Qualitative Pluralism Event 


Employing and Applying Pluralistic Qualitative Research (PQR)

When, Why and How?


Wednesday 13th December 2017


Middlesex University, London

This free one day event is targeted at postgraduate Psychology students & ECRs interested in qualitative approaches and pluralism in qualitative research.

The workshop aims to equip psychology postgraduates and ECRs with knowledge and practice in using and teaching pluralistic approaches to qualitative research. The event intends to facilitate the exchange of ideas and experiences of those who implement qualitative methods within their research, and aims to address some of the benefits and challenges of applying a pluralistic approach to qualitative research.



Event will feature:

¨ Oral and poster presentations

¨ One-to-one surgeries

¨ Discussion panel

¨ Discussion groups

¨ Networking

¨ Prizes for best poster

Invited speakers:

¨ Dr Nollaig Frost, a key founder of PQR

¨ Prof Adrian Coyle, Kingston University

¨ Dr Martin Willis, University of East London


Poster abstract:

If you would like to present a poster on your research using qualitative or pluralistic methods, please send your 250 word abstract to Deborah Rodriguez: d.rodriguez@mdx.ac.uk

Abstract deadline 31st October 2017


See full poster here: Qualitative Pluralism Event

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Reflections on an introductory PQR workshop

Welcome to the new academic year! To launch it in style we have two guest blogs, contributed by attendees at a Workshop held at Warwick University in June. The Workshop introduced researchers of different disciplines within Health Sciences to the theory and use of pluralistic qualitative research. The first provides a perspective on the value of pluralism from Andrew Morris, a Specialist Renal Dietician, and the second from the perspective of a Senior Fellow of Nursing Research, Stephanie Tierney. (See Stephanie’s comment about the Workshop at the end of her blog).

Andrew’s blog reflects on how the flexibility of pluralistic approaches can be used in research to both improve healthcare service delivery and to enable better understanding of how patient engagement changes with personal, social and medical circumstances.  He highlights the importance of this in aiming to meet the Department of Health’s guidelines that include patient experiences of engagement as an evaluation measure for clinicians (DoH, 2011). Drawing on his own research, Andrew identifies points at which the introduction of an additional qualitative method can enable greater understanding of the different types of patient engagement, and the impact of these on the medical outcomes of their treatments.

Stephanie’s blog brings a sombre note by reminding us that the use of pluralism requires a range of resources, from the practical – more time and support, to the psychological- the ability to tolerate ‘messiness’ in research.  Pluralistic research trajectories often twist and turn as they seek to follow and find meanings in data from different perspectives. Frequently pluralistic studies raise as many questions as answers as the research progresses.  Pluralistic researchers are challenged to make decisions about which avenues of inquiry to follow, selecting the most appropriate methods, and how best to stay close to the research focus when employing them. Just as pluralistic research studies require a range of resources, so do pluralistic researchers: the resource to determine how to conduct the study meaningfully, the resource to consider ‘If it means this then how can it also mean that?’, and the resource to write up the research effectively.

Do take a look also at the Events page which Deborah as recently updated, and as ever, do get in touch with any ideas for a Guest Blog or Blogger, books to review, and suggestions for new research or events that you think pluralistic researchers will be interested in.

I hope you enjoy Andrew’s and Stephanie’s blogs.


Dietetic Qualitative Research: Is it time to add a pinch of pluralism to the recipe?

Reflections on a pluralism workshop

As a clinical dietitian and dietetics researcher interested in qualitative approaches, my invitation to Deborah Biggerstaff’s Warwick Medical School pluralism workshop certainly stirred my appetite. A review of current knowledge suggested pluralism in dietetics was an underutilised ingredient. Guidance on using qualitative methods in nutritional research emphasises the complexity and need to consider epistemology, ontology and methodology (Swift & Taylor, 2010).  Guidance on the practical issues born from these recommendations is however still lacking for novice researchers. For example, after considering the epistemological/ontological approach and justifying this to funders, what do I do with the parallel analyses I can see emerging from data when my particular philosophical perspective does not accommodate the alternatives? What Nollaig Frost and Deborah Rodriguez (guest presenters) offered was a shift in the way we, as clinicians, could formally research and represent clinical service delivery.

