Chapter 26: Rigour

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the concepts of rigour and trustworthiness in qualitative research.
  • Describe strategies for dependability, credibility, confirmability and transferability in qualitative research.
  • Define reflexivity and describe types of reflexivity


What is rigour?

In qualitative research, rigour, or trustworthiness, refers to how researchers demonstrate the quality of their research.1, 2 Rigour is an umbrella term for several strategies and approaches that recognise the influence on qualitative research by multiple realities; for example, of the researcher during data collection and analysis, and of the participant. The research process is shaped by multiple elements, including research skills, the social and research environment and the community setting.2

Research is considered rigorous or trustworthy when members of the research community are confident in the study’s methods, the data and its interpretation.3 As mentioned in Chapters 1 and 2, quantitative and qualitative research are founded on different research paradigms and, hence, quality in research cannot be addressed in the same way for both types of research studies. Table 26.1 provides a comparison overview of the approaches of quantitative and qualitative research in ensuring quality in research.

Table 26.1: Comparison of quantitative and qualitative approaches to ensuring quality in research

Qualitative research - Concept Qualitative research - Definition Quantitative research - concept Quantitative research - Definition
Dependability Consistency in the research and the ability for another researcher to achieve the same results with the same research process. Dependability is demonstrated through detailing the changes and context of the research setting. This includes any changes that may occur in the setting, and description and explanation of how these changes may have affected the research process.3 Reliability The extent to which results are consistent over time and an accurate representation of the study population and an assessment of whether the results of a study can be reproduced under a similar methodology.4,5
Credibility Confidence in the truth of the findings.3 Validity An assessment of whether the research measures what it was meant to measure, or how truthful the results are.4,5
Confirmability The extent by which the findings of a study are shaped by the respondents and not research bias, motivation or interest.3 Objectivity Strategies to reduce bias in research.1
Transferability Provides sufficient information about the context and process of the research to enable another person to determine if their context is similar and therefore the findings can be applied to the setting.6 Generalisability The extent to which the findings from the research sample can be applied to the broader population.7
Authenticity Demonstrates the range of participant realities, and provides rich and detailed descriptions of these realities, using quotes and narratives.3

Below is an overview of the main approaches to rigour in qualitative research. For each of the approaches, examples of how rigour was demonstrated are provided from the author’s PhD thesis.

Approaches to dependability

Dependability requires the researcher to provide an account of changes to the research process and setting.3 The main approach to dependability is an audit trail.

  • Audit trail – the researcher records or takes notes on the conduct of the research and the process of reaching conclusions from the data. The audit trail includes information on the data collection and data analysis, including decision-making and interpretations of the data that influence the study’s results.8,9

The interview questions for this study evolved as the study progressed, and accordingly, the process was iterative. I spent 12 months collecting data, and as my understanding and responsiveness to my participants and to the culture and ethos of the various churches developed, so did my line of questioning. For example, in the early interviews for phase 2, I included questions regarding the qualifications a church leader might look for in hiring someone to undertake health promotion activities. This question was dropped after the first couple of interviews, as it was clear that church leaders did not necessarily view their activities as health promoting and therefore did not perceive the relevance of this question. By ‘being church’, they were health promoting, and therefore activities that were health promoting were not easily separated from other activities that were part of the core mission of the church10(pp93–4)

Approaches to credibility

Credibility requires the researcher to demonstrate the truth or confidence in the findings. The main approaches to credibility include triangulation, prolonged engagement, persistent observation, negative case analysis and member checking.3

  • Triangulation – the assembly of data and interpretations from multiple methods (methods triangulation), researchers (research triangulation), theory (theory triangulation) and data sources (different participant groups).9 Refer to Chapter 28 for a detailed discussion of this process.
  • Prolonged engagement – the requirement for researchers to spend sufficient time with participants and/or within the research context to familiarise them with the research setting, to build trust and rapport with participants and to recognise and correct any misinformation.9

Prolonged engagement with churches was also achieved through the case study phase as the ten case study churches were involved in more than one phase of data collection. These ten churches were the case studies in which significant time was spent conducting interviews and focus groups, and attending activities and programs. Subsequently, there were many instances where I interacted with the same people on more than one occasion, thereby facilitating the development of interactive and deeper relationships with participants10 (pp.94–5)

  • Persistent observation – the identification of characteristics and elements that are most relevant to the problem or issue under study, and upon which the research will focus in detail.9

In the following chapters, I present my analysis of the world of churches in which I was immersed as I conducted fieldwork. I describe the processes of church practice and action, and explore how this can be conceptualised into health promotion action10 (p97)

  • Negative case analysis – the process of finding and discussing data that contradicts the study’s main findings. Negative case analysis demonstrates that nuance and granularity in perspectives of both shared and divergent opinions have been examined, enhancing the quality of the interpretation of the data.

Although I did not use negative case selection, the Catholic churches in this study acted as examples of the ‘low engagement’10 (p97)

  • Member checking – the presentation of data analysis, interpretations and conclusions of the research to members of the participant groups. This enables participants or people with shared identity with the participants to provide their perspectives on the research.9

Throughout my candidature – during data collection and analysis, and in the construction of my results chapters – I engaged with a number of Christians, both paid church staff members and volunteers, to test my thoughts and concepts. These people were not participants in the study, but they were embedded in the cultural and social context of churches in Victoria. They were able to challenge and also affirm my thinking and so contributed to a process of member checking10(p96)

Approaches to confirmability

Confirmability is demonstrated by grounding the results in the data from participants.3 This can be achieved through the use of quotes, specifying the number of participants and data sources and providing details of the data collection.

