Critical Appraisal Skills Programme

What is Qualitative Research?

According to a survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the number of qualitative research grants awarded has steadily increased over the past decade, reflecting growing recognition for the value of such research in medical and health sciences.

In this post, we will explore the basics of qualitative research and why it is important for understanding complex issues and experiences.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is a method used to gain a deep understanding of a phenomenon or topic by collecting and analysing non-numerical data. It is often used in social sciences, healthcare, and education. Qualitative research aims to explore complex issues and experiences through interviews, observations, and focus groups. It allows researchers to gather rich and descriptive information, giving voice to participants' experiences and perspectives. Qualitative research can include various methods, such as:

  • ethnography
  • phenomenology
  • grounded theory
  • narrative research

It helps to answer research questions and generate theories, rather than test hypotheses. By using open-ended questions, qualitative research provides a comprehensive and holistic view of the subject matter.

The adequacy of sample size in qualitative research is often determined by the quality and richness of data collected rather than by numerical criteria. A small yet diverse sample that yields a variety of perspectives and experiences can be sufficient for some studies, while other studies may require larger samples for greater credibility and transferability of findings.

What is qualitative data?

Unlike quantitative data, which can be quantified and measured, qualitative data provides rich and descriptive insights into the subject matter. Types of data can include:

  • Interview data from individual or group interviews.
  • Focus group data gathered through discussions in a group setting.
  • Textual data obtained from documents or written sources, such as letters or diaries.
  • Audio data captured from recordings of speeches or conversations.
  • Observational data collected through field notes and observations.

By analysing qualitative data, researchers can uncover themes, patterns, and meanings that can inform decision-making and generate new theories.

What's the difference between qualitative and quantitative research?

When it comes to research, there are two main approaches: qualitative and quantitative. The key difference between these two methods lies in the type of data they collect and analyse. Quantitative research focuses on numerical data, such as statistics and measurements, and aims to establish correlations and relationships. On the other hand, qualitative research collects non-numerical data, such as interviews and observations, to gain a deep understanding of complex issues and experiences.

Advantages of qualitative research

Qualitative research offers numerous advantages in understanding complex issues and experiences. One of the main advantages is its ability to provide rich and descriptive insights into the subject matter. Through methods like interviews and observations, qualitative research allows researchers to gather in-depth information and capture participants' experiences and perspectives. This approach is particularly useful in healthcare, where understanding patients' perspectives is crucial for improving patient care and outcomes. Additionally, qualitative research allows for flexibility and adaptability, as researchers can explore emerging themes and theories during the data collection and analysis process. Overall, qualitative research offers a comprehensive and holistic view of a phenomenon, enabling researchers to gain a deep understanding of complex issues.

Understanding different qualitative research methods/designs

Qualitative research encompasses a variety of methods and designs that allow researchers to gain a deep understanding of complex issues. Some commonly used qualitative research methods include:

  • Ethnography, which involves observing and immersing oneself in a particular culture or community
  • Phenomenology, which focuses on understanding the lived experiences of individuals
  • Grounded theory, which involves generating theories based on data analysis
  • Narrative research, which explores the stories and narratives of participants

Each method has its own strengths and limitations, and choosing the right approach depends on the research question and context. By understanding different qualitative research methods, healthcare professionals can select the most appropriate approach for their study and gather valuable insights.

Understanding thematic analysis in qualitative research

Thematic analysis is a commonly used method in qualitative research that involves identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns or themes within data. It helps researchers make sense of large amounts of qualitative data and provides a structured approach to organising and interpreting the information collected. It allows for a deeper understanding of participants' experiences and perspectives by uncovering common themes that emerge across different interviews or observations.

Qualitative researchers might use thematic analysis to explore the experiences or perspectives of a specific group of people, such as cancer survivors or immigrants.

Why use the CASP checklist to appraise qualitative research?

When looking at qualitative research, it is crucial to ensure that the study is rigorous and trustworthy. The CASP Qualitative Studies checklist provides a structured framework for critically appraising studies, allowing healthcare professionals to assess the study's methodological rigour, validity, and relevance. By using the CASP checklist, healthcare professionals can confidently evaluate the strengths and limitations of a qualitative study and determine its applicability to their practice. This checklist helps to ensure that only high-quality and reliable research is incorporated into evidence-based healthcare decision-making, and provides a standardised and structured approach to evaluating the quality of research, which helps maintain consistency across appraisals.

How to perform critical appraisals of qualitative research

Performing critical appraisals of qualitative research can be a daunting task, but by using the CASP checklist it can guide you through. Here is a broad outline of considerations:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the study: Read the research article carefully, paying attention to the aim of the study, research question, methods used, and the sample size.
  2. Assess the methodology: Evaluate the appropriateness of the research design, data collection methods, and data analysis techniques used. Consider if they align with the research question and aim.
  3. Evaluate credibility and trustworthiness: Look for evidence of researcher reflexivity, transparency in data collection and analysis, and participant validation. Consider if the findings are supported by the data.
  4. Consider ethical considerations: Assess whether the study was conducted ethically, ensuring the protection of participants' rights and confidentiality.
  5. Reflect on the limitations: Identify any limitations or biases in the study that may impact the validity and generalisability of the findings.

By following these steps, healthcare professionals can confidently assess the quality of qualitative research studies and determine their applicability to their practice.

Download the CASP qualitative checklist

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