Different questions need different answers

A response to recent concerns over qualitative research.

Given recent restrictions of qualitative research publication in some journals, we would like to reflect on the value of qualitative research in health psychology. Health psychology employs a range of methods, which are necessary given the many diverse research questions it generates. Qualitative research brings added value to health psychology. Few research topics in health can be answered through quantitative research alone. We need different answers for different questions. Narratives enhance our ability to understand the lived experience of others. This richness and insight can then inform other research or add value to quantitative inquiry. Qualitative research can provide evidence from patients and health professionals that extends understanding of clients and improve medical practice. Health psychologists work in ever-changing contexts, and that calls for research trends that are dynamic. Qualitative research can stimulate and should not be stifled. After all, to use the words of Husserl, ‘all science is rooted in the life-world’.

Where medical research may rely on statistics to make its point, medical and health issues always occur in specific contexts. Conducting qualitative, or indeed mixed methods, research can examine social, environmental and political factors that affect results. This is particularly pertinent to medical research conducted in the UK as the population is so diverse, and generalisation is difficult.  If readers are interested in taking research further or applying research findings so practice is truly evidence-based, the reader should be questioning ‘Why?’ of the findings, which can be done qualitatively. Qualitative research can prove valuable when considering where to start quantitative research (e.g. elicitation studies ahead of survey creation) or where to explore and investigate survey findings further.

Critical health psychology has moved towards a deeper understanding of health behaviours. Employing qualitative research methods can capture the way in which people’s behaviour is intrinsically linked and constructed through our cultural and social worlds. Health is a key concept in our identities, and we attach meaning to what it is to be healthy. Illness too has meaning, and qualitative research has the power to allow us to understand what it means to be ill, to care for someone who is ill or to treat someone who is ill. Qualitative methods can contribute to the identification of determinants of health damaging behaviours and highlight target areas for intervention. It is crucial to the development of our understanding of the complex nature of health beliefs and behaviours.

The suggestion that qualitative research is less likely to be cited, therefore hinting at its lack of value, is concerning. It echoes the historical background of psychology when there was a rise in those seeking a more ‘scientific psychology’. Researchers may be feeling pressure to find quantitative studies to back up their claims for fear of being discredited; however, this is not always possible for the questions they pose. Qualitative research can provide a unique viewpoint that can inform future research, including those adopting a quantitative methodology. The increased prevalence of mixed methodology within health psychology highlights how qualitative research can be used and cited successfully. The importance of continuing to publish qualitative research is clear; for research to be cited it must first be published.

Rachel Black
Maureen Busby
Catherine Doherty Hitch
MSc Health Psychology students, University of Ulster, Coleraine

Husserl, E. (1936). Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

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