Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Legitimising the Subjectivity of Human Reality through Qualitative Research Method

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Legitimising the Subjectivity of Human Reality through Qualitative Research Method

Article excerpt

The controversy that has surrounded the value of quantitative research methods as opposed to qualitative approaches as a means to increasing the knowledge and understanding of human behaviour in health and illness, has been contested by nurse scholars for several decades. This paper continues debate around this issue and provides a critique of the problems associated with these competing paradigms. It challenges the convention that all nursing research must be objective and value free in order to be scientific, and provides an overview of the processes that should be considered by researchers utilising qualitative methods of inquiry.

Key Words: Research, Qualitative, Quantitative, Credibility, Generalisability, Reliability


Research and theory are critical elements that have a direct impact upon the development of professional nursing practice. Pullen (2000) describes the clinical practice of nursing as dealing with "the subjective condition of individual patients" (p. 124). The value of qualitative research in nursing is that it can help to explain the complexity and meaning of human behaviour, by addressing questions such as why some patients require more postoperative pain relief than others and why nurses respond differently to verbal aggression. Thus, nursing research often needs to capture the individual's interpretation of an experience and the meaning attributed to that experience in order to interpret and synthesise data that are not always responsive to quantitative research methods (Munhall, 2001; Pullen, 2000).

Past Methods in Nursing Research

Being so closely associated with medicine, the dominant paradigm for past nursing research and theory development has traditionally been that of positivism, imported directly from modern Western medicine (Pullen, 2000). A result of this was a lack of research tradition unique to nursing (Donaldson & Crowley, 1977; Gorenberg, 1983; Morse, 1994; Munhall, 2001). Even in the mid 1960's, when nursing scholars looked to develop research that would enable them to investigate the social world of nursing practice (Street, 1990), they continued to embrace the more positivistic approaches within other disciplines of the social sciences as the normative paradigm for conducting nursing research (Carr, 1994; Gushing, 1994; Playle, 1995). They considered its scientific method to be superior to any other and therefore, the most legitimate approach to use. Accordingly, the blind acceptance of research methods associated with the quantitative tradition of positivism has had a significant impact upon scholarship in nursing research (Morse, 1994; Munhall, 2001; Thompson, 1985). Although this has been severely limiting in some respects, the adoption of these scientific methods from other disciplines has at least assisted nursing to identify, establish and develop itself as a science (Munhall, 2001; Parse, Coyne, & Smith, 1985).

Competing Paradigms

During the past two decades nurse researchers have begun to use a far wider range of methods such as ethnography, phenomenology and symbolic interactionism, and in so doing have become embroiled in an ongoing and often acrimonious dispute between advocates of quantitative or qualitative methods (Dootson, 1995). Thompson (1985, cited in Street, 1990, p. 5) has argued that many nurse scholars continue to remain unequivocal in their support of quantitative research, because it is perceived as the 'proper' scientific paradigm in which nursing research should be situated. Positivists often perceive qualitative approaches as unscientific, soft scholarship, exploratory, overly subjective and biased, indeed, as an assault on the scientific method that undermines the "crowning achievements of Western civilisation" (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994, p. 4). The main challenge to this dominating stance is a critique of the way nursing research has clung to, and become preoccupied with, semantic analysis of terms and concepts, deducing and testing hypotheses through quantitative techniques that depend on the operationalisation of all variables. …

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