Journal of Professional Nursing

From experience to definition: Addressing the question ‘What is qualitative research?’ 

Liz Smythe, RN, RM, PhD Associate Professor, School of Nursing, Faculty of Health & Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology 
Lynne S. Giddings, RN, RM, PhD Associate Professor, School of Midwifery, Faculty of Health & Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology  

Reference:  Smythe, L., & Giddings, L. S. (2007). From experience to definition: Addressing the question ‘What is qualitative research?’ Nursing Praxis in New Zealand, 23(1), 37-57.


Most health professionals today have heard of ‘qualitative research’ but many remain confused as to what it is and how to go about doing it. In this paper, two experienced qualitative researchers become engaged in conversation exploring the question ‘what is qualitative research?’ Lynne Giddings and Liz Smythe are Associate Professors in the Faculty of Health & Environmental Sciences at the Auckland University of Technology. They engage a reader in exploring issues such as: What might draw you to qualitative research? How does qualitative research make a difference to practice? How can reading a qualitative research article inform practice? From a qualitative perspective, what is ‘truth’? How many participants? What happens to the data? What about the bias of the researcher? Can qualitative findings be trusted? Stories and exemplars are used to highlight the processes and issues involved in undertaking a qualitative research study. 

Qualitative research, qualitative interviewing, purposive sampling, trustworthiness, ethical considerations, transferability

It is tempting to begin this paper with a ‘definition’ of qualitative research, words that can be parroted back and forth to indicate knowledge. Yet, that goes against the spirit of this venture of sharing our understandings of qualitative research with you. Qualitative research always seeks to find the issue of concern in its everyday context, and by means of interviews and/or observations and/ or accessing text, hear the voices of those closely involved. We have decided to ‘be qualitative’ in our approach to the question of ‘what is qualitative research?’ The experienced researchers most accessible to us were ourselves so we interviewed each other. You will notice that our ‘speaking aloud thoughts’ has a different style and tone from standard academic writing. We argue that academia can distance writing from everyday, conversational chat, yet it is in the ‘everyday’ that all of us live as people, as students, as health professionals, and as researchers. Qualitative research strives to uncover the understanding that already exists in people’s experience (that sounds like a definition!) This paper is structured around a series of key questions that we imagine anyone new to health research might want to ask about qualitative research. You will find the answers are not as crisp and definitive as one would expect in a paper on quantitative research, for such is the nature of qualitative thinking and understanding. We present ‘raw’ data, and then in the nature of qualitative inquiry, offer interpretive insights.

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