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  • Published: 27 May 2020

How to use and assess qualitative research methods

  • Loraine Busetto   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-9228-7875 1 ,
  • Wolfgang Wick 1 , 2 &
  • Christoph Gumbinger 1  

Neurological Research and Practice volume  2 , Article number:  14 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

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This paper aims to provide an overview of the use and assessment of qualitative research methods in the health sciences. Qualitative research can be defined as the study of the nature of phenomena and is especially appropriate for answering questions of why something is (not) observed, assessing complex multi-component interventions, and focussing on intervention improvement. The most common methods of data collection are document study, (non-) participant observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups. For data analysis, field-notes and audio-recordings are transcribed into protocols and transcripts, and coded using qualitative data management software. Criteria such as checklists, reflexivity, sampling strategies, piloting, co-coding, member-checking and stakeholder involvement can be used to enhance and assess the quality of the research conducted. Using qualitative in addition to quantitative designs will equip us with better tools to address a greater range of research problems, and to fill in blind spots in current neurological research and practice.

The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of qualitative research methods, including hands-on information on how they can be used, reported and assessed. This article is intended for beginning qualitative researchers in the health sciences as well as experienced quantitative researchers who wish to broaden their understanding of qualitative research.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research is defined as “the study of the nature of phenomena”, including “their quality, different manifestations, the context in which they appear or the perspectives from which they can be perceived” , but excluding “their range, frequency and place in an objectively determined chain of cause and effect” [ 1 ]. This formal definition can be complemented with a more pragmatic rule of thumb: qualitative research generally includes data in form of words rather than numbers [ 2 ].

Why conduct qualitative research?

Because some research questions cannot be answered using (only) quantitative methods. For example, one Australian study addressed the issue of why patients from Aboriginal communities often present late or not at all to specialist services offered by tertiary care hospitals. Using qualitative interviews with patients and staff, it found one of the most significant access barriers to be transportation problems, including some towns and communities simply not having a bus service to the hospital [ 3 ]. A quantitative study could have measured the number of patients over time or even looked at possible explanatory factors – but only those previously known or suspected to be of relevance. To discover reasons for observed patterns, especially the invisible or surprising ones, qualitative designs are needed.

While qualitative research is common in other fields, it is still relatively underrepresented in health services research. The latter field is more traditionally rooted in the evidence-based-medicine paradigm, as seen in " research that involves testing the effectiveness of various strategies to achieve changes in clinical practice, preferably applying randomised controlled trial study designs (...) " [ 4 ]. This focus on quantitative research and specifically randomised controlled trials (RCT) is visible in the idea of a hierarchy of research evidence which assumes that some research designs are objectively better than others, and that choosing a "lesser" design is only acceptable when the better ones are not practically or ethically feasible [ 5 , 6 ]. Others, however, argue that an objective hierarchy does not exist, and that, instead, the research design and methods should be chosen to fit the specific research question at hand – "questions before methods" [ 2 , 7 , 8 , 9 ]. This means that even when an RCT is possible, some research problems require a different design that is better suited to addressing them. Arguing in JAMA, Berwick uses the example of rapid response teams in hospitals, which he describes as " a complex, multicomponent intervention – essentially a process of social change" susceptible to a range of different context factors including leadership or organisation history. According to him, "[in] such complex terrain, the RCT is an impoverished way to learn. Critics who use it as a truth standard in this context are incorrect" [ 8 ] . Instead of limiting oneself to RCTs, Berwick recommends embracing a wider range of methods , including qualitative ones, which for "these specific applications, (...) are not compromises in learning how to improve; they are superior" [ 8 ].

Research problems that can be approached particularly well using qualitative methods include assessing complex multi-component interventions or systems (of change), addressing questions beyond “what works”, towards “what works for whom when, how and why”, and focussing on intervention improvement rather than accreditation [ 7 , 9 , 10 , 11 , 12 ]. Using qualitative methods can also help shed light on the “softer” side of medical treatment. For example, while quantitative trials can measure the costs and benefits of neuro-oncological treatment in terms of survival rates or adverse effects, qualitative research can help provide a better understanding of patient or caregiver stress, visibility of illness or out-of-pocket expenses.

How to conduct qualitative research?

Given that qualitative research is characterised by flexibility, openness and responsivity to context, the steps of data collection and analysis are not as separate and consecutive as they tend to be in quantitative research [ 13 , 14 ]. As Fossey puts it : “sampling, data collection, analysis and interpretation are related to each other in a cyclical (iterative) manner, rather than following one after another in a stepwise approach” [ 15 ]. The researcher can make educated decisions with regard to the choice of method, how they are implemented, and to which and how many units they are applied [ 13 ]. As shown in Fig.  1 , this can involve several back-and-forth steps between data collection and analysis where new insights and experiences can lead to adaption and expansion of the original plan. Some insights may also necessitate a revision of the research question and/or the research design as a whole. The process ends when saturation is achieved, i.e. when no relevant new information can be found (see also below: sampling and saturation). For reasons of transparency, it is essential for all decisions as well as the underlying reasoning to be well-documented.

figure 1

Iterative research process

While it is not always explicitly addressed, qualitative methods reflect a different underlying research paradigm than quantitative research (e.g. constructivism or interpretivism as opposed to positivism). The choice of methods can be based on the respective underlying substantive theory or theoretical framework used by the researcher [ 2 ].

Data collection

The methods of qualitative data collection most commonly used in health research are document study, observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups [ 1 , 14 , 16 , 17 ].

Document study

Document study (also called document analysis) refers to the review by the researcher of written materials [ 14 ]. These can include personal and non-personal documents such as archives, annual reports, guidelines, policy documents, diaries or letters.


Observations are particularly useful to gain insights into a certain setting and actual behaviour – as opposed to reported behaviour or opinions [ 13 ]. Qualitative observations can be either participant or non-participant in nature. In participant observations, the observer is part of the observed setting, for example a nurse working in an intensive care unit [ 18 ]. In non-participant observations, the observer is “on the outside looking in”, i.e. present in but not part of the situation, trying not to influence the setting by their presence. Observations can be planned (e.g. for 3 h during the day or night shift) or ad hoc (e.g. as soon as a stroke patient arrives at the emergency room). During the observation, the observer takes notes on everything or certain pre-determined parts of what is happening around them, for example focusing on physician-patient interactions or communication between different professional groups. Written notes can be taken during or after the observations, depending on feasibility (which is usually lower during participant observations) and acceptability (e.g. when the observer is perceived to be judging the observed). Afterwards, these field notes are transcribed into observation protocols. If more than one observer was involved, field notes are taken independently, but notes can be consolidated into one protocol after discussions. Advantages of conducting observations include minimising the distance between the researcher and the researched, the potential discovery of topics that the researcher did not realise were relevant and gaining deeper insights into the real-world dimensions of the research problem at hand [ 18 ].

Semi-structured interviews

Hijmans & Kuyper describe qualitative interviews as “an exchange with an informal character, a conversation with a goal” [ 19 ]. Interviews are used to gain insights into a person’s subjective experiences, opinions and motivations – as opposed to facts or behaviours [ 13 ]. Interviews can be distinguished by the degree to which they are structured (i.e. a questionnaire), open (e.g. free conversation or autobiographical interviews) or semi-structured [ 2 , 13 ]. Semi-structured interviews are characterized by open-ended questions and the use of an interview guide (or topic guide/list) in which the broad areas of interest, sometimes including sub-questions, are defined [ 19 ]. The pre-defined topics in the interview guide can be derived from the literature, previous research or a preliminary method of data collection, e.g. document study or observations. The topic list is usually adapted and improved at the start of the data collection process as the interviewer learns more about the field [ 20 ]. Across interviews the focus on the different (blocks of) questions may differ and some questions may be skipped altogether (e.g. if the interviewee is not able or willing to answer the questions or for concerns about the total length of the interview) [ 20 ]. Qualitative interviews are usually not conducted in written format as it impedes on the interactive component of the method [ 20 ]. In comparison to written surveys, qualitative interviews have the advantage of being interactive and allowing for unexpected topics to emerge and to be taken up by the researcher. This can also help overcome a provider or researcher-centred bias often found in written surveys, which by nature, can only measure what is already known or expected to be of relevance to the researcher. Interviews can be audio- or video-taped; but sometimes it is only feasible or acceptable for the interviewer to take written notes [ 14 , 16 , 20 ].

Focus groups

Focus groups are group interviews to explore participants’ expertise and experiences, including explorations of how and why people behave in certain ways [ 1 ]. Focus groups usually consist of 6–8 people and are led by an experienced moderator following a topic guide or “script” [ 21 ]. They can involve an observer who takes note of the non-verbal aspects of the situation, possibly using an observation guide [ 21 ]. Depending on researchers’ and participants’ preferences, the discussions can be audio- or video-taped and transcribed afterwards [ 21 ]. Focus groups are useful for bringing together homogeneous (to a lesser extent heterogeneous) groups of participants with relevant expertise and experience on a given topic on which they can share detailed information [ 21 ]. Focus groups are a relatively easy, fast and inexpensive method to gain access to information on interactions in a given group, i.e. “the sharing and comparing” among participants [ 21 ]. Disadvantages include less control over the process and a lesser extent to which each individual may participate. Moreover, focus group moderators need experience, as do those tasked with the analysis of the resulting data. Focus groups can be less appropriate for discussing sensitive topics that participants might be reluctant to disclose in a group setting [ 13 ]. Moreover, attention must be paid to the emergence of “groupthink” as well as possible power dynamics within the group, e.g. when patients are awed or intimidated by health professionals.

Choosing the “right” method

As explained above, the school of thought underlying qualitative research assumes no objective hierarchy of evidence and methods. This means that each choice of single or combined methods has to be based on the research question that needs to be answered and a critical assessment with regard to whether or to what extent the chosen method can accomplish this – i.e. the “fit” between question and method [ 14 ]. It is necessary for these decisions to be documented when they are being made, and to be critically discussed when reporting methods and results.

Let us assume that our research aim is to examine the (clinical) processes around acute endovascular treatment (EVT), from the patient’s arrival at the emergency room to recanalization, with the aim to identify possible causes for delay and/or other causes for sub-optimal treatment outcome. As a first step, we could conduct a document study of the relevant standard operating procedures (SOPs) for this phase of care – are they up-to-date and in line with current guidelines? Do they contain any mistakes, irregularities or uncertainties that could cause delays or other problems? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the results have to be interpreted based on what they are: a written outline of what care processes in this hospital should look like. If we want to know what they actually look like in practice, we can conduct observations of the processes described in the SOPs. These results can (and should) be analysed in themselves, but also in comparison to the results of the document analysis, especially as regards relevant discrepancies. Do the SOPs outline specific tests for which no equipment can be observed or tasks to be performed by specialized nurses who are not present during the observation? It might also be possible that the written SOP is outdated, but the actual care provided is in line with current best practice. In order to find out why these discrepancies exist, it can be useful to conduct interviews. Are the physicians simply not aware of the SOPs (because their existence is limited to the hospital’s intranet) or do they actively disagree with them or does the infrastructure make it impossible to provide the care as described? Another rationale for adding interviews is that some situations (or all of their possible variations for different patient groups or the day, night or weekend shift) cannot practically or ethically be observed. In this case, it is possible to ask those involved to report on their actions – being aware that this is not the same as the actual observation. A senior physician’s or hospital manager’s description of certain situations might differ from a nurse’s or junior physician’s one, maybe because they intentionally misrepresent facts or maybe because different aspects of the process are visible or important to them. In some cases, it can also be relevant to consider to whom the interviewee is disclosing this information – someone they trust, someone they are otherwise not connected to, or someone they suspect or are aware of being in a potentially “dangerous” power relationship to them. Lastly, a focus group could be conducted with representatives of the relevant professional groups to explore how and why exactly they provide care around EVT. The discussion might reveal discrepancies (between SOPs and actual care or between different physicians) and motivations to the researchers as well as to the focus group members that they might not have been aware of themselves. For the focus group to deliver relevant information, attention has to be paid to its composition and conduct, for example, to make sure that all participants feel safe to disclose sensitive or potentially problematic information or that the discussion is not dominated by (senior) physicians only. The resulting combination of data collection methods is shown in Fig.  2 .

figure 2

Possible combination of data collection methods

Attributions for icons: “Book” by Serhii Smirnov, “Interview” by Adrien Coquet, FR, “Magnifying Glass” by anggun, ID, “Business communication” by Vectors Market; all from the Noun Project

The combination of multiple data source as described for this example can be referred to as “triangulation”, in which multiple measurements are carried out from different angles to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon under study [ 22 , 23 ].

Data analysis

To analyse the data collected through observations, interviews and focus groups these need to be transcribed into protocols and transcripts (see Fig.  3 ). Interviews and focus groups can be transcribed verbatim , with or without annotations for behaviour (e.g. laughing, crying, pausing) and with or without phonetic transcription of dialects and filler words, depending on what is expected or known to be relevant for the analysis. In the next step, the protocols and transcripts are coded , that is, marked (or tagged, labelled) with one or more short descriptors of the content of a sentence or paragraph [ 2 , 15 , 23 ]. Jansen describes coding as “connecting the raw data with “theoretical” terms” [ 20 ]. In a more practical sense, coding makes raw data sortable. This makes it possible to extract and examine all segments describing, say, a tele-neurology consultation from multiple data sources (e.g. SOPs, emergency room observations, staff and patient interview). In a process of synthesis and abstraction, the codes are then grouped, summarised and/or categorised [ 15 , 20 ]. The end product of the coding or analysis process is a descriptive theory of the behavioural pattern under investigation [ 20 ]. The coding process is performed using qualitative data management software, the most common ones being InVivo, MaxQDA and Atlas.ti. It should be noted that these are data management tools which support the analysis performed by the researcher(s) [ 14 ].

figure 3

From data collection to data analysis

Attributions for icons: see Fig. 2 , also “Speech to text” by Trevor Dsouza, “Field Notes” by Mike O’Brien, US, “Voice Record” by ProSymbols, US, “Inspection” by Made, AU, and “Cloud” by Graphic Tigers; all from the Noun Project

How to report qualitative research?

Protocols of qualitative research can be published separately and in advance of the study results. However, the aim is not the same as in RCT protocols, i.e. to pre-define and set in stone the research questions and primary or secondary endpoints. Rather, it is a way to describe the research methods in detail, which might not be possible in the results paper given journals’ word limits. Qualitative research papers are usually longer than their quantitative counterparts to allow for deep understanding and so-called “thick description”. In the methods section, the focus is on transparency of the methods used, including why, how and by whom they were implemented in the specific study setting, so as to enable a discussion of whether and how this may have influenced data collection, analysis and interpretation. The results section usually starts with a paragraph outlining the main findings, followed by more detailed descriptions of, for example, the commonalities, discrepancies or exceptions per category [ 20 ]. Here it is important to support main findings by relevant quotations, which may add information, context, emphasis or real-life examples [ 20 , 23 ]. It is subject to debate in the field whether it is relevant to state the exact number or percentage of respondents supporting a certain statement (e.g. “Five interviewees expressed negative feelings towards XYZ”) [ 21 ].

How to combine qualitative with quantitative research?

Qualitative methods can be combined with other methods in multi- or mixed methods designs, which “[employ] two or more different methods [ …] within the same study or research program rather than confining the research to one single method” [ 24 ]. Reasons for combining methods can be diverse, including triangulation for corroboration of findings, complementarity for illustration and clarification of results, expansion to extend the breadth and range of the study, explanation of (unexpected) results generated with one method with the help of another, or offsetting the weakness of one method with the strength of another [ 1 , 17 , 24 , 25 , 26 ]. The resulting designs can be classified according to when, why and how the different quantitative and/or qualitative data strands are combined. The three most common types of mixed method designs are the convergent parallel design , the explanatory sequential design and the exploratory sequential design. The designs with examples are shown in Fig.  4 .

figure 4

Three common mixed methods designs

In the convergent parallel design, a qualitative study is conducted in parallel to and independently of a quantitative study, and the results of both studies are compared and combined at the stage of interpretation of results. Using the above example of EVT provision, this could entail setting up a quantitative EVT registry to measure process times and patient outcomes in parallel to conducting the qualitative research outlined above, and then comparing results. Amongst other things, this would make it possible to assess whether interview respondents’ subjective impressions of patients receiving good care match modified Rankin Scores at follow-up, or whether observed delays in care provision are exceptions or the rule when compared to door-to-needle times as documented in the registry. In the explanatory sequential design, a quantitative study is carried out first, followed by a qualitative study to help explain the results from the quantitative study. This would be an appropriate design if the registry alone had revealed relevant delays in door-to-needle times and the qualitative study would be used to understand where and why these occurred, and how they could be improved. In the exploratory design, the qualitative study is carried out first and its results help informing and building the quantitative study in the next step [ 26 ]. If the qualitative study around EVT provision had shown a high level of dissatisfaction among the staff members involved, a quantitative questionnaire investigating staff satisfaction could be set up in the next step, informed by the qualitative study on which topics dissatisfaction had been expressed. Amongst other things, the questionnaire design would make it possible to widen the reach of the research to more respondents from different (types of) hospitals, regions, countries or settings, and to conduct sub-group analyses for different professional groups.

How to assess qualitative research?

A variety of assessment criteria and lists have been developed for qualitative research, ranging in their focus and comprehensiveness [ 14 , 17 , 27 ]. However, none of these has been elevated to the “gold standard” in the field. In the following, we therefore focus on a set of commonly used assessment criteria that, from a practical standpoint, a researcher can look for when assessing a qualitative research report or paper.

Assessors should check the authors’ use of and adherence to the relevant reporting checklists (e.g. Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR)) to make sure all items that are relevant for this type of research are addressed [ 23 , 28 ]. Discussions of quantitative measures in addition to or instead of these qualitative measures can be a sign of lower quality of the research (paper). Providing and adhering to a checklist for qualitative research contributes to an important quality criterion for qualitative research, namely transparency [ 15 , 17 , 23 ].


While methodological transparency and complete reporting is relevant for all types of research, some additional criteria must be taken into account for qualitative research. This includes what is called reflexivity, i.e. sensitivity to the relationship between the researcher and the researched, including how contact was established and maintained, or the background and experience of the researcher(s) involved in data collection and analysis. Depending on the research question and population to be researched this can be limited to professional experience, but it may also include gender, age or ethnicity [ 17 , 27 ]. These details are relevant because in qualitative research, as opposed to quantitative research, the researcher as a person cannot be isolated from the research process [ 23 ]. It may influence the conversation when an interviewed patient speaks to an interviewer who is a physician, or when an interviewee is asked to discuss a gynaecological procedure with a male interviewer, and therefore the reader must be made aware of these details [ 19 ].

Sampling and saturation

The aim of qualitative sampling is for all variants of the objects of observation that are deemed relevant for the study to be present in the sample “ to see the issue and its meanings from as many angles as possible” [ 1 , 16 , 19 , 20 , 27 ] , and to ensure “information-richness [ 15 ]. An iterative sampling approach is advised, in which data collection (e.g. five interviews) is followed by data analysis, followed by more data collection to find variants that are lacking in the current sample. This process continues until no new (relevant) information can be found and further sampling becomes redundant – which is called saturation [ 1 , 15 ] . In other words: qualitative data collection finds its end point not a priori , but when the research team determines that saturation has been reached [ 29 , 30 ].

This is also the reason why most qualitative studies use deliberate instead of random sampling strategies. This is generally referred to as “ purposive sampling” , in which researchers pre-define which types of participants or cases they need to include so as to cover all variations that are expected to be of relevance, based on the literature, previous experience or theory (i.e. theoretical sampling) [ 14 , 20 ]. Other types of purposive sampling include (but are not limited to) maximum variation sampling, critical case sampling or extreme or deviant case sampling [ 2 ]. In the above EVT example, a purposive sample could include all relevant professional groups and/or all relevant stakeholders (patients, relatives) and/or all relevant times of observation (day, night and weekend shift).

Assessors of qualitative research should check whether the considerations underlying the sampling strategy were sound and whether or how researchers tried to adapt and improve their strategies in stepwise or cyclical approaches between data collection and analysis to achieve saturation [ 14 ].

Good qualitative research is iterative in nature, i.e. it goes back and forth between data collection and analysis, revising and improving the approach where necessary. One example of this are pilot interviews, where different aspects of the interview (especially the interview guide, but also, for example, the site of the interview or whether the interview can be audio-recorded) are tested with a small number of respondents, evaluated and revised [ 19 ]. In doing so, the interviewer learns which wording or types of questions work best, or which is the best length of an interview with patients who have trouble concentrating for an extended time. Of course, the same reasoning applies to observations or focus groups which can also be piloted.

Ideally, coding should be performed by at least two researchers, especially at the beginning of the coding process when a common approach must be defined, including the establishment of a useful coding list (or tree), and when a common meaning of individual codes must be established [ 23 ]. An initial sub-set or all transcripts can be coded independently by the coders and then compared and consolidated after regular discussions in the research team. This is to make sure that codes are applied consistently to the research data.

Member checking

Member checking, also called respondent validation , refers to the practice of checking back with study respondents to see if the research is in line with their views [ 14 , 27 ]. This can happen after data collection or analysis or when first results are available [ 23 ]. For example, interviewees can be provided with (summaries of) their transcripts and asked whether they believe this to be a complete representation of their views or whether they would like to clarify or elaborate on their responses [ 17 ]. Respondents’ feedback on these issues then becomes part of the data collection and analysis [ 27 ].

Stakeholder involvement

In those niches where qualitative approaches have been able to evolve and grow, a new trend has seen the inclusion of patients and their representatives not only as study participants (i.e. “members”, see above) but as consultants to and active participants in the broader research process [ 31 , 32 , 33 ]. The underlying assumption is that patients and other stakeholders hold unique perspectives and experiences that add value beyond their own single story, making the research more relevant and beneficial to researchers, study participants and (future) patients alike [ 34 , 35 ]. Using the example of patients on or nearing dialysis, a recent scoping review found that 80% of clinical research did not address the top 10 research priorities identified by patients and caregivers [ 32 , 36 ]. In this sense, the involvement of the relevant stakeholders, especially patients and relatives, is increasingly being seen as a quality indicator in and of itself.

