Introduction to qualitative psychological research - an article by Coyle (2015)

Critical thinking
Article: Coyle, A (2015)
Introduction to qualitative psychological research


This chapter examines the development of psychological interest in qualitative methods in historical context and point to the benefits that psychology gains from qualitative research.
It also looks at some important issues and developments in qualitative psychology.

Epistemology and the ‘scientific method’

At its most basic, qualitative psychological research may be regarded as involving the collection and analysis of non-numerical data through a psychological lens in order to provide rich descriptions and possibly explanations of peoples meaning-making, how they make sense of the world and how they experience particular events.

Qualitative research is bound up with particular sets of assumptions about the bases or possibilities of knowledge.
Epistemology: particular sets of assumptions about the bases or possibilities of knowledge.
Epistemology refers to a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the theory of knowledge and that tries to answer questions about how we can know what we know.
Ontology: the assumptions we make about the nature of being, existence or reality.

Different research approaches and methods are associated with different epistemologies.
The term ‘qualitative research’ covers a variety of methods with a range of epistemologies, resulting in a domain that is characterized by difference and tension.

The epistemology adopted by a particular study can be determined by a number of factors.

  • A researcher may have a favoured epistemological outlook or position and may locate their research within this, choosing methods that accord to with that position.
  • Alternatively, the researcher may be keen to use a particular qualitative method in their research and so they frame their study according to the epistemology that is usually associated with that method.

Whatever epistemological position is adopted in a study, it is usually desirable to ensure that you maintain this position consistently throughout the wire-up to help produce a coherent research report.

Positivism: holds that the relationship between the world and our sense perception of the world is straightforward. There is a direct correspondence between things in the world and our perception of them provided that our perception is not skewed by factors that might damage that correspondence.
So, it is possible to obtain accurate knowledge of things in the world, provided we can adopt an impartial, unbiased, objective viewpoint.

Empiricism: holds that our knowledge of the world must arise from the collection and categorization of our sense perceptions/observations of the world.
This categorization allows us to develop more complex knowledge of the world and to develop theories to explain the world.

  • Few scientists today adopt and unqualified positivist or empiricist outlook because it is generally recognized that our observations and perceptions do not provide pure and direct ‘facts’ about the world.

One fundamental claim from empiricism remains central in research, this is the idea that the development of knowledge requires the collection and analysis of data.
This is something shared by qualitative researchers, but they have different ideas about what constitutes appropriate data and about how those data should be generated and analysed.

Hypothetico-deductivism: the aim of research is not to obtain evidence that supports a theory but rather to identify theoretical claims (hyptheses) that are false and ultimately theories that are false.
Research that adopts a hypothetico-deductive stance therefore operates by developing hypotheses from theories and testing these hypotheses.

Deductive reasoning in research: reasoning begins with theories, which are refined into hypotheses, which are tested through observations of some sort, which leads to a confirmation or rejection of the hypotheses.
Top down.

Realism: the assumption that reality exists independent of the observer.

Resistance to the ‘scientific method’: alternative epistemologies and research foci

The ‘scientific method’ approach to psychological research has been resisted in some branches of the discipline.

Understanding individuals in context on their terms

Nomothetic research: approaches which seek generalizable findings that uncover laws to explain objective phenomena.

Idiographic research: approaches which seek to examine individual cases in detail to understand an outcome.

Phenomenological methods: focus on obtaining detailed descriptions of experience as understood by those who have that experience in order to discern its essence.
These methods are not concerned with producing an objective statement or an experience but rather with obtaining an individual’s personal perception or account of the experience on their own terms.

Inductive reasoning in research: reasoning that begins with data, which are examined in light of a study’s research questions.
Patterns in the data are discerned and labelled to theoretical levels.
Bottom up.

Any type of qualitative research that seeks to uncover people’s meanings and experiences in an inductive way has been described as embodying an ‘experimental’ approach.
Most of these forms of qualitative research have retained the realist commitment of the scientific method to some degree.

  • They assume that a reality exists independent of the observer which can be accessed in some way through research and that participants’ language provides us with a ‘window’ to that reality.

Critical realist outlook: assumes that, while a reality exits independent of the observer, we cannot know that reality with certainty.

Critical stance on the construction of reality

The social constructivist perspective adopts a critical stance towards the taken-for-granted ways in which we understand the world and ourselves.
For a social constructionist perspective, the ways in which we understand the world and ourselves are built up through social processes, especially through linguistic interactions, and so there is nothing fixed or necessary about them: they are the products of particular cultural and historical contexts.

