5 Tips for strengthening your qualitative research and writing

Qualitative research methods allow investigators to go beyond merely counting how often something occurs or with how many individuals. Rather, they provide insights in to how or why certain actions are taken or the ways in which people interact with or interpret their lived experiences. This added richness can be critical to forming effective interventions to create behavior change, which is common in not just health and medicine but educational practice as well. Yet, many researchers are hesitant to journey into qualitative research beyond a few open-ended survey questions, due to concerns about qualitative research lacking the rigor and validity of quantitative studies. Although there are many approaches to qualitative research and the accepted norms for conducting and writing up this type of research can vary according to your academic discipline, the following five tips can help provide a solid foundation for starting your qualitative journey.

1) Don’t confuse data collection methods with your qualitative approach.

When I’m asked to give advice to people new to qualitative research, I often inquire as to what type of qualitative approach they are considering to best answer their key research questions?  A common response is “focus groups”.  While focus groups or key information interviews are methods of qualitative data collection, they are not theoretical qualitative approaches. Recognized qualitative research approaches include grounded theory, phenomenology, feminist theory, ethnography, narrative analysis, case study, and queer theory, just to name a few. Before starting your study, be sure to familiarize with the broad family of qualitative approaches and select the one that best supports your area of inquiry. Whichever one you choose, each has a distinct method for shaping research questions, the construction of your interview script, and approach to analyses.

2) Understand how sample sizes differ between qualitative and quantitative studies.

With quantitative research design, investigators often do a power calculation to determine the number of subjects needed in each study group (control or intervention) or use a calculator to help estimate needed number of survey respondents based on desired power and margin of error. Qualitative research differs from the quantitative approaches in that most often it requires a lesser number of subjects. Qualitative research focuses on creating a “rich description” of the experience of interest. Rather than focusing on a certain predetermined number of study participants, qualitative researchers seek to obtain thematic saturation. I cover more about thematic saturation in tip #3.

3) Thematic saturation is not something that is “magically” reached.

When I read through qualitative manuscript submissions in my role as a journal editor, I often see a sentence simply stating, “saturation was reached.” Yet there is no information as to exactly how this was reached. Adding sufficient detail on how you determined your sample size and how you kept collecting data until meaning saturation was truly reached will strengthen your qualitative manuscript. Following are three excellent references that speak to the considerations unique to qualitive sample size and the concept of saturation.

  • Hennick, M., et al. What Influences Saturation? Estimating
    Sample Sizes in Focus Group Research. Qual Health Res, 1-14, 2019.
  • Malterud, K., et al. Sample Size in Qualitative Interview|Studies: Guided by Information Power. Qual Health Res, 26 (13), 1753-1760.
  • Hennick, M. et al. Code Saturation Versus Meaning Saturation: How Many Interviews Are Enough? Qual Health Res, 1-18, 2016.

4) Follow the analytic approach that aligns with your theoretical approach.

As outlined in tip #2, investigators should identify their qualitative research approach at the beginning of their research design process. The chosen approach should be clearly reflected in each step of your analytic process and discussion. It is not sufficient to simply say “themes were identified.” A strong qualitative manuscript provides illustrative detail on the data analysis process and ties it closely to the qualitative approach.

5) Do not assume that qualitative software will “do” the analysis for you.

While qualitative software can certainly help store and organize your qualitative data, you should not rely on it alone to conduct your thematic analysis. Stick to the analytic approaches that correspond with your qualitative approach and use your software package to assist but not drive your analytic process.

In summary, adding a qualitative component to your research can provide the additional richness needed to design a truly effective intervention that incorporates the lived experiences of your target audience.

Julie Reeder has been an Associate Editor for the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior for six years, where she makes decisions on more than 150 submitted manuscripts each year. In her role as Senior Research Analyst with the State of Oregon WIC Program she has conducted numerous interviews and focus groups over the past two decades.