Clinical dietetic research takes place in the context of the structural policies of UK health service delivery, which remains inadequate in delivering effective care (Francis, 2010). This has clear implications for dietetic research proposals, requiring relevant methodology to answer clinically related questions. For example, ‘How do patients experience renal dietetics?’ and ‘What implications does this have for delivery?’  The introduction of patient experiences of engagement as an evaluation measure was welcomed by clinicians as a way to understand patients’ experiences of engaging with and receiving care (DH, 2011). However these tools may not result in practical service delivery solutions that are meaningful to service users and their families. Likert tools with free text ‘qualitative’ boxes may not allow enough insight into a person’s experience, and it is this experience which is pivotal in understanding and providing an effective patient centred service (Ritchie et al, 2013). Other ways of exploring service delivery need to be explored.

Rejecting a likert statistical analysis approach, my thematic framework analysis uncovered two types of engagement style within the dietitian–patient relationship: sham and genuine engagement. Genuine engagement seemed to facilitate positive patient outcomes whereas sham engagement (merely a masquerade) left patients less pleased with their clinical outcomes (Morris et al., 2013). I performed an in-depth evaluation which went beyond statistical outcome measures, revealing levels of service satisfaction with implications for the way in which future services are delivered. However, the transcripts also told another story, a story of both types of engagement at different transition points within an individual’s health journey, and within changing social, personal and medical journeys. The reality seemed to be less clear cut than it had first appeared – which left me with two dilemmas. Firstly, should I re-analyse to take into account these emerging perspectives using a different methodology? Secondly – what would the funders say when they peer-reviewed my output against evidence-based checklists for methodological quality.

Incorporating pluralism would have accommodated a change halfway through this analysis to better represent people’s changing social and medical situations (dietary recommendations and medical plans can change with declining renal function). A narrative analysis might have captured finely nuanced events and might have offered further insight into these engagement experiences. It appears that the conflict created by promoting evaluation of patient engagement, while using  methods that clinicians feel obliged to use to satisfy funders (reconciled as a ‘best fit’), may present challenges to clinicians who are familiar with the evidence-based research pathway (Sackett et al., 2003).

I would argue, after fully digesting the information in the workshop, that an alternative pathway is one worth venturing down. Challenging my own perceptions, and offering the flexibility to do what is required to understand service delivery,  may not only facilitate an improvement in patient services, but, importantly, may also demonstrate best practice to fellow clinicians and begin to build the (much needed in my opinion) pluralism evidence base in dietetics. I feel there is a need to keep up-to-date with qualitative techniques that are not part of the mainstream research agenda and perhaps this begins by adding a new section to the dietetic research recipe book – the smorgasbord approach that pluralism brings to the table.

Andrew Morris

Specialist Renal Dietitian, University Hospital Coventry, UK


Department of Health (DH) (2011). ‘What matters to patients?’ Developing the evidence base for measuring and improving patient experience. London: Department of Health.

Francis, R. (2010). Independent Inquiry into care provided by Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust January 2005-March 2009. Volume 1. London: Department of Health.

Morris, A., Liles, C., and Roskell, C. (2014). Why are patients disappearing from dietetic services? British Journal of Renal Medicine. 19: 30–31.

Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W. M. C., Gray, J. A. M., et al. (2003). Evidence-based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. British Medical Journal, 312: 169–171.

Swift, J. A., and Victoria, T. (2010). Qualitative research in nutrition and dietetics: getting started. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 23: 559-566.