How not to assess qualitative research

The above overview does not include certain items that are routine in assessments of quantitative research. What follows is a non-exhaustive, non-representative, experience-based list of the quantitative criteria often applied to the assessment of qualitative research, as well as an explanation of the limited usefulness of these endeavours.

Protocol adherence

Given the openness and flexibility of qualitative research, it should not be assessed by how well it adheres to pre-determined and fixed strategies – in other words: its rigidity. Instead, the assessor should look for signs of adaptation and refinement based on lessons learned from earlier steps in the research process.

Sample size

For the reasons explained above, qualitative research does not require specific sample sizes, nor does it require that the sample size be determined a priori [ 1 , 14 , 27 , 37 , 38 , 39 ]. Sample size can only be a useful quality indicator when related to the research purpose, the chosen methodology and the composition of the sample, i.e. who was included and why.


While some authors argue that randomisation can be used in qualitative research, this is not commonly the case, as neither its feasibility nor its necessity or usefulness has been convincingly established for qualitative research [ 13 , 27 ]. Relevant disadvantages include the negative impact of a too large sample size as well as the possibility (or probability) of selecting “ quiet, uncooperative or inarticulate individuals ” [ 17 ]. Qualitative studies do not use control groups, either.

Interrater reliability, variability and other “objectivity checks”

The concept of “interrater reliability” is sometimes used in qualitative research to assess to which extent the coding approach overlaps between the two co-coders. However, it is not clear what this measure tells us about the quality of the analysis [ 23 ]. This means that these scores can be included in qualitative research reports, preferably with some additional information on what the score means for the analysis, but it is not a requirement. Relatedly, it is not relevant for the quality or “objectivity” of qualitative research to separate those who recruited the study participants and collected and analysed the data. Experiences even show that it might be better to have the same person or team perform all of these tasks [ 20 ]. First, when researchers introduce themselves during recruitment this can enhance trust when the interview takes place days or weeks later with the same researcher. Second, when the audio-recording is transcribed for analysis, the researcher conducting the interviews will usually remember the interviewee and the specific interview situation during data analysis. This might be helpful in providing additional context information for interpretation of data, e.g. on whether something might have been meant as a joke [ 18 ].

Not being quantitative research

Being qualitative research instead of quantitative research should not be used as an assessment criterion if it is used irrespectively of the research problem at hand. Similarly, qualitative research should not be required to be combined with quantitative research per se – unless mixed methods research is judged as inherently better than single-method research. In this case, the same criterion should be applied for quantitative studies without a qualitative component.

The main take-away points of this paper are summarised in Table 1 . We aimed to show that, if conducted well, qualitative research can answer specific research questions that cannot to be adequately answered using (only) quantitative designs. Seeing qualitative and quantitative methods as equal will help us become more aware and critical of the “fit” between the research problem and our chosen methods: I can conduct an RCT to determine the reasons for transportation delays of acute stroke patients – but should I? It also provides us with a greater range of tools to tackle a greater range of research problems more appropriately and successfully, filling in the blind spots on one half of the methodological spectrum to better address the whole complexity of neurological research and practice.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.


Endovascular treatment

Randomised Controlled Trial

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Busetto, L., Wick, W. & Gumbinger, C. How to use and assess qualitative research methods. Neurol. Res. Pract. 2 , 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s42466-020-00059-z

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Introduction, when to use qualitative research, how to judge qualitative research, conclusions, authors' roles, conflict of interest.

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Qualitative research methods: when to use them and how to judge them

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K. Hammarberg, M. Kirkman, S. de Lacey, Qualitative research methods: when to use them and how to judge them, Human Reproduction , Volume 31, Issue 3, March 2016, Pages 498–501, https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/dev334

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In March 2015, an impressive set of guidelines for best practice on how to incorporate psychosocial care in routine infertility care was published by the ESHRE Psychology and Counselling Guideline Development Group ( ESHRE Psychology and Counselling Guideline Development Group, 2015 ). The authors report that the guidelines are based on a comprehensive review of the literature and we congratulate them on their meticulous compilation of evidence into a clinically useful document. However, when we read the methodology section, we were baffled and disappointed to find that evidence from research using qualitative methods was not included in the formulation of the guidelines. Despite stating that ‘qualitative research has significant value to assess the lived experience of infertility and fertility treatment’, the group excluded this body of evidence because qualitative research is ‘not generally hypothesis-driven and not objective/neutral, as the researcher puts him/herself in the position of the participant to understand how the world is from the person's perspective’.

Qualitative and quantitative research methods are often juxtaposed as representing two different world views. In quantitative circles, qualitative research is commonly viewed with suspicion and considered lightweight because it involves small samples which may not be representative of the broader population, it is seen as not objective, and the results are assessed as biased by the researchers' own experiences or opinions. In qualitative circles, quantitative research can be dismissed as over-simplifying individual experience in the cause of generalisation, failing to acknowledge researcher biases and expectations in research design, and requiring guesswork to understand the human meaning of aggregate data.

As social scientists who investigate psychosocial aspects of human reproduction, we use qualitative and quantitative methods, separately or together, depending on the research question. The crucial part is to know when to use what method.

The peer-review process is a pillar of scientific publishing. One of the important roles of reviewers is to assess the scientific rigour of the studies from which authors draw their conclusions. If rigour is lacking, the paper should not be published. As with research using quantitative methods, research using qualitative methods is home to the good, the bad and the ugly. It is essential that reviewers know the difference. Rejection letters are hard to take but more often than not they are based on legitimate critique. However, from time to time it is obvious that the reviewer has little grasp of what constitutes rigour or quality in qualitative research. The first author (K.H.) recently submitted a paper that reported findings from a qualitative study about fertility-related knowledge and information-seeking behaviour among people of reproductive age. In the rejection letter one of the reviewers (not from Human Reproduction ) lamented, ‘Even for a qualitative study, I would expect that some form of confidence interval and paired t-tables analysis, etc. be used to analyse the significance of results'. This comment reveals the reviewer's inappropriate application to qualitative research of criteria relevant only to quantitative research.

In this commentary, we give illustrative examples of questions most appropriately answered using qualitative methods and provide general advice about how to appraise the scientific rigour of qualitative studies. We hope this will help the journal's reviewers and readers appreciate the legitimate place of qualitative research and ensure we do not throw the baby out with the bath water by excluding or rejecting papers simply because they report the results of qualitative studies.

In psychosocial research, ‘quantitative’ research methods are appropriate when ‘factual’ data are required to answer the research question; when general or probability information is sought on opinions, attitudes, views, beliefs or preferences; when variables can be isolated and defined; when variables can be linked to form hypotheses before data collection; and when the question or problem is known, clear and unambiguous. Quantitative methods can reveal, for example, what percentage of the population supports assisted conception, their distribution by age, marital status, residential area and so on, as well as changes from one survey to the next ( Kovacs et al. , 2012 ); the number of donors and donor siblings located by parents of donor-conceived children ( Freeman et al. , 2009 ); and the relationship between the attitude of donor-conceived people to learning of their donor insemination conception and their family ‘type’ (one or two parents, lesbian or heterosexual parents; Beeson et al. , 2011 ).

In contrast, ‘qualitative’ methods are used to answer questions about experience, meaning and perspective, most often from the standpoint of the participant. These data are usually not amenable to counting or measuring. Qualitative research techniques include ‘small-group discussions’ for investigating beliefs, attitudes and concepts of normative behaviour; ‘semi-structured interviews’, to seek views on a focused topic or, with key informants, for background information or an institutional perspective; ‘in-depth interviews’ to understand a condition, experience, or event from a personal perspective; and ‘analysis of texts and documents’, such as government reports, media articles, websites or diaries, to learn about distributed or private knowledge.

Qualitative methods have been used to reveal, for example, potential problems in implementing a proposed trial of elective single embryo transfer, where small-group discussions enabled staff to explain their own resistance, leading to an amended approach ( Porter and Bhattacharya, 2005 ). Small-group discussions among assisted reproductive technology (ART) counsellors were used to investigate how the welfare principle is interpreted and practised by health professionals who must apply it in ART ( de Lacey et al. , 2015 ). When legislative change meant that gamete donors could seek identifying details of people conceived from their gametes, parents needed advice on how best to tell their children. Small-group discussions were convened to ask adolescents (not known to be donor-conceived) to reflect on how they would prefer to be told ( Kirkman et al. , 2007 ).

When a population cannot be identified, such as anonymous sperm donors from the 1980s, a qualitative approach with wide publicity can reach people who do not usually volunteer for research and reveal (for example) their attitudes to proposed legislation to remove anonymity with retrospective effect ( Hammarberg et al. , 2014 ). When researchers invite people to talk about their reflections on experience, they can sometimes learn more than they set out to discover. In describing their responses to proposed legislative change, participants also talked about people conceived as a result of their donations, demonstrating various constructions and expectations of relationships ( Kirkman et al. , 2014 ).

Interviews with parents in lesbian-parented families generated insight into the diverse meanings of the sperm donor in the creation and life of the family ( Wyverkens et al. , 2014 ). Oral and written interviews also revealed the embarrassment and ambivalence surrounding sperm donors evident in participants in donor-assisted conception ( Kirkman, 2004 ). The way in which parents conceptualise unused embryos and why they discard rather than donate was explored and understood via in-depth interviews, showing how and why the meaning of those embryos changed with parenthood ( de Lacey, 2005 ). In-depth interviews were also used to establish the intricate understanding by embryo donors and recipients of the meaning of embryo donation and the families built as a result ( Goedeke et al. , 2015 ).

It is possible to combine quantitative and qualitative methods, although great care should be taken to ensure that the theory behind each method is compatible and that the methods are being used for appropriate reasons. The two methods can be used sequentially (first a quantitative then a qualitative study or vice versa), where the first approach is used to facilitate the design of the second; they can be used in parallel as different approaches to the same question; or a dominant method may be enriched with a small component of an alternative method (such as qualitative interviews ‘nested’ in a large survey). It is important to note that free text in surveys represents qualitative data but does not constitute qualitative research. Qualitative and quantitative methods may be used together for corroboration (hoping for similar outcomes from both methods), elaboration (using qualitative data to explain or interpret quantitative data, or to demonstrate how the quantitative findings apply in particular cases), complementarity (where the qualitative and quantitative results differ but generate complementary insights) or contradiction (where qualitative and quantitative data lead to different conclusions). Each has its advantages and challenges ( Brannen, 2005 ).

Qualitative research is gaining increased momentum in the clinical setting and carries different criteria for evaluating its rigour or quality. Quantitative studies generally involve the systematic collection of data about a phenomenon, using standardized measures and statistical analysis. In contrast, qualitative studies involve the systematic collection, organization, description and interpretation of textual, verbal or visual data. The particular approach taken determines to a certain extent the criteria used for judging the quality of the report. However, research using qualitative methods can be evaluated ( Dixon-Woods et al. , 2006 ; Young et al. , 2014 ) and there are some generic guidelines for assessing qualitative research ( Kitto et al. , 2008 ).

Although the terms ‘reliability’ and ‘validity’ are contentious among qualitative researchers ( Lincoln and Guba, 1985 ) with some preferring ‘verification’, research integrity and robustness are as important in qualitative studies as they are in other forms of research. It is widely accepted that qualitative research should be ethical, important, intelligibly described, and use appropriate and rigorous methods ( Cohen and Crabtree, 2008 ). In research investigating data that can be counted or measured, replicability is essential. When other kinds of data are gathered in order to answer questions of personal or social meaning, we need to be able to capture real-life experiences, which cannot be identical from one person to the next. Furthermore, meaning is culturally determined and subject to evolutionary change. The way of explaining a phenomenon—such as what it means to use donated gametes—will vary, for example, according to the cultural significance of ‘blood’ or genes, interpretations of marital infidelity and religious constructs of sexual relationships and families. Culture may apply to a country, a community, or other actual or virtual group, and a person may be engaged at various levels of culture. In identifying meaning for members of a particular group, consistency may indeed be found from one research project to another. However, individuals within a cultural group may present different experiences and perceptions or transgress cultural expectations. That does not make them ‘wrong’ or invalidate the research. Rather, it offers insight into diversity and adds a piece to the puzzle to which other researchers also contribute.

In qualitative research the objective stance is obsolete, the researcher is the instrument, and ‘subjects’ become ‘participants’ who may contribute to data interpretation and analysis ( Denzin and Lincoln, 1998 ). Qualitative researchers defend the integrity of their work by different means: trustworthiness, credibility, applicability and consistency are the evaluative criteria ( Leininger, 1994 ).


A report of a qualitative study should contain the same robust procedural description as any other study. The purpose of the research, how it was conducted, procedural decisions, and details of data generation and management should be transparent and explicit. A reviewer should be able to follow the progression of events and decisions and understand their logic because there is adequate description, explanation and justification of the methodology and methods ( Kitto et al. , 2008 )


Credibility is the criterion for evaluating the truth value or internal validity of qualitative research. A qualitative study is credible when its results, presented with adequate descriptions of context, are recognizable to people who share the experience and those who care for or treat them. As the instrument in qualitative research, the researcher defends its credibility through practices such as reflexivity (reflection on the influence of the researcher on the research), triangulation (where appropriate, answering the research question in several ways, such as through interviews, observation and documentary analysis) and substantial description of the interpretation process; verbatim quotations from the data are supplied to illustrate and support their interpretations ( Sandelowski, 1986 ). Where excerpts of data and interpretations are incongruent, the credibility of the study is in doubt.


Applicability, or transferability of the research findings, is the criterion for evaluating external validity. A study is considered to meet the criterion of applicability when its findings can fit into contexts outside the study situation and when clinicians and researchers view the findings as meaningful and applicable in their own experiences.

Larger sample sizes do not produce greater applicability. Depth may be sacrificed to breadth or there may be too much data for adequate analysis. Sample sizes in qualitative research are typically small. The term ‘saturation’ is often used in reference to decisions about sample size in research using qualitative methods. Emerging from grounded theory, where filling theoretical categories is considered essential to the robustness of the developing theory, data saturation has been expanded to describe a situation where data tend towards repetition or where data cease to offer new directions and raise new questions ( Charmaz, 2005 ). However, the legitimacy of saturation as a generic marker of sampling adequacy has been questioned ( O'Reilly and Parker, 2013 ). Caution must be exercised to ensure that a commitment to saturation does not assume an ‘essence’ of an experience in which limited diversity is anticipated; each account is likely to be subtly different and each ‘sample’ will contribute to knowledge without telling the whole story. Increasingly, it is expected that researchers will report the kind of saturation they have applied and their criteria for recognising its achievement; an assessor will need to judge whether the choice is appropriate and consistent with the theoretical context within which the research has been conducted.

Sampling strategies are usually purposive, convenient, theoretical or snowballed. Maximum variation sampling may be used to seek representation of diverse perspectives on the topic. Homogeneous sampling may be used to recruit a group of participants with specified criteria. The threat of bias is irrelevant; participants are recruited and selected specifically because they can illuminate the phenomenon being studied. Rather than being predetermined by statistical power analysis, qualitative study samples are dependent on the nature of the data, the availability of participants and where those data take the investigator. Multiple data collections may also take place to obtain maximum insight into sensitive topics. For instance, the question of how decisions are made for embryo disposition may involve sampling within the patient group as well as from scientists, clinicians, counsellors and clinic administrators.


Consistency, or dependability of the results, is the criterion for assessing reliability. This does not mean that the same result would necessarily be found in other contexts but that, given the same data, other researchers would find similar patterns. Researchers often seek maximum variation in the experience of a phenomenon, not only to illuminate it but also to discourage fulfilment of limited researcher expectations (for example, negative cases or instances that do not fit the emerging interpretation or theory should be actively sought and explored). Qualitative researchers sometimes describe the processes by which verification of the theoretical findings by another team member takes place ( Morse and Richards, 2002 ).

Research that uses qualitative methods is not, as it seems sometimes to be represented, the easy option, nor is it a collation of anecdotes. It usually involves a complex theoretical or philosophical framework. Rigorous analysis is conducted without the aid of straightforward mathematical rules. Researchers must demonstrate the validity of their analysis and conclusions, resulting in longer papers and occasional frustration with the word limits of appropriate journals. Nevertheless, we need the different kinds of evidence that is generated by qualitative methods. The experience of health, illness and medical intervention cannot always be counted and measured; researchers need to understand what they mean to individuals and groups. Knowledge gained from qualitative research methods can inform clinical practice, indicate how to support people living with chronic conditions and contribute to community education and awareness about people who are (for example) experiencing infertility or using assisted conception.

Each author drafted a section of the manuscript and the manuscript as a whole was reviewed and revised by all authors in consultation.

No external funding was either sought or obtained for this study.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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Social distancing requirements resulted in many people working from home in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic. The topic of working from home was often discussed in the media and online during the pandemic, but little was known about how quality of life (QOL) and remote working interfaced. The purpose of this study was to describe QOL while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel topic, unique methodological approach of the General Online Qualitative Study ( D’Abundo & Franco, 2022a), and the strategic Social Distancing Sampling ( D’Abundo & Franco, 2022c) resulted in significant participation throughout the world (n = 709). The United Kingdom subset of participants (n = 234) is the focus of this article. This big qual, large qualitative study (n >100) included the principal investigator-developed, open-ended, online questionnaire entitled the “Quality of Life Home Workplace Questionnaire (QOLHWQ)” and demographic questions. Data were collected peak-pandemic from July to September 2020. Most participants cited increased QOL due to having more time with family/kids/partners/pets, a more comfortable work environment while being at home, and less commuting to work. The most cited issue associated with negative QOL was social isolation. As restrictions have been lifted and public health emergency declarations have been terminated during the post-peak era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential for future public health emergencies requiring social distancing still exists. To promote QOL and work-life balance for employees working remotely in the United Kingdom, stakeholders could develop social support networks and create effective planning initiatives to prevent social isolation and maximize the benefits of remote working experiences for both employees and organizations.

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This essay reviews classic works on the philosophy of science and contemporary pedagogical guides to scientific inquiry in order to present a discussion of the three logics that underlie qualitative research in political science. The first logic, epistemology, relates to the essence of research as a scientific endeavor and is framed as a debate between positivist and interpretivist orientations within the discipline of political science. The second logic, ontology, relates to the approach that research takes to investigating the empirical world and is framed as a debate between positivist qualitative and quantitative orientations, which together constitute the vast majority of mainstream researchers within the discipline. The third logic, methodology, relates to the means by which research aspires to reach its scientific ends and is framed as a debate among positivist qualitative orientations. Additionally, the essay discusses the present state of qualitative research in the discipline of political science, reviews the various ways in which qualitative research is defined in the relevant literature, addresses the limitations and trade-offs that are inherently associated with the aforementioned logics of qualitative research, explores multimethod approaches to remedying these issues, and proposes avenues for acquiring further information on the topics discussed.

Keywords: qualitative research, epistemology, ontology, methodology

This paper examines the phenomenology of diagnostic crossover in eating disorders, the movement within or between feeding and eating disorder subtypes or diagnoses over time, in two young women who experienced multiple changes in eating disorder diagnosis over 5 years. Using interpretative phenomenological analysis, this study found that transitioning between different diagnostic labels, specifically between bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa binge/purge subtype, was experienced as disempowering, stigmatizing, and unhelpful. The findings in this study offer novel evidence that, from the perspective of individuals diagnosed with EDs, using BMI as an indicator of the presence, severity, or change of an ED may have adverse consequences for well-being and recovery and may lead to mischaracterization or misclassification of health status. The narratives discussed in this paper highlight the need for more person-centered practices in the context of diagnostic crossover. Including the perspectives of those with lived experience can help care providers working with individuals with eating disorders gain an in-depth understanding of the potential personal impact of diagnosis changing and inform discussions around developing person-focused diagnostic practices.

Keywords: feeding and eating disorders, bulimia nervosa, diagnostic labels, diagnostic crossover, illness narrative

Often among the first witnesses to child trauma, educators and therapists are on the frontline of an unfolding and multi-pronged occupational crisis. For educators, lack of support and secondary traumatic stress (STS) appear to be contributing to an epidemic in professional attrition. Similarly, therapists who do not prioritize self-care can feel depleted of energy and optimism. The purpose of this phenomenological study was to examine how bearing witness to the traumatic narratives of children impacts similar helping professionals. The study also sought to extrapolate the similarities and differences between compassion fatigue and secondary trauma across these two disciplines. Exploring the common factors and subjective individual experiences related to occupational stress across these two fields may foster a more complete picture of the delicate nature of working with traumatized children and the importance of successful self-care strategies. Utilizing Constructivist Self-Development Theory (CSDT) and focus group interviews, the study explores the significant risk of STS facing both educators and therapists.

Keywords: qualitative, secondary traumatic stress, self-care, child trauma, educators, therapists.

This study explored the lived experiences of residents of the Gulf Coast in the USA during Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in August 2005 and caused insurmountable destruction throughout the area. A heuristic process and thematic analysis were employed to draw observations and conclusions about the lived experiences of each participant and make meaning through similar thoughts, feelings, and themes that emerged in the analysis of the data. Six themes emerged: (1) fear, (2) loss, (3) anger, (4) support, (5) spirituality, and (6) resilience. The results of this study allude to the possible psychological outcomes as a result of experiencing a traumatic event and provide an outline of what the psychological experience of trauma might entail. The current research suggests that preparedness and expectation are key to resilience and that people who feel that they have power over their situation fare better than those who do not.

Keywords: mass trauma, resilience, loss, natural disaster, mental health.

