The Value of Qualitative Research – Understanding and Expression

by Jennifer Smith RN Australia.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a research study. I had completed a survey and was then asked if I would like to participate in an interview as part of a qualitative study on self-care. The research was about exploring the topic of self-care in nurses who work in palliative care and whether this may relate to compassion for self and compassion for others.

I love participating and supporting other nurses, especially when it comes to research, so I jumped at the chance.

The qualitative approach to research, is less about figures and results and more about the experiences and themes of the participants, with a view to establishing a broader understanding of what a group of people’s experiences are on a particular subject. The numbers of participants in qualitative research are often much smaller than with quantitative research and whilst this allows for a richer, in-depth analysis to be performed, there are some factions in science that do not value this and who consider quantitative research superior. Both are valid ways of performing research and are suited to address different research questions and fields of study.

The questions asked were quite broad about how I self-care, how it affects how I am at work, the strategies I use, the things that get in the way of me self-caring and whether or not I had a ‘self-care plan’ and whether a plan is beneficial (this is something that is talked about a lot in palliative care circles). The questions were open so I could really discuss and explore how self-care supports me both personally and most definitely professionally.

What surprised me about being a participant was how profound the experience of being interviewed was.

It really felt like I was having a conversation with an old friend. Even though there were set questions, the flow of our conversation was a very natural one, where each question asked supported me to express more deeply, so that the researcher truly understood what was being said.

He would often repeat back things that I had said in his own words, to make sure he understood what I had said, thus expanding on what I had expressed, to which I was then able to add further depth.

I also got a real sense of his genuineness and care in exploring this topic by how open his questions were. He really wanted to get a thorough understanding from the interview and receive as much of my experiences as possible.

What was to be a 45 minute interview, turned into 90 minutes. We were both enjoying the conversation and connection so much. Who would have thought that being a research subject could be such fun!

What felt so exquisite about my involvement was that through being deeply heard and understood, I could feel the value in my own expression and that what I had to express was immensely important, not because it was better that anyone else’s, but because it was my expression and I am a part of the whole expression of nursing.

I could also feel that the researcher’s part was equally important, supporting me (and no doubt all of the other participants) along the way with dedication, dotting his I’s and crossing his T’s. His willingness to understand and confirm me and what I was sharing was deeply healing.

Reflecting on my own self-care in this way, with another was a powerful experience. As I spoke I was appreciating the level of changes that I had made in my own life, through self-care and how it had brought so much to my life. And it’s the super simple things like going to bed when my body is ready at the end of the day, often before 9pm; treating myself gently, giving myself plenty of time to organise myself for my day without having to rush or hurry. Basically everything came down to listening to what my body was communicating. The other powerful thing about this is what self-care has brought to my work and the patients and families in my care. I genuinely enjoy my work, more so than ever and I know what I bring to patients and their families is a reflection of the care that I have shown myself.

This experience got me wondering about research and why this type of research is not highly valued by some in the scientific community. There are obvious concerns about bias, but is that really all that is at play here? There is potential for bias in all research, and the key is to be aware of the biases and declare them. Even with the most ‘objective’ research, the observations are made by people, who are capable of making mistakes and actively or subconsciously bringing bias to their findings. These same scientists can look with scorn on so-called ‘subjective’ research, in denial of the fact that all research has subjectivity at its heart.

Is there in reality any more bias with a relationship between people based on a true foundation of understanding and an intention to see the bigger picture? Is there potentially more bias when we see things from a limited and narrow view and therefore do not consider the whole picture? I feel there is.

Perhaps if we approached research from the healing opportunities (healing in the broadest meaning of the word), that are potentially available to both participants and researchers equally, rather than being driven for a result (whether it be finding a cure, getting a name or reputation or financial gain), research would be more meaningful to everyone in the community and may in fact lead us to developing a greater understanding of ourselves and each other.

And maybe if we were more open to the ‘subjective’ evidence of real people with real experiences, our research would deliver understandings that actually served us all.