Taking a leap into the multiple and (potentially) messy: Reflections on an introductory pluralism workshop

Embarking upon an introductory workshop on pluralism at the end of June, I was prompted to reflect upon a feeling I often have when completing a study – is there something more here that has not been captured, even though a rigorous analysis has been conducted? Pluralism, it seems, could serve a role in addressing such disquiet and, by applying more than one qualitative method to data, help overcome any assumptions held about a topic and what can be known about it. Pluralism acknowledges that lived experience and the social world are complex and highlights how phenomena being studied are not detached and self-contained, but are shaped or constructed by socio-historical and cultural factors. It emphasises that the lens through which one considers a dataset will constrain what comes out. This brought to mind, whilst in the workshop, the idea of hearing a song and, at a certain time, listening mainly to the lyrics, whereas on another occasion, focusing on the baseline; this would bring something new to how the song is perceived and allow for a fuller appreciation of it.

As someone relatively new to pluralism, this broader approach to engaging with data was enlightening and thought provoking. However, although pluralism may surmount the limits of using a single method, and overcome that sense of not telling the whole story, opening data up to other approaches can require extra time and skills to ensure it is done in a rigorous manner. So, at a practical level, we learnt that it is essential to have the right team (or support if doing this for a PhD). Given the extra investment pluralism may entail, it is essential to be transparent about the value of what is planned. It calls for a degree of reflexivity, being clear why specific methods have been selected and how they will be used in relation to the research question. Another challenge raised in the workshop was being able to tolerate messiness. Pluralism does not strive towards triangulation, but to interpret data from different angles. It allows for contradictions because it explores multiple perspectives. Therefore, there may be no neat ending. This is something that I will have to manage when I conduct my first pluralistic study – a possible theme for another blog post, once I have undertaken this task?

“I really enjoyed this thought-provoking session. It introduced me to the basics of pluralism and allowed me to take some time to reflect on how it might apply to my own research. I have several references that I intend to follow-up and read to consolidate my learning.”

Stephanie Tierney

Royal College of Nursing Research Institute, University of Warwick

Guest blogger biographies

Andrew Morris is a clinical dietitian at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust. His research interests focus on clinical nutrition and the nutritional related consequences of kidney disease from a nutritional anthropological perspective. His current study explores the cultural-environmental influences on food choice in kidney disease by utilising qualitative methodology; specifically photo-elicitation.

Andrew has a first class degree in dietetics, a Masters in Research and received numerous grants from the National Institute of Health Research, UK.

Stephanie Tierney works as a Senior Research Fellow in Compassionate Care at the Royal College of Nursing Research Institute (University of Warwick). She has an interest in understanding people’s experiences of receiving and delivering treatment and services, focusing particularly on long-term conditions. She has run several studies using a range of methods: questionnaires with people who have diabetes, focus groups with health professionals, qualitative interviews with people who have cystic fibrosis, heart failure or an eating disorder, creative techniques with children who have a cleft palate. She has also conducted several systematic reviews/meta-syntheses.





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Short Update June 2016 – Nollaig Frost

Just a short update to draw your attention to Part 2 of Edith Steffen’s blog which we posted at the end of last week. Your email notification may have had a strange configuration in the Subject line so in case you deleted it thinking it was spam please do follow this link for Part 1 and this link for Part 2 to read the blog. We would be delighted to hear your comments on Edith’s contribution.

We are always keen to welcome guest bloggers to the NPQR site so if you have a pluralism-related issue or experience that you would like to share please do let Deborah or me know on d.rodriguez@mdx.ac.uk or n.frost@mdx.ac.uk to discuss.

Next week we shall be posting a review of Charmaz, K., & McMullen, L. M. (2011). Five ways of doing qualitative analysis: Phenomenological psychology, grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative research, and intuitive inquiry. Guilford Press. from Isabelle Butcher, a Research Assistant at Nottingham Trent University.  Do let us know if you would like to review a book for NPQR. Suggestions welcome, or we can recommend a book for you.

And finally, it is not too late to sign up to the Kingston University Summer School on Doing and Communicating Qualitative Research, starting on 4 July. In its second successful year, this week long programme of workshops delivered by experts in a wide range of qualitative methods offers opportunities to learn, share and develop research experience in a welcoming and productive environment.  Sign up here.