Women from rural, low-income backgrounds holding positions within the academy are the exception and not the rule. Most women faculty in the academy are from urban/suburban areas and middle- and upper-income family backgrounds. As women faculty who do not represent this norm, our primary goal with this article is to focus on the unique barriers we experienced as girls from rural, low-income areas in K-12 schools that influenced the possibilities for successfully transitioning to and engaging with higher education. We employed a qualitative duoethnographic and narrative research design to respond to the research questions, and we generated our data through semi-structured, critical, ethnographic dialogic conversations. Our duoethnographic-narrative analyses revealed six major themes: (1) independence and other   benefits of having a working-class mom; (2) crashing into middle-class norms and expectations; (3) lucking and falling into college; (4) fish out of water; (5) overcompensating, playing middle class, walking on eggshells, and pushing back; and (6) transitioning from a working-class kid to a working class academic, which we discuss in relation to our own educational attainment.

Keywords: rurality, working-class, educational attainment, duoethnography, higher education, women.

This article draws on the findings of a qualitative study that focused on the perspectives of four Indian American mothers of youth with developmental disabilities on the process of transitioning from school to post-school environments. Data were collected through in-depth ethnographic interviews. The findings indicate that in their efforts to support their youth with developmental disabilities, the mothers themselves navigate multiple transitions across countries, constructs, dreams, systems of schooling, and services. The mothers’ perspectives have to be understood against the larger context of their experiences as citizens of this country as well as members of the South Asian diaspora. The mothers’ views on services, their journey, their dreams for their youth, and their interpretation of the ideas anchored in current conversations on transition are continually evolving. Their attempts to maintain their resilience and their indigenous understandings while simultaneously negotiating their experiences in the United States with supporting their youth are discussed.  

Keywords: Indian-American mothers, transitioning, diaspora, disability, dreams.

This study explored the influence of yoga on practitioners’ lives ‘off the mat’ through a phenomenological lens. Central to the study was the lived experience of yoga in a purposive sample of self-identified New Zealand practitioners (n=38; 89.5% female; aged 18 to 65 years; 60.5% aged 36 to 55 years). The study’s aim was to explore whether habitual yoga practitioners experience any pro-health downstream effects of their practice ‘off the mat’ via their lived experience of yoga. A qualitative mixed methodology was applied via a phenomenological lens that explicitly acknowledged the researcher’s own experience of the research topic. Qualitative methods comprised an open-ended online survey for all participants (n=38), followed by in-depth semi-structured interviews (n=8) on a randomized subset. Quantitative methods included online outcome measures (health habits, self-efficacy, interoceptive awareness, and physical activity), practice component data (tenure, dose, yoga styles, yoga teacher status, meditation frequency), and socio-demographics. This paper highlights the qualitative findings emerging from participant narratives. Reported benefits of practice included the provision of a filter through which to engage with life and the experience of self-regulation and mindfulness ‘off the mat’. Practitioners experienced yoga as a self-sustaining positive resource via self-regulation guided by an embodied awareness. The key narrative to emerge was an attunement to embodiment through movement. Embodied movement can elicit self-regulatory pathways that support health behavior.

Keywords: embodiment, habit, interoception, mindfulness, movement practice, qualitative, self-regulation, yoga.

Historically and in the present day, Black women’s positionality in the U.S. has paradoxically situated them in a society where they are both intrinsically essential and treated as expendable. This positionality, known as gendered racism, manifests commonly in professional environments and results in myriad harms. In response, Black women have developed, honed, and practiced a range of coping styles to mitigate the insidious effects of gendered racism. While often effective in the short-term, these techniques frequently complicate Black women’s well-being. For Black female clinicians who experience gendered racism and work on the frontlines of community mental health, myriad bio-psycho-social-spiritual harms compound. This project provided an opportunity for Black female clinicians from across the U.S. to share their experiences during the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black violence. I conducted in-depth interviews with clinicians (n=14) between the ages of 30 and 58. Using the Listening Guide voice-centered approach to data generation and analysis, I identified four voices to help answer this project’s central question: How do you experience being a Black female clinician in the U.S.? The voices of self, pride, vigilance, and mediating narrated the complex ways participants experienced their workplaces. This complexity seemed to be context-specific, depending on whether the clinicians worked in predominantly White workplaces (PWW), a mix of PWW and private practice, or private practice exclusively. Participants who worked only in PWW experienced the greatest stress, oppression, and burnout risk, while participants who worked exclusively in private practice reported more joy, more authenticity, and more job satisfaction. These findings have implications for mentoring, supporting, and retaining Black female clinicians.

Keywords: Black female clinicians, professional experiences, gendered racism, Listening Guide voice-centered approach.

The purpose of this article is to speak directly to the paucity of research regarding Dominican American women and identity narratives. To do so, this article uses the Listening Guide Method of Qualitative Inquiry (Gilligan, et al., 2006) to explore how 1.5 and second-generation Dominican American women narrated their experiences of individual identity within American cultural contexts and constructs. The results draw from the emergence of themes across six participant interviews and showed two distinct voices: The Voice of Cultural Explanation and the Tides of Dominican American Female Identity. Narrative examples from five participants are offered to illustrate where 1.5 and second-generation Dominican American women negotiate their identity narratives at the intersection of their Dominican and American selves. The article offers two conclusions. One, that participant women use the Voice of Cultural Explanation in order to discuss their identity as reflected within the broad cultural tensions of their daily lives. Two, that the Tides of Dominican American Female Identity are used to express strong emotions that manifest within their personal narratives as the unwanted distance from either the Dominican or American parts of their person.

Keywords: Dominican American, women, identity, the Listening Guide, narratives

What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

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  • Published: 27 February 2019
  • Volume 42 , pages 139–160, ( 2019 )

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  • Ugo Corte 3  

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What is qualitative research? If we look for a precise definition of qualitative research, and specifically for one that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature is meager. In this article we systematically search, identify and analyze a sample of 89 sources using or attempting to define the term “qualitative.” Then, drawing on ideas we find scattered across existing work, and based on Becker’s classic study of marijuana consumption, we formulate and illustrate a definition that tries to capture its core elements. We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. This formulation is developed as a tool to help improve research designs while stressing that a qualitative dimension is present in quantitative work as well. Additionally, it can facilitate teaching, communication between researchers, diminish the gap between qualitative and quantitative researchers, help to address critiques of qualitative methods, and be used as a standard of evaluation of qualitative research.

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If we assume that there is something called qualitative research, what exactly is this qualitative feature? And how could we evaluate qualitative research as good or not? Is it fundamentally different from quantitative research? In practice, most active qualitative researchers working with empirical material intuitively know what is involved in doing qualitative research, yet perhaps surprisingly, a clear definition addressing its key feature is still missing.

To address the question of what is qualitative we turn to the accounts of “qualitative research” in textbooks and also in empirical work. In his classic, explorative, interview study of deviance Howard Becker ( 1963 ) asks ‘How does one become a marijuana user?’ In contrast to pre-dispositional and psychological-individualistic theories of deviant behavior, Becker’s inherently social explanation contends that becoming a user of this substance is the result of a three-phase sequential learning process. First, potential users need to learn how to smoke it properly to produce the “correct” effects. If not, they are likely to stop experimenting with it. Second, they need to discover the effects associated with it; in other words, to get “high,” individuals not only have to experience what the drug does, but also to become aware that those sensations are related to using it. Third, they require learning to savor the feelings related to its consumption – to develop an acquired taste. Becker, who played music himself, gets close to the phenomenon by observing, taking part, and by talking to people consuming the drug: “half of the fifty interviews were conducted with musicians, the other half covered a wide range of people, including laborers, machinists, and people in the professions” (Becker 1963 :56).

Another central aspect derived through the common-to-all-research interplay between induction and deduction (Becker 2017 ), is that during the course of his research Becker adds scientifically meaningful new distinctions in the form of three phases—distinctions, or findings if you will, that strongly affect the course of his research: its focus, the material that he collects, and which eventually impact his findings. Each phase typically unfolds through social interaction, and often with input from experienced users in “a sequence of social experiences during which the person acquires a conception of the meaning of the behavior, and perceptions and judgments of objects and situations, all of which make the activity possible and desirable” (Becker 1963 :235). In this study the increased understanding of smoking dope is a result of a combination of the meaning of the actors, and the conceptual distinctions that Becker introduces based on the views expressed by his respondents. Understanding is the result of research and is due to an iterative process in which data, concepts and evidence are connected with one another (Becker 2017 ).

Indeed, there are many definitions of qualitative research, but if we look for a definition that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature across the broad field of social science is meager. The main reason behind this article lies in the paradox, which, to put it bluntly, is that researchers act as if they know what it is, but they cannot formulate a coherent definition. Sociologists and others will of course continue to conduct good studies that show the relevance and value of qualitative research addressing scientific and practical problems in society. However, our paper is grounded in the idea that providing a clear definition will help us improve the work that we do. Among researchers who practice qualitative research there is clearly much knowledge. We suggest that a definition makes this knowledge more explicit. If the first rationale for writing this paper refers to the “internal” aim of improving qualitative research, the second refers to the increased “external” pressure that especially many qualitative researchers feel; pressure that comes both from society as well as from other scientific approaches. There is a strong core in qualitative research, and leading researchers tend to agree on what it is and how it is done. Our critique is not directed at the practice of qualitative research, but we do claim that the type of systematic work we do has not yet been done, and that it is useful to improve the field and its status in relation to quantitative research.

The literature on the “internal” aim of improving, or at least clarifying qualitative research is large, and we do not claim to be the first to notice the vagueness of the term “qualitative” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ). Also, others have noted that there is no single definition of it (Long and Godfrey 2004 :182), that there are many different views on qualitative research (Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11; Jovanović 2011 :3), and that more generally, we need to define its meaning (Best 2004 :54). Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ), for example, as well as Nelson et al. (1992:2 cited in Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11), and Flick ( 2007 :ix–x), have recognized that the term is problematic: “Actually, the term ‘qualitative research’ is confusing because it can mean different things to different people” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :10–11). Hammersley has discussed the possibility of addressing the problem, but states that “the task of providing an account of the distinctive features of qualitative research is far from straightforward” ( 2013 :2). This confusion, as he has recently further argued (Hammersley 2018 ), is also salient in relation to ethnography where different philosophical and methodological approaches lead to a lack of agreement about what it means.

Others (e.g. Hammersley 2018 ; Fine and Hancock 2017 ) have also identified the treat to qualitative research that comes from external forces, seen from the point of view of “qualitative research.” This threat can be further divided into that which comes from inside academia, such as the critique voiced by “quantitative research” and outside of academia, including, for example, New Public Management. Hammersley ( 2018 ), zooming in on one type of qualitative research, ethnography, has argued that it is under treat. Similarly to Fine ( 2003 ), and before him Gans ( 1999 ), he writes that ethnography’ has acquired a range of meanings, and comes in many different versions, these often reflecting sharply divergent epistemological orientations. And already more than twenty years ago while reviewing Denzin and Lincoln’ s Handbook of Qualitative Methods Fine argued:

While this increasing centrality [of qualitative research] might lead one to believe that consensual standards have developed, this belief would be misleading. As the methodology becomes more widely accepted, querulous challengers have raised fundamental questions that collectively have undercut the traditional models of how qualitative research is to be fashioned and presented (1995:417).

According to Hammersley, there are today “serious treats to the practice of ethnographic work, on almost any definition” ( 2018 :1). He lists five external treats: (1) that social research must be accountable and able to show its impact on society; (2) the current emphasis on “big data” and the emphasis on quantitative data and evidence; (3) the labor market pressure in academia that leaves less time for fieldwork (see also Fine and Hancock 2017 ); (4) problems of access to fields; and (5) the increased ethical scrutiny of projects, to which ethnography is particularly exposed. Hammersley discusses some more or less insufficient existing definitions of ethnography.

The current situation, as Hammersley and others note—and in relation not only to ethnography but also qualitative research in general, and as our empirical study shows—is not just unsatisfactory, it may even be harmful for the entire field of qualitative research, and does not help social science at large. We suggest that the lack of clarity of qualitative research is a real problem that must be addressed.

Towards a Definition of Qualitative Research

Seen in an historical light, what is today called qualitative, or sometimes ethnographic, interpretative research – or a number of other terms – has more or less always existed. At the time the founders of sociology – Simmel, Weber, Durkheim and, before them, Marx – were writing, and during the era of the Methodenstreit (“dispute about methods”) in which the German historical school emphasized scientific methods (cf. Swedberg 1990 ), we can at least speak of qualitative forerunners.

Perhaps the most extended discussion of what later became known as qualitative methods in a classic work is Bronisław Malinowski’s ( 1922 ) Argonauts in the Western Pacific , although even this study does not explicitly address the meaning of “qualitative.” In Weber’s ([1921–-22] 1978) work we find a tension between scientific explanations that are based on observation and quantification and interpretative research (see also Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 ).

If we look through major sociology journals like the American Sociological Review , American Journal of Sociology , or Social Forces we will not find the term qualitative sociology before the 1970s. And certainly before then much of what we consider qualitative classics in sociology, like Becker’ study ( 1963 ), had already been produced. Indeed, the Chicago School often combined qualitative and quantitative data within the same study (Fine 1995 ). Our point being that before a disciplinary self-awareness the term quantitative preceded qualitative, and the articulation of the former was a political move to claim scientific status (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ). In the US the World War II seem to have sparked a critique of sociological work, including “qualitative work,” that did not follow the scientific canon (Rawls 2018 ), which was underpinned by a scientifically oriented and value free philosophy of science. As a result the attempts and practice of integrating qualitative and quantitative sociology at Chicago lost ground to sociology that was more oriented to surveys and quantitative work at Columbia under Merton-Lazarsfeld. The quantitative tradition was also able to present textbooks (Lundberg 1951 ) that facilitated the use this approach and its “methods.” The practices of the qualitative tradition, by and large, remained tacit or was part of the mentoring transferred from the renowned masters to their students.

This glimpse into history leads us back to the lack of a coherent account condensed in a definition of qualitative research. Many of the attempts to define the term do not meet the requirements of a proper definition: A definition should be clear, avoid tautology, demarcate its domain in relation to the environment, and ideally only use words in its definiens that themselves are not in need of definition (Hempel 1966 ). A definition can enhance precision and thus clarity by identifying the core of the phenomenon. Preferably, a definition should be short. The typical definition we have found, however, is an ostensive definition, which indicates what qualitative research is about without informing us about what it actually is :

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2)

Flick claims that the label “qualitative research” is indeed used as an umbrella for a number of approaches ( 2007 :2–4; 2002 :6), and it is not difficult to identify research fitting this designation. Moreover, whatever it is, it has grown dramatically over the past five decades. In addition, courses have been developed, methods have flourished, arguments about its future have been advanced (for example, Denzin and Lincoln 1994) and criticized (for example, Snow and Morrill 1995 ), and dedicated journals and books have mushroomed. Most social scientists have a clear idea of research and how it differs from journalism, politics and other activities. But the question of what is qualitative in qualitative research is either eluded or eschewed.

We maintain that this lacuna hinders systematic knowledge production based on qualitative research. Paul Lazarsfeld noted the lack of “codification” as early as 1955 when he reviewed 100 qualitative studies in order to offer a codification of the practices (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). Since then many texts on “qualitative research” and its methods have been published, including recent attempts (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ) similar to Lazarsfeld’s. These studies have tried to extract what is qualitative by looking at the large number of empirical “qualitative” studies. Our novel strategy complements these endeavors by taking another approach and looking at the attempts to codify these practices in the form of a definition, as well as to a minor extent take Becker’s study as an exemplar of what qualitative researchers actually do, and what the characteristic of being ‘qualitative’ denotes and implies. We claim that qualitative researchers, if there is such a thing as “qualitative research,” should be able to codify their practices in a condensed, yet general way expressed in language.

Lingering problems of “generalizability” and “how many cases do I need” (Small 2009 ) are blocking advancement – in this line of work qualitative approaches are said to differ considerably from quantitative ones, while some of the former unsuccessfully mimic principles related to the latter (Small 2009 ). Additionally, quantitative researchers sometimes unfairly criticize the first based on their own quality criteria. Scholars like Goertz and Mahoney ( 2012 ) have successfully focused on the different norms and practices beyond what they argue are essentially two different cultures: those working with either qualitative or quantitative methods. Instead, similarly to Becker ( 2017 ) who has recently questioned the usefulness of the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research, we focus on similarities.

The current situation also impedes both students and researchers in focusing their studies and understanding each other’s work (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). A third consequence is providing an opening for critiques by scholars operating within different traditions (Valsiner 2000 :101). A fourth issue is that the “implicit use of methods in qualitative research makes the field far less standardized than the quantitative paradigm” (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 :9). Relatedly, the National Science Foundation in the US organized two workshops in 2004 and 2005 to address the scientific foundations of qualitative research involving strategies to improve it and to develop standards of evaluation in qualitative research. However, a specific focus on its distinguishing feature of being “qualitative” while being implicitly acknowledged, was discussed only briefly (for example, Best 2004 ).

In 2014 a theme issue was published in this journal on “Methods, Materials, and Meanings: Designing Cultural Analysis,” discussing central issues in (cultural) qualitative research (Berezin 2014 ; Biernacki 2014 ; Glaeser 2014 ; Lamont and Swidler 2014 ; Spillman 2014). We agree with many of the arguments put forward, such as the risk of methodological tribalism, and that we should not waste energy on debating methods separated from research questions. Nonetheless, a clarification of the relation to what is called “quantitative research” is of outmost importance to avoid misunderstandings and misguided debates between “qualitative” and “quantitative” researchers. Our strategy means that researchers, “qualitative” or “quantitative” they may be, in their actual practice may combine qualitative work and quantitative work.

In this article we accomplish three tasks. First, we systematically survey the literature for meanings of qualitative research by looking at how researchers have defined it. Drawing upon existing knowledge we find that the different meanings and ideas of qualitative research are not yet coherently integrated into one satisfactory definition. Next, we advance our contribution by offering a definition of qualitative research and illustrate its meaning and use partially by expanding on the brief example introduced earlier related to Becker’s work ( 1963 ). We offer a systematic analysis of central themes of what researchers consider to be the core of “qualitative,” regardless of style of work. These themes – which we summarize in terms of four keywords: distinction, process, closeness, improved understanding – constitute part of our literature review, in which each one appears, sometimes with others, but never all in the same definition. They serve as the foundation of our contribution. Our categories are overlapping. Their use is primarily to organize the large amount of definitions we have identified and analyzed, and not necessarily to draw a clear distinction between them. Finally, we continue the elaboration discussed above on the advantages of a clear definition of qualitative research.

In a hermeneutic fashion we propose that there is something meaningful that deserves to be labelled “qualitative research” (Gadamer 1990 ). To approach the question “What is qualitative in qualitative research?” we have surveyed the literature. In conducting our survey we first traced the word’s etymology in dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks of the social sciences and of methods and textbooks, mainly in English, which is common to methodology courses. It should be noted that we have zoomed in on sociology and its literature. This discipline has been the site of the largest debate and development of methods that can be called “qualitative,” which suggests that this field should be examined in great detail.

In an ideal situation we should expect that one good definition, or at least some common ideas, would have emerged over the years. This common core of qualitative research should be so accepted that it would appear in at least some textbooks. Since this is not what we found, we decided to pursue an inductive approach to capture maximal variation in the field of qualitative research; we searched in a selection of handbooks, textbooks, book chapters, and books, to which we added the analysis of journal articles. Our sample comprises a total of 89 references.

In practice we focused on the discipline that has had a clear discussion of methods, namely sociology. We also conducted a broad search in the JSTOR database to identify scholarly sociology articles published between 1998 and 2017 in English with a focus on defining or explaining qualitative research. We specifically zoom in on this time frame because we would have expect that this more mature period would have produced clear discussions on the meaning of qualitative research. To find these articles we combined a number of keywords to search the content and/or the title: qualitative (which was always included), definition, empirical, research, methodology, studies, fieldwork, interview and observation .

As a second phase of our research we searched within nine major sociological journals ( American Journal of Sociology , Sociological Theory , American Sociological Review , Contemporary Sociology , Sociological Forum , Sociological Theory , Qualitative Research , Qualitative Sociology and Qualitative Sociology Review ) for articles also published during the past 19 years (1998–2017) that had the term “qualitative” in the title and attempted to define qualitative research.

Lastly we picked two additional journals, Qualitative Research and Qualitative Sociology , in which we could expect to find texts addressing the notion of “qualitative.” From Qualitative Research we chose Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2014, and from Qualitative Sociology we chose Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2017. Within each of these we selected the first article; then we picked the second article of three prior issues. Again we went back another three issues and investigated article number three. Finally we went back another three issues and perused article number four. This selection criteria was used to get a manageable sample for the analysis.

The coding process of the 89 references we gathered in our selected review began soon after the first round of material was gathered, and we reduced the complexity created by our maximum variation sampling (Snow and Anderson 1993 :22) to four different categories within which questions on the nature and properties of qualitative research were discussed. We call them: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Qualitative Research, Fieldwork, and Grounded Theory. This – which may appear as an illogical grouping – merely reflects the “context” in which the matter of “qualitative” is discussed. If the selection process of the material – books and articles – was informed by pre-knowledge, we used an inductive strategy to code the material. When studying our material, we identified four central notions related to “qualitative” that appear in various combinations in the literature which indicate what is the core of qualitative research. We have labeled them: “distinctions”, “process,” “closeness,” and “improved understanding.” During the research process the categories and notions were improved, refined, changed, and reordered. The coding ended when a sense of saturation in the material arose. In the presentation below all quotations and references come from our empirical material of texts on qualitative research.

Analysis – What is Qualitative Research?

In this section we describe the four categories we identified in the coding, how they differently discuss qualitative research, as well as their overall content. Some salient quotations are selected to represent the type of text sorted under each of the four categories. What we present are examples from the literature.