Read more:

  1. How true service begins with caring for self 
  2. Self-care at work makes sense – why is it not common practice? 


563 thoughts on “The Value of Qualitative Research – Understanding and Expression

  1. The subjective experience of people is their science, their life their laboratory and extremely valid, even if established science does not recognise it yet; human beings are not robots or cage animals after all – unless the individual chooses to not have a voice and that they don’t count. Your experience of this interview based on qualitative research proves how much people crave being able to express and equally being heard.

  2. Bias only occurs when we deviate from truth. In order to have accurate research, we do not need to enforce purely clinical double blind placebo trials, we need simply as humans re-learn how to express the truth that we are so inherently made up of and communicate this in full from heart to heart. There is a vast intelligence here we have not yet begun to tap into…

  3. “And maybe if we were more open to the ‘subjective’ evidence of real people with real experiences, our research would deliver understandings that actually served us all.” Absolutely – makes perfect sense to me!

  4. I love what you have shared here Jennifer; expressing in full and being heard, what a valuable experience and blessing for you both;
    “What felt so exquisite about my involvement was that through being deeply heard and understood, I could feel the value in my own expression and that what I had to express was immensely important”.

  5. Lovely, you got to appreciate your growth too, ‘As I spoke I was appreciating the level of changes that I had made in my own life, through self-care and how it had brought so much to my life.’

  6. Sometimes it’s not until we’re made to stop and reflect on the choices we’re making that we truly appreciate them, and how this supports not just us but our whole work places and communities. As I’ve been inspired by others to change my life, I know others have been inspired by me. The key to building on this is continuing to deepen our appreciation.

  7. From my understanding quantitative research can help to establish a correlation and the larger the better to be able to have confidence in it, but so often this misses the why? As an example there is a recent study that says you are 12% more likely to get dementia if you live within 100 metres of a busy road. OK but why? Is it the pollution? Are houses cheaper there so its poverty? Is it noise and the constant assault on the ears? Is it causal, or is there another reason for the relationship such as the person’s choices. That to me comes from the qualitative research.

    1. I agree Simon, it is simple to prove that correlations can be totally meaningless and science’s dependency on them at the expense of all else is why we have so much contradictory science i.e. one study says one thing whilst another equally esteemed scientific study says the opposite. Unless science starts to see this and address it, its reputation which has already greatly dropped will be in tatters.

  8. A beautiful example of an interview where the participants truly connect to share a deepening understanding of the subject being discussed.

  9. We are all living experiments and things can change at any moment based on our choices. Science lives within us not just as a job or a subject.

  10. “He would often repeat back things that I had said in his own words, to make sure he understood what I had said, thus expanding on what I had expressed, to which I was then able to add further depth.” This is a two-way give and give back – real exploration within the parameters of research study.

  11. I love the idea of using research not to get some end result, fit a box we want but in a open and healing way where a relationship is built up between the researcher and the participant then there is no doubt much more gold would come out of the research.

  12. I realised whilst reading this why I do not enjoy participating in research surveys. In all the ones that I have participated in, I could feel a controlling and a constraining in the questions and a manipulation to get me to limit my contribution to the terms that someone else had predefined. The so called scientific approach that only has regard for the quantitive approach and writes off the qualitative one is deeply flawed and this will one day be globally accepted.

  13. Quantitative research is not all that it has been trumped up to be – what you share about qualitative research is very inspiring and empowering in the sense that everybody is their own scientist. And I love your conclusion: “And maybe if we were more open to the ‘subjective’ evidence of real people with real experiences, our research would deliver understandings that actually served us all.”

  14. I have been collecting some survey responses lately. The part that I relish reading is not what number they have circled but the words. I get a real sense of what is going on for that person, and people being social creatures often have common themes in our lives. Without the qualitative data, the numbers feel incomplete and I am left with more questions that they answer.

  15. It is about people in the end and we are not computers and can not be condensed into a single number or a single answer. That is why I sense talking with people openly as you shared can bring us so much more wisdom.

  16. How wonderful that you were “deeply heard and understood” by this man, that is all any of us want, but rarely get, in this fast paced world of ours. I can feel that the respect given to you allowed you to feel that you could open up and share all that you felt to share, with nothing held back. And I am sure that he also learned so much from the experience.