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Guest blog by Edith Steffen – A journey of discovering, using and deepening interpretative pluralism in qualitative research of sensitive, controversial and complex experiences. Part 2.

Taking pluralism further: A pluralistic family case study

When it came to writing up for publication, I decided to focus on the experiential themes in the first journal article coming out of this research (Steffen & Coyle, 2011), as the main research aim had been to better understand sense of presence from the perspective of those who have experienced it. To do full justice to the subjective meanings of perceivers, I felt I needed to give undivided attention and space to the participants’ voices as a priority, while considering a separate paper with a focus on the discursive themes. This highlights a particular challenge of pluralistic research, namely that of fitting a multi-perspectival analysis into a journal-length article, something I aimed to do with my second empirical project in which I tried to take the pluralistic stance a little bit further.

My second inquiry concerned family meaning-making around sense of presence experiences, and I conducted my research in a bereaved family in which at least one member had had such an experience (Steffen & Coyle, in press). I spent over six months regularly visiting the family, conducting two family interviews and a number of individual interviews, and I used participant observation as I joined in with family activities that were of significance with regard to the deceased. The interview data constituted the primary data source, and within a broader thematic analysis framework, I used first a phenomenological perspective to analyse the entire data set, followed by a social constructionist reading of the interview data. The two perspectives could complement each other as well as point to different aspects of the phenomenon. For example, one of the family members, who had had sense of presence experiences, said about one such incident:

‘He said clearly my name, and it was, it’s his voice.’

From a phenomenological perspective, the emphasis on the veridicality of the experience can be noted and how perceptually strong and genuine this must have felt, the sense of recognition, indicating the unmistakable voice of the deceased, and the interpersonal import of this experience when the deceased loved one addresses the grieving person by name. Looking at the same sentence discursively, we may note a curious shift from the past tense to the present tense (‘it was, it’s his voice’), not just suggesting an ongoing reality of the voice but emphasising its facticity, which serves to enhance the credibility of the account. Furthermore, the reality of the voice in the present furnishes evidence for the ongoing existence of the deceased more globally, and considering that this sentence was stated within the context of a family interview, the presence of the deceased is also constructed as potentially available to all members of the family, including those members of the family who are doubtful about this reported experience.

Another example of how the two perspectives could be employed in both complementary and conflictual ways is highlighted in two excerpts from another family member, who expressed feeling sceptical about the possibility of sensing the presence of the deceased:

‘It doesn’t work in my mind [ ] cause I sort of like to think of things as very clear and it follows some sort of rule.’

Phenomenologically, we gain some insight into the person’s psychological reasons for struggling with sense of presence, suggesting a need for clarity that does not provide room for the ‘in-betweenness’ or liminality of this phenomenon. Interestingly, this family member consistently drew on scientific discourses in the interviews:

‘I don’t know if it is possible or isn’t possible but I’m tending towards thinking it probably isn’t.’

By acknowledging the possibility of sense of presence experience and constructing it as a hypothesis that could be either true or false, the speaker becomes positioned within a scientific discourse, strengthening the position from which the meaning that the experiencing family member had ascribed to the experiences can be dismissed, not on account of personal belief or disposition (such as a need for clarity and rules) but on account of what is rendered as objectively-considered probabilities. This can be seen to give weight to the speaker’s position as it aligns the speaker with a societally privileged discourse.

Trying to integrate these diverse findings, we could, for example, construct an overarching motivational account, suggesting there is a psychological need for clarity (as in the first quotation) which then gives rise to the dismissing behaviour at a discursive level (in the second quotation). However, we could also arrive at yet another different reading. Reversing the perspectives applied above, we could also view the first quotation from a discursive perspective, employing a hermeneutic of suspicion, and view it in terms of being an utterance made to the interviewer, known to the family as a psychologist, thus possibly constituting an attempt to gain the researcher’s sympathies. Similarly, if we look at the second quotation from a hermeneutic of empathy, we can view this as an open-minded consideration of different possibilities and a genuine statement of personal belief. It might be more difficult to construct an overarching account of these interpretations, thus contradictions and tensions remain.