Qualitative and Quantitative

This analytic category comprises quotations comparing qualitative and quantitative research, a distinction that is frequently used (Brown 2010 :231); in effect this is a conceptual pair that structures the discussion and that may be associated with opposing interests. While the general goal of quantitative and qualitative research is the same – to understand the world better – their methodologies and focus in certain respects differ substantially (Becker 1966 :55). Quantity refers to that property of something that can be determined by measurement. In a dictionary of Statistics and Methodology we find that “(a) When referring to *variables, ‘qualitative’ is another term for *categorical or *nominal. (b) When speaking of kinds of research, ‘qualitative’ refers to studies of subjects that are hard to quantify, such as art history. Qualitative research tends to be a residual category for almost any kind of non-quantitative research” (Stiles 1998:183). But it should be obvious that one could employ a quantitative approach when studying, for example, art history.

The same dictionary states that quantitative is “said of variables or research that can be handled numerically, usually (too sharply) contrasted with *qualitative variables and research” (Stiles 1998:184). From a qualitative perspective “quantitative research” is about numbers and counting, and from a quantitative perspective qualitative research is everything that is not about numbers. But this does not say much about what is “qualitative.” If we turn to encyclopedias we find that in the 1932 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there is no mention of “qualitative.” In the Encyclopedia from 1968 we can read:


Some, like Alford, divide researchers into methodologists or, in his words, “quantitative and qualitative specialists” (Alford 1998 :12). Qualitative research uses a variety of methods, such as intensive interviews or in-depth analysis of historical materials, and it is concerned with a comprehensive account of some event or unit (King et al. 1994 :4). Like quantitative research it can be utilized to study a variety of issues, but it tends to focus on meanings and motivations that underlie cultural symbols, personal experiences, phenomena and detailed understanding of processes in the social world. In short, qualitative research centers on understanding processes, experiences, and the meanings people assign to things (Kalof et al. 2008 :79).

Others simply say that qualitative methods are inherently unscientific (Jovanović 2011 :19). Hood, for instance, argues that words are intrinsically less precise than numbers, and that they are therefore more prone to subjective analysis, leading to biased results (Hood 2006 :219). Qualitative methodologies have raised concerns over the limitations of quantitative templates (Brady et al. 2004 :4). Scholars such as King et al. ( 1994 ), for instance, argue that non-statistical research can produce more reliable results if researchers pay attention to the rules of scientific inference commonly stated in quantitative research. Also, researchers such as Becker ( 1966 :59; 1970 :42–43) have asserted that, if conducted properly, qualitative research and in particular ethnographic field methods, can lead to more accurate results than quantitative studies, in particular, survey research and laboratory experiments.

Some researchers, such as Kalof, Dan, and Dietz ( 2008 :79) claim that the boundaries between the two approaches are becoming blurred, and Small ( 2009 ) argues that currently much qualitative research (especially in North America) tries unsuccessfully and unnecessarily to emulate quantitative standards. For others, qualitative research tends to be more humanistic and discursive (King et al. 1994 :4). Ragin ( 1994 ), and similarly also Becker, ( 1996 :53), Marchel and Owens ( 2007 :303) think that the main distinction between the two styles is overstated and does not rest on the simple dichotomy of “numbers versus words” (Ragin 1994 :xii). Some claim that quantitative data can be utilized to discover associations, but in order to unveil cause and effect a complex research design involving the use of qualitative approaches needs to be devised (Gilbert 2009 :35). Consequently, qualitative data are useful for understanding the nuances lying beyond those processes as they unfold (Gilbert 2009 :35). Others contend that qualitative research is particularly well suited both to identify causality and to uncover fine descriptive distinctions (Fine and Hallett 2014 ; Lichterman and Isaac Reed 2014 ; Katz 2015 ).

There are other ways to separate these two traditions, including normative statements about what qualitative research should be (that is, better or worse than quantitative approaches, concerned with scientific approaches to societal change or vice versa; Snow and Morrill 1995 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ), or whether it should develop falsifiable statements; Best 2004 ).

We propose that quantitative research is largely concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ); the analysis concerns the relations between variables. These categories are primarily not questioned in the study, only their frequency or degree, or the correlations between them (cf. Franzosi 2016 ). If a researcher studies wage differences between women and men, he or she works with given categories: x number of men are compared with y number of women, with a certain wage attributed to each person. The idea is not to move beyond the given categories of wage, men and women; they are the starting point as well as the end point, and undergo no “qualitative change.” Qualitative research, in contrast, investigates relations between categories that are themselves subject to change in the research process. Returning to Becker’s study ( 1963 ), we see that he questioned pre-dispositional theories of deviant behavior working with pre-determined variables such as an individual’s combination of personal qualities or emotional problems. His take, in contrast, was to understand marijuana consumption by developing “variables” as part of the investigation. Thereby he presented new variables, or as we would say today, theoretical concepts, but which are grounded in the empirical material.

Qualitative Research

This category contains quotations that refer to descriptions of qualitative research without making comparisons with quantitative research. Researchers such as Denzin and Lincoln, who have written a series of influential handbooks on qualitative methods (1994; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ; 2005 ), citing Nelson et al. (1992:4), argue that because qualitative research is “interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and sometimes counterdisciplinary” it is difficult to derive one single definition of it (Jovanović 2011 :3). According to them, in fact, “the field” is “many things at the same time,” involving contradictions, tensions over its focus, methods, and how to derive interpretations and findings ( 2003 : 11). Similarly, others, such as Flick ( 2007 :ix–x) contend that agreeing on an accepted definition has increasingly become problematic, and that qualitative research has possibly matured different identities. However, Best holds that “the proliferation of many sorts of activities under the label of qualitative sociology threatens to confuse our discussions” ( 2004 :54). Atkinson’s position is more definite: “the current state of qualitative research and research methods is confused” ( 2005 :3–4).

Qualitative research is about interpretation (Blumer 1969 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ), or Verstehen [understanding] (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ). It is “multi-method,” involving the collection and use of a variety of empirical materials (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Silverman 2013 ) and approaches (Silverman 2005 ; Flick 2007 ). It focuses not only on the objective nature of behavior but also on its subjective meanings: individuals’ own accounts of their attitudes, motivations, behavior (McIntyre 2005 :127; Creswell 2009 ), events and situations (Bryman 1989) – what people say and do in specific places and institutions (Goodwin and Horowitz 2002 :35–36) in social and temporal contexts (Morrill and Fine 1997). For this reason, following Weber ([1921-22] 1978), it can be described as an interpretative science (McIntyre 2005 :127). But could quantitative research also be concerned with these questions? Also, as pointed out below, does all qualitative research focus on subjective meaning, as some scholars suggest?

Others also distinguish qualitative research by claiming that it collects data using a naturalistic approach (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2; Creswell 2009 ), focusing on the meaning actors ascribe to their actions. But again, does all qualitative research need to be collected in situ? And does qualitative research have to be inherently concerned with meaning? Flick ( 2007 ), referring to Denzin and Lincoln ( 2005 ), mentions conversation analysis as an example of qualitative research that is not concerned with the meanings people bring to a situation, but rather with the formal organization of talk. Still others, such as Ragin ( 1994 :85), note that qualitative research is often (especially early on in the project, we would add) less structured than other kinds of social research – a characteristic connected to its flexibility and that can lead both to potentially better, but also worse results. But is this not a feature of this type of research, rather than a defining description of its essence? Wouldn’t this comment also apply, albeit to varying degrees, to quantitative research?

In addition, Strauss ( 2003 ), along with others, such as Alvesson and Kärreman ( 2011 :10–76), argue that qualitative researchers struggle to capture and represent complex phenomena partially because they tend to collect a large amount of data. While his analysis is correct at some points – “It is necessary to do detailed, intensive, microscopic examination of the data in order to bring out the amazing complexity of what lies in, behind, and beyond those data” (Strauss 2003 :10) – much of his analysis concerns the supposed focus of qualitative research and its challenges, rather than exactly what it is about. But even in this instance we would make a weak case arguing that these are strictly the defining features of qualitative research. Some researchers seem to focus on the approach or the methods used, or even on the way material is analyzed. Several researchers stress the naturalistic assumption of investigating the world, suggesting that meaning and interpretation appear to be a core matter of qualitative research.

We can also see that in this category there is no consensus about specific qualitative methods nor about qualitative data. Many emphasize interpretation, but quantitative research, too, involves interpretation; the results of a regression analysis, for example, certainly have to be interpreted, and the form of meta-analysis that factor analysis provides indeed requires interpretation However, there is no interpretation of quantitative raw data, i.e., numbers in tables. One common thread is that qualitative researchers have to get to grips with their data in order to understand what is being studied in great detail, irrespective of the type of empirical material that is being analyzed. This observation is connected to the fact that qualitative researchers routinely make several adjustments of focus and research design as their studies progress, in many cases until the very end of the project (Kalof et al. 2008 ). If you, like Becker, do not start out with a detailed theory, adjustments such as the emergence and refinement of research questions will occur during the research process. We have thus found a number of useful reflections about qualitative research scattered across different sources, but none of them effectively describe the defining characteristics of this approach.

Although qualitative research does not appear to be defined in terms of a specific method, it is certainly common that fieldwork, i.e., research that entails that the researcher spends considerable time in the field that is studied and use the knowledge gained as data, is seen as emblematic of or even identical to qualitative research. But because we understand that fieldwork tends to focus primarily on the collection and analysis of qualitative data, we expected to find within it discussions on the meaning of “qualitative.” But, again, this was not the case.

Instead, we found material on the history of this approach (for example, Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ; Atkinson et al. 2001), including how it has changed; for example, by adopting a more self-reflexive practice (Heyl 2001), as well as the different nomenclature that has been adopted, such as fieldwork, ethnography, qualitative research, naturalistic research, participant observation and so on (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ; Gans 1999 ).

We retrieved definitions of ethnography, such as “the study of people acting in the natural courses of their daily lives,” involving a “resocialization of the researcher” (Emerson 1988 :1) through intense immersion in others’ social worlds (see also examples in Hammersley 2018 ). This may be accomplished by direct observation and also participation (Neuman 2007 :276), although others, such as Denzin ( 1970 :185), have long recognized other types of observation, including non-participant (“fly on the wall”). In this category we have also isolated claims and opposing views, arguing that this type of research is distinguished primarily by where it is conducted (natural settings) (Hughes 1971:496), and how it is carried out (a variety of methods are applied) or, for some most importantly, by involving an active, empathetic immersion in those being studied (Emerson 1988 :2). We also retrieved descriptions of the goals it attends in relation to how it is taught (understanding subjective meanings of the people studied, primarily develop theory, or contribute to social change) (see for example, Corte and Irwin 2017 ; Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 :281; Trier-Bieniek 2012 :639) by collecting the richest possible data (Lofland et al. 2006 ) to derive “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973 ), and/or to aim at theoretical statements of general scope and applicability (for example, Emerson 1988 ; Fine 2003 ). We have identified guidelines on how to evaluate it (for example Becker 1996 ; Lamont 2004 ) and have retrieved instructions on how it should be conducted (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ). For instance, analysis should take place while the data gathering unfolds (Emerson 1988 ; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007 ; Lofland et al. 2006 ), observations should be of long duration (Becker 1970 :54; Goffman 1989 ), and data should be of high quantity (Becker 1970 :52–53), as well as other questionable distinctions between fieldwork and other methods:

Field studies differ from other methods of research in that the researcher performs the task of selecting topics, decides what questions to ask, and forges interest in the course of the research itself . This is in sharp contrast to many ‘theory-driven’ and ‘hypothesis-testing’ methods. (Lofland and Lofland 1995 :5)

But could not, for example, a strictly interview-based study be carried out with the same amount of flexibility, such as sequential interviewing (for example, Small 2009 )? Once again, are quantitative approaches really as inflexible as some qualitative researchers think? Moreover, this category stresses the role of the actors’ meaning, which requires knowledge and close interaction with people, their practices and their lifeworld.

It is clear that field studies – which are seen by some as the “gold standard” of qualitative research – are nonetheless only one way of doing qualitative research. There are other methods, but it is not clear why some are more qualitative than others, or why they are better or worse. Fieldwork is characterized by interaction with the field (the material) and understanding of the phenomenon that is being studied. In Becker’s case, he had general experience from fields in which marihuana was used, based on which he did interviews with actual users in several fields.

Grounded Theory

Another major category we identified in our sample is Grounded Theory. We found descriptions of it most clearly in Glaser and Strauss’ ([1967] 2010 ) original articulation, Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ) and Charmaz ( 2006 ), as well as many other accounts of what it is for: generating and testing theory (Strauss 2003 :xi). We identified explanations of how this task can be accomplished – such as through two main procedures: constant comparison and theoretical sampling (Emerson 1998:96), and how using it has helped researchers to “think differently” (for example, Strauss and Corbin 1998 :1). We also read descriptions of its main traits, what it entails and fosters – for instance, an exceptional flexibility, an inductive approach (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :31–33; 1990; Esterberg 2002 :7), an ability to step back and critically analyze situations, recognize tendencies towards bias, think abstractly and be open to criticism, enhance sensitivity towards the words and actions of respondents, and develop a sense of absorption and devotion to the research process (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :5–6). Accordingly, we identified discussions of the value of triangulating different methods (both using and not using grounded theory), including quantitative ones, and theories to achieve theoretical development (most comprehensively in Denzin 1970 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Timmermans and Tavory 2012 ). We have also located arguments about how its practice helps to systematize data collection, analysis and presentation of results (Glaser and Strauss [1967] 2010 :16).

Grounded theory offers a systematic approach which requires researchers to get close to the field; closeness is a requirement of identifying questions and developing new concepts or making further distinctions with regard to old concepts. In contrast to other qualitative approaches, grounded theory emphasizes the detailed coding process, and the numerous fine-tuned distinctions that the researcher makes during the process. Within this category, too, we could not find a satisfying discussion of the meaning of qualitative research.

Defining Qualitative Research

In sum, our analysis shows that some notions reappear in the discussion of qualitative research, such as understanding, interpretation, “getting close” and making distinctions. These notions capture aspects of what we think is “qualitative.” However, a comprehensive definition that is useful and that can further develop the field is lacking, and not even a clear picture of its essential elements appears. In other words no definition emerges from our data, and in our research process we have moved back and forth between our empirical data and the attempt to present a definition. Our concrete strategy, as stated above, is to relate qualitative and quantitative research, or more specifically, qualitative and quantitative work. We use an ideal-typical notion of quantitative research which relies on taken for granted and numbered variables. This means that the data consists of variables on different scales, such as ordinal, but frequently ratio and absolute scales, and the representation of the numbers to the variables, i.e. the justification of the assignment of numbers to object or phenomenon, are not questioned, though the validity may be questioned. In this section we return to the notion of quality and try to clarify it while presenting our contribution.

Broadly, research refers to the activity performed by people trained to obtain knowledge through systematic procedures. Notions such as “objectivity” and “reflexivity,” “systematic,” “theory,” “evidence” and “openness” are here taken for granted in any type of research. Next, building on our empirical analysis we explain the four notions that we have identified as central to qualitative work: distinctions, process, closeness, and improved understanding. In discussing them, ultimately in relation to one another, we make their meaning even more precise. Our idea, in short, is that only when these ideas that we present separately for analytic purposes are brought together can we speak of qualitative research.


We believe that the possibility of making new distinctions is one the defining characteristics of qualitative research. It clearly sets it apart from quantitative analysis which works with taken-for-granted variables, albeit as mentioned, meta-analyses, for example, factor analysis may result in new variables. “Quality” refers essentially to distinctions, as already pointed out by Aristotle. He discusses the term “qualitative” commenting: “By a quality I mean that in virtue of which things are said to be qualified somehow” (Aristotle 1984:14). Quality is about what something is or has, which means that the distinction from its environment is crucial. We see qualitative research as a process in which significant new distinctions are made to the scholarly community; to make distinctions is a key aspect of obtaining new knowledge; a point, as we will see, that also has implications for “quantitative research.” The notion of being “significant” is paramount. New distinctions by themselves are not enough; just adding concepts only increases complexity without furthering our knowledge. The significance of new distinctions is judged against the communal knowledge of the research community. To enable this discussion and judgements central elements of rational discussion are required (cf. Habermas [1981] 1987 ; Davidsson [ 1988 ] 2001) to identify what is new and relevant scientific knowledge. Relatedly, Ragin alludes to the idea of new and useful knowledge at a more concrete level: “Qualitative methods are appropriate for in-depth examination of cases because they aid the identification of key features of cases. Most qualitative methods enhance data” (1994:79). When Becker ( 1963 ) studied deviant behavior and investigated how people became marihuana smokers, he made distinctions between the ways in which people learned how to smoke. This is a classic example of how the strategy of “getting close” to the material, for example the text, people or pictures that are subject to analysis, may enable researchers to obtain deeper insight and new knowledge by making distinctions – in this instance on the initial notion of learning how to smoke. Others have stressed the making of distinctions in relation to coding or theorizing. Emerson et al. ( 1995 ), for example, hold that “qualitative coding is a way of opening up avenues of inquiry,” meaning that the researcher identifies and develops concepts and analytic insights through close examination of and reflection on data (Emerson et al. 1995 :151). Goodwin and Horowitz highlight making distinctions in relation to theory-building writing: “Close engagement with their cases typically requires qualitative researchers to adapt existing theories or to make new conceptual distinctions or theoretical arguments to accommodate new data” ( 2002 : 37). In the ideal-typical quantitative research only existing and so to speak, given, variables would be used. If this is the case no new distinction are made. But, would not also many “quantitative” researchers make new distinctions?

Process does not merely suggest that research takes time. It mainly implies that qualitative new knowledge results from a process that involves several phases, and above all iteration. Qualitative research is about oscillation between theory and evidence, analysis and generating material, between first- and second -order constructs (Schütz 1962 :59), between getting in contact with something, finding sources, becoming deeply familiar with a topic, and then distilling and communicating some of its essential features. The main point is that the categories that the researcher uses, and perhaps takes for granted at the beginning of the research process, usually undergo qualitative changes resulting from what is found. Becker describes how he tested hypotheses and let the jargon of the users develop into theoretical concepts. This happens over time while the study is being conducted, exemplifying what we mean by process.

In the research process, a pilot-study may be used to get a first glance of, for example, the field, how to approach it, and what methods can be used, after which the method and theory are chosen or refined before the main study begins. Thus, the empirical material is often central from the start of the project and frequently leads to adjustments by the researcher. Likewise, during the main study categories are not fixed; the empirical material is seen in light of the theory used, but it is also given the opportunity to kick back, thereby resisting attempts to apply theoretical straightjackets (Becker 1970 :43). In this process, coding and analysis are interwoven, and thus are often important steps for getting closer to the phenomenon and deciding what to focus on next. Becker began his research by interviewing musicians close to him, then asking them to refer him to other musicians, and later on doubling his original sample of about 25 to include individuals in other professions (Becker 1973:46). Additionally, he made use of some participant observation, documents, and interviews with opiate users made available to him by colleagues. As his inductive theory of deviance evolved, Becker expanded his sample in order to fine tune it, and test the accuracy and generality of his hypotheses. In addition, he introduced a negative case and discussed the null hypothesis ( 1963 :44). His phasic career model is thus based on a research design that embraces processual work. Typically, process means to move between “theory” and “material” but also to deal with negative cases, and Becker ( 1998 ) describes how discovering these negative cases impacted his research design and ultimately its findings.

Obviously, all research is process-oriented to some degree. The point is that the ideal-typical quantitative process does not imply change of the data, and iteration between data, evidence, hypotheses, empirical work, and theory. The data, quantified variables, are, in most cases fixed. Merging of data, which of course can be done in a quantitative research process, does not mean new data. New hypotheses are frequently tested, but the “raw data is often the “the same.” Obviously, over time new datasets are made available and put into use.

Another characteristic that is emphasized in our sample is that qualitative researchers – and in particular ethnographers – can, or as Goffman put it, ought to ( 1989 ), get closer to the phenomenon being studied and their data than quantitative researchers (for example, Silverman 2009 :85). Put differently, essentially because of their methods qualitative researchers get into direct close contact with those being investigated and/or the material, such as texts, being analyzed. Becker started out his interview study, as we noted, by talking to those he knew in the field of music to get closer to the phenomenon he was studying. By conducting interviews he got even closer. Had he done more observations, he would undoubtedly have got even closer to the field.

Additionally, ethnographers’ design enables researchers to follow the field over time, and the research they do is almost by definition longitudinal, though the time in the field is studied obviously differs between studies. The general characteristic of closeness over time maximizes the chances of unexpected events, new data (related, for example, to archival research as additional sources, and for ethnography for situations not necessarily previously thought of as instrumental – what Mannay and Morgan ( 2015 ) term the “waiting field”), serendipity (Merton and Barber 2004 ; Åkerström 2013 ), and possibly reactivity, as well as the opportunity to observe disrupted patterns that translate into exemplars of negative cases. Two classic examples of this are Becker’s finding of what medical students call “crocks” (Becker et al. 1961 :317), and Geertz’s ( 1973 ) study of “deep play” in Balinese society.

By getting and staying so close to their data – be it pictures, text or humans interacting (Becker was himself a musician) – for a long time, as the research progressively focuses, qualitative researchers are prompted to continually test their hunches, presuppositions and hypotheses. They test them against a reality that often (but certainly not always), and practically, as well as metaphorically, talks back, whether by validating them, or disqualifying their premises – correctly, as well as incorrectly (Fine 2003 ; Becker 1970 ). This testing nonetheless often leads to new directions for the research. Becker, for example, says that he was initially reading psychological theories, but when facing the data he develops a theory that looks at, you may say, everything but psychological dispositions to explain the use of marihuana. Especially researchers involved with ethnographic methods have a fairly unique opportunity to dig up and then test (in a circular, continuous and temporal way) new research questions and findings as the research progresses, and thereby to derive previously unimagined and uncharted distinctions by getting closer to the phenomenon under study.

Let us stress that getting close is by no means restricted to ethnography. The notion of hermeneutic circle and hermeneutics as a general way of understanding implies that we must get close to the details in order to get the big picture. This also means that qualitative researchers can literally also make use of details of pictures as evidence (cf. Harper 2002). Thus, researchers may get closer both when generating the material or when analyzing it.

