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On issues of trustworthiness in qualitative research

Randall F. Clemens

Originally published on May 03, 2011.

Trustworthiness–frequently referred to as validity and reliability–in qualitative research involves two intertwined parts: process and product. What are the strategies necessary for a researcher to conduct rigorous research? And, how does a researcher present data in order to maximize trustworthiness?

Reflexivity performs a central task to both process and product. In other words, where is the researcher situated in relation to the study, subjects, presentation, and readers? Even more, what are the researcher’s own beliefs and experiences in relation to the topic of study? For instance, if I was adopted as a child and am now studying foster care youth, should I reveal that to the youth? Should I mention it in the final text? There are few steadfast rules. The answer may be yes or no, but the point is that the researcher is constantly engaged in thought about these issues.

Because strategies to improve trustworthiness during data collection–triangulation, member checks, multiple researchers, prolonged engagement, audit trails, multiple coders, and multiple and varied interviews and observations–are so well-known, I am going to focus today on trustworthiness in writing, acknowledging that most of my points also apply to the process of research.

The author’s presence in a text varies and depends on two factors–both critical to trustworthiness. First, presentation is slave to paradigm. What you have studied and what you like explains much of your stance on writing. I was raised in the humanities and grew up in the qualitative side of social science. My mentor and fellow blogger Bill is an accomplished life historian. As such, I’ve received exposure to and training with the method. I am also particularly fond of ethnography. For me, the lived experiences of marginalized individuals are a central concern; my influences inform my views on writing and how I view the world and my place in it.

The second factor is an author’s personal style. While style certainly relates to an individual’s training and chosen discipline, the voice of an author in either a life history or ethnography can differ considerably. The narrative strategies I employ are a matter of choice, depending on the style, voice, and tone I hope to achieve.

Why are paradigm and personal style critical to issues of trustworthiness? To be rigorous, qualitative researchers have to be transparent. Where do they stand in relation to the research? What did they do during the project? And, why should the reader believe him or her? A reader should always feel as though the researcher has given him or her the time and also taken apart the watch to show the gears inside and the process involved. Research is subjective, situated, and dated. It is the researchers job to grapple with these issues during the process and presentation of research.