  • Quotes from participants are used to demonstrate that the themes are generated from the data. The results section of the thesis chapters commences with a story based on the field notes or recordings, with extensive quotes from participants presented throughout.10
  • The number of participants in the study provides the context for where the data is ‘sourced’ from for the results and interpretation. Table 26.2 is reproduced with permission from the Author’s thesis and details the data sources for the project. This also contributes to establishing how triangulation across data sources and methods was achieved.
  • Details of data collection – Table 26.2 provides detailed information about the processes of data collection, including dates and locations but the duration of each research encounter was not specified.

Table 26.2 Data sources for the PhD research project of the Author.

Study phase Date Data source Data collection Participant numbers
Phase 1 - Exploration April - Oct 2009

Jan- Mar 2010

Qualitative interviews
Annual reports of funding agencies, local government councils and church affiliated organisations, strategic plans of primary care partnerships.

In-depth interviews with local church leaders and individuals from church affiliated organisations in Victoria
5 participants from local churches

5 participants from church affiliated organisations
Phase 2 - Description April - June 2010 Qualitative telephone interviews Qualitative semi-structured telephone interviews with church leaders of 25 Victorian churches 25 church ministers
Phase 3 - Case studies July - Dec 2010 Qualitative Interviews

Focus groups


Document analysis
Face-to-face qualitative in-depth interviews with the church staff and/or key volunteers of 10 case study churches.

Focus groups with church volunteers.

Direct observation of case study churches in their conduct of health promotion activities.

Annual reports and/or church newsletters
37 participants

10 focus groups

17 direct observations

12 document analyses

Approaches to transferability

To enable the transferability of qualitative research, researchers need to provide information about the context and the setting. A key approach for transferability is thick description.6

  • Thick description – detailed explanations and descriptions of the research questions are provided, including about the research setting, contextual factors and changes to the research setting.9

I chose to include the Catholic Church because it is the largest Christian group in Australia and is an example of a traditional church. The Protestant group were represented through the Uniting, Anglican Baptist and Church of Christ denominations. The Uniting Church denomination is unique to Australia and was formed in 1977 through the merging of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist denominations. The Church of Christ denomination was chosen to represent a contemporary less hierarchical denomination in comparison to the other protestant denominations. The last group, the Salvation Army, was chosen because of its high profile in social justice and social welfare, therefore offering different perspectives on the role and activities of the church in health promotion10(pp82–3)

What is reflexivity?

Reflexivity is the process in which researchers engage to explore and explain how their subjectivity (or bias) has influenced the research.12 Researchers engage in reflexive practices to ensure and demonstrate rigour, quality and, ultimately, trustworthiness in their research.13 The researcher is the instrument of data collection and data analysis, and hence awareness of what has influenced their approach and conduct of the research – and being able to articulate them – is vital in the creation of knowledge. One important element is researcher positionality (see Chapter 27), which acknowledges the characteristics, interests, beliefs and personal experiences of the researcher and how this influences the research process. Table 26.3 outlines different types of reflexivity, with examples from the author’s thesis.

Table 26.3: Types of reflexivity

Reflexivity type Examples from the author’s thesis10

Personal – reflections on the researcher's personal expectations, assumptions, biases and reactions to the research contexts, participants and data. ‘It was with hesitant steps that I entered the field for my research. I was known in some of these church communities, and my background and experience in churches was what drove me to do this research. As mentioned above, I identified as an insider to this research as I shared experiences, religious affiliation and language with the research participants. In undertaking this research, I was required to be true in what I captured and interpreted, and reflexive in acknowledging my own biases that may have coloured my approach and interpretations.’(p92)
Interpersonal – reflections on how relationships influence the research process. ‘My time in the field was peppered with statements such as “Oh, you know this person?” or “I don’t need to explain this church terminology to you.” I identified myself as an insider and by positioning myself in this way my participants treated me as someone who shared their beliefs.’ (p78)
Methodological – reflections on how decisions were made regarding the study’s methods and methodological approach, and the implications of these. ‘I sought to understand what it meant to “be church” and how this played out in health promoting practices in their local community...The church is the social context. The aim of the inquiry is to understand and re-examine the constructions that the participants and I, as the researcher, hold in relation to the local church as a setting and partner for health promotion.’
Contextual – reflections on how the research context shapes and influences the research process. ‘This experience from the field involved a shared experience of a church service, however during this process the participants and I became acutely aware of our differences in social position. I was attending my own church service afterwards and had dressed according to the middle class norms of this service. The attendees at Redgum Church of Christ were experiencing poverty and health issues and therefore their dress and manner reflected their circumstances in life. Despite being an insider in some aspects (religious background, familiarity with church culture and practices), there were social facets that were not shared with my participants including generational, socio-economic and ethnic differences.’ (p96)


The quality of qualitative research is measured through the rigour or trustworthiness of the research, demonstrated through a range of strategies in the processes of data collection, analysis, reporting and reflexivity.


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