Quantitative research, we maintain, in the ideal-typical representation cannot get closer to the data. The data is essentially numbers in tables making up the variables (Franzosi 2016 :138). The data may originally have been “qualitative,” but once reduced to numbers there can only be a type of “hermeneutics” about what the number may stand for. The numbers themselves, however, are non-ambiguous. Thus, in quantitative research, interpretation, if done, is not about the data itself—the numbers—but what the numbers stand for. It follows that the interpretation is essentially done in a more “speculative” mode without direct empirical evidence (cf. Becker 2017 ).

Improved Understanding

While distinction, process and getting closer refer to the qualitative work of the researcher, improved understanding refers to its conditions and outcome of this work. Understanding cuts deeper than explanation, which to some may mean a causally verified correlation between variables. The notion of explanation presupposes the notion of understanding since explanation does not include an idea of how knowledge is gained (Manicas 2006 : 15). Understanding, we argue, is the core concept of what we call the outcome of the process when research has made use of all the other elements that were integrated in the research. Understanding, then, has a special status in qualitative research since it refers both to the conditions of knowledge and the outcome of the process. Understanding can to some extent be seen as the condition of explanation and occurs in a process of interpretation, which naturally refers to meaning (Gadamer 1990 ). It is fundamentally connected to knowing, and to the knowing of how to do things (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ). Conceptually the term hermeneutics is used to account for this process. Heidegger ties hermeneutics to human being and not possible to separate from the understanding of being ( 1988 ). Here we use it in a broader sense, and more connected to method in general (cf. Seiffert 1992 ). The abovementioned aspects – for example, “objectivity” and “reflexivity” – of the approach are conditions of scientific understanding. Understanding is the result of a circular process and means that the parts are understood in light of the whole, and vice versa. Understanding presupposes pre-understanding, or in other words, some knowledge of the phenomenon studied. The pre-understanding, even in the form of prejudices, are in qualitative research process, which we see as iterative, questioned, which gradually or suddenly change due to the iteration of data, evidence and concepts. However, qualitative research generates understanding in the iterative process when the researcher gets closer to the data, e.g., by going back and forth between field and analysis in a process that generates new data that changes the evidence, and, ultimately, the findings. Questioning, to ask questions, and put what one assumes—prejudices and presumption—in question, is central to understand something (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ; Gadamer 1990 :368–384). We propose that this iterative process in which the process of understanding occurs is characteristic of qualitative research.

Improved understanding means that we obtain scientific knowledge of something that we as a scholarly community did not know before, or that we get to know something better. It means that we understand more about how parts are related to one another, and to other things we already understand (see also Fine and Hallett 2014 ). Understanding is an important condition for qualitative research. It is not enough to identify correlations, make distinctions, and work in a process in which one gets close to the field or phenomena. Understanding is accomplished when the elements are integrated in an iterative process.

It is, moreover, possible to understand many things, and researchers, just like children, may come to understand new things every day as they engage with the world. This subjective condition of understanding – namely, that a person gains a better understanding of something –is easily met. To be qualified as “scientific,” the understanding must be general and useful to many; it must be public. But even this generally accessible understanding is not enough in order to speak of “scientific understanding.” Though we as a collective can increase understanding of everything in virtually all potential directions as a result also of qualitative work, we refrain from this “objective” way of understanding, which has no means of discriminating between what we gain in understanding. Scientific understanding means that it is deemed relevant from the scientific horizon (compare Schütz 1962 : 35–38, 46, 63), and that it rests on the pre-understanding that the scientists have and must have in order to understand. In other words, the understanding gained must be deemed useful by other researchers, so that they can build on it. We thus see understanding from a pragmatic, rather than a subjective or objective perspective. Improved understanding is related to the question(s) at hand. Understanding, in order to represent an improvement, must be an improvement in relation to the existing body of knowledge of the scientific community (James [ 1907 ] 1955). Scientific understanding is, by definition, collective, as expressed in Weber’s famous note on objectivity, namely that scientific work aims at truths “which … can claim, even for a Chinese, the validity appropriate to an empirical analysis” ([1904] 1949 :59). By qualifying “improved understanding” we argue that it is a general defining characteristic of qualitative research. Becker‘s ( 1966 ) study and other research of deviant behavior increased our understanding of the social learning processes of how individuals start a behavior. And it also added new knowledge about the labeling of deviant behavior as a social process. Few studies, of course, make the same large contribution as Becker’s, but are nonetheless qualitative research.

Understanding in the phenomenological sense, which is a hallmark of qualitative research, we argue, requires meaning and this meaning is derived from the context, and above all the data being analyzed. The ideal-typical quantitative research operates with given variables with different numbers. This type of material is not enough to establish meaning at the level that truly justifies understanding. In other words, many social science explanations offer ideas about correlations or even causal relations, but this does not mean that the meaning at the level of the data analyzed, is understood. This leads us to say that there are indeed many explanations that meet the criteria of understanding, for example the explanation of how one becomes a marihuana smoker presented by Becker. However, we may also understand a phenomenon without explaining it, and we may have potential explanations, or better correlations, that are not really understood.

We may speak more generally of quantitative research and its data to clarify what we see as an important distinction. The “raw data” that quantitative research—as an idealtypical activity, refers to is not available for further analysis; the numbers, once created, are not to be questioned (Franzosi 2016 : 138). If the researcher is to do “more” or “change” something, this will be done by conjectures based on theoretical knowledge or based on the researcher’s lifeworld. Both qualitative and quantitative research is based on the lifeworld, and all researchers use prejudices and pre-understanding in the research process. This idea is present in the works of Heidegger ( 2001 ) and Heisenberg (cited in Franzosi 2010 :619). Qualitative research, as we argued, involves the interaction and questioning of concepts (theory), data, and evidence.

Ragin ( 2004 :22) points out that “a good definition of qualitative research should be inclusive and should emphasize its key strengths and features, not what it lacks (for example, the use of sophisticated quantitative techniques).” We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. Qualitative research, as defined here, is consequently a combination of two criteria: (i) how to do things –namely, generating and analyzing empirical material, in an iterative process in which one gets closer by making distinctions, and (ii) the outcome –improved understanding novel to the scholarly community. Is our definition applicable to our own study? In this study we have closely read the empirical material that we generated, and the novel distinction of the notion “qualitative research” is the outcome of an iterative process in which both deduction and induction were involved, in which we identified the categories that we analyzed. We thus claim to meet the first criteria, “how to do things.” The second criteria cannot be judged but in a partial way by us, namely that the “outcome” —in concrete form the definition-improves our understanding to others in the scientific community.

We have defined qualitative research, or qualitative scientific work, in relation to quantitative scientific work. Given this definition, qualitative research is about questioning the pre-given (taken for granted) variables, but it is thus also about making new distinctions of any type of phenomenon, for example, by coining new concepts, including the identification of new variables. This process, as we have discussed, is carried out in relation to empirical material, previous research, and thus in relation to theory. Theory and previous research cannot be escaped or bracketed. According to hermeneutic principles all scientific work is grounded in the lifeworld, and as social scientists we can thus never fully bracket our pre-understanding.

We have proposed that quantitative research, as an idealtype, is concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ). Variables are epistemically fixed, but can vary in terms of dimensions, such as frequency or number. Age is an example; as a variable it can take on different numbers. In relation to quantitative research, qualitative research does not reduce its material to number and variables. If this is done the process of comes to a halt, the researcher gets more distanced from her data, and it makes it no longer possible to make new distinctions that increase our understanding. We have above discussed the components of our definition in relation to quantitative research. Our conclusion is that in the research that is called quantitative there are frequent and necessary qualitative elements.

Further, comparative empirical research on researchers primarily working with ”quantitative” approaches and those working with ”qualitative” approaches, we propose, would perhaps show that there are many similarities in practices of these two approaches. This is not to deny dissimilarities, or the different epistemic and ontic presuppositions that may be more or less strongly associated with the two different strands (see Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ). Our point is nonetheless that prejudices and preconceptions about researchers are unproductive, and that as other researchers have argued, differences may be exaggerated (e.g., Becker 1996 : 53, 2017 ; Marchel and Owens 2007 :303; Ragin 1994 ), and that a qualitative dimension is present in both kinds of work.

Several things follow from our findings. The most important result is the relation to quantitative research. In our analysis we have separated qualitative research from quantitative research. The point is not to label individual researchers, methods, projects, or works as either “quantitative” or “qualitative.” By analyzing, i.e., taking apart, the notions of quantitative and qualitative, we hope to have shown the elements of qualitative research. Our definition captures the elements, and how they, when combined in practice, generate understanding. As many of the quotations we have used suggest, one conclusion of our study holds that qualitative approaches are not inherently connected with a specific method. Put differently, none of the methods that are frequently labelled “qualitative,” such as interviews or participant observation, are inherently “qualitative.” What matters, given our definition, is whether one works qualitatively or quantitatively in the research process, until the results are produced. Consequently, our analysis also suggests that those researchers working with what in the literature and in jargon is often called “quantitative research” are almost bound to make use of what we have identified as qualitative elements in any research project. Our findings also suggest that many” quantitative” researchers, at least to some extent, are engaged with qualitative work, such as when research questions are developed, variables are constructed and combined, and hypotheses are formulated. Furthermore, a research project may hover between “qualitative” and “quantitative” or start out as “qualitative” and later move into a “quantitative” (a distinct strategy that is not similar to “mixed methods” or just simply combining induction and deduction). More generally speaking, the categories of “qualitative” and “quantitative,” unfortunately, often cover up practices, and it may lead to “camps” of researchers opposing one another. For example, regardless of the researcher is primarily oriented to “quantitative” or “qualitative” research, the role of theory is neglected (cf. Swedberg 2017 ). Our results open up for an interaction not characterized by differences, but by different emphasis, and similarities.

Let us take two examples to briefly indicate how qualitative elements can fruitfully be combined with quantitative. Franzosi ( 2010 ) has discussed the relations between quantitative and qualitative approaches, and more specifically the relation between words and numbers. He analyzes texts and argues that scientific meaning cannot be reduced to numbers. Put differently, the meaning of the numbers is to be understood by what is taken for granted, and what is part of the lifeworld (Schütz 1962 ). Franzosi shows how one can go about using qualitative and quantitative methods and data to address scientific questions analyzing violence in Italy at the time when fascism was rising (1919–1922). Aspers ( 2006 ) studied the meaning of fashion photographers. He uses an empirical phenomenological approach, and establishes meaning at the level of actors. In a second step this meaning, and the different ideal-typical photographers constructed as a result of participant observation and interviews, are tested using quantitative data from a database; in the first phase to verify the different ideal-types, in the second phase to use these types to establish new knowledge about the types. In both of these cases—and more examples can be found—authors move from qualitative data and try to keep the meaning established when using the quantitative data.

A second main result of our study is that a definition, and we provided one, offers a way for research to clarify, and even evaluate, what is done. Hence, our definition can guide researchers and students, informing them on how to think about concrete research problems they face, and to show what it means to get closer in a process in which new distinctions are made. The definition can also be used to evaluate the results, given that it is a standard of evaluation (cf. Hammersley 2007 ), to see whether new distinctions are made and whether this improves our understanding of what is researched, in addition to the evaluation of how the research was conducted. By making what is qualitative research explicit it becomes easier to communicate findings, and it is thereby much harder to fly under the radar with substandard research since there are standards of evaluation which make it easier to separate “good” from “not so good” qualitative research.

To conclude, our analysis, which ends with a definition of qualitative research can thus both address the “internal” issues of what is qualitative research, and the “external” critiques that make it harder to do qualitative research, to which both pressure from quantitative methods and general changes in society contribute.

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Financial Support for this research is given by the European Research Council, CEV (263699). The authors are grateful to Susann Krieglsteiner for assistance in collecting the data. The paper has benefitted from the many useful comments by the three reviewers and the editor, comments by members of the Uppsala Laboratory of Economic Sociology, as well as Jukka Gronow, Sebastian Kohl, Marcin Serafin, Richard Swedberg, Anders Vassenden and Turid Rødne.

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Aspers, P., Corte, U. What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research. Qual Sociol 42 , 139–160 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-9413-7

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Academic Integrity and Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education (HE) Contexts: A Rapid Scoping Review

  • Helen Pethrick University of Calgary
  • K. Alix Hayden University of Calgary
  • Jason Wiens University of Calgary
  • Brenda McDermott University of Calgary

Artificial Intelligence (AI) developments challenge higher education institutions’ teaching, learning, assessment, and research practices. To contribute timely and evidence-based recommendations for upholding academic integrity, we conducted a rapid scoping review focusing on what is known about academic integrity and AI in higher education. We followed the Updated Reviewer Manual for Scoping Reviews from the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) and the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews Meta-Analysis for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) reporting standards. Five databases were searched, and the eligibility criteria included higher education stakeholders of any age and gender engaged with AI in the context of academic integrity from 2007 through November 2022 and available in English. The search retrieved 2223 records, of which 14 publications with mixed methods, qualitative, quantitative, randomized controlled trials, and text and opinion studies met the inclusion criteria. The results showed bounded and unbounded ethical implications of AI. Perspectives included: AI for cheating; AI as legitimate support; an equity, diversity, and inclusion lens into AI; and emerging recommendations to tackle AI implications in higher education. The evidence from the sources provides guidance that can inform educational stakeholders in decision-making processes for AI integration, in the analysis of misconduct cases involving AI, and in the exploration of AI as legitimate assistance. Likewise, this rapid scoping review signals key questions for future research, which we explore in our discussion.

Author Biographies

Beatriz antonieta moya, university of calgary.

Beatriz Moya is a Ph.D. candidate in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary in the Educational Research program, specializing in Leadership. Her primary motivation as a student researcher is to contribute to the continuous transformation of higher education institutions’ cultures to pursue academic and research integrity and social justice. For this reason, Beatriz situates herself at the intersections of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), Leadership, and Academic Integrity. In this space, Beatriz is currently involved in projects seeking to contribute to a ‘glocal’ scholarly dialogue concerning academic integrity as a teaching and learning imperative. For instance, Beatriz is exploring the situated meanings and experiential insights from academic integrity educational leaders, and is also a contributing author for a chapter on academic integrity policy in Latin America in the Handbook of Academic Integrity (2nd ed.). 

Sarah Elaine Eaton, University of Calgary

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Calgary, Canada. She served as the inaugural Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity at Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Dr. Eaton’s research focuses on academic ethics in higher education. Her work can be found in the British Educational Research Journal, the Journal of Academic Ethics, and the Journal of Educational Thought and Interchange, among other places. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal for Educational Integrity (Springer Nature) and co-founder and co-editor of Canadian Perspectives on Academic Integrity. In 2020 she received the National Research and Scholarship award from the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE) for her contributions to research on academic integrity in Canadian higher education. In 2022, she received the outstanding research award from the European Network for Academic Integrity (ENAI). Her books include Plagiarism in Higher Education: Tackling Tough Topics in Academic Integrity, Academic Integrity in Canada: An Enduring and Essential Challenge (Eaton & Christensen Hughes, eds.), Contract Cheating in Higher Education: Global Perspectives on Theory, Practice, and Policy (Eaton, Curtis, Stoesz, Clare, Rundle, & Seeland, eds.) and Ethics and Integrity in Teacher Education (Eaton & Khan, eds.). 

Helen Pethrick, University of Calgary

Helen Pethrick, MA, is a researcher and educator in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Helen’s research encompasses academic integrity in higher education, post-secondary student mental health, and mentorship in academia. Helen has interdisciplinary expertise in systematic literature review methodology, qualitative research, project management, and knowledge exchange. With Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton and Jamie J. Carmichael, Helen is co-Editor of the volume Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education (Eaton, Carmichael, & Pethrick, forthcoming 2023). Currently, Helen’s role is Research Associate, Academic Integrity, which involves acting as Project Manager (administrative) for the Academic Integrity and Artificial Intelligence project at the University of Calgary. 

K. Alix Hayden, University of Calgary

Dr. Alix Hayden is a Librarian at the University of Calgary.

Robert Brennan

Holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary. He is a Professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Calgary, holds the NSERC Chair in Design Engineering, and has served as President of the Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA). His research interests range from engineering education to intelligent automation and control systems.  

Jason Wiens, University of Calgary

Dr. Wiens is a Professor (Teaching) in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. His areas of research interest include contemporary poetry, Canadian literature, archival studies, literary audio, and pedagogy.  He has published articles in numerous journals including LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, Canadian Literature, Studies on Canadian Writing, and Canadian Poetry. He has recently guest edited a special issue of English Studies in Canada on "Pedagogies of the Archive." He is currently a co-investigator on the SSHRC Partnership project The SpokenWeb, and is a co-investigator on the Academic Integrity and Artificial Intelligence project at the University of Calgary.  

Brenda McDermott, University of Calgary

Dr. McDermott completed her PhD in communication studies at the University of Calgary.  Her research involves looking at ableism embedded in teaching and learning practices, particular assessment. She regularly provided training to faculty to help creating learning environments that reflect the diversity of learners.  

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Midwives’ lived experiences of caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini: a qualitative study

  • Annie M. Temane 1 ,
  • Fortunate N. Magagula 2 &
  • Anna G. W. Nolte 1  

BMC Women's Health volume  24 , Article number:  207 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

Metrics details

Midwives encounter various difficulties while aiming to achieve excellence in providing maternity care to women with mobility disabilities. The study aimed to explore and describe midwives’ experiences of caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini.

A qualitative, exploratory, descriptive, contextual research design with a phenomenological approach was followed. Twelve midwives working in maternal health facilities in the Hhohho and Manzini regions in Eswatini were interviewed. Purposive sampling was used to select midwives to participate in the research. In-depth phenomenological interviews were conducted, and Giorgi’s descriptive phenomenological method was used for data analysis.

Three themes emerged from the data analysis: midwives experienced physical and emotional strain in providing maternity care to women with mobility disabilities, they experienced frustration due to the lack of equipment to meet the needs of women with mobility disabilities, and they faced challenges in providing support and holistic care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium.


Midwives experienced challenges caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium in Eswatini. There is a need to develop and empower midwives with the knowledge and skill to implement guidelines and enact protocols. Moreover, equipment and infrastructure are required to facilitate support and holistic maternity care for women with mobility disabilities.

Peer Review reports

Globally, few studies have focused on midwives’ views of providing maternity care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium [ 1 ]. In The Disabled World [ 2 ], the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines ‘disability’ as an umbrella term covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Furthermore, the WHO defines an ‘impairment’ as a problem in bodily function or structure; an ‘activity limitation’ as a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; and ‘participation restriction’ as a problem experienced by an individual in various life situations [ 2 ]. In this study, mobility disabilities refer to an impairment in the functioning of the upper and lower extremities as experienced by women during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium.

Midwives, as frontline workers in the delivery of maternity care [ 3 ] responsible for the lives of the mother and the baby, are accountable for providing competent and holistic care for women during pregnancy, labour and puerperium. As part of healthcare provision, midwives play an important role in ensuring that every woman, including women with mobility disabilities, receives the best maternity care during pregnancy, labour and puerperium. Moridi et al. [ 4 ] state that women with mobility disabilities are entitled to feel safe, respected and well cared for by midwives, who must be sufficiently prepared to care for these women.

According to the Global Population Report, [ 5 ] more than one billion people have some form of disability. Eswatini is classified as a middle-income setting in the southern African region, measuring 17 000 square kilometres with a population of 1 093 238. Of the population, 76.2% reside in rural areas (833 472), and 23.8% (259 766) reside in urban areas [ 6 ]. The economy is largely agricultural as most industries manufacture agricultural products [ 7 ]. Of the Eswatini population, 146 554 (13%) live with disabilities, with most being women (87 258; 16%), 22,871 (14.1%) and 26,270 (14.3%) of them reside in the Hhohho and Manzini regions respectively [ 8 ]. 15% (125 545) of people with disabilities live in rural areas, and 85% of the disabled population is unemployed [ 8 ], which means most of these individuals are economically disadvantaged. Furthermore, according to the Eswatini Central Statistics Office, 8 26.5% of people with disabilities have a mobility (walking) disability, with 63.5% of these being women.

Midwives may encounter difficulties while aiming to achieve excellence in providing maternity care to women with mobility disabilities in what may be challenging circumstances [ 9 ]. The WHO [ 10 ] claims people with disabilities do not receive the health services they need and are thus likely to find healthcare providers have inadequate skills. Lawler et al. [ 11 ] argue that ineffective interactions and poor communication with women needing care, particularly among health professionals engaged in providing maternity services, limit these women’s opportunities to participate in decision-making processes during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care. According to the University of Johannesburg, [ 12 ] the midwife, together with the mother, have to engage collaboratively in order to come up with opportunities to promote health while removing any challenges that could impede the achievement thereof.

Walsh-Gallagher et al. [ 13 ] postulate that healthcare professionals tend to view women with disabilities as liabilities and regard them as high risk; they often exclude them from the individualised plan of care, which leads to an increase in these women’s fears about their maternity care. These challenges frequently result in health disparities and prevent women with mobility disabilities from receiving optimal maternity care. By exploring midwives’ experiences of this phenomenon, guidelines for support can be developed to extend available knowledge on maternity care for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium.

Study design

The aim of the study was to explore and describe midwives’ experiences of caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in the Hhohho and Manzini regions of Eswatini. A qualitative, [ 14 ] exploratory, [ 15 ] descriptive, [ 16 ] contextual [ 17 ] research design with a phenomenological approach [ 18 ] was applied for this study to gain insight and understanding of the research phenomenon [ 19 ]. The phenomenon under study was midwives’ lived experiences caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium. The participants were approached face-to-face to participate in the study. The researchers followed the Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) to report on this qualitative study [ 20 ].

The setting for the study was the Hhohho and Manzini regions of Eswatini. The researcher collected data at the site where participants experienced the phenomenon, as emphasised by Yildiz, [ 21 ] within the context in which they were comfortable to be interviewed [ 22 ]. This setting included maternal health facilities in hospitals and public health units.

