context, as this is constructed by the individual. Thus, it is difficult for discourse analysis to provide a practical basis for an intervention in the real world, unlike IPA which gives the researchers the chance to use their research in applied settings and practice (Golsworthy & Coyle, 2001).

However, the usefulness of qualitative methods can be brought into question when discussing the validity of the data in relation to its interpretation. Wagstaff et al (2014) discussed the positives regarding using IPA as a method of analysis and found that researchers were unanimous in their belief that encompassing the perceptions of the researcher and participant’s alike were an excellent aid in gathering rich data. However, this isn’t without its difficulties as the interpretation of the individual’s personal world may be complicated by prior conceptions held by the researcher conducting and analysing the data (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999). Therefore, it is evident that the usefulness of qualitative methods of research may in fact depend on the abilities of the researcher and their ability to self-reflect and analyse the data (Brocki & Wearden, 2006). Interpretation and prior beliefs is also a risk for other qualitative methods such as discourse analysis. A researcher may already hold some beliefs about what an individual is intending to convey when engaging in discourse about a specific topic and this is then likely to affect the analysis (De Saussure, 2007). The previously held beliefs may cause them to seek confirmation that their ideas were correct and therefore they may miss represent the speech or meaning that the participant is trying to convey. This limitation can also be extended to grounded theory and the identification of codes. The way the researcher interprets the events described by the participant may have an impact on how they name the categories (Moghaddam, 2006).

Nevertheless, if the researcher in question abides by the guidelines used to assess validity and quality in qualitative research such as those by Elliot, Fisher & Rennie (1999) and Yardley (2000) then these issues should be minimised. An example of such a way could be by ensuring that constant comparison is being utilized and that more than one investigator is involved in the coding. An example of this can be seen in a study by Dallos & Denford (2008) in which they utilized both IPA and discourse analysis to explore attachment themes and relationship in families with eating disorders. Here regarding IPA, the texts were reread, and codes were discussed between the two research to then generate themes. However, the validity of the study would increase by more researchers identifying the same codes and a level of expertise present. As in the case of Fox, Larkin & Leung (2011) where three researchers were present one of which was an experiences IPA investigator. This then increases the chances of the data and conclusions being valid and of quality.

This essay aimed to establish the usefulness of qualitative research in the specific domain of psychology. Using research from a variety of psychologically relevant areas such as eating disorders (Smethhurst & Kuss, 2016) and psychosis (Heriot-Maitland, Knight & Peters, 2012) it is evident that many positive uses of qualitative research methods have been identified. The most prevalent of which are its individual approach which allows it to expand on previous studies in a way that delves deeper than its quantitative counterparts (Yeshua-Katz & Martins, 2013). This essay also debated the idea of validity. It is apparent that quantitative studies can be tested for validity in a way that is not possible for qualitative studies as statistical tests can scientifically prove a causal link between variables and potentially label them as “facts” (Barnham,2015). However, this essay argues that “facts” can also be obtained from qualitative studies as they often have the same outcomes and ideas (Yeshua-Katz & Martins, 2013). This indicates that there is some consensus that facts are apparent in both research methods and therefore qualitative methods are useful in this manner. However, a drawback regarding validity is the way in which codes and experiences are interpreted by the researcher as if done incorrectly with prior conceptions and idea then this can harm the validity of the research and negate its usefulness in contributing to science and solving a problem (Duit, 2016). It may be wise to infer that a mixed method approach to psychology may be the most useful as it incorporates the strengths of both (Cresswell & Creswell, 2017)in terms of generating, rich and full data that also retains its generalisability and validity.