  17. It is such a beautiful experience to be truly heard and an interview such as this is never one sided. There is so much learning to be experienced when two people exchange on a heart level and the ripple effects flow on.

  18. Learning requires us to be humble, stay open and observe what is unfolded in front of us. Yet these are often missing when we adopt a position of authority about the subject and attempt to control the process. In effect we end up selecting and limiting what we see. Unfortunately a lot of research and many areas of science have been trapped into such a reductionism. It is a delight to read this blog about how easily we could be playing it completely differently.

  19. Reflection – confirming how we made the choices self-care is deeply supportive. Often I know I have made choices that do support me but I have not taken the next step which is to deeply appreciate the choices and build an even deeper, stronger loving foundation.

  20. Probably not your intention but I now finally understand the difference between what qualitative and quantitative research is about – thanks Jen!

  21. The approach to research suggested here: “ if we approached research from the healing opportunities, that are potentially available to both participants and researchers equally, rather than being driven for a result” is in fact the true way forward to deepening our wisdom and understanding. Anything less than this will have us go round and round the same grooves that we have already laid down, proving and confirming the thoughts and patterns we have already been running with.

  22. There has to be value in this type of qualitative research from what you shared Jennifer, because the level of detail you were clearly able to go into, your lived experience and resulting awareness of the topic in relation to real life, makes what you share in this way in so many ways more relevant than something statistical and broad. If I was to read something qualitative vs something quantitative as a lay person, interested in what the research means for me, I am likely to get far more from the former, than the latter.

  23. Subjective evidence is indeed not to be discounted, and the challenge of many natural therapies and other healing methods is that we cannot do large trials on them. They have recently been looking at ‘high evidence’ trials for natural medicine with a N = 1 approach which is an interesting development. I don’t have a full understand yet of how this works, but apparently this can potentially support an evidence based approach for natural medicine that does not discount the data from individual cases.

    1. That does sound interesting. N refers to the number of subjects (participants) in a study, so N=1 indicates there is just one participant in a study – typically, quantitative research will aim for much, much larger numbers of participants wherever possible. So this indicates a case study approach as you say, which feels to be more in alignment with the depth offered by qualitative research. This would be a great step forward for research into modalities that are otherwise often dismissed by the medical community, and a great step away from the evidence-based model that dominates much of research.

  24. I’m so with you on this Jennifer! As a qualitative researcher I too truly value this form of study. It’s rich, insightful and as you say has the potential to offer healing – to the participant, the researcher and ultimately to those who read it. It’s about people and their experiences. This is not to say quantitative research cannot offer the same opportunities, but I do very much appreciate the qualitative valuing of anecdotal rather than purely scientific evidence.

  25. In some of my research into workplace health and wellbeing and complementary-to-medicine modalities many of the journal articles I came across were produced by, or involved, members of the nursing community. It seems that, in terms of the medical community overall, nurses are at the forefront of understanding the importance of self-care – perhaps they get to see the end results of a lack of self-care, and or feel it for themselves. Plus, it feels like they are far less hamstrung than say doctors when it comes to feeling free to have these kinds of conversations, to admit that self-care matters. That the study mentioned here is occurring is further evidence of this.

  26. The way research is usually done is to extract information that helps the researcher to make the case about something. Conversations, if they happen to take place are almost always unidirectional. The ‘stock’ of knowledge/information the person being interviewed has is what it is. The key is to get it out. In this blog, we are presented with a different way to do research, one that engages the interviewed in such a way that it helps the person to go deeper with the topic and hence to be able to share more about the topic at hand with the rest of the world. This is the future!

  27. More than the actual activities that we may do to self care is the importance of the quality we move and hold are selves in life. If we don’t react to life so much or absorb other’s emotions and situations, self care becomes so much easier.

  28. It is an interesting point you raise Jennifer, when our intention is to truly understand bias can perhaps be reduced because a more inclusive and spherical in nature.

  29. Qualitative research gives permission for people to provide the evidence of what is and is not true based on their personal experience. If it is not biased, controlled or corrupted, this type of research can provide very powerful findings, that otherwise may not be able to be proved by current scientific testing.

  30. This kind of recording can be done by many people and there are many who have interesting or even remarkable medical histories to record.

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