Population and sampling

The study’s population comprised midwives working in maternal health facilities in hospitals and public health units, that is, one referral hospital and one public health unit in the Hhohho region and two referral hospitals and one public health unit in the Manzini region of Eswatini. Purposive sampling was used to select midwives to participate in the study; [ 16 ] 12 midwives from both regions were included. The midwives were between the ages of 35 and 55, and all midwives were black in race and identified as females. The years of experience in the field ranged between 5 and 15 years. The criteria for inclusion were midwives who had provided maternity care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium for a period of not more than two to three years, willing to participate in the study. The sample size was determined by repetitions of key statements about the research phenomenon during data collection, termed data saturation [ 23 ]. None of the participants refused to participate in the study.

Table  1 summarises the participants’ demographic characteristics.

Data collection

In-depth phenomenological, face-to-face, individual interviews were conducted to collect data [ 17 ]. The researcher who was a Midwifery lecturer held a Master’s Degree in Maternal and Neonatal science at the time of the study requested approval from the Unit manager to seek permission from the midwives to take part in the study. The midwives were given an information letter which included objectives of the study and the reasons for conducting the study. After recruiting midwives and obtaining their written consent to participate in the study and permission to audio-record the interviews, the researcher set up appointments with them for the interviews, and the data collection process commenced. The central question posed to participants was: How was it for you to care for a woman with a mobility disability during pregnancy, labour and puerperium? A pilot of the tool was performed on the first participant who met the inclusion criteria and possessed the same characteristics as those of the study sample. The pre-testing question yielded positive results, the participant responded to the question asked and there was no need to rephrase it or further test it.

The interviews were conducted from March 2019 to July 2019 and lasted 30–45 min. The researcher conducted interviews until the data became redundant and repetitive, reflecting that saturation had been reached, in congruence with Fouché et al. [ 25 ] In addition, field notes were recorded in a notebook after each in-depth phenomenological interview. No repeat interviews were held. The researcher ensured bracketing by omitting any perceptions from her past experiences that were likely to influence her interpretation of the research findings.

Data analysis

Before data analysis commenced, data were organised in computer files after being transcribed and translated into narrative form. Data from each participant were coded and stored in the relevant file and kept in a safe place; only the researcher could access the information. Back-up copies were made of all the data, and the master copies were stored in a safe to which only the researcher had access.

Data collection and analysis occurred concurrently. The researcher was guided by Giorgi et al.’s [ 26 ] five-step method of data analysis. This entailed the researcher reading all the transcribed data and the entire ‘naïve description’ provided by the participants during the interviews. The demarcation of ‘meaning units’ within narratives followed. In addition, the researcher marked where meaning shifts occurred and transformed meaning units into descriptive expressions. The researcher laid out the general structure of midwives’ experiences. Moreover, an independent coder was provided with the raw data (after signing a confidentiality agreement) to analyse the findings. The researcher and independent coder analysed the data separately and met for a consensus discussion. Both agreed on all the units of analysis, with an inter-coder reliability of 100%.

Measures of trustworthiness

The research was informed by Guba and Lincoln’s [ 27 ] model in relation to credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. For credibility, the researcher ensured prolonged engagement in the field [ 28 ], peer debriefing, [ 29 ] member checking, and an external auditor was used [ 25 ]. The study was also presented at a national conference. Transferability refers to the ability to extend the findings of one’s study to comparable environments or participants, as stated by Pitney et al. [ 30 ] The researcher ensured the study’s transferability by providing a richly documented account and in-depth description of all aspects and processes of the study protocol. Data saturation also confirmed transferability [ 23 ]. Dependability is evident in a study when other researchers are able to follow the researcher’s decision trail [ 31 ]. The researcher ensured dependability by densely describing the research process in congruence with Fouché et al.’s [ 25 ] guidelines, so that other researchers can follow similar steps of the same research methodology. Confirmability occurs when the research is judged by the way in which the findings and conclusions achieve their aim and are not the result of the researcher’s prior assumptions and preconceptions [ 32 ]. The researcher ensured this by remaining true to the research process through reflexivity and not compromising the research process in any way [ 28 ]. In addition, the researcher engaged an independent coder and provided a chain of evidence of the entire research process to enable an audit. Therefore, all forms of collected data, including raw data, reflexive journals, [ 29 ] notes and transcriptions, were recorded.

Ethical clearance to conduct this study was obtained from the University of Johannesburg Faculty of Health Sciences Higher Degrees Committee (ref. no. HDC-01-50-2018), University of Johannesburg Faculty of Health Research Ethics Committee (ref. no. REC-01-82-2018), and the Eswatini National Health Research Review Board (ref. no. NHRRB982/2018). The researcher applied and adhered to the four principles to be considered when conducting research: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice [ 33 ]. Autonomy was adhered to by affording the participants the right to choose to participate in the study and by signing a written informed consent form a week after it was given to them before the interviews commenced. Beneficence was ensured through doing good and doing no harm to participants by prioritising the participants’ interests above those of the researcher, and did not engage in any practice that jeopardised their rights. Non-maleficence was observed by eradicating any possible harmful risks in the study; the researcher ensured the safety of the participants by conducting interviews in a familiar, private environment where they felt free and safe from harm. Furthermore, justice was observed by treating all participants equally regardless of their biographical, social and economic status.

Three themes and categories emerged from the data analysis. Table  2 summarises the themes and categories of midwives’ lived experiences caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini.

Theme 1: physical and emotional efforts required from midwives to provide maternity care to women with mobility disabilities

Category 1.1: midwives experienced that woman with mobility disabilities needed assistance getting onto the bed during labour and delivery.

According to the participants, caring for women with mobility disabilities weighed heavily on them physically as they were required to assist the women onto delivery beds, which were too high for the women to climb up on their own:

“The beds are too high, they need to be adjustable…unless you change her to another room, we only have one in the other room…but to be honest she delivered on the same high bed with the help…It’s uncomfortable even with me who is normal, how about someone who has a disability? Getting the woman onto the bed is also uncomfortable for us we end up having pain on our backs.” (M3) . “The challenge is that I couldn’t help her to climb on to the bed, because I needed someone to assist when she came for postnatal care as she was even carrying 3 babies, I didn’t know what to do…I eventually went out and asked for assistance from my colleague…” (M10) . “I believe that the equipment should accommodate the women with disability, however, ours is not accommodative to the women…there are no special delivery beds, specifically designed for them because in my opinion the beds have to be shorter so they can be able to get on to them easily…yes so that they can be able to climb on the beds” (M1) .

Category 1.2: midwives experienced challenges in manoeuvring women with mobility disabilities during labour

Midwives reported it was difficult to perform some procedures while progressing these women during labour and delivery. This situation called for some adjustment and improvisation on their part, and they were unsure if it was the right thing to do.

“Even though she was a bit uncomfortable and anxious because the leg was just straight and could not bend, I reassured her…She had to remove the artificial leg and remain with the stump. I placed her on the lithotomy position. With the other hand she had to hold on to the ankle of the normal foot, even though it was awkward and difficult to manoeuvre, she managed to deliver the baby.” (M1) . “Luckily for us, she didn’t sustain a tear and we were saved from suturing her cause we foresaw difficulties as how we could have done it as she couldn’t open her thighs well due to the disability…yes I had to get a partner to assist, since she couldn’t even open her thighs. She also couldn’t cooperate possibly because of the pain that is also more reason I asked for my colleague to assist.” (M6) . “…yes…let me make an example, in my case she had a fracture, even if the pelvis was gynaecoid, there were problems of finding the right position for her during delivery, when she had to push the baby out…” (M8) . “The one that I saw did not have one leg. She had come for her postnatal care. We assisted and her on the couch, with my colleague. Since she couldn’t keep her legs open, I asked my colleague to keep one of her legs open whilst I examined her.” (M12) .

Category 1.3: midwives experienced anxiety and the need to exercise patience when caring for women with mobility disabilities

The participants experienced an emotional and psychological burden when caring for women with mobility disabilities. They felt unqualified and foresaw difficulties that triggered anxiety, which led to them not knowing what to do and how to handle these women.

“It was during labour…the woman was limping the woman she was on crutches. The moment she came into the ward I am a human being I just felt sorry for her kutsi (as to) how is she going to take care of the baby, and the hand was somehow deformed.” (M3) . “At first its emotionally draining as an individual you cause you start sympathising…(other midwife chips in)…yes you even find yourself saying things just because you pity her, and in the process they get hurt.” (M6) . “It came as a shock and it was my first experience, it came as a shock as to how I was going to help her as even my experience was limited in that area.” (M7) . “As I was taking care of her it became necessary for me to put myself into her shoes and to bear with her considering her situation….When you see her for the first time you would pity her yet she is now used to it.” (M1) .

Theme 2: lack of equipment to meet the needs of women with mobility disabilities

Category 2.1: midwives reported a lack of special beds and infrastructure to meet the needs of women with mobility disabilities.

Midwives reported their frustration at the lack of sufficient equipment like special beds and examination tables, tailored for women with mobility disabilities. It was a challenge to provide maternity care for women without this equipment.

“I believe that the infrastructure and equipment should accommodate the women with mobility disability, however, ours is not accommodative to the women…Usually we don’t have the prenatal ward in the maternity, most women who come in the latent phase have to ambulate, or go to the waiting huts and come back when the labour pains are stronger…There are no special delivery beds, specifically designed for them because in my opinion the beds have to be shorter so they can be able to get on to them easily. We do not even have toilets meant for them.” (M1) . “I was anxious as to how was she going to push how to push cause we do not have the right beds when it was time for pushing I asked for assistance…” (M2) . “The challenge is that I couldn’t help her to climb on to the bed, because I needed someone to assist when she came for postnatal care…the beds need to be adjustable so that they are able to be pushed lower for the mother to move from wheel chair to the bed and we pull the bed up again to examine her.” (M11) .

Theme 3: challenges in providing holistic care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour, and puerperium

Category 3.1: midwives reported a lack of guidelines and protocols in caring holistically for women with mobility disabilities.

Midwives emphasised a lack of guidelines, protocols and knowledge about caring holistically for women with mobility disabilities. This resulted in everyone making their own decisions and doing as they saw fit in caring for these women:

“I think during antenatal care they (the women with mobility disabilities) need to be prepared for labour cause for others the pain is extraordinary, apart from the pain threshold, they also face self-esteem issues, they are looked down upon…I only saw that she was disabled during assessment cause nothing was recorded on the antenatal care card.” (M2) . “I was not aware of the disability at first, I only discovered when she was pushing…she was admitted and progressed by another midwife, I only attended to her when she was pushing… there was nothing written on the nurse’s notes/ handover notes about her disability.” (M5) . “There is no normal practice for a woman with mobility disability when they come and they are in labour, I usually admit regardless of the stage of labour or dilatation…It is not a protocol, it’s a midwife’s prerogative.” (M1) . “We assess and come up with our own discretion even in terms of admitting them (women with mobility disability). Some midwives will admit them regardless of the stage of labour and disregard the protocol that women who come into labour have to ambulate if they are in the latent phase.” (M8) . “There is one that came the past 3 days she has 3 children now and we just scheduled her for c/section because we know that she has been having c/section since she started. Just from looking at the way she walked, we could tell that she couldn’t deliver normally.” (M9) .

Category 3.2: midwives experienced challenges in allowing significant others to support women with mobility disabilities during labour and delivery

Consequent to the challenges in providing holistic care to women with mobility disabilities, midwives experienced challenges in allowing significant others to support these women during labour and delivery.

“It can depend on the patients themselves, they should decide and we need to be flexible for it to happen…as you can see our labour room also has the issue of privacy…we would need to restructure cause we have beds for 5 or more women in labour room…and then bringing someone from outside could be tricky” (M6) . “Maybe…not sure though, that they can bring their relatives, but maybe, considering staffing limitation…also the issue of discrimination and privacy, they (the women with disabilities) might feel we discriminate against them because they are disabled we now treat them differently.” (M7) . “Maybe if she can (bring her relative) but that’s not necessary, because I can always ask my colleague to assist, unless there is no one…” (M12) .

Childbirth is a special experience that requires a personal connection between the midwife and the woman giving birth, characterised by successful communication and respect [ 34 ]. However, the themes identified in the study indicated that midwives experienced challenges caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium based on their limited capacity and preparedness, and lack of protocols to care for these women. They also reported a lack of supportive equipment for women with mobility disabilities. This posed a challenge for them in attending to these women’s specific needs, and they did not always know how to handle the situation appropriately.

One of the themes centred on midwives’ experiences of the physical and emotional efforts required of them to provide maternity care to women with mobility disabilities. They explained women with mobility disabilities required assistance getting onto the bed during labour and delivery, and more manoeuvring was expected of them (as midwives) as they had to adjust their performance and some procedures. The midwives also reported challenges in providing holistic care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium. Konig-Bachmann et al. [ 35 ] reiterate that caring for women with disabilities requires a level of flexibility, adaptation beyond routine procedures, and demands a high degree of improvisation from healthcare providers to ensure high-quality care. Morrison et al. [ 36 ] also found that healthcare providers reported difficulties with equipment when providing healthcare for women with physical disabilities; particularly the beds being too high for them to access. Smeltzer et al. [ 37 ] similarly allude to the importance of educating and training clinicians to equip them with knowledge and technical skills to provide more effective care to women with physical disabilities.

The midwives also shared that labour and deliveries were further complicated by some women with mobility disabilities not being able to cooperate due to the pain they experienced; others could not change position due to their disability. In a study by Sonalkar et al., [ 38 ] healthcare providers described the gynaecologic examination as challenging to complete as it required patience and the ability to be adaptable to different methods and positioning. Similarly, Konig-Bachmann et al. [ 35 ] indicate that in order to provide high-quality care for women with disabilities, healthcare providers need to exercise strong flexibility, adapt beyond routine procedures, and engage in a high degree of improvisation. Byrnes and Hickey [ 39 ] concur with this study’s findings and state that due to mobility restrictions, it may be difficult to assess the fundal height and foetal growth in women with physical disabilities.

Some midwives reported their caregiving role was emotionally draining as they felt sorry and pitied the women with mobility disabilities; thus, they needed to show compassion and reassure them. According to Mgwili et al., [ 40 ] psychoanalytic thinkers associate pity among staff members upon first contact with a physically disabled person as being instigated by personal feelings, stimulated by the disability. The midwives in this study stated they needed to be more patient and adjust their approach to caring for these women. Tarasoff [ 41 ] and Schildberger et al. [ 42 ] reiterated that healthcare providers seemed uncomfortable with women’s disability, consequently failing to offer needed support. According to Sonalkar et al., [ 38 ] healthcare providers reported there would be less fear and concern about hurting women with disabilities if midwives had increased training. Similarly, Mitra et al. [ 43 ] mentioned that healthcare providers had a general lack of confidence in their ability to provide adequate maternity care for women with physical disabilities.

Another theme was midwives’ challenges in providing competent and quality care for women with mobility disabilities due to a lack of equipment, including special beds and examination tables to meet these women’s needs. The examination, labour and delivery beds were too high and could not be adjusted for the women to get on by themselves, or even with the assistance of a midwife. In addition, the midwives reported there was no prenatal ward or waiting huts where they could place these women during the latent phase of labour. The midwives further emphasised there were no special toilets for women with mobility disabilities, which made it hazardous and difficult for them. Mitra et al. [ 43 ] concur on the barriers to providing maternity care to women with physical disabilities presented from health professionals’ perspectives. The authors indicated that participants from their study reported inaccessible equipment, including examination tables, as a barrier, making it more difficult and time-consuming to care for women with physical disabilities. In addition, Sonalkar et al. [ 38 ] said healthcare providers shared their concern about the lack of adjustable examination tables and transfer equipment, thus presenting a barrier to equitable care for women with disabilities.

Midwives further reported a lack of guidelines and protocols. This resulted in everyone making their own decisions and doing as they saw fit in caring for these women, and, in most instances, not recording the disability at all during antenatal care and admission into labour records. They often only discovered that the woman had a mobility disability at a later stage, when they were in labour. Sonalkar et al. [ 38 ] reported that healthcare providers felt frustrated and overwhelmed by the uncertainty of whether they made the correct decisions when caring for women with physical disabilities due to the lack of guidelines forcing them to use their own judgement. Mitra et al. [ 43 ] determined that most healthcare providers reported a lack of maternity practice guidelines for women with physical disabilities. Also, healthcare providers highlighted the importance of learning about disabilities and having a better understanding of a condition, particularly if it is likely to be exacerbated during pregnancy [ 44 ]. The need to make and read the notes on these women’s antenatal care cards or reports was emphasised.

Due to the lack of clear guidelines and protocols in caring for women with mobility disabilities, the midwives reported they sometimes admitted the woman into the labour ward regardless of the stage of labour, while other midwives did not and wanted them to walk around and come back for admission once they are in the active phase of labour. Furthermore, the midwives explained they often referred these women for caesarean sections right away, regardless of whether the woman could deliver normally due to mere panic from just seeing the disability or based on a previous record of surgery. Smeltzer et al. [ 45 ] researched obstetric clinicians’ experiences and educational preparation in caring for pregnant women with physical disabilities, and they agree on the lack of knowledge among health professionals caring for women with mobility disability.

Devkota et al. [ 46 ] also agree regarding midwives’ inefficiency in providing quality care for women with mobility disabilities. They claim healthcare providers often struggle to understand women with disabilities’ needs as they are not formally trained to provide services to this population. These healthcare providers were found to be undertrained in specific skills that would equip them to provide better and more targeted services for women with disabilities.

Consequent to the challenges in providing holistic care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium, midwives experienced challenges in allowing significant others to support these women. They reported that as much as they needed assistance caring for these women, and as much as the women would prefer to have their family members or significant others assisting them, this is not possible due to the lack of privacy, especially in public health facilities. Walsh-Gallager et al.’s [ 13 ] study on the ambiguity of disabled women’s experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood resonate with this study’s findings. The authors reported that women with disabilities’ partners were denied access or had their visits curtailed on several occasions due to inflexible hospital visiting policies. Redshaw et al. [ 47 ] reiterated the same in their study; disabled women were less likely to say their companion or partner was welcome to visit, let alone provide any form of assistance. In addition, a study by Bassoumah and Mohammad [ 48 ] reported that women with disabilities were denied their spouses’ support while receiving maternity care. Byrnes and Hickey [ 39 ] also concur that every effort should be made to allow women with disabilities who are in labour to receive support from significant others, and they should be active partners in the labour process.


The study was limited to two of the four regions of Eswatini, namely Hhohho and Manzini; hence, the results could not be generalised for the whole country. The study also only focused on mobility disabilities due to time constraints and limited funds. Future research could be conducted to cover all other forms of disabilities.

This study focused on midwives’ lived experiences caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini. In-depth phenomenological interviews were conducted, the findings were analysed, and themes were established. The findings illustrate that midwives experienced challenges caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini. There is a need to develop and implement guidelines to empower midwives with knowledge and skill to provide support and holistic maternity care, and enact protocols. They should also have access to appropriate equipment and infrastructure specifically tailored towards promoting optimal health for women with mobility disabilities.

Data availability

The data analysed is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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The authors would like to acknowledge the midwives in the Hhohho and Manzini regions of Eswatini who participated in the study and provided their own experiences of providing maternity care to women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium.

The research received funding from the University of Johannesburg Postgraduate Supervisor-linked Bursary.

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F.N.M conducted the research and wrote the manuscript. A.M.T supervised, reviewed, and finalised the manuscript. A.G.W.N co-supervised the study and edited the manuscript for final submission.

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Ethical clearance to conduct this study was obtained from the University of Johannesburg Faculty of Health Sciences Higher Degrees Committee (ref. no. HDC-01-50-2018), University of Johannesburg Faculty of Health Research Ethics Committee (ref. no. REC-01-82-2018) and the Eswatini National Health Research Review Board (ref. no. NHRRB982/2018). Participation in this study was voluntary, and informed consent was obtained from participants before the interviews commenced.

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Temane, A.M., Magagula, F.N. & Nolte, A.G.W. Midwives’ lived experiences of caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini: a qualitative study. BMC Women's Health 24 , 207 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-024-03032-z

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Core components of end-of-life care in nursing education programs: a scoping review

  • Zahra Taheri-Ezbarami 1 ,
  • Fateme Jafaraghaee 1 ,
  • Ali Karimian Sighlani 2 &
  • Seyed Kazem Mousavi 3 , 4  

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So far, there have been many studies on end-of-life nursing care education around the world, and in many cases, according to the cultural, social, and spiritual contexts of each country, the results have been different. The present study intends to gain general insight into the main components of end-of-life care in nursing education programs by reviewing scientific texts and the results of investigations.

This study was a scoping review conducted with the Arksey and O’Malley methodology updated by Peters et al. First, a search was made in Wos, ProQuest, Scopus, PubMed, Science Direct, Research Gate, and Google Scholar databases to find studies about end-of-life care education programs. Then, the screening of the found studies was done in four stages, and the final articles were selected based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria of the studies. Due to the nature of the research, editorials, letters, and commentaries were excluded. The screening steps are shown in the PRISMA-ScR diagram.

23 articles related to end-of-life care education programs were reviewed. The studies included eleven descriptive and cross-sectional studies, two qualitative studies, eight interventional studies, one concept analysis article, and one longitudinal study. By summarizing the data from the studies, six themes were obtained as the main components of end-of-life care education: principles of end-of-life care, communication skills, physical considerations, psychosocial and spiritual considerations, ethical considerations, and after-death care.

End-of-life care is one of the most challenging nursing care in the world. Since many nurses are not prepared to provide such care, the information obtained from this review can help nursing education and treatment managers develop more comprehensive training programs to improve the quality of end-of-life care.

Peer Review reports

Death, as an inseparable aspect of human existence, has been the subject of everyone’s concern for many years [ 1 ]. This process is a bio-psychosocial and spiritual experience that, despite significant advances in medical science and technology, there is still no way to avoid it [ 2 ]. Today, due to the increase in life expectancy and relative well-being, more people are treated in different clinical environments in the final stages of life, and most deaths occur in conditions where patients are often isolated and under mechanical ventilation. Therefore, their families are concerned about how to care for them in such environments [ 3 ]. In this period, the needs and requests of patients and companions and the stressfulness of the conditions cause avoidance of participation in care decisions, dissatisfaction of care workers, disregard for care details, and, as a result, decreased quality of care [ 4 ].

