Validity in Qualitative Research

How do we assess and assure Validity in Qualitative Research?  This can be a bit of a tricky topic, as qualitative research involves humans understanding humans, a necessarily subjective practice from the get-go.  Nevertheless, there are some questions the researcher can ask and some techniques he or she can employ to establish a reasonable level of validity.

Whether it is employed in business or the social sciences, it is often used to inform decisions that have important implications, thus assuring a high level of validity is essential.  While the results should never be extrapolated over a larger population, (as they never come from a large enough sample to be statistically significant), validity can be established such that it can be used to inform meaningful decisions.

One measure of validity in qualitative research is to ask questions such as: “Does it make sense?” and “Can I trust it?”  This may seem like a fuzzy measure of validity to someone disciplined in quantitative research, for example, but in a science that deals in themes and context, these questions are important.

Steps in Ensuring Validity

The first step in ensuring validity is choosing a well-trained and skilled moderator (or facilitator).  A good moderator will check personal bias and expectations at the door.  He or she is interested in learning as much candid information from the research participants as possible, and respectful neutrality is a must if the goal is valid qualitative research.  For this reason, organizations often employ moderators from outside the group or organization to help ensure that the responses are genuine and not influenced by “what we want to hear.”  For some academic applications, the moderator will disclose his or her perspectives and biases in the reporting of the data as a matter of full disclosure.

While a good moderator is key, a good sample group is also essential.  Are the participants truly members of the segment from which they are recruited?  Ethical recruiting is an important issue in qualitative research, as data collected from individuals who are not truly representative of their segment will not lead to valid results.

Another way to promote validity is to employ a strategy known as triangulation.  To accomplish this, the research is done from multiple perspectives.   This could take the form of using several moderators, different locations, multiple individuals analyzing the same data . . . essentially any technique that would inform the results from different angles.   For some applications, for example, an organization may choose to run focus groups in parallel through two entirely different researchers and then compare the results.

Validity in qualitative research can also be checked by a technique known as respondent validation.  This technique involves testing initial results with participants to see if they still ring true.   Although the research has been interpreted and condensed, participants should still recognize the results as authentic and, at this stage, may even be able to refine the researcher’s understanding.

When the study permits, deep saturation into the research will also promote validity.  If responses become more consistent across larger numbers of samples, the data becomes more reliable.

Another technique to establish validity is to actively seek alternative explanations to what appear to be research results.  If the researcher is able to exclude other scenarios, he is or she is able to strengthen the validity of the findings.   Related to this technique is asking questions in an inverse format.

While the techniques to establish validity in qualitative research may seem less concrete and defined than in some of the other scientific disciplines, strong research techniques will, indeed, assure an appropriate level of validity in qualitative research.

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