Balancing or prioritising interpretative stances

            Depending on our position, we can see the different interpretative perspectives as complementing each other, as being in conflict with each other or as disconnected and unrelated. It seems that trying to construct an account of complementarity may sometimes require an additional overarching theoretical framework within which both phenomenological and discursive interpretations can be made sense of (as in the motivational explanation above). Synthesising the findings in this way may, however, backfire, as it can eliminate what was pluralistic in the first place. Rather than appealing to a third theoretical meta-level, it may be more relevant to foreground one of the two interpretative or theoretical stances and then merely bring in a second stance to add nuance, depth and complexity to the analysis (Dewe & Coyle, 2014). In our family case study, however, we attempted not to prioritise one perspective over another but to allow for a ‘both/and epistemological and analytic stance’ (Coyle, 2010, p. 81). We felt that a balance was important in order to do justice to the different perspectives; in particular, we did not want to allow for a social constructionist reading to overshadow the phenomenological understanding. This would be a particularly important concern in studies of sensitive and/or controversial experiences (see Coyle, 2010). As Frost (2011) has suggested, pluralism is ‘especially useful when inquiring into topics where reality is not universally agreed’ (p. 148). Although prioritising either a phenomenological or a discursive stance would not have meant that the researchers therefore lean towards one specific version of reality, taking a balanced ‘both-and’ approach seemed to suggest a form of ontological pluralism rather than the life-or-death, reality-or-fantasy binaries so often invoked in both practice and research around such controversial phenomena.

We thus found that the pluralistic stance we took enabled us to attend to contextual factors at the level of individual meaning-making and also at a more interactional level in terms of how family members established credible accounts within the interviews. Although some tensions remained, meaningfulness within this pluralistic approach was not defined as needing to be generated through interpretations that are located within a unitary theoretical framework in which tensions and contradictions are smoothed over but, in line with a postmodern outlook, as allowing ‘ambiguities, contradictions, disruptions and tensions of the lived experience’ (Frost, 2011, p. 123). In this case pluralism enabled a multi-perspectival view of the family’s situation that was potentially more faithful to the family’s diversity than a narrower lens of investigation could have been.


Having once taken a pluralistic approach to qualitative analysis, it now seems difficult not to look at data from more than one interpretative perspective. As Nollaig Frost (2015) said in a recent workshop on pluralism in qualitative research: ‘Rather than asking why look at things from many different perspectives, we can ask why would we not look at our data from as many different perspectives as we can?’ Some exciting studies have been conducted and published in recent years. Of particular interest to counselling psychologists is Daphne Josselin’s pluralistic investigation of self-injury (2013; Josselin & Willig, 2015). For me, pluralism is also expanding into the clinical field, as I enjoy and encourage ‘pluralistic case formulation’ in the context of counselling psychology training (see also my blog on this topic:  https://medium.com/@EdithSurrey/taking-collaboration-to-a-deeper-level-a-counselling-psychology-stance-to-psychological-c87c61aeaf04#.xvz47c1vw). Clinical case formulation and qualitative analysis of clients’ accounts are overlapping in many ways, and I would love to see more pluralistic explorations of clinical issues added to the ever-growing corpus of pluralistic research.

Edith Steffen

Lecturer, PsychD Counselling Psychology Department of Psychology University of Roehampton. edith.steffen@roehampton.ac.uk


With special thanks to Adrian Coyle, Professor of Psychology, Kingston University


Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77–101.

Coyle, A. (2010). Qualitative research and anomalous experience: A call for interpretative pluralism. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 7, 79-83.

Dewe, M., & Coyle, A. (2014). Reflections on a study of responses to research on smoking: A pragmatic, pluralist variation on a qualitative psychological theme. Review of Social Studies, 1, 21-36,

Frost, N. (Ed.) (2011). Qualitative research methods in psychology: Combining core approaches. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Frost, N. (2015). Pluralism in qualitative research. A Workshop held at the British Psychological Society London Office; October 6.

