Validity is the quality of research that refers to how well the results gathered from analyzing the data of the study participants represent true findings among similar individuals outside the study’s population. As is traditionally understood, research validity refers to how accurately a method, an instrument, or a technique measures the object of study. Validity is an essential consideration during research design for any study as well as when planning methods and writing up one’s results. Often discussed in literature on quantitative studies, validity takes different forms and is discussed using different terms in qualitative ones. This blog’s purpose is to introduce the concept of validity as it pertains to qualitative studies. In this blog post, we will discuss qualitative validity by addressing the transferability of findings, the credibility of the findings, and the ethical procedures used while conducting research.
The first concept, transferability, functions like discussions of external validity in quantitative research. Given the small sample size of most qualitative studies, analytical generalizability is limited in its efficacy and often impossible to demonstrate. Instead, qualitative research discusses transferability, the ability of a research finding to be applicable in other contexts and situations. Discussions of transferability seek to answer the question of to what extent will this study’s findings be applicable in other situations.
While this may seem a daunting consideration, the researcher is not responsible for suggesting applicability in all other situations, as one might do in a “Considerations/Suggestions for Further Research” section. It is not possible to know every situation to which a study’s findings may or may not be applicable and transferable. As others (Klein et al 1999, Rodon and Sesa 2008) have suggested, the researcher is responsible for providing enough details about the setting and context so that readers may assess the applicability of the findings to their specific situation.
In similar fashion to transferability serving in place of external validity, qualitative research discusses the credibility of the findings to understand a study’s internal validity. In qualitative research, credibility refers to the confidence that the data and its analysis are valid and reliable. As Patton (1999) observed, the credibility of qualitative inquiry rests on three distinct but intertwined factors: the use of rigorous techniques and methods for gathering and analyzing the data, with attention to its validity, reliability, and transferability; the credibility of the researcher, evidenced through training, experience, track record, presentation of self, and criticality; and a philosophical belief in the value of naturalistic inquiry, qualitative methods, inductive analysis, purposeful sampling, and holistic thinking.
When speaking of the credibility of one’s findings, there are numerous methods of ensuring one has the most reliable and credible data and analysis, including from using well established research methods derived from those who have performed similar studies, thick description of the phenomenon under scrutiny and its context, techniques to ensure safety and trustworthiness from interlocutors and participants, and triangulation.
The most common technique of ensuring one’s findings are credible is through triangulation, the use of multiple referents to draw conclusions. Triangulation can include collecting multiple types of data, such as established literature, observational data, and interview transcripts; methods of data collection, such as archival research, participant observation, and interviews; and using multiple analysts to collect and analyze data. The goals of triangulation are to re
duce individual biases regarding the phenomenon and to provide a fuller, thicker description of the phenomenon that can provide a more thorough explanation. The fuller the picture provided, the more likely the findings are to be credible and, consequently, valid.
For more information on credibility, please see this earlier blog post on our website.
The final area often discussed as part of validity in qualitative studies are the ethical procedures researchers use in research design, data collection/analysis, and data storage. Taken as a whole, these ethical procedures need to be included in any research proposals that go to one’s doctoral committee and to the university’s Institutional Review Board to gain approval for one’s research.
When planning one’s research, one must consider the ethical issues of recruitment of study participants, including:
• The potential benefits and risks of the study for participants
• Methods of ensuring participant anonymity/confidentiality
• Methods of ensuring the security of the data obtained during the research
• A statement explaining that a participant may withdraw at any time and have their data removed from consideration
While qualitative research often poses no risks to participants’ physical health, there are other risks to consider. Depending on the research question, participation may evoke traumatic events from participants’ pasts or presents, such as abuse, homelessness, loss of job, etc. Also consider social and legal risks participation may entail. Will the participant lose face or be embarrassed? Will participation open the participant to legal repercussions? And finally, consider what a breach of confidentiality would entail for the participants should their personal, private data be made public.
When considering the potential risks, a researcher must weigh them against the potential benefits. Qualitative research often provides no direct benefit to the individual participants the way quantitative clinical research does. However, there are important benefits to be gained from exploring phenomena through qualitative methods. These include (a) the importance of the knowledge to be gained, (b) the contributions the research makes to various disciplines, (c) or the contributions to society in general. There also might be cases in which a specific community, rather than individual subjects, benefits from the research.
For more information on assessing risk and benefit, please see the following blog post on our website.
In addition to addressing these ethical concerns in one’s research proposal and/or IRB proposal, ethical researchers present an overview of their plans for addressing these concerns to potential participants prior to their participation. This should be presented both in written form, a “leaflet or flyer,” and in oral form, a discussion with each potential participant where the researcher explains the research and addresses any initial questions (Wilson et al. 2008).
Research validity is discussed extensively across all disciplines who perform qualitative research. And while qualitative researchers employ different terminology from quantitative researchers, they address the same concerns. Transferability of findings, which forms the qualitative equivalent to external validity, can be improved by providing thick, rich description of the phenomenon and its context so that readers have the needed information to determine if the findings are applicable to other, similar situations. Where quantitative studies discuss internal validity, qualitative studies speak of the credibility of the findings, often referencing the use of known and rigorous methods of data collection and analysis and, when time and funding permit, the use of triangulation to provide as accurate an interpretation of the phenomenon as possible. Finally, both qualitative and quantitative studies focusing on humans and human interactions require discussions of research ethics and how ethical concerns will be addressed.
This blog post introduced the concept of qualitative validity. Each topic mentioned here has been and continues to be thoroughly discussed in academic literature. For those conducting qualitative research, these are topics needing to be addressed throughout the research process. For those accustomed to quantitative discussions of validity, this post may be useful should they come across a qualitative study while doing research or should they seek to bring qualitative research into their own studies as part of a mixed methods approach.
Klein, H.K., and M.D. Myers (1999) “A set of principles for conducting and evaluating interpretive field studies in information systems,” MIS Quarterly (23) 1, pp. 67-93.
Rodon, J., and F. Sesa (2008) “Towards a framework for the transferability of results in IS qualitative research,” Sprouts Content, 223. https://aisel.aisnet.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1222&context=sprouts_all
Wilson, S., H. Draper, and J. Ives (2008) “Ethical issues regarding recruitment to research studies within the primary care consultation,” Family Practice (25) 1, pp. 456-461.
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