Checklists for improving rigour in qualitative research: a case of the tail wagging the dog?

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7294.1115 (Published 5 May 2001)
Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1115

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  1. Rosaline S Barbour (rsb2g@clinmed.gla.ac.uk), senior lecturer in primary care R&D
  1. Department of General Practice, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 0RR
  • Accepted 9 November 2000

Qualitative research methods are enjoying unprecedented popularity. Although checklists have undoubtedly contributed to the wider acceptance of such methods, these can be counterproductive if used prescriptively. The uncritical adoption of a range of “technical fixes” (such as purposive sampling, grounded theory, multiple coding, triangulation, and respondent validation) does not, in itself, confer rigour.

In this article I discuss the limitations of these procedures and argue that there is no substitute for systematic and thorough application of the principles of qualitative research. Technical fixes will achieve little unless they are embedded in a broader understanding of the rationale and assumptions behind qualitative research.

Summary points

Checklists can be useful improving qualitative research methods, but overzealous and uncritical use can be counterproductive

Reducing qualitative research to a list of technical procedures (such as purposive sampling, grounded theory, multiple coding, triangulation, and respondent validation) is overly prescriptive and results in “the tail wagging the dog”

None of these “technical fixes” in itself confers rigour; they can strengthen the rigour of qualitative research only if embedded in a broader understanding of qualitative research design and data analysis

Otherwise we risk compromising the unique contribution that systematic qualitative research can make to health services research

Checklists in quantitative research

In medical research the question is no longer whether qualitative methods are valuable but how rigour can be ensured or enhanced. Checklists have played an important role in conferring respectability on qualitative research and in convincing potential sceptics of its thoroughness.13 They have equipped those unfamiliar with this approach to evaluate or review qualitative work (by providing guidance on crucial questions that need to be asked) and in reminding qualitative researchers of the need for a systematic approach (by providing an aide-mémoire of the various stages involved in research design and data analysis4).

Qualitative researchers stress the …

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