Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Qualitative Research in Family Therapy: A Substantive and Methodological Review

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Qualitative Research in Family Therapy: A Substantive and Methodological Review

Article excerpt

Over the last decade, marriage and family therapy (MFT) researchers have developed a growing interest in qualitative research. In this article, we review substantive and methodological trends in the published qualitative studies within the MFT field. The research is compared and contrasted in the following areas: General topic, epistemological theory, methodological theory, sampling and sample, data collection, data analysis procedure, and approach to reliability and validity. We also provide recommendations for future research.

In the last decade, marriage and family therapy (MFT) researchers have become increasingly interested in qualitative approaches to inquiry. Moon, Dillon, and Sprenkle (1990) encouraged the development of qualitative research because it is isomorphic to the cybernetic foundations of family therapy. Similarly, social constructionists and constructivists have also advocated qualitative forms of inquiry (Kvale, 1996; Morris, Gawinski, & Joanning, 1994). The recent interest in qualitative research has produced a growing number of qualitative studies in MFr theory and practice.

In this article, we review the qualitative studies published in family therapy through early 1999 by considering the accumulated research from two perspectives: The substantive aspects of the research and the methodological issues in the studies. The purpose of this type of review is to identify both trends and the corresponding areas for future research. We identified 24 studies by searching two reference databases, PsychLit and PsychInfo. The search relied on database indexing for "qualitative research" and "ethnography" in "family" and "couple/marital" therapy and included indexed literature from the past 20 years. These studies should not be considered to be an exhaustive list, but they provide an adequate foundation for this review. Appendix A contains an overview of the substantive and methodological features of the reviewed studies.


The substantive review highlights trends in research topics within qualitative family therapy research and specifically outlines four general research categories: A single therapeutic approach (11 studies), general family therapy process (4 studies), specific client populations (4 studies), and supervision and professional issues (5 studies). Qualitative family therapy researchers have focused primarily on process and outcome of a single approach to therapy. The majority of qualitative studies on a specific approach have considered postmodern therapies: reflecting teams (4 studies), narrative/constructivist (3 studies), solution-focused (2 studies), and collaborative language systems (1 study). The research by Newfield, Joanning, Kuehl, and Quinn (1991; also see Kuehl, Newfield, & Joanning, 1990) is the only notable exception with its focus on structural-strategic family therapy. Investigating a broader range of family therapy theories would provide an interesting foundation for comparison and dialogue.

Although published qualitative research in family therapy emphasizes one specific therapeutic approach, dissertations that are indexed as "qualitative" or "ethnographic" family therapy research in Dissertation Abstracts International include proportionally more studies on specific client populations than did the published literature. Thus, there appears to be a significant amount of research on specific clinical family populations that is never published.


In describing essential characteristics of qualitative research and methodology, Moon et al. (1990) and Gale (1993) describe several dimensions in which qualitative researchers make methodological choices: Epistemological theory, methodological theory, sampling, data collection, data analysis, and reliability and validity. In this review, we evaluate the choices in each domain made by qualitative researchers in MFT. In Appendix A, we present an overview of the methodological choices made in the reviewed studies and attempt to maintain the language and distinctions of the original researchers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.