Did you catch the anglerfish? Navigating the depths of qualitative research

Qualitative research is fantastic, isn’t it? We get to immerse ourselves in a wealth of exciting and rich data, read lots of really complicated papers and books with long words and concepts that make your head hurt, and then present our erudite (and preferably jargon filled) papers for the delectation of one or two other social scientists. The problem with all this immersion and complexity is that qualitative research papers, certainly within the health and health care arena, tend to end up as one of two things. The first, as already mentioned, is a dense read which requires a pretty dedicated person to digest,  full of important learning and deep insight, but certainly not very user friendly to NHS England types. The second, and by far the most common, presents a quick skip through a descriptive coding framework without reference to anything as scary sounding as mid-range theory: in other words, it hasn’t learned about or doesn’t have time to engage with concepts from outside of the dataset, through whose lenses greater insight would be gained. I am guilty of many of these latter types of papers (not through ignorance, I would plead): deadlines and competing demands make properly reflective qualitative analysis something I tend to jealously leave to PhD students. However, I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, and work a bit harder to consistently produce theoretically informed, but readable, qualitative health services research: papers that present a deep analysis, but in a way which is at least moderately understandable to a wider audience.

This is where the anglerfish problem arises.  You know, deep sea anglerfish are those intriguing creatures that live in the midnight zone (or bathyal zone, jargon fans) – some of the darkest depths of the ocean. You need to have got really far down to see one of these guys. And, having found one, you’d be pretty excited at seeing the fella, and want to tell everyone all about it. I’m working on a couple of qualitative papers with colleagues at the moment, where our first draft proudly presented the anglerfish we had caught down in the deepest reaches of our data. Look everyone! It’s really obscure, and we want to tell you all about it in our paper! The problem is, most people are rather puzzled by the anglerfish being served up to them unexpectedly and out of context: they haven’t done the journey through the twilight zone and on into the murky deep of the data with you. And, if you are trying to present qualitative research to a less than niche audience, you need to think really hard about what it necessary to say, and what isn’t.

So here’s the thing: often, the anglerfish needs to be left where you found him. You know he is there, and well done for reaching as far as you can go with your analysis. But the greatest qualitative papers tell a simple, and streamlined, story. That’s not to say they hide or alter the truth of their analysis, of course they don’t. But building on that inside-out-and-back-to-front knowledge of their data (you know, when you get to the stage where you can quote endless reams from your interviews or fieldnotes), they serve up the core findings and leave the overly complex details behind. So, go on, be brave. It’s hard to realise that 90% of your analysis might not make the final cut – but what you do present will be the better for it. My new motto: find the anglerfish, but only talk about the sharks*. They’re pretty exciting too you know.

* OK, so goblin sharks live in the midnight zone. So do Velvetbelly Lanternsharks, and a few others. But most sharks live in sunnier waters…and they sounded a bit more interesting than phytoplankton.

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  • The Cambridge Centre for Health Services Research (CCHSR) is a thriving collaboration between the University of Cambridge and RAND Europe. We aim to inform health policy and practice by conducting research and evaluation studies of organisation and delivery of healthcare, including safety, effectiveness, efficiency and patient experience.