The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

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Learn the essential building blocks of qualitative research: key definitions, research design, data collection methods, and important ethical considerations.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. Introduction and overview
  2. What is qualitative research?
  3. What is qualitative data?
  4. Examples of qualitative data
  5. Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  6. Mixed methods
  7. Qualitative research preparation
  8. Theoretical perspective
  9. Theoretical framework
  10. Literature reviews
  11. Research question
  12. Conceptual framework
  13. Conceptual vs. theoretical framework
  14. Data collection
  15. Qualitative research methods
  16. Interviews
  17. Focus groups
  18. Observational research
  19. Case studies
  20. Surveys
  21. Ethnographical research
  22. Ethical considerations
    1. Introduction
    2. What are research ethics?
    3. Informed consent in qualitative research
    4. Trust in the researcher-participant relationship
    5. Navigating the ethics review board
  23. Confidentiality and privacy
  24. Bias
  25. Power dynamics
  26. Reflexivity

Ethical considerations in qualitative research

Qualitative research often involves the researcher working with and collecting data from people. This raises critical ethical concerns that all qualitative researchers should keep in mind. This article will discuss the topic of informed consent, but other issues of privacy, confidentiality, and trust, among other considerations, also require careful consideration.

Research ethics, especially in the social sciences, involves careful consideration of the welfare of research participants.

What are research ethics?

Ethics generally refer to the principles of right and wrong that guide an individual or a group. In the context of research, ethics are the standards and guidelines that dictate acceptable conduct during the research process, ensuring that researchers act in a manner that protects the rights, dignity, and welfare of the participants involved.

In qualitative research, the importance of ethics becomes more nuanced due to the deeply personal and subjective nature of the methods used. Qualitative researchers often engage in prolonged, intimate interactions with participants and immerse themselves in the participants' settings, sometimes even their lives. As such, the potential for ethical dilemmas or conflicts can be heightened, making a comprehensive understanding of ethics crucial for qualitative researchers.

What are the ethical considerations in qualitative research?

A critical aspect of research ethics is respect for persons. This principle emphasizes recognizing and respecting the autonomy of research participants, acknowledging their capacity to make decisions about their involvement in the research. It also involves providing special protection for individuals with diminished autonomy who may be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence, such as children, prisoners, or individuals with cognitive impairments.

Beneficence, another key ethical principle, is about maximizing potential benefits for the research participants and minimizing potential harm. In the qualitative research context, potential benefits might include contributing to new knowledge, enhancing understanding of a phenomenon, or informing policy or practice changes. Potential harm might involve psychological distress, invasion of privacy, stigmatization, or misuse of data.

Justice, a third core principle, involves ensuring a fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of research. This means carefully considering the selection of participants to avoid exploiting vulnerable groups or excluding others without justification.

Lastly, qualitative researchers also need to consider the principle of fidelity, which involves being honest and transparent, fulfilling promises, and establishing and maintaining trust with participants.
These principles are not meant to be exhaustive, nor are they universally applicable without consideration of context. In fact, one of the complexities of qualitative research is that ethical considerations often have to be balanced and negotiated in light of the specific circumstances of each study. What's ethical in one study might not be in another, and this underpins the importance of researchers being reflective and responsive to the ethical dimensions of their work.

Why do research ethics matter?

It's important to note that ethics in qualitative research are not merely about compliance with formal ethical guidelines or approval from ethics review boards. While these are necessary, ethics in qualitative research go beyond this, requiring researchers to continually negotiate ethical issues throughout the entire research process, from design to dissemination. Understanding and adhering to ethical principles in qualitative research not only protects the participants but also enhances the quality of the research, as it encourages thoughtful and respectful engagement with the research process and its stakeholders. It is a fundamental part of responsible and credible research practice.

Trust in the researcher-participant relationship

The establishment of trust in the researcher-participant relationship is a fundamental aspect of qualitative research. Trust can influence the quality and depth of the data gathered, as participants are more likely to share honest and detailed information if they trust the researcher.