End-of-life care is a part of palliative care and includes the care of people whose disease has progressed and are approaching the end of their lives [ 5 ]. Depending on the nature of the disease, this type of care can be provided in the last year, month, week, day, and hours of a person’s life [ 4 ]. Therefore, its main difference from palliative care is that palliative care can be used at any point in the treatment process. However, end-of-life care is at the end of the treatment process and is given to people with advanced, progressive, and incurable diseases [ 5 ]. It helps them live in the best possible way when death arrives [ 6 ]. Like palliative care, end-of-life care advocates the idea of a holistic, comprehensive and patient-centred, thus often includes a wide range of interventions and dimensions such as physical, emotional, mental, psychological, spiritual and social [ 7 ]. . By performing this type of care, patients’ and their families’ support and palliative needs are identified and answered in their last life stage [ 8 ]. Usually, these cares are provided in an environment filled with emotional and moral challenges. Therefore, issues related to end-of-life care are known as one of the world’s ten most significant ethical challenges, and receiving sustainable end-of-life care with the best quality has become one of policymakers’ and health managers’ most important concerns [ 4 , 7 ].

According to the available statistics, every year in the world, about 55 million people need palliative care, and 25 million people need end-of-life care [ 9 ]. Meanwhile, as the largest group of health workers, nurses play the most essential role in end-of-life care [ 5 ]. Caring for a dying patient and comforting and comforting his family is one of the most challenging nursing experiences [ 10 ]. Nurses can have the last and most significant effects on the person’s way of life until the time of death, the customs related to the event, and the family’s final memories of death [ 11 ]. However, the findings show that most nurses, especially those working in developing countries, need more capabilities in providing palliative and end-of-life care [ 8 , 12 ]. Since most body systems are affected in the final stages of life and show abnormal performance, nursing care interventions in these patients are complex and require high theoretical knowledge and practical skills. This is even though many nurses do not receive such training in full while studying and working [ 5 , 13 ]. Failure to provide palliative and end-of-life education for nurses is not new, and many reputable nursing organizations call it a historical flaw in the nursing education program [ 14 ].

Even though more than half a century has passed since the introduction of end-of-life care into the nursing curriculum, studies show that in most countries, there are severe deficiencies in quantity and quality regarding the education of this care, especially clinically [ 15 ]. For example, the findings of a study showed that out of three million working nurses in the United States, only 600,000 of them had completed the end-of-life care course, and less than 40% had such content in the program during their education [ 16 ]. So far, various studies have been conducted regarding end-of-life care education for nurses and nursing students in clinical and academic settings. However, the void of a comprehensive study categorizing these scattered findings and providing a solid theoretical foundation for future research is felt. Therefore, the authors decided to review and organize the main components of end-of-life care in all undergraduate and graduate nursing studies, regardless of the educational environment and type of education (theoretical or clinical).

The present study was planned and implemented with this aim.

A scoping review is used to quickly review key concepts in a specific research topic and find the primary sources and types of available evidence. This method can be project-specific, especially for complex issues not comprehensively reviewed [ 17 ]. In 2005, for the first time, Arksey and O’Malley presented a framework for conducting a scoping review, which is considered and used as the main guideline of this research methodology [ 18 ]. In this study, the steps proposed by Peters et al., the updated framework version, have been used [ 19 ].

Step 1: title and review questions

A preliminary search of the peer-reviewed primary research studies helped refine the research questions. The research questions aimed to determine the main components of end-of-life care in nursing education programs. These questions were: (1) Are there any suitable studies regarding end-of-life care education programs in nursing? (2) What are the main components of these educational programs implemented for nurses and nursing students?

Step 2: inclusion criteria

The inclusion criteria included electronic studies on end-of-life care education for nurses and nursing students published in English between 2015 and 2023.

Step 3: search strategy

The search was conducted to find studies using standard keywords in Wos, ProQuest, Scopus, PubMed, Science Direct, Research Gate, and Google Scholar. The keywords were used individually or with the prepositions “AND” and “OR” based on Boolean Logic. The combination of keywords used is shown in Table  1 .

Step 4: evidence screening and selection

Based on the search strategy, 721 articles were initially obtained. Then, the studies were screened in four stages based on the inclusion criteria by two-channel teams, including researchers and an experienced research librarian (to avoid bias). In the first screening, articles unrelated to end-of-life care education programs were excluded; duplicate reports were removed in the second step. In the third screening, editorials, letters, and commentaries were excluded due to the nature of the research. In the fourth and last screening stage, articles related to the study’s title that did not provide clear findings about end-of-life care components were excluded from the study. Finally, 23 articles were included in the study. The study selection process, reported in a flow diagram, as proposed by the PRISMA-ScR diagram (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

PRISMA-ScR diagram of screening process and selection of articles

Step 5: data extraction

The data obtained from the studies were summarized in a table (Table  2 ) and written separately for each survey. These data include the author’s name (s), year of publication, country, purpose, sample size, research method, and key findings.

Step 6: data analysis

A total of 23 articles related to end-of-life care education programs were reviewed. The studies included Eleven descriptive and cross-sectional, two qualitative, eight interventional, one concept analysis, and one longitudinal. A list of essential components in end-of-life care education was prepared by gathering the data from the studies. Then, a deep examination of the data and their summarization led to the extraction of codes and, finally, the main themes related to the research question. Therefore, six main themes were obtained as the main components of end-of-life care education: principles of end-of-life care, physical considerations, communication skills, psychosocial and spiritual considerations, ethical considerations, and after-death care (Table  3 ). It should be noted that the validity of the results was ensured through peer review by two expert faculty members.

Step 7: presentation of results

Theme 1- principles of end-of-life care.

In almost all reviewed studies, one of the main components of end-of-life care education programs in nursing is familiarity with the principles of end-of-life care [ 6 , 14 , 21 , 23 , 24 , 33 , 34 ]. These studies state that things like definition and historical overview of end-of-life care should be considered at the beginning of educational programs [ 6 , 14 , 23 , 24 ]. Jeong et al. in the same context, state that according to many nurses, their position in providing end-of-life care needs to be clarified, and they have challenges in differentiating this type of care from palliative care [ 11 ]. Also, according to studies, one of the most important elements of end-of-life care education programs is to explain the concept of death with dignity [ 4 , 11 , 27 ]. Even though more than seventy years have passed since this term was mentioned in the medical literature, many nurses still need clarification in defining this concept [ 4 ].

Theme 2- communication skills

Communication skills were the main elements of many studies [ 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 , 20 , 22 , 23 , 25 , 26 , 28 , 31 , 33 , 34 ]. Good communication is essential and challenging to provide good care to a dying person [ 11 , 25 ]. A person’s needs and preferences can change quickly in their last months, weeks, and days [ 11 ]. Good communication is essential to understanding their needs so the healthcare team can meet them [ 25 , 28 , 31 ]. Moreover, it can be challenging to broach the subject of dying within families because no one wants to admit what is coming [ 20 , 22 ]. However, getting to know communication barriers and facilitators in order to open up the lines of communication and talking about death can go a long way toward relieving anxiety for both parties [ 14 ]. In the end, it should be said that effective team communication in the end-of-life stages is necessary to support the patient and the family because it guarantees the transmission of new information and programs at critical times [ 31 , 34 ].

Theme 3- physical considerations

Content related to physical considerations was included in educational programs in about two-thirds of the reviewed studies [ 6 , 8 , 12 , 14 , 21 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 28 , 29 , 31 , 32 , 33 ]. This section included pain management [ 8 , 14 , 21 , 24 , 26 , 29 , 31 , 32 , 33 ], control of disposal [ 6 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 29 ] and respiratory [ 6 , 8 , 21 , 24 , 25 , 28 , 33 ] status, skincare [ 6 , 12 , 21 , 25 , 28 , 33 ], and improvement of nutritional status [ 6 , 24 ]. Almost all patients at the end of life suffer from severe pain [ 8 ], and many of them have incontinence and skin problems [ 21 , 24 , 25 ]. In addition, dying patients are exposed to malnutrition [ 24 ]. On the one hand, due to severe diseases and serious injuries, their body’s metabolic needs have increased. On the other hand, their usual nutrition is disturbed because most are not conscious or cannot eat normally due to illness [ 6 ]. . Since the physical problems of these patients are numerous and complex, providing them with physical comfort is primarily tricky, and from the point of view of nurses, it is said to be one of the most challenging parts of end-of-life care [ 8 , 28 , 32 ].

Theme 4- psychosocial and spiritual considerations

Meeting the psychosocial and spiritual needs of the patient has been a constant part of end-of-life care education programs in many studies [ 3 , 6 , 8 , 12 , 13 , 20 , 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 ]. The management of emotional problems, anxiety, and depression in the patient and family is one of the essential components that was emphasized in several reviewed studies [ 3 , 6 , 12 , 25 ]. These studies stated that dealing with end-of-life psychological problems can be debilitating for the patient and overwhelming for the family [ 6 , 12 ]. In addition, most studies have emphasized that end-of-life care should be family-based while maintaining the patient’s independence as much as possible. Hence, these items were included in the educational content of the reviewed studies [ 20 , 22 , 30 ]. Also, spirituality was one of the other basic dimensions of some educational programs of the studied studies [ 3 , 8 , 13 , 19 , 25 , 31 , 32 ]. They argued that spirituality is the most personal and unknown dimension of human beings, which may change when the time of death arrives, and the nurse should be able to provide spiritual care at this critical stage [ 8 , 31 ].

Theme 5- ethical considerations

Undoubtedly, getting to know the ethical principles of end-of-life care and facing the ethical challenges of this period is one of the most complex and sensitive parts of this care. Therefore, this dimension was considered in almost all reviewed studies [ 3 , 8 , 13 , 23 , 24 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 34 ]. According to the specific nature of the job, nurses must have a complete understanding of the four principles of biomedical ethics to provide appropriate care at the end of life by observing these principles [ 3 , 8 , 23 , 30 , 31 , 33 ]. Also, sometimes, they are exposed to difficult ethical decisions at the end of life, the most important of which are advanced care planning and withholding and withdrawing treatment [ 3 , 8 , 13 , 24 , 29 , 30 , 34 ]. Therefore, they must be ready to face the complex ethical challenges of this period [ 13 ].

Theme 5- after-death care

One of the essential topics in the field of end-of-life care is after-death care, which is considered in most of the educational content of the reviewed studies [ 8 , 21 , 23 , 24 , 29 , 32 , 34 ]. The studies in this section emphasize the two issues of supporting the deceased person’s family and helping them get through the loss and grief with minimal damage [ 4 , 6 , 8 , 12 , 23 , 32 , 34 ]. The death of a family member has profound physical, psychological, emotional, social, and economic effects on other members and makes them go through the difficult stages of loss and mourning. Therefore, supporting family members is essential to end-of-life care [ 25 , 27 ]. In addition, corpse care and legal considerations after death are among the topics that have been paid attention to in the educational content of some studies [ 3 , 21 ].

This study aimed to identify the main elements of end-of-life care in nursing education programs. Based on the summary of the studies in this review, the components of end-of-life care education programs were categorized into six main axes. The first component was the need to familiarize learners with the principles of end-of-life care. Ozturk Birge et al. stated that nurses and nursing students have many questions regarding palliative care and end-of-life philosophy. They like to talk about the process of death and the subsequent mourning. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify these concepts in related educational programs [ 23 ]. Also, Cordeiro et al. stated in their study that clinical terms have administrative, clinical, and academic implications. Therefore, at the beginning of every educational program, the words and terms of that program must be clearly defined. For example, they stated that although palliative and end-of-life care are related, they are two different care areas and should be defined separately, with their differences highlighted [ 35 ]. Harden (2021) believes that accurate definitions of words and terms are necessary to prepare and organize the educational program [ 36 ]. Therefore, defining terms and stating the history and principles of end-of-life care at the beginning of related educational programs can resolve possible ambiguities and create a suitable mental base for learners and educators [ 11 , 23 ].

Another main component of end-of-life care in the reviewed studies was communication skills, which, according to Wang et al., is the fundamental pillar of this care, and the nurse’s mastery of these skills is the basis for optimal care. However, Coyle et al. stated that despite the centrality of nurses in the health care team’s communication process, only some receive formal communication training, mainly related to end-of-life care [ 37 ]. It should be noted that nurses’ communication skills are essential for patient care, as they provide the bulk of care and support to patients and their families during the illness [ 25 , 33 ]. Finally, Ekberg et al. stated that training and strengthening communication skills are vital in improving nurses’ participation in the end-of-life care of patients, and this critical issue should be included in educational programs [ 38 ].

The third component of the reviewed educational programs was the need to learn the physical care of the dying patient. In most studies, this section focused on pain management in patients. For example, in the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC) educational program, two areas of pain management and management of other symptoms were dedicated to examining the patient’s physical problems [ 8 , 29 ]. In some educational content, this part was integrated with other parts of the program [ 14 , 24 ]. Since most body systems are affected in the final stages of life, the physical needs of these patients are numerous and complex [ 5 ]. Haavisto et al. stated that although more than 90% of these patients experience severe pain at the end of life, they have other critical physical needs, such as skin, excretory, and respiratory problems that require special attention [ 38 ]. Also, in another study, Welsch et al. criticized the focus only on pain relief in dying patients and considered it against the comprehensive care approach in nursing [ 39 ].

Psychological, social, and spiritual considerations were another component of reviewing end-of-life educational programs in this study. In the psychosocial dimension, the focus of end-of-life educational programs was on managing anxiety, depression, and emotional suffering in the patient and family. In this context, Sultana et al. stated that psychosocial health is a significant concern of end-of-life care worldwide. They pointed out that patients and caregivers involved in end-of-life care may experience severe psychosocial conditions that adversely affect the quality of this care [ 40 ]. In this regard, Goode et al. also stated in their study that nurses should specialize in teaching coping skills to patients and companions so that they can manage the situation in cases of increased stress and emotional tensions [ 27 ]. On the other hand, Rosenberg et al. believed that the dying patient has emotional and psychological needs other than anxiety and depression, which should be taken care of by the nurse. They recommended that in end-of-life care, attention should be paid to the whole person instead of focusing on disease processes [ 41 ]. Providing patient-centered and family-centered care were two other dimensions of psychosocial considerations addressed in end-of-life educational programs. In this regard, O’Shea et al. emphasized that patient-centered and family-centered care is the main characteristic of a quality clinical care program and a standard care education program [ 30 ]. In most educational content reviewed, spiritual considerations were essential to end-of-life care plans. In this context, Dobrowolska et al. stated in their study that spiritual care is an inherent aspect of end-of-life care, which has been neglected in related educational programs in recent years. This issue has caused an increase in the unmet spiritual needs of these patients [ 25 ].

Ethical considerations, as the fifth component of end-of-life educational programs, were the most sensitive and challenging part of these programs. In this dimension, two issues of getting to know the ethical principles in end-of-life care and how to face the ethical challenges of this period were included in the programs. There are four universally recognized ethical principles in providing care, especially at the end of life: Autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice [ 23 , 30 , 31 ]. In this context, Akdeniz et al. stated that since decisions made may concern family and community members of patients as well as patients, it is essential to protect the rights, dignity, and power of all parties involved in the clinical ethical decision-making process. Therefore, when providing end-of-life care, nurses should be aware of and learn the internationally recognized ethical principles of care [ 42 ]. Deciding to withhold or withdraw treatment or advanced care planning are two of the most common end-of-life care challenges that cause ethical dilemmas [ 24 , 29 ]. Jack et al. stated that most nurses need more confidence in their knowledge and skills in fulfilling their ethical obligations in this field and feel the need for more training [ 43 ]. Also, O’Shea et al. emphasized the consideration of laws and policies of societies and countries in the design of educational programs, especially in ethical and legal aspects [ 30 ].

Along with the above factors, after-death care was recognized as the last component of end-of-life care education programs. In the same context, Mota-Romero et al. mentioned that nurses should be prepared for the events after the patient’s death during end-of-life care and be able to manage the situation appropriately [ 6 ]. Also, Hao et al. stated that since the patient’s condition deteriorates, the patient and especially his family become involved in loss and mourning, which is the peak of this phenomenon after the patient’s death. Therefore, nurses should provide the necessary support to the family to pass this stage [ 4 ]. In the end, it should be said that legal issues, especially after the patient’s death, are essential aspects of end-of-life care, knowing that nurses can provide the necessary guidance to the deceased’s family [ 3 ].

Strengths and limitations

One strength of this review was the use of an acknowledged framework for conducting scoping reviews, as described by Arksey and O’Malley [ 18 ] updated by Peters et al. [ 19 ]. Also, the reporting was supported by the PRISMA-ScR checklist [ 44 ].

Developing the search strategy and comprehensive search for published studies was done in close collaboration with an experienced research librarian, and the search strategy was discussed several times. However, some specialized studies relevant to end-of-life care educational programs may have yet to be considered. Also, no comprehensive judgment has yet to be made about the quality of the included studies, and the studies have been selected only in terms of access to evidence and answers to the current research question and not based on the strengths and weaknesses of the findings. Hence, any educational and clinical implications should be interpreted with caution. Also, some relevant studies may have been excluded due to language limitations.

End-of-life care may be considered the most complex and sensitive type of care in nursing. This is why many nurses need to prepare to provide such care. In this review, the educational content of end-of-life care was reviewed in different studies and classified into six main components. The information obtained from this review can help nursing education and treatment managers develop more comprehensive training programs to improve the quality of end-of-life care. What the researchers felt during the study was the limitation of the studies conducted in this field despite the importance of the subject. It is hoped that more rich findings will be reported in this field in the coming years to obtain a comprehensive and accurate framework for end-of-life care.

Data availability

Data used in this manuscript consist of published articles which cannot be shared by the authors for copyright reasons but are available through subscription to the relevant journals/databases.

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We would like to acknowledge librarian Ramin Soulati for peer reviewing our search strategy.

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Taheri-Ezbarami, Z., Jafaraghaee, F., Sighlani, A.K. et al. Core components of end-of-life care in nursing education programs: a scoping review. BMC Palliat Care 23 , 82 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12904-024-01398-3

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A Practical Guide to Writing Quantitative and Qualitative Research Questions and Hypotheses in Scholarly Articles

Edward barroga.

1 Department of General Education, Graduate School of Nursing Science, St. Luke’s International University, Tokyo, Japan.

Glafera Janet Matanguihan

2 Department of Biological Sciences, Messiah University, Mechanicsburg, PA, USA.

The development of research questions and the subsequent hypotheses are prerequisites to defining the main research purpose and specific objectives of a study. Consequently, these objectives determine the study design and research outcome. The development of research questions is a process based on knowledge of current trends, cutting-edge studies, and technological advances in the research field. Excellent research questions are focused and require a comprehensive literature search and in-depth understanding of the problem being investigated. Initially, research questions may be written as descriptive questions which could be developed into inferential questions. These questions must be specific and concise to provide a clear foundation for developing hypotheses. Hypotheses are more formal predictions about the research outcomes. These specify the possible results that may or may not be expected regarding the relationship between groups. Thus, research questions and hypotheses clarify the main purpose and specific objectives of the study, which in turn dictate the design of the study, its direction, and outcome. Studies developed from good research questions and hypotheses will have trustworthy outcomes with wide-ranging social and health implications.


Scientific research is usually initiated by posing evidenced-based research questions which are then explicitly restated as hypotheses. 1 , 2 The hypotheses provide directions to guide the study, solutions, explanations, and expected results. 3 , 4 Both research questions and hypotheses are essentially formulated based on conventional theories and real-world processes, which allow the inception of novel studies and the ethical testing of ideas. 5 , 6

It is crucial to have knowledge of both quantitative and qualitative research 2 as both types of research involve writing research questions and hypotheses. 7 However, these crucial elements of research are sometimes overlooked; if not overlooked, then framed without the forethought and meticulous attention it needs. Planning and careful consideration are needed when developing quantitative or qualitative research, particularly when conceptualizing research questions and hypotheses. 4

There is a continuing need to support researchers in the creation of innovative research questions and hypotheses, as well as for journal articles that carefully review these elements. 1 When research questions and hypotheses are not carefully thought of, unethical studies and poor outcomes usually ensue. Carefully formulated research questions and hypotheses define well-founded objectives, which in turn determine the appropriate design, course, and outcome of the study. This article then aims to discuss in detail the various aspects of crafting research questions and hypotheses, with the goal of guiding researchers as they develop their own. Examples from the authors and peer-reviewed scientific articles in the healthcare field are provided to illustrate key points.


