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IX. Manuscripts for Qualitative and Mixed-Methods Research

Jun 21, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

Writing a manuscript for a qualitative or mixed-methods study requires a few different strategies from those presented for quantitative research manuscripts. In general, a qualitative study may include a briefer literature review and longer Methods and Findings sections than a quantitative study. A mixed-methods study will be more complicated than either a quantitative or qualitative study alone and often needs several subsections under both Method and Findings to accommodate the different elements of the study.

Some journals tend to publish more qualitative studies and some may not accept many or any. Thus, when determining where to target your manuscript, be sure to look carefully at the material about the journal and the “Instructions for Authors” on journals’ websites to decide whether the journal may be appropriate. Journals may have certain rules for qualitative study manuscripts that would not apply to other manuscripts, such as a minimum required sample size for studies based on interviews or an expanded page limit to accommodate the lengthier findings common with qualitative studies. If, after looking at all the available material on a journal’s website you aren’t sure, an examination of the articles in the journal’s recent issues or “online before print” will show you whether there are qualitative or mixed-methods articles, and what they are like.

Qualitative studies can be great fun to conduct, but the amount of data one collects can be a bit overwhelming to write up. As you go through the process and the sections of your manuscript, read other studies and continue to check back on the particular sections of other scholar’s papers to guide you and confirm that you are on the right track. You also may find it better to work with one or more coauthors or research assistants. In qualitative inquiry, efforts to reduce individual and personal bias are pervasive throughout the procedures and processes. Thus, having another person work with you on the data analysis and interpretations is not only helpful, but particularly appropriate to the spirit of the methodology.

Purpose of the Study and Literature Review

 Qualitative studies use inductive rather than deductive methods, meaning that the purpose of the study is not to test a hypothesis.. The purpose in qualitative research is to “explore” an area of inquiry through questions such as, “What kinds of interactions occur between paid caregivers and elders with Alzheimer’s disease?” Unlike a survey on which there are preexisting questions based on a theory that suggests a limited number of possible responses, qualitative questions tend to be broader and open-ended. Thus, qualitative research has a goal to observe and reflect upon a broader range of data that may lead to formulating some theoretical conclusions. Qualitative studies are based on data collected through observation or other ethnographic methods, semistructured interviews, or textual data such as letters or responses to open-ended questions in a written questionnaire.

In a qualitative study, you need to justify your research, just as one does in a quantitative study. This may be accomplished by describing a health or social problem, and by noting a gap in the literature about a group relevant to your academic or professional field. Your literature review beyond justification for the study does not need to be as comprehensive as a quantitative study’s would be about what other studies have been done in the area you are exploring. Because qualitative studies work from the ground up, there may not be much that exactly mirrors your study, but if there is, you should cite it and make some argument as to what about that study differs from your current study.

Methods Section

Data is gathered and analyzed in a qualitative study according to methods established to adhere to one of several theoretical perspectives. For instance, Grounded Theory suggests ways of gathering and analyzing data, as do Phenomenology or Narrative Methods, just to name a few possibilities. As you start to conduct your study, you will want to research these common ways of organizing qualitative research so that you are clear about the methods you choose. When you write your manuscript, you will describe the main theoretical perspective that has informed your data collection and analysis, with one or more citations from the literature in your field or ones that are closely related, to show that your methods are supported by theory and well-established.

A qualitative sample may vary from a set of interviewees to a set of observations, or perhaps both. In your Methods section, you will describe how you obtained, found, or recruited the sample and this may include convenience sampling, purposive sampling, or what is called “snowball sampling” where participants refer other potential participants. Usually, a table of the basic descriptive variables for the sample should be included. Thus, even though you will not be collecting much survey data (unless this is a mixed-methods study), you should gather basic characteristics for your participants or other units of analysis in a qualitative study. This should include information for people such as age and sex, or location and grade levels, for a school, or size and type for other organizations. You will also include important variables that illustrate how your “topic” pertains to that person or unit of analysis (e.g., diagnosis for a study concerning mental health, or size of the organization for a study of hospitals, etc.).

