Becoming a Critical Reader: Questions to Ask About Qualitative Research
Qualitative research generally describes and sometimes explains. It doesn’t try to prove anything. Because qualitative research is more interested in depth, the sample sizes tend to be much smaller. Once you’ve determined that what you have here is an original piece of quantitative research and you’ve already considered the basic questions here and here, you’re ready for the specific questions:
1. Did the researcher have a clear question? Remember in qualitative research, the authors are not trying to prove any hypothesis, but they still should have an idea of what they are setting out to do. It can be as broad as “To explore college students’ beliefs about childbirth and midwifery” or as specific as “to assess certified nurse-midwives’ (CNMs’) knowledge of female Genital Cutting (FGC) and to explore their experiences caring for African immigrant women with a history of genital cutting.”
2. How was the data collected? Was data collection well described?
Among the possible methods are:
Survey – this could be numerical data from a questionnaire or open ended questions with respondents filling out their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes researchers will use an existing tool that has been validated. This means that the survey, test, etc. has been studied and found to consistently give good results. Sometimes there isn’t a validated tool available, so researchers make their own or adapt an existing one. The researcher should describe the tool used.
Interview – Can be done either free-form or with a prepared set of questions/prompts. If a set of prepared questions is used, you’ll often see it (or excerpts) in the published study.
Observation – Can be either overt, where the subjects know they are being observed, or covert, where subjects do not know they are observed. Because being observed sometimes changes behavior, covert observation does have a place. Look for a description of how the observations were recorded. Did the observer make notes? Tally the number of times something happened? Video and audio recordings are sometimes used, but how are they analyzed?
Focus groups – small groups gathered together to discuss issues.
3. What was the setting? The setting is important to the generalizeability of the study. Generalizeability refers to whether or not the study can be applied beyond the scope of the study. Looking at how laboring women communicate with hospital staff probably doesn’t apply to home births, and vice versa. Consider cultural issues as well. While a study on how Hispanic women feel about breastfeeding is valuable, it won’t apply to a Muslim or Eastern orthodox woman.
4. How was the data evaluated/coded? In much of qualitative research, the authors do something called a thematic analysis. This kind of analysis looks for recurring themes. Sometimes the researchers will use coding where they have a list of themes they are looking for and will assign these codes whenever they see them. For example, one study (Ayers, S. (2007) Thoughts and Emotions During Traumatic Birth: A Qualitative Study. BIRTH 34:3 September 2007) listed one possible theme of “Negative Emotions” and assigned that code whenever an interview transcript showed words like “scared” “upset” or “shock”. Look into how the process was done. Was there one person doing the analysis or was it done by different researchers? Did the researcher analyze her own data or have a different person do it? Having multiple people look into the data makes for a stronger study. If the authors describe their analysis using terms you don’t understand, look them up.
5. What is the researcher’s perspective? Is the researcher coming from a medical point of view? A public health point of view? A consumer point of view? Consider how this point of view may have impacted the implementation of the study and the analysis.
6. What was the underlying framework?
Phenomenological – this research framework tries to gain insight into other people’s experience. You’ll often see this framed using the phrase “the lived experience.” Here is an example of a phenomenological study.
Ethnographic Research tries to understand various cultures and social systems. An ethnographic researcher might observe a group of labor and delivery nurses to figure out their social system, or interview student midwives about their interactions with preceptors and each other. Here is an example of an ethnographic study.
Grounded Theory goes beyond simply describing and understanding and actually tries to draw a conclusion that is “grounded” in the data collected. Here is an example of a qualitative study using a grounded theory approach.
There are many other possible approaches, including “integrated” designs which may include aspects of various frameworks.
7. How were the subjects / setting chosen? Often with qualitative research the researchers will use a convenience sample, where they look at a population that they have easy access to, or a quota sample, where they look at the first number of subjects that they can find, up to a set amount. Consider how similar the subject and setting are to your practice. The more similar, the more applicable.
8. And finally, what does this mean for me? That will vary widely based on your personal situation. As a reader, you may be a nurse, midwife, childbirth educator, doula, doctor, or parent. You may have more than one role. Carefully think about how this may – or may not – apply to you in your various roles.
Careful consideration of all these aspects can help you come to conclusions about this study and its usefulness. Next up: Questions specific to quantitative research.