A research question is what a study aims to answer after data analysis and interpretation. The answer is written in length in the discussion section of the paper. Thus, the research question gives a preview of the different parts and variables of the study meant to address the problem posed in the research question. 1 An excellent research question clarifies the research writing while facilitating understanding of the research topic, objective, scope, and limitations of the study. 5

On the other hand, a research hypothesis is an educated statement of an expected outcome. This statement is based on background research and current knowledge. 8 , 9 The research hypothesis makes a specific prediction about a new phenomenon 10 or a formal statement on the expected relationship between an independent variable and a dependent variable. 3 , 11 It provides a tentative answer to the research question to be tested or explored. 4

Hypotheses employ reasoning to predict a theory-based outcome. 10 These can also be developed from theories by focusing on components of theories that have not yet been observed. 10 The validity of hypotheses is often based on the testability of the prediction made in a reproducible experiment. 8

Conversely, hypotheses can also be rephrased as research questions. Several hypotheses based on existing theories and knowledge may be needed to answer a research question. Developing ethical research questions and hypotheses creates a research design that has logical relationships among variables. These relationships serve as a solid foundation for the conduct of the study. 4 , 11 Haphazardly constructed research questions can result in poorly formulated hypotheses and improper study designs, leading to unreliable results. Thus, the formulations of relevant research questions and verifiable hypotheses are crucial when beginning research. 12


Excellent research questions are specific and focused. These integrate collective data and observations to confirm or refute the subsequent hypotheses. Well-constructed hypotheses are based on previous reports and verify the research context. These are realistic, in-depth, sufficiently complex, and reproducible. More importantly, these hypotheses can be addressed and tested. 13

There are several characteristics of well-developed hypotheses. Good hypotheses are 1) empirically testable 7 , 10 , 11 , 13 ; 2) backed by preliminary evidence 9 ; 3) testable by ethical research 7 , 9 ; 4) based on original ideas 9 ; 5) have evidenced-based logical reasoning 10 ; and 6) can be predicted. 11 Good hypotheses can infer ethical and positive implications, indicating the presence of a relationship or effect relevant to the research theme. 7 , 11 These are initially developed from a general theory and branch into specific hypotheses by deductive reasoning. In the absence of a theory to base the hypotheses, inductive reasoning based on specific observations or findings form more general hypotheses. 10


Research questions and hypotheses are developed according to the type of research, which can be broadly classified into quantitative and qualitative research. We provide a summary of the types of research questions and hypotheses under quantitative and qualitative research categories in Table 1 .

Research questions in quantitative research

In quantitative research, research questions inquire about the relationships among variables being investigated and are usually framed at the start of the study. These are precise and typically linked to the subject population, dependent and independent variables, and research design. 1 Research questions may also attempt to describe the behavior of a population in relation to one or more variables, or describe the characteristics of variables to be measured ( descriptive research questions ). 1 , 5 , 14 These questions may also aim to discover differences between groups within the context of an outcome variable ( comparative research questions ), 1 , 5 , 14 or elucidate trends and interactions among variables ( relationship research questions ). 1 , 5 We provide examples of descriptive, comparative, and relationship research questions in quantitative research in Table 2 .

Hypotheses in quantitative research

In quantitative research, hypotheses predict the expected relationships among variables. 15 Relationships among variables that can be predicted include 1) between a single dependent variable and a single independent variable ( simple hypothesis ) or 2) between two or more independent and dependent variables ( complex hypothesis ). 4 , 11 Hypotheses may also specify the expected direction to be followed and imply an intellectual commitment to a particular outcome ( directional hypothesis ) 4 . On the other hand, hypotheses may not predict the exact direction and are used in the absence of a theory, or when findings contradict previous studies ( non-directional hypothesis ). 4 In addition, hypotheses can 1) define interdependency between variables ( associative hypothesis ), 4 2) propose an effect on the dependent variable from manipulation of the independent variable ( causal hypothesis ), 4 3) state a negative relationship between two variables ( null hypothesis ), 4 , 11 , 15 4) replace the working hypothesis if rejected ( alternative hypothesis ), 15 explain the relationship of phenomena to possibly generate a theory ( working hypothesis ), 11 5) involve quantifiable variables that can be tested statistically ( statistical hypothesis ), 11 6) or express a relationship whose interlinks can be verified logically ( logical hypothesis ). 11 We provide examples of simple, complex, directional, non-directional, associative, causal, null, alternative, working, statistical, and logical hypotheses in quantitative research, as well as the definition of quantitative hypothesis-testing research in Table 3 .

Research questions in qualitative research

Unlike research questions in quantitative research, research questions in qualitative research are usually continuously reviewed and reformulated. The central question and associated subquestions are stated more than the hypotheses. 15 The central question broadly explores a complex set of factors surrounding the central phenomenon, aiming to present the varied perspectives of participants. 15

There are varied goals for which qualitative research questions are developed. These questions can function in several ways, such as to 1) identify and describe existing conditions ( contextual research question s); 2) describe a phenomenon ( descriptive research questions ); 3) assess the effectiveness of existing methods, protocols, theories, or procedures ( evaluation research questions ); 4) examine a phenomenon or analyze the reasons or relationships between subjects or phenomena ( explanatory research questions ); or 5) focus on unknown aspects of a particular topic ( exploratory research questions ). 5 In addition, some qualitative research questions provide new ideas for the development of theories and actions ( generative research questions ) or advance specific ideologies of a position ( ideological research questions ). 1 Other qualitative research questions may build on a body of existing literature and become working guidelines ( ethnographic research questions ). Research questions may also be broadly stated without specific reference to the existing literature or a typology of questions ( phenomenological research questions ), may be directed towards generating a theory of some process ( grounded theory questions ), or may address a description of the case and the emerging themes ( qualitative case study questions ). 15 We provide examples of contextual, descriptive, evaluation, explanatory, exploratory, generative, ideological, ethnographic, phenomenological, grounded theory, and qualitative case study research questions in qualitative research in Table 4 , and the definition of qualitative hypothesis-generating research in Table 5 .

Qualitative studies usually pose at least one central research question and several subquestions starting with How or What . These research questions use exploratory verbs such as explore or describe . These also focus on one central phenomenon of interest, and may mention the participants and research site. 15

Hypotheses in qualitative research

Hypotheses in qualitative research are stated in the form of a clear statement concerning the problem to be investigated. Unlike in quantitative research where hypotheses are usually developed to be tested, qualitative research can lead to both hypothesis-testing and hypothesis-generating outcomes. 2 When studies require both quantitative and qualitative research questions, this suggests an integrative process between both research methods wherein a single mixed-methods research question can be developed. 1


Research questions followed by hypotheses should be developed before the start of the study. 1 , 12 , 14 It is crucial to develop feasible research questions on a topic that is interesting to both the researcher and the scientific community. This can be achieved by a meticulous review of previous and current studies to establish a novel topic. Specific areas are subsequently focused on to generate ethical research questions. The relevance of the research questions is evaluated in terms of clarity of the resulting data, specificity of the methodology, objectivity of the outcome, depth of the research, and impact of the study. 1 , 5 These aspects constitute the FINER criteria (i.e., Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical, and Relevant). 1 Clarity and effectiveness are achieved if research questions meet the FINER criteria. In addition to the FINER criteria, Ratan et al. described focus, complexity, novelty, feasibility, and measurability for evaluating the effectiveness of research questions. 14

The PICOT and PEO frameworks are also used when developing research questions. 1 The following elements are addressed in these frameworks, PICOT: P-population/patients/problem, I-intervention or indicator being studied, C-comparison group, O-outcome of interest, and T-timeframe of the study; PEO: P-population being studied, E-exposure to preexisting conditions, and O-outcome of interest. 1 Research questions are also considered good if these meet the “FINERMAPS” framework: Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical, Relevant, Manageable, Appropriate, Potential value/publishable, and Systematic. 14

As we indicated earlier, research questions and hypotheses that are not carefully formulated result in unethical studies or poor outcomes. To illustrate this, we provide some examples of ambiguous research question and hypotheses that result in unclear and weak research objectives in quantitative research ( Table 6 ) 16 and qualitative research ( Table 7 ) 17 , and how to transform these ambiguous research question(s) and hypothesis(es) into clear and good statements.

a These statements were composed for comparison and illustrative purposes only.

b These statements are direct quotes from Higashihara and Horiuchi. 16

a This statement is a direct quote from Shimoda et al. 17

The other statements were composed for comparison and illustrative purposes only.


To construct effective research questions and hypotheses, it is very important to 1) clarify the background and 2) identify the research problem at the outset of the research, within a specific timeframe. 9 Then, 3) review or conduct preliminary research to collect all available knowledge about the possible research questions by studying theories and previous studies. 18 Afterwards, 4) construct research questions to investigate the research problem. Identify variables to be accessed from the research questions 4 and make operational definitions of constructs from the research problem and questions. Thereafter, 5) construct specific deductive or inductive predictions in the form of hypotheses. 4 Finally, 6) state the study aims . This general flow for constructing effective research questions and hypotheses prior to conducting research is shown in Fig. 1 .

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Research questions are used more frequently in qualitative research than objectives or hypotheses. 3 These questions seek to discover, understand, explore or describe experiences by asking “What” or “How.” The questions are open-ended to elicit a description rather than to relate variables or compare groups. The questions are continually reviewed, reformulated, and changed during the qualitative study. 3 Research questions are also used more frequently in survey projects than hypotheses in experiments in quantitative research to compare variables and their relationships.

Hypotheses are constructed based on the variables identified and as an if-then statement, following the template, ‘If a specific action is taken, then a certain outcome is expected.’ At this stage, some ideas regarding expectations from the research to be conducted must be drawn. 18 Then, the variables to be manipulated (independent) and influenced (dependent) are defined. 4 Thereafter, the hypothesis is stated and refined, and reproducible data tailored to the hypothesis are identified, collected, and analyzed. 4 The hypotheses must be testable and specific, 18 and should describe the variables and their relationships, the specific group being studied, and the predicted research outcome. 18 Hypotheses construction involves a testable proposition to be deduced from theory, and independent and dependent variables to be separated and measured separately. 3 Therefore, good hypotheses must be based on good research questions constructed at the start of a study or trial. 12

In summary, research questions are constructed after establishing the background of the study. Hypotheses are then developed based on the research questions. Thus, it is crucial to have excellent research questions to generate superior hypotheses. In turn, these would determine the research objectives and the design of the study, and ultimately, the outcome of the research. 12 Algorithms for building research questions and hypotheses are shown in Fig. 2 for quantitative research and in Fig. 3 for qualitative research.

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  • EXAMPLE 1. Descriptive research question (quantitative research)
  • - Presents research variables to be assessed (distinct phenotypes and subphenotypes)
  • “BACKGROUND: Since COVID-19 was identified, its clinical and biological heterogeneity has been recognized. Identifying COVID-19 phenotypes might help guide basic, clinical, and translational research efforts.
  • RESEARCH QUESTION: Does the clinical spectrum of patients with COVID-19 contain distinct phenotypes and subphenotypes? ” 19
  • EXAMPLE 2. Relationship research question (quantitative research)
  • - Shows interactions between dependent variable (static postural control) and independent variable (peripheral visual field loss)
  • “Background: Integration of visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensations contributes to postural control. People with peripheral visual field loss have serious postural instability. However, the directional specificity of postural stability and sensory reweighting caused by gradual peripheral visual field loss remain unclear.
  • Research question: What are the effects of peripheral visual field loss on static postural control ?” 20
  • EXAMPLE 3. Comparative research question (quantitative research)
  • - Clarifies the difference among groups with an outcome variable (patients enrolled in COMPERA with moderate PH or severe PH in COPD) and another group without the outcome variable (patients with idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH))
  • “BACKGROUND: Pulmonary hypertension (PH) in COPD is a poorly investigated clinical condition.
  • RESEARCH QUESTION: Which factors determine the outcome of PH in COPD?
  • STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: We analyzed the characteristics and outcome of patients enrolled in the Comparative, Prospective Registry of Newly Initiated Therapies for Pulmonary Hypertension (COMPERA) with moderate or severe PH in COPD as defined during the 6th PH World Symposium who received medical therapy for PH and compared them with patients with idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH) .” 21
  • EXAMPLE 4. Exploratory research question (qualitative research)
  • - Explores areas that have not been fully investigated (perspectives of families and children who receive care in clinic-based child obesity treatment) to have a deeper understanding of the research problem
  • “Problem: Interventions for children with obesity lead to only modest improvements in BMI and long-term outcomes, and data are limited on the perspectives of families of children with obesity in clinic-based treatment. This scoping review seeks to answer the question: What is known about the perspectives of families and children who receive care in clinic-based child obesity treatment? This review aims to explore the scope of perspectives reported by families of children with obesity who have received individualized outpatient clinic-based obesity treatment.” 22
  • EXAMPLE 5. Relationship research question (quantitative research)
  • - Defines interactions between dependent variable (use of ankle strategies) and independent variable (changes in muscle tone)
  • “Background: To maintain an upright standing posture against external disturbances, the human body mainly employs two types of postural control strategies: “ankle strategy” and “hip strategy.” While it has been reported that the magnitude of the disturbance alters the use of postural control strategies, it has not been elucidated how the level of muscle tone, one of the crucial parameters of bodily function, determines the use of each strategy. We have previously confirmed using forward dynamics simulations of human musculoskeletal models that an increased muscle tone promotes the use of ankle strategies. The objective of the present study was to experimentally evaluate a hypothesis: an increased muscle tone promotes the use of ankle strategies. Research question: Do changes in the muscle tone affect the use of ankle strategies ?” 23


  • EXAMPLE 1. Working hypothesis (quantitative research)
  • - A hypothesis that is initially accepted for further research to produce a feasible theory
  • “As fever may have benefit in shortening the duration of viral illness, it is plausible to hypothesize that the antipyretic efficacy of ibuprofen may be hindering the benefits of a fever response when taken during the early stages of COVID-19 illness .” 24
  • “In conclusion, it is plausible to hypothesize that the antipyretic efficacy of ibuprofen may be hindering the benefits of a fever response . The difference in perceived safety of these agents in COVID-19 illness could be related to the more potent efficacy to reduce fever with ibuprofen compared to acetaminophen. Compelling data on the benefit of fever warrant further research and review to determine when to treat or withhold ibuprofen for early stage fever for COVID-19 and other related viral illnesses .” 24
  • EXAMPLE 2. Exploratory hypothesis (qualitative research)
  • - Explores particular areas deeper to clarify subjective experience and develop a formal hypothesis potentially testable in a future quantitative approach
  • “We hypothesized that when thinking about a past experience of help-seeking, a self distancing prompt would cause increased help-seeking intentions and more favorable help-seeking outcome expectations .” 25
  • “Conclusion
  • Although a priori hypotheses were not supported, further research is warranted as results indicate the potential for using self-distancing approaches to increasing help-seeking among some people with depressive symptomatology.” 25
  • EXAMPLE 3. Hypothesis-generating research to establish a framework for hypothesis testing (qualitative research)
  • “We hypothesize that compassionate care is beneficial for patients (better outcomes), healthcare systems and payers (lower costs), and healthcare providers (lower burnout). ” 26
  • Compassionomics is the branch of knowledge and scientific study of the effects of compassionate healthcare. Our main hypotheses are that compassionate healthcare is beneficial for (1) patients, by improving clinical outcomes, (2) healthcare systems and payers, by supporting financial sustainability, and (3) HCPs, by lowering burnout and promoting resilience and well-being. The purpose of this paper is to establish a scientific framework for testing the hypotheses above . If these hypotheses are confirmed through rigorous research, compassionomics will belong in the science of evidence-based medicine, with major implications for all healthcare domains.” 26
  • EXAMPLE 4. Statistical hypothesis (quantitative research)
  • - An assumption is made about the relationship among several population characteristics ( gender differences in sociodemographic and clinical characteristics of adults with ADHD ). Validity is tested by statistical experiment or analysis ( chi-square test, Students t-test, and logistic regression analysis)
  • “Our research investigated gender differences in sociodemographic and clinical characteristics of adults with ADHD in a Japanese clinical sample. Due to unique Japanese cultural ideals and expectations of women's behavior that are in opposition to ADHD symptoms, we hypothesized that women with ADHD experience more difficulties and present more dysfunctions than men . We tested the following hypotheses: first, women with ADHD have more comorbidities than men with ADHD; second, women with ADHD experience more social hardships than men, such as having less full-time employment and being more likely to be divorced.” 27
  • “Statistical Analysis
  • ( text omitted ) Between-gender comparisons were made using the chi-squared test for categorical variables and Students t-test for continuous variables…( text omitted ). A logistic regression analysis was performed for employment status, marital status, and comorbidity to evaluate the independent effects of gender on these dependent variables.” 27


  • EXAMPLE 1. Background, hypotheses, and aims are provided
  • “Pregnant women need skilled care during pregnancy and childbirth, but that skilled care is often delayed in some countries …( text omitted ). The focused antenatal care (FANC) model of WHO recommends that nurses provide information or counseling to all pregnant women …( text omitted ). Job aids are visual support materials that provide the right kind of information using graphics and words in a simple and yet effective manner. When nurses are not highly trained or have many work details to attend to, these job aids can serve as a content reminder for the nurses and can be used for educating their patients (Jennings, Yebadokpo, Affo, & Agbogbe, 2010) ( text omitted ). Importantly, additional evidence is needed to confirm how job aids can further improve the quality of ANC counseling by health workers in maternal care …( text omitted )” 28
  • “ This has led us to hypothesize that the quality of ANC counseling would be better if supported by job aids. Consequently, a better quality of ANC counseling is expected to produce higher levels of awareness concerning the danger signs of pregnancy and a more favorable impression of the caring behavior of nurses .” 28
  • “This study aimed to examine the differences in the responses of pregnant women to a job aid-supported intervention during ANC visit in terms of 1) their understanding of the danger signs of pregnancy and 2) their impression of the caring behaviors of nurses to pregnant women in rural Tanzania.” 28
  • EXAMPLE 2. Background, hypotheses, and aims are provided
  • “We conducted a two-arm randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate and compare changes in salivary cortisol and oxytocin levels of first-time pregnant women between experimental and control groups. The women in the experimental group touched and held an infant for 30 min (experimental intervention protocol), whereas those in the control group watched a DVD movie of an infant (control intervention protocol). The primary outcome was salivary cortisol level and the secondary outcome was salivary oxytocin level.” 29
  • “ We hypothesize that at 30 min after touching and holding an infant, the salivary cortisol level will significantly decrease and the salivary oxytocin level will increase in the experimental group compared with the control group .” 29
  • EXAMPLE 3. Background, aim, and hypothesis are provided
  • “In countries where the maternal mortality ratio remains high, antenatal education to increase Birth Preparedness and Complication Readiness (BPCR) is considered one of the top priorities [1]. BPCR includes birth plans during the antenatal period, such as the birthplace, birth attendant, transportation, health facility for complications, expenses, and birth materials, as well as family coordination to achieve such birth plans. In Tanzania, although increasing, only about half of all pregnant women attend an antenatal clinic more than four times [4]. Moreover, the information provided during antenatal care (ANC) is insufficient. In the resource-poor settings, antenatal group education is a potential approach because of the limited time for individual counseling at antenatal clinics.” 30
  • “This study aimed to evaluate an antenatal group education program among pregnant women and their families with respect to birth-preparedness and maternal and infant outcomes in rural villages of Tanzania.” 30
  • “ The study hypothesis was if Tanzanian pregnant women and their families received a family-oriented antenatal group education, they would (1) have a higher level of BPCR, (2) attend antenatal clinic four or more times, (3) give birth in a health facility, (4) have less complications of women at birth, and (5) have less complications and deaths of infants than those who did not receive the education .” 30

Research questions and hypotheses are crucial components to any type of research, whether quantitative or qualitative. These questions should be developed at the very beginning of the study. Excellent research questions lead to superior hypotheses, which, like a compass, set the direction of research, and can often determine the successful conduct of the study. Many research studies have floundered because the development of research questions and subsequent hypotheses was not given the thought and meticulous attention needed. The development of research questions and hypotheses is an iterative process based on extensive knowledge of the literature and insightful grasp of the knowledge gap. Focused, concise, and specific research questions provide a strong foundation for constructing hypotheses which serve as formal predictions about the research outcomes. Research questions and hypotheses are crucial elements of research that should not be overlooked. They should be carefully thought of and constructed when planning research. This avoids unethical studies and poor outcomes by defining well-founded objectives that determine the design, course, and outcome of the study.

Disclosure: The authors have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

Author Contributions:

  • Conceptualization: Barroga E, Matanguihan GJ.
  • Methodology: Barroga E, Matanguihan GJ.
  • Writing - original draft: Barroga E, Matanguihan GJ.
  • Writing - review & editing: Barroga E, Matanguihan GJ.


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    What is qualitative research? If we look for a precise definition of qualitative research, and specifically for one that addresses its distinctive feature of being "qualitative," the literature is meager. In this article we systematically search, identify and analyze a sample of 89 sources using or attempting to define the term "qualitative." Then, drawing on ideas we find scattered ...

  16. Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Generalization and

    Qualitative research, on the contrary, follows a different strategy of generalization. Since case-based models are formulated by a set of context-specific existential sentences, there is no need for universal truth or necessity. ... New York, NY; London: Academic Press; 10.1016/B978--12-425401-5.50011-8 [Google Scholar] Leavy P. (2014). The ...

  17. Google Scholar

    Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. Search across a wide variety of disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions. Advanced search. Find articles. with all of the words. with the exact phrase. with at least one of the words. without the ...

  18. Academic Integrity and Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education (HE

    Artificial Intelligence (AI) developments challenge higher education institutions' teaching, learning, assessment, and research practices. To contribute timely and evidence-based recommendations for upholding academic integrity, we conducted a rapid scoping review focusing on what is known about academic integrity and AI in higher education.

  19. Midwives' lived experiences of caring for women with mobility

    Midwives encounter various difficulties while aiming to achieve excellence in providing maternity care to women with mobility disabilities. The study aimed to explore and describe midwives' experiences of caring for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy, labour and puerperium in Eswatini. A qualitative, exploratory, descriptive, contextual research design with a phenomenological ...

  20. Qualitative Study

    Qualitative research is a type of research that explores and provides deeper insights into real-world problems.[1] Instead of collecting numerical data points or intervene or introduce treatments just like in quantitative research, qualitative research helps generate hypotheses as well as further investigate and understand quantitative data. Qualitative research gathers participants ...

  21. Core components of end-of-life care in nursing education programs: a

    First, a search was made in Wos, ProQuest, Scopus, PubMed, Science Direct, Research Gate, and Google Scholar databases to find studies about end-of-life care education programs. Then, the screening of the found studies was done in four stages, and the final articles were selected based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria of the studies.

  22. A Practical Guide to Writing Quantitative and Qualitative Research

    INTRODUCTION. Scientific research is usually initiated by posing evidenced-based research questions which are then explicitly restated as hypotheses.1,2 The hypotheses provide directions to guide the study, solutions, explanations, and expected results.3,4 Both research questions and hypotheses are essentially formulated based on conventional theories and real-world processes, which allow the ...