Your description of the study methods will include the study design, the method and procedures for data collection, and finally the data analysis plans and methodology. In these descriptions, be sure to carry out and then describe some of the ways that qualitative researchers demonstrate validity of their methods. At a minimum, mention the following:

  • Prolonged engagement with the subject matter or participants, meaning you had long enough and frequent enough interviews or observations;
  • Reflection on your experiences during data collection through journaling or note-taking (often referred to as the paper trail);
  • “Member-checking,” i.e., checking back with some of the participants about your interpretations; and
  • Sharing analysis tasks with a colleague (or student) to reduce bias in interpretations.

Qualitative Findings

The Findings section in a qualitative manuscript is the heart of the study and can be challenging, yet enjoyable to write. Here, the qualitative researcher is somewhat like a journalist finding the best way to express the important elements of the findings. A good qualitative manuscript gives the reader a number of examples of the themes that were uncovered or explored in the study, primarily through quotations from participants or through excerpts from journals or notes written during observations or field experiences. This part of the qualitative manuscript needs to be representative of the major themes and capture them in a way that will lead credibly to the conclusions you will make in the Discussion section ahead.

If you have quotations or descriptive data (called “thick description”) from several different participants or other units of analysis, it is necessary to code and briefly identify them in some easy way for the reader and to be sure to keep them consistent. For instance, in a study of older women with chronic illness, my colleagues and I included the woman’s age and racial background for each quotation. In some studies, it would be appropriate to give participants coded names, such as “Mr. A.” and “Ms. G.” and keep those names throughout, in the event of more than one quote or description per participant. One pitfall in selecting data to relate in the Findings section is the urge to put too many quotations that are quite similar. It is not necessary to include redundant data, but better to choose one or two good examples and mention that others were similar. It is also appropriate in qualitative inquiry, and in your Findings section, to show the outliers or the “exceptions to the rule” in terms of your themes. If most people said something that confirms a theme you found, it is also necessary to give an example of the one or few who had a different experience or said something disconfirming of that theme.

Discussion Section

The Discussion section of a qualitative or mixed-methods manuscript is not terribly different from that of a quantitative research manuscript. The interpretations of the data need to be synthesized in a way that makes sense and does not stray or go beyond your data. Here, you will cite and discuss other literature to show how other studies or other theories confirm or differ from your findings. You may even include somewhat more literature here than you had earlier in the “literature review” because a qualitative study does not begin with preexisting ideas of the findings. Thus, confirmatory literature comes after the presentation of findings.

As in a quantitative study, you will have a paragraph to describe limitations to the current study, usually in terms of your sample size, how you obtained your sample, the limited geographic area, and the like. All qualitative research has as its goal to understand in depth, rather than breadth, so noting that you have a small sample size or limited scope is not a flaw in your research, but it does affect what you can conclude from your study.

Implications for policy or practice and directions for future research in qualitative inquiry are important elements of your study and Discussion section. Here, you should keep your arguments straightforward and based on the data that you have presented in your Findings section. You should cite conceptual, clinical, or theoretical literature that suggests practice and policy changes that address what you have found. You can also bring in one or two particularly appropriate quotations from the participants if they directly address service needs or another implication from your study. Recommendations for future research will follow from both your findings and the limitations of your study. Also think about what questions or methods in your data collection worked best or did not work as well. What would you like to see done next?  How might the findings from your study enlighten a future study on a larger scale or in a different setting?  Finally, if you can find one or two citations from the literature that address the need for more research in your area, you can include that in this section.

  • Masauso Chirwa says:

    Jun 24, 2016 at 3:05 am

    Very informative, straight to the point!

  • fujibulle says:

    Sep 29, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    in the last mount i used Qualitative method in my research which is tell about "The Implementation of Total Physical Response Method to Teach Vocabulary in a Junior High School". then when i observe to the classroom i got many experience and good result. i found that the implementation of Total Physical Response method from the Teacher to the Student can Increase three aspect there are Affective, Psychomotor and Cognitive. then the score of Student by the Teacher is Increase than before. thank you very much about your article.

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