The sense or folly of doing ‘quali’

Ian A. Elliott

We researchers, we’re a manipulative bunch. We like nothing better than taking observable phenomena, controlling them, and bending them to the will of empirical scientific inquisition. However, due to the dynamic nature of our field, it is far from a rarity to encounter both new forms of criminal behavior and new manifestations of well-established criminal behavior.

As important as quantitative research is in our field, there is ample room for other ways in which to explore these complex phenomena and the range of experiences involved in, and resulting from, sexual violence. There is an abundance of qualitative work in forensic psychology seeking to provide a foundational understanding of various phenomena on which we can build measurable theoretical, assessment, and treatment practices.

I’m a huge fan of qualitative research and love the insight it gives us into lived experience. In explaining the importance of qualitative research to students I paraphrase the old adage, “How long is a piece of string?” Qualitative analyses tell you whether or not it actually is string and that it’s measurable by its length –and this is probably quite important to know (and to know first). Quantitative analyses tell you how long your piece of string is and that there is a (one) piece. As Aristotle noted, quality is a determination of the nature or form of a substance; quantity is the determination of the matter of a substance.

I do, however, worry that qualitative research isn’t held in the same esteem as quantitative research. It is certainly the case that qualitative methodology is not, across the board, taught to the same extent and standard as statistical methods.

Qualitative methods seem to be viewed as more homogenous than quantitative methods. I have had more than one experience of peer-reviewing qualitative work in which the authors have claimed to have conducted very complex and multifaceted qualitative techniques (interpretative phenomenonological analysis and grounded theory respectively) when what they had actually conducted was much less complex and multifaceted (thematic analysis).

Thematic analysis, IPA, and grounded theory are all equally valid ways to explore data, but they are far from synonymous. To conduct a thematic analysis, but refer to it as ‘IPA’ or ‘grounded theory’, is akin to doing a student’s t-test and referring to it as hierarchical linear modelling. They are fundamentally different techniques.

“Thematic analysis, IPA, and grounded theory are all equally valid ways to explore data, but they are far from synonymous.”

What seems to compound (or drive) the misunderstanding that qualitative research is somehow all-of-a-muchness, is that there appears to be a form of stigma perceived by exponents of qualitative research methods that induces a sense that researchers need to use those techniques that sound the most sophisticated, rather than choosing the most appropriate for their data. (Arguably there may be a similar pressure in quantitative research.)

There is absolutely no shame in doing a basic thematic analysis and I often signpost researchers to a paper by Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke who constructed a systematic process for doing high-quality thematic analyses. Done correctly and knowingly, it is a quick and effective to way to explore new phenomena, or novel elements of known phenomena, for which there is little prior research. It’s a great little tool.

Qualitative methods do not all share the same techniques or philosophies. Some draw from phenomenological/existentialist philosophies and how we perceive experience, others take a constructivist approach and how we conceive experience. Some take an idiographic approach and celebrate the uniqueness of individual cases; others take a nomothetic approach and seek to establish mechanisms general to many. Furthermore, some forms of qualitative research require a more serious time investment from the researcher, in terms of understanding the nature of the technique and the level of analytical rigor necessary to carry it out.

For example, a comprehensive grounded theory will arguably take you much longer to conduct than a comprehensive thematic analysis. Grounded theory can be a gargantuan intellectual undertaking and is the marathon to thematic analysis’s 100m dash. I remember having that illustrated during a presentation by Theresa Gannon of the University of Kent a few years go. During a presentation outlining her and her colleagues’ grounded theory of the offense process for female sex offenders she showed a photo of a desk coated by a systematized catalogue of tiny notes that modeled their data – hours-on-hours of intellectual endeavor seemingly at the mercy of a single sneeze!

“IPA is as much a philosophical effort as it is a psychological one… a researcher using it should entertain the idea of dipping their toe into the writings of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty.”

Interpretative phenomenological analysis, on the other hand, often doesn’t require the same time-investment as grounded theory. However, IPA is as much a philosophical effort as it is a psychological one. IPA is founded in phenomenology, and thus a researcher using it should – at least to some degree – entertain the idea of dipping their toe into the complex (and sometimes impenetrable) writings of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. The effortful element of approaches like IPA is in fully understanding and subsequently applying the conceptual foundations it is based on. Those thinking of doing discourse analysis too would benefit from at least a cursory bash at Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Austin.

The decision on which is the most appropriate of the various qualitative approaches is fundamentally linked to the research question you wish to answer. It works in the same way as the flow charts in the back of statistics textbooks. The combination of research question and qualitative approach affects the way you collect your data, who you sample, and how you analyze that data.

If you need a way to quickly describe experiences or explanations shared by various members of a group, you choose thematic analysis. If you want to explore the fundamental structure of a particular experience, you use IPA. If you want to construct theory with an emphasis on process, you choose grounded theory. If you want explore the cognitive processes illustrated by the way subjects formulate and use language, you use discourse analysis. If you want to look at the mechanics of debate and how two or more individuals arrive at understandings of one another, you use conversational analysis. And so on.

“Qualitative research requires a priori decisions about what you’re trying to achieve that dictate the way you subsequently generate and analyze your data.”

The point is that qualitative research requires a priori decisions about what you’re trying to achieve that dictate the way you subsequently generate and analyze your data. Qualitative research methods are highly sophisticated forms of analysis that explore the foundations that can be further advanced by rigorous quantitative analysis. Done correctly, they can provide a wealth of information necessary for theory building and to guide future research. There is no shame in doing qualitative research, and no shame in doing it (rigorously) in its most basic forms.

Suggested citation:
Elliott, I. A. (2015, May 24). The sense or folly of doing ‘quali’ [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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