The validity of a qualitative approach and its methods is determined by how trustworthy the data is. That can take some convincing because quantitative methods remain the dominant paradigm even in the social sciences, and conclusions based on qualitative methods would not be considered to have much validity. The data is anecdotal, narrative in nature, and subjective.
Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash: A common means for processing raw qualitative data into themes is to use different color post it notes
The late Dreyer Kruger, a leading phenomenologist in his time, impressed upon us undergraduates at in the Psychology Department, Rhodes University, the importance of being “rigorous, systematic, and methodical” in the explication of experiential texts, or people’s descriptions of what it means to be anything a human being has the potential to be or experience. In qualitative approaches, one is not chasing answers to how much and how many variables affect a phenomenon, but attempting to elucidate what it means to be subjected to a phenomenon, be it being a leader or follower, a narcissist or borderline, a perpetrator or victim of a crime, or a marketer or customer loyal to a particular brand.
Rigorous means being thoughtful, deliberate, and diligent about interrogating the personal and theoretical lenses with which one approaches the data and the biases within those lenses. Human beings inevitably see the world from a point of view, however, broad, and one must be honest about the limitations of one’s vision.
Systematic means keeping a record of the decisions made and their implementation at the level of the data and interpretation so that one has an audit trail that can be followed, and one explicates rather than analyzes because one is attempting to understand the complexity of the whole, not break the whole down into its component parts.
Methodical means one has a goal. The focus in qualitative research is directed to answering a particular research question, and one pursues that goal in a step-by-step manner consciously and deliberately and with both forethought and afterthought. It means revisiting the data already explicated as new themes emerge to consider if that new theme is evident or at least does not contradict the experiences of already processed transcripts. So, rather than being methodical in a linear sense, it is being methodical in circular fashion, allowing what arises initially to inform one’s interpretation and allowing what arises later to inform one’s earlier interpretation.
Because the participant is recognized to be a subject and the insight sought is about the world or phenomenon from his or her point of view, one engages the participant in the research as a subject (rather than object), and one means for establishing validity in qualitative research is to take the transcript, preferably a readable summary, and in a best case scenario, the distilled common themes, to check in with the participant. The intent is to ensure the participant does not feel his or her meaning was misrepresented. What I call collaborative validity is also an attempt to give back to those who made themselves available for the research.
Another form of validity is intersubjective validity, which occurs at the level of processing the texts. For example, one might ask colleagues or friends to identify themes independently and then compare the themes in order to both challenge and come to some degree of consensus about what is essential for understanding the phenomenon, be the focus on burnout, comfort shopping, or loyalty to a brand or organization.
Triangulation is therefore also an important means for ensuring validity in qualitative research in so much as one involves several participants (data triangulation), processers of the data (investigator triangulation), and lenses (theoretical triangulation).
Finally, reflexivity, or disciplined self-reflection about one’s lenses and the process “is perhaps the most distinctive feature of qualitative research” (Banister et al., 1994, p. 149). In qualitative research, the influence of the researcher’s life experience on the construction of knowledge is centralized rather than marginalized, and it involves not only being honest about one’s personal and theoretical lenses but also continuously and critically examining the process of the research to reveal biases, values, and assumptions that have a bearing on one’s interpretation. This is most often done by keeping journal that documents what one did when and why and the decisions made with their rationales. Including a brief summary of this audit trail allows the reader to evaluate the validity of the conclusions to the research.
So, if you choose to apply a qualitative method in your research, be prepared to raise your level of self-awareness; disclose and critically interrogate your own theoretical lenses and personal biases; reflect upon and defend every research decision made; and engage in an ever-deepening spiral of understanding of the phenomenon you chose to examine.
Kruger, D. (1979). An introduction to phenomenological psychology. Juta.
Banister, P., Burman, E., Parker, I., Taylor, M., & Tindall, C. (1994). Qualitative methods in psychology: A research guide. Open University Press.