Frost, N., Holt, A., Shinebourne, P., Esin, C.,  Nolas, S., Mehdizadeh, L., & Brooks-Gordon, B. (2011). Collective findings, individual interpretations: An illustration of a pluralistic approach to qualitative data analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 8(1), 93-113.

Frost, N., Nolas, S., Esin, C., Holt, A., Mehdizadeh, L., & Shinebourne, P. (2010). Pluralism in qualitative research: The impact of different researchers and qualitative approaches on the analysis of qualitative data. Qualitative Research 10(4), 1–20.

Jackson, J. & Coyle, A. (2009). The ethical challenge of working with spiritual difference: an interpretative phenomenological analysis of practitioners’ accounts. Counselling Psychology Review, 24(3&4), 86 – 99.

Jackson, J., Steffen, E., & Coyle, A. (2011). Exploring the value of interpretative pluralism in qualitative psychological studies of controversial and/or sensitive issues: Principles and practicalities. A paper presented at the Division of Counselling Psychology Annual Conference; Bristol; July 15-17.

Josselin, D. (2013). Wording the pain: An exploration of meaning-makings around emotions and self-injury. Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City University London.

Josselin, D. & Willig, C. (2015). Making sense of self-injury: A pluralistic case study. Counselling Psychology Review, 30(4), 5-15.

McAteer, D. (2010). Philosophical pluralism: Navigating the sea of diversity in psychotherapeutic and counselling psychology practice. In M. Milton (Ed.), Therapy and beyond: Counselling psychology contributions to therapeutic and social issues (pp.5–19). Chichester: Wiley.

Rafalin, D. (2010). Counselling psychology and research: Revisiting the relationship in the light of our ‘mission’.  In M. Milton (Ed.), Therapy and beyond: Counselling psychology contributions to therapeutic and social issues (pp. 41-55). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Steffen, E. & Coyle, A. (2010). Can ” sense of presence ” experiences in bereavement be conceptualised as spiritual phenomena? Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13(3), 273-291.

Steffen, E. & Coyle, A. (2011). Sense of presence experiences and meaning-making in bereavement : a qualitative analysis. Death Studies, 35(7), 579-609.

Steffen, E. & Coyle, A. (2012). ‘ Sense of presence ‘ experiences in bereavement and their relationship to mental health : A critical examination of a continuing controversy. In C. Murray (Ed.), Mental health and anomalous experience (pp. 33-56). Hauppauge, U.S.: Nova Science Publishers.

Steffen, E. & Coyle, A. (In press). ‘I thought they should know…that daddy is not completely gone’ : a case study of sense-of-presence experiences in bereavement and family meaning-making. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying.

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Guest Blog by Edith Steffen – A journey of discovering, using and deepening interpretative pluralism in qualitative research of sensitive, controversial and complex experiences. Part 1.

Introduction to Edith Steffen’s Guest Blog (see below this Introduction):

In this month’s blog Dr Edith Steffen, a Lecturer in Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton, writes about her journey of discovering, using and deepening pluralistic qualitative research. The blog draws on Edith’s research, and on the work of other researchers, to highlight the questions that can inform decisions to employ a pluralistic approach.  In the blog Edith carefully describes how and why she selected and used the chosen methods, and the interpretative stances that they enabled. She illustrates some of the reasons why researchers seek to bring more than one method to research in topics as varied as ‘sense of presence’, dual relationships in church-based therapy, and meaning-making in family relationships. There is discussion of the usefulness of this approach to counselling psychology as well as to other fields of research.

The blog also highlights some of the practical concerns of carrying out a pluralistically informed research study. Even after having negotiated the time and skills needed to analyse and interpret data from different perspectives, the challenging issue of writing up the research for publication remains and ways to address this are discussed in the blog.  As is well known amongst qualitative researchers, seeking to convey the detail and the depth of studies for journals with wordcounts and formats more conducive to positivistic research and quantitative methods often demands decisions about how to compromise without losing meaning and richness.  Edith’s blog not only delineates these concerns but also offers some practical insight and further references to demonstrate how this can be done.