The importance of trust in qualitative research

Trust is foundational to successful qualitative research. Researchers often delve into personal, sometimes sensitive, topics. As a result, the participants' willingness to share depends largely on the level of trust established between them and the researcher. Trust can enhance participant engagement and willingness to participate, which can, in turn, enrich the quality of the data gathered. Moreover, the ethical integrity of the research process is often judged by the degree of trust that participants place in researchers.

Strategies to build and maintain trust

Building and maintaining trust with research subjects requires careful attention and ongoing effort. The process typically begins with clear, transparent communication about the research purpose, procedures, benefits, and risks, which can foster initial trust.

Establishing trust with human subjects is an essential component of research ethics. Photo by National Cancer Institute.

A key strategy for building trust is demonstrating respect for participants and their experiences. This includes honoring their time, listening carefully to their responses, and validating their experiences and feelings. Showing empathy and understanding can also enhance trust, particularly when discussing sensitive topics.

Additionally, maintaining confidentiality, as discussed in the previous section, is crucial for building and maintaining trust. If participants are confident that their information will be kept confidential, they are more likely to trust the researcher and share openly.

Ensuring that the research benefits the participants or their community in some way can also contribute to trust. This could include producing knowledge that addresses a community concern, providing a platform for participants' voices to be heard, or translating research findings into actions or interventions that benefit the participants.

Consequences of trust violation

Violations of trust can have severe consequences in qualitative research. Participants may withdraw from the study, refuse to provide further information, or provide false or misleading information. Trust violations can also harm the reputation of the researcher and their institution, impede future research efforts, and, in some cases, could lead to formal complaints or legal action.

Thus, it's essential for researchers to be aware of the importance of trust and make conscious efforts to build and maintain it throughout the research process. By doing so, they can foster more meaningful and productive relationships with their participants, leading to richer data and more impactful research findings.

Vulnerability and power dynamics in qualitative research

In qualitative research, it is crucial to recognize and address the potential vulnerability of participants and the power dynamics that exist between researchers and participants. These issues are at the heart of many ethical considerations in research.

Vulnerable populations in qualitative research

Vulnerable populations in research refer to groups of individuals who may be at a higher risk of exploitation or harm due to certain characteristics or circumstances. These might include children, older adults, prisoners, people with cognitive or mental health impairments, people with low socio-economic status, or people experiencing homelessness, among others.

Vulnerable individuals may have limited autonomy, be less able to understand or consent to research participation, or be more susceptible to harm from the research. Researchers need to exercise particular care when including vulnerable individuals in research to ensure that they are not exploited and that their rights and welfare are protected. As a general rule, protecting the rights and agency of vulnerable groups takes priority over data collection.

Power dynamics between researchers and participants

Power dynamics in qualitative research refer to the imbalance of power that often exists between researchers and participants. Researchers usually hold a position of power in the research relationship, as they determine the research design, control the data collection and analysis process, and decide how the findings are reported. This power imbalance can influence participants' experiences and responses in the research and can potentially lead to exploitation or harm.

For instance, participants might feel pressured to participate in the research, to answer questions they are uncomfortable with, or to disclose more information than they would like, due to the perceived power of the researcher. They might also fear potential repercussions if they withdraw from the research or provide negative feedback.

Strategies for minimizing power imbalances

To minimize power imbalances, researchers can adopt several strategies. These can include involving participants in the research process, known as participatory research methods. For instance, researchers can involve participants in designing the research questions, selecting the methods, analyzing the data, or disseminating the findings.

Researchers can also aim for transparency in all research procedures, continually inform participants of their rights, and reinforce the voluntary nature of participation. It's also crucial to approach participants with respect and humility, acknowledging their expertise in their own experiences and valuing their contributions to the research.

Moreover, in the case of vulnerable populations, additional safeguards might be necessary. These could include obtaining consent from a legally authorized representative, using simplified language or visual aids to explain the research, ensuring that participation does not exacerbate the individuals' vulnerability, and providing additional support or resources as needed.