The reliability of qualitative research

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 11.46.10 am

Reliability is a concept that refers to producing consistent results time after time. If you commission a qualitative research or evaluation project, how can you be sure it is reliable? Don’t you need statistics to make research reliable? No. Because, although the term ‘reliability’ is usually applied as a concept for testing or evaluating quantitative research, the idea is also used in all kinds of research. If a qualitative research project is reliable, it will help you understand a situation clearly that would otherwise be confusing.

Qualitative research is about discussion, about delving into topics in depth, getting beneath the surface. It’s not a precise science. However, clients would not commission qualitative studies if there was no sense that the results would be reliable, that they could make confident decisions based on the results. So, how can qualitative research be conducted with reliability?
There are a range of industry standards that should be adhered to to ensure that qualitative research will provide reliable results.

The project is credible

One of the key criteria is that of internal validity, in which they seek to ensure that their study measures or tests what is actually intended. A key question to ask yourself is ‘How congruent are the findings with reality?’ A credible project is one that adopts established research methods, such as random sampling, a range of different research methods, iterative questioning and frequent client debriefing.

The research is transferable

This is the extent to which the findings of one study can be applied to other situations. Since the findings of a qualitative project are specific to a small number of particular individuals and environments, it is impossible to demonstrate that the findings are applicable to other situations and populations. However, it is important to consider the findings of the qualitative study within the broader context of other people and settings, and whether similar projects and methods conducted in different environments would be of value.

The process is dependable

For qualitative research to be dependable, the processes within the study should be reported in detail, thereby enabling a future researcher or evaluator to repeat the work, if not necessarily gain the same result. Thus, the research design may be viewed as a ‘prototype model.’

The findings can be confirmed

The extent to which qualitative findings can be confirmed is challenging, as it is difficult ensuring objectivity to qualitative research. But steps must be taken to help ensure as far as possible that the work’s findings are the result of experiences and ideas of the informants, and that evaluation findings are arrived at by considering solid evidence.

It is important for qualitative researchers and evaluators to ensure their work is methodologically sound and that clients can rely on the findings. If the credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability aspects of the research are taken into account, qualitative research should be as reliable as a dependable, loyal pooch.


*The content of this blog was originally sourced from Lincoln and Guba’s Evaluative Criteria. Lincoln, YS. and Guba, EG (1985), Naturalistic Inquiry, Newbury Park, CA. Sage Publications.


Back to All Posts