Criteria for Quality in Qualitative Research in The Social Sciences

Criteria for Quality in Qualitative Research

Traditionally, when qualitative researchers wanted to gain inside knowledge about a government program, they had to negotiate physical access and conduct participant observation and interviews. For some topics, however, negotiating this kind of access has not always been possible, nor has it been desirable in all cases. 

Agencies such as the public police have long been wary of the potential consequences of letting qualitative researchers into their professional worlds. Even government agencies with less to hide may have concerns about ethnographic research. When access has been gained, these agencies have been known to place conditions on research design and publication rights, bar future access, and even respond to the results of the research by publicly criticizing its quality (for example, Ericson, 1981; Gusterson, 1997). 

These experiences have led qualitative researchers to develop new, investigative means of producing data in the social sciences. One of these novel research tools is the access to information (ATI) and freedom of information (FOI) request. ATI/FOI requests provide qualitative researchers the ability to access previously inaccessible sites and disclose information that may not have been accessible even if physical access was negotiated. 

ATI/FOI requests are an increasingly popular but still under-used means of producing data in the social sciences. Brown (2009: 89) expressed astonishment that so few of his British colleagues were willing or able to use ATI/FOI requests as part of their research, and we would indicate the same for our counterparts in Canada and the United States. 

More than 100 countries across the globe now possess ATI/FOI laws at federal, state, and provincial levels of government allowing citizens to make requests for insider records (Hazell et al., 2010; Kazmierski, 2011).1 Most literature on ATI/FOI takes three forms. First, there is literature based on analysis of disclosures, usually in sociology, legal studies, history, criminology and criminal justice, and political science (e.g. Greenberg, 2016; Jiwani and Krawchenko, 2014; Keen, 1999; Savage and Hyde, 2014). 

In Canada, for example, there is literature on policing, national security, corporate security, post-secondary education, and other topics that use ATI/FOI as a primary data source (e.g. Brownlee, 2015; Luscombe and Walby, 2014, 2015; Monaghan, 2015; Piché, 2012; or in the United Kingdom, see e.g. Brown, 2009; Murray, 2013). 

Second, there is work on the administrative efficacy of ATI/FOI regimes, chronicling performance by indexing and benchmarking delays, fee charges, redactions, and appeals (Hazell et al., 2010; Hazell and Worthy, 2010; Holsen, 2007; Holsen and Pasquier, 2011; Roberts, 2006, 1999; Worthy, 2013; Worthy et al., 2012). 

Third, there are legal studies of ATI/FOI laws that report on legislative changes and case law, and propose amendments (Feinberg, 2004; Halstuk and Chamberlin, 2006; Kazmierski, 2013; Relyea, 2009). While these contributions are significant, they also reveal a void in the literature on ATI/FOI: there is next to no methodological literature examining how ATI/FOI fits into trends in qualitative research, particularly current criteria for quality (e.g. Lee, 2014; Lincoln, 1995; Morse, 2015). 

A recent article by Tracy (2010) establishes unique, meaningful terms of reference for qualitative scholars to guide their research (also see Gordon and Patterson, 2013). We build on the work of Tracy (2010) by advancing standards for quality in ATI/FOI research. To do this, we differentiate criteria for quality in qualitative research from the standard social scientific criteria that are ingrained in students from their first undergraduate courses: validity, reliability, and generalizability. 

We argue these three core criteria of quantitative work are less helpful for understanding the contributions of qualitative research and ATI/FOI requests specifically. Among other things, these criteria reflect what Abbott (2001) calls ‘general linear reality,’ characterized by monotonic causality and uni-vocal meaning, making them inappropriate for qualitative research (also see Savage and Burrows, 2007). 

To replace these criteria, Tracy (2010) offers the categories of rich rigor, credibility, and resonance. She argues that qualitative research should also be judged on the worthiness of its topic, its sincerity, the significance of its contribution, its ethical commitments, and the meaningful coherence of its findings, explanations, and overall exposition. 

The purpose of these replacement criteria is to establish an agreed-upon yet flexible framework for designing and evaluating qualitative research using terms of reference that are more reflective of the interests, techniques, and history of qualitative research. In this article, we consider Tracy’s (2010) criteria for quality in light of the unique demands and outcomes of ATI/FOI research. We argue that when systematically designed and conducted, ATI/FOI research demonstrates all eight of Tracy’s criteria.


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