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True to Our Methods, True to Ourselves

Kagan, Sarah H. PhD, RN

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doi: 10.1097/NCC.0b013e3181fa2dfb
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As a qualitative methodologist and cancer nurse researcher, I read a great deal of qualitative research. As with anybody of research, some of the articles I read are better than others. The qualitative research reports addressing aspects of cancer experience receive my closest scrutiny. Among them, I have favorite articles and others that concern me. Here, I focus on my concern that, with our increased use of qualitative methods, we risk scientific credibility and advancement with sometimes insufficient attention to quality. As I detail my concerns, I hope readers of Cancer Nursing will hear a call to reflection and critical evaluation on the part of researchers, reviewers, and readers alike. We must be true to the principles of qualitative methods.

Qualitative research has long been viewed as the softer side of the hard business of health care research.1-3 Nursing is not alone in debating the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methods. I am happy to report that, although we are not alone, we seem to have surfaced the issue and advanced our discussion sooner than some disciplines such as education and public health.2,3 Although the tenor and content of the debate around qualitative and quantitative methods have shifted in the past 2 decades, it persists in conversations large and small.4,5

Two forces, one of which is likely fixed and the other modifiable, maintain the qualitative-quantitative debate. We live in a world that values positivism and the power of empirical deduction. The valuing of the quantitative paradigm and the power of deduction is unlikely to change. Nonetheless, I believe reappraisal of naturalism with commensurate value placed on inductive thought and growing interest in qualitative and-most especially-mixed methods increasingly tempers the long-standing dominance of quantitative methods. The reappraisal of qualitative methods and burgeoning interest in their contributions, alone and in combination with quantitative approaches, bode well for researchers who use these methods.

Too often knowledge and understanding gained through qualitative methods-in cancer nursing research and beyond-are squandered in poorly selected and executed methods. The most challenging mistakes are 3. First, generic qualitative description and other methods, as well, are presented with absent philosophical tenets and inattentive application. Second, researchers state that they use a particular methodology but fail to uphold the specific principles and practices of the method. Third, findings from qualitative projects are often written without any apparent guidance from the methodology and methods used. These mistakes echo the elements of epistemology, methodology, and method proposed by Carter and Little5 as a means to avoid reductionist evaluation and aim toward a balance of quality and innovation in qualitative research.

We cannot squander the descriptive and interpretive power of qualitative methods as they reveal myriad aspects of cancer experience. We must be true to ourselves to fulfill our obligation to people with cancer or those who are at risk for it, their families, their communities, and our colleagues in nursing and other disciplines. Our truth is in sophisticated knowledge and meticulous application of well-defined methodologies that suit the phenomenon under study and deliver exquisitely reported qualitative methods. Descriptions revealed will inform clinicians and guide researchers in future work. Interpretations derived will direct clinicians and researchers alike in sound engagement with individuals, families, and communities. To be true to our qualitative methods is to be true to ourselves as scientists, clinicians, educators, and advocates.


1. Porter EJ. The qualitative-quantitative dualism. J Nurs Scholarsh. 1989;21(2):98-102.
2. Clark AM. The qualitative-quantitative debate: moving from positivism and confrontation to post-positivism and reconciliation. J Adv Nurs. 1998;27(6):1242-1249.
3. Baum F. Researching public health: behind the qualitative-quantitative methodological debate. Soc Sci Med. 1995;40(4):459-468.
4. Ercikan K, Roth W-M. What good is polarizing research into qualitative and quantitative? Educ Res. 2006;35(5):14-23.
5. Carter SM, Little M. Justifying knowledge, justifying method, taking action: epistemologies, methodologies, and methods in qualitative research. Qual Health Res. 2007;17(10):1316-1328.
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