What qualifies as the best kind of qualitative research?

Rachel Shaw and colleagues ask the question and share resources.

Qualitative research is now ‘fully in the canon of psychological methods’ (Levitt, 2019). Yet, there is still confusion in some corners about what good quality qualitative research looks like. This is not surprising, given the range of methods that fall under the umbrella of ‘qualitative research’; and that’s before we start on the full range of epistemological positions we might take up as qualitative researchers. Many researchers have written about criteria for good quality qualitative research and a number of checklists have been developed. However, they are not always accessible to a wider audience and do not always apply across the broad range of qualitative approaches and methods out there.

Our recent editorial in the British Journal of Health Psychology (BJHP) offers a solution to this problem. We formed a working group to develop guidelines which would help reviewers and researchers alike. We searched the literature to determine whether guidance existed, with a view to writing our own if not. We were delighted to discover that the American Psychological Association’s (APA) newly revised Journal Article Reporting Standards, now includes standards for reporting qualitative research. Furthermore, the APA’s Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology (SQIP) (Levitt et al., 2018) has produced detailed guidance on making judgements about the quality of qualitative research which can be used in parallel with the journal reporting standards.

After reviewing SQIP’s guidance and the APA reporting standards, we made the decision to adopt them and endorse their use for the publication of the best quality qualitative research in BJHP.

We have since had the pleasure of opening a dialogue with Heidi Levitt, SQIP’s lead on APA journal reporting standards taskforce for qualitative research. We asked Heidi how she and her colleagues set about developing the guidance. Like us, they were keen to recognise the full gamut of qualitative methods in their guidance. The process of generating the guidance was long and complex, but what they have produced offers ways of thinking about qualitative research quality that Heidi tells us will ‘support qualitative researchers to thrive across perspectives, methods and topics’. They do this by being open-minded, drawing on some seminal works, and by consulting the international community.

The central theme of the guidance is methodological integrity, which is judged in terms of fidelity to the subject matter and utility in achieving research goals (Levitt et al., 2018). This shifts the focus to functionality and fit rather than tradition and dogma. It means fitting appropriate methods to the research question in order to achieve the researcher’s goals. For reviewers, it means coming to understand when a discursive analysis is more appropriate than grounded theory; it means knowing that studies using interpretative phenomenological analysis often have smaller samples because of their idiographic commitment, compared to a thematic analysis which is theoretically flexible and can be used in many creative ways. Heidi’s guidance opens up this world of qualitative research in an accessible way without oversimplifying things.

The article proposing the journal reporting standards for qualitative research (Levitt et al., 2018) was the most frequently downloaded APA article of the year last year. Furthermore, colleagues have told Heidi that they are using the guidance both to assist with the reviewing of qualitative research submissions in APA journals and for assisting others in writing good quality journal articles. The potential impact of this guidance is huge! It signals further growth in the understanding of qualitative research, better quality publications, and acceptance of qualitative research in psychology.

For further guidance, Heidi and colleagues have produced a video (see tinyurl.com/qual-video).

Rachel L. Shaw, Felicity Bishop, Jeremy Horwood,
Joe Chilcot, and Madelynne Arden

Illustration: Tim Sanders

Levitt, H.M. (2019). Personal communication.
Levitt, H.M., Creswell, J.W., Josselson, R. et al. (2018). Journal article reporting standards for qualitative research in psychology: The APA Publications and Communications Board task force report. American Psychologist, 73(1), 26–46.
Shaw, R.L., Bishop, F.L., Horwood, J. et al. (2019). Enhancing the quality and transparency of qualitative research methods in health psychology. British Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 739–745.

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