Research constructed within a social constructionist framework focuses on examining the ways of constructing social reality that are available within a particular cultural and historical context, the conditions within which these ways of constructing are used as the implications they hold for human experience and practice.

Relativist: stance in which ‘reality’ is seen as dependent on the ways we come to know it.

Relativism and social constructionism contrast with the ontology and epistemology of other approaches to qualitative research which tend to assume that there is some relationship between the outcome of the analysis of research data and the actualities of which the analysis speaks.

Interpretative framework: ones professional and personal investments in the research.

Some qualitative methods that adopt a social constructionist epistemology hold on to the idea of data representing things that have an existence outside the data.
Others are largely disinterested in whether there is a reality existing ‘out there’ to which qualitative data correspond and instead locate their focus of interest elsewhere.



  • A reality exists independent of the observer and we can access this through research.
  • If a researcher has applied their research approach rigorously, they can be confident that their findings map on to the reality they were exploring.

Critical realism

  • A reality exists independent of the observer by we cannot know that reality with certainty.
  • A researcher should take care in moving beyond the realities of the participants and making claims about a reality that exists independently.


  • ‘Reality’ is dependent on the ways we come to know it.
  • A researcher should ask how we come to build up versions of reality and should treat findings as versions of reality rather than as revealing realities independent of how we know them.

Reflexivity in qualitative research

Speaking position: including theoretical commitments, personal understandings and personal experiences.

Reflexivity: the acknowledgement by the researcher of the role played by their interpretative framework or speaking position in creating their analytic account.
The role of the researcher’s interpretative framework in generating data and producing the analysis is often regarded as a contaminating factor in most qualitative research, particularly the personal aspects of that framework.
In contrast, many qualitative methods are characterized by an expectation that the researcher will make explicit they speaking position.
When properly done, this can acknowledge the role of the researcher and it can increase the transparency of the research process and so help readers to understand and evaluate the work.

Evaluative criteria for qualitative research

A researcher’s acknowledgement of their speaking position within a study can help the reader to evaluate the research.
Here we evaluate how consumers of qualitative research can evaluate the worth of a qualitative study.

Positivist-empiricist, hypothetico-deductive, quantitative psychological research tends to be assessed in terms of criteria such as reliability and internal and external validity.
These rely on an assumption of objectivity, the researcher and research topic can be independent of each other.

Given the contention in most qualitative research that the researcher is inevitably present in their research, any evaluative criteria that relate to strategies for eliminating ‘bias’ are inappropriate.
In their research reports qualitative researchers may wish to specify alternative criteria by which they wish their research to be evaluated.
Criteria that should be held by good qualitative research:

  • Sensitivity to context
    Among other matters, the research should make clear the context of theory and the understandings created by previous researchers using similar methods and/or analysing similar topics, the socio-cultural setting of the study, and the social context of the relationship between the researchers and the participants.
  • Commitment
    Demonstrating prolonged engagement with the research topic
  • Rigour
    The completeness of the data collection and analysis
  • Transparency
    Detailing every aspect of the processes of data collection and analysis and disclosing/discussing all aspects of the research process
  • Coherence
    The quality of the research narrative, the ‘fit’ between the research question and the philosophical perspective adopted, and the method of investigation and analysis undertaken
  • Impact and importance
    The theoretical, practical and socio-cultural impact of the study.

Criteria applicable to qualitative and quantitative research:

  • Explicit scientific context and purpose
  • Appropriate methods
  • Respect for participants
  • Specification of methods
  • Appropriate discussion
  • Clarity of presentation
  • Contribution to knowledge

Combining research methods and approaches

It has become increasingly common to see both qualitative and quantitative methods being used in the same research object: mixed-methods approach.
This guards against methodolatry and can enrich research outcomes.
Quantitative research and qualitative research perform different functions and so a project that incorporates both can benefit from what each offers, most obviously breadth and depth.

What can be challenging is to integrate qualitative and quantitative findings that may have been generated by approaches and methods based on different epistemological assumptions.
But, if we are more modest about what integration involves, possibilities open up.

It should not be assumed that a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods is inherently superior to research that adopts a single approach.
The decision to use a combination of a quantitative and qualitative methods should be determined by how best to answer particular research question(s).

Pluralistic analysis: the value of applying different qualitative methods with different ontologies and epistemologies to a single data set.
The aim is to produce rich, multi-layered, multi-perspective readings of any qualitative data set through the application of diverse ‘ways of seeing’.

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