The need for time to allow for these decisions to be reached is conveyed particularly strongly in Edith’s blog and shows that by doing so allows for the value of bringing this approach to research to be fully considered, both at the outset of the study and as it progresses.

For readers of this blog, time is also being asked of you; in an innovative approach to the ways in which this website can be useful we are presenting Edith’s blog in two parts.  Part 1 below discusses the beginning of her journey into pluralistic qualitative research, and Part 2, to be published here next week, will discuss how Edith has advanced her use of pluralistic research.  We hope that this form of presentation will convey the advantages of designing and conducting pluralistic research with sufficient time to ensure that rigorous high quality research ensues.  We hope too that it will also provide you with opportunity to reflect on Edith’s work, with the desire to return here to read more of how she has advanced it.

In other news:  Edith has kindly provided a useful list of key points about conducting pluralistic qualitative research, compiled from her own experience, and workshops and training that she has attended.  It is also available on the Research Hub of the BPS Division of Counselling Psychology and we are delighted that Edith has offered to share it with the Network of Pluralism in Qualitative Research community.  Click here to be taken to this resource.

And finally: my book, Frost, N. (2016) Practising Research: why you are always part of the research process even when you think you’re not, Palgrave Macmillan, is now published. The book aims to consider the researcher role in all research approaches but of course is likely to have particular resonance with those of us who conduct pluralistic qualitative research.  If you would like to review the book, and receive a free copy, please let us know on n.frost@mdx.ac.uk or d.rodriguez@mdx.ac.uk

Until next week,

Nollaig and Deborah

A journey of discovering, using and deepening interpretative pluralism in qualitative research of sensitive, controversial and complex experiences – Part 1.

Discovering pluralism in qualitative research

My doctoral research during my counselling psychology training focused on sense of presence experiences in bereavement, i.e. when bereaved people have sensory or quasi-sensory felt, veridical experiences of their deceased loved one’s presence. Although this is a very common phenomenon – with over 50% of the bereaved population reporting to have had at least one such experience – it is also controversial in Western societies due to it being in contradiction to some dominant beliefs about reality, life and death (Steffen & Coyle, 2012). Many people with that experience are reluctant to talk about it, even with close friends and family, for fear of being ridiculed, dismissed or having their experience ‘explained away’ (Steffen & Coyle, 2010). I was keen to find out more about how people experience and make sense of this phenomenon.

My first empirical project within this research was an interview study with 12 bereaved participants who reported having had such an experience (Steffen & Coyle, 2011). While my initial analytic focus was mostly phenomenological within the framework of Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006), my supervisor – Adrian Coyle – and I started looking at the data from a discursive perspective, looking at the functions performed by participants’ talk, as we found they were often framing their accounts in ways that suggested they were justifying their experiences – something that seemed understandable, given the controversial status of the experiences they described. This observation led to us wondering whether a purely phenomenological perspective was sufficient to capture what was going on in the data that was of relevance to the research aims.

A fellow counselling psychology trainee, Joanna Jackson, had a similar experience when she investigated dual relationships in church-based therapy (Jackson & Coyle, 2009). We found that in both studies we had set out with the intention of adopting a primarily phenomenological analysis, with our initial readings of the data focused on participants’ meaning-making within the terms of their lifeworld and sometimes in terms of what we saw as relevant theories. However, what became apparent to us when we reflected on our emerging analyses was that there were further questions about how people’s meaning-making may have been at least partly shaped by the context in which they offered their accounts, which raised the question ‘What is this account doing for this speaker in this interactional context?’. When we considered this through a social constructionist lens, we discerned ‘consistent rhetorical business around the establishment of credibility and the deflection of non-desired versions of events’ in both data sets (Jackson, Steffen & Coyle, 2011). While my analysis then led to the identification of separate phenomenological and discursive themes, Joanna found that she was able to integrate the two readings within the in-depth analysis of each of her themes.

