Research Design Service
National Institute for Health Research

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Putting the Quality into Qualitative Research

Putting the Quality into Qualitative Research

01 July 2018

Laura Venn and Rachel Evley, both Senior Research Advisors in Qualitative Methods, RDS East Midlands

As RDS advisers we’ve seen an increase in the number of research applications submitted to the NIHR proposing to use qualitative research, but this is not reflected in the numbers of funded qualitative research studies within NIHR programmes.

At the RDS we are always keen to work with researchers who are looking to use good qualitative research within their proposals.

Qualitative studies can be useful to:

  • Understand how opinions and attitudes are formed
  • How people are affected by events that they experience
  • Explore the differences between social groups
  • Develop measurements and tools as part of a mixed method study

Looking at the feedback given by NIHR panels we found a number of common themes, based on these themes we have developed the mnemonic QUALITY to help you develop the qualitative element of your proposal.

Qualitative research does not mean theory light; feedback from panels has shown the need for qualitative research to be underpinned by appropriate theory as the theoretical perspective can change the focus of the question. Are you exploring individual experiences or is your focus wider - looking at the cultural, community or social settings?

Use appropriate methods to answer your research question; is participant observation the best way to collect your data? Maybe you need to talk to people about their experiences of a disease or a part of the health service, so in-depth interviews might be more appropriate.  Think about the focus of your research question and which methods will give you the richest information.

Approaches are many and varied; be innovative and creative, can you use utilise qualitative research to enhance your randomised controlled trial? Can you use observations and interviews to improve your intervention?

Lack of detail will be detrimental to your application; fully describe your qualitative study just as you would a quantitative project, you need to set out your underpinning theory, what your aims and objectives are, clearly describe how you are going to collect your data and also how you will analyse it. Your chosen theory is really useful in framing your data collection methods and subsequent analysis.

Integrate qualitative work with other elements of your research; consider weaving qualitative research throughout your project.

Tokenism will be reviewed poorly; make sure your qualitative work is integrated into your project and has a purpose, show how the results of the qualitative work will feed back into the overall project outcomes. 

You should include staff with relevant qualitative expertise; just as you would expect to see someone with statistical expertise on a proposal carrying out an RCT, funding panels expect to see someone within your team who has expertise in qualitative research, either as a co-applicant or a collaborator.

The RDS has qualitative methodologists who can support you in writing your research application, help you think about the type of qualitative approach to take and the appropriate methods to use. They can also advise on the expertise you will need within your research team in order to carry out your project effectively.

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