Sara Chandros Hull, Holly A. Taylor, and
Nancy E. Kass
Qualitative research methods are particularly well suited for understanding values, personal perspectives, experiences, and contextual circumstances, all of which are concerns of medical ethics. The term “qualitative research” is used broadly to refer to any nonquantified, nonstatistical method. Generally, qualitative methods involve asking openended questions of a relatively small number of informants to gather data to address particular research questions. Although qualitative data can be gathered to test hypotheses, more typically the research questions addressed by qualitative methods are discovery oriented, descriptive, and exploratory in nature. Qualitative methods expand understanding of what types of experiences, beliefs, or attitudes might exist.
This chapter provides an overview of frequently used qualitative data collection techniques and explains when it is appropriate to use each technique. Drawing upon our own qualitative research experiences, as well as published studies of qualitative research in medical ethics, we focus on several specific examples of research in medical ethics, including informed consent in research and genetic testing; medical information privacy; reproductive decision making; and end-of-life decision making. We also present a critique of qualitative research, including its advantages and limitations, to help researchers maximize the quality of their own work and readers critique research conducted by others. Finally, we review the skills and training needed by qualitative researchers and suggest additional resources for those interested in using qualitative methods for empirical research in medical ethics.
A researcher must make several decisions before embarking on an empirical study in medical ethics. These decisions can be broken down into five steps. First, the researcher must select a topic to study. Second, depending on the nature of the study topic, the researcher needs to decide whether qualitative or quantitative methods (or some combination of these methods) are warranted. Third, if a qualitative approach is selected, the researcher must decide whether to follow a traditional qualitative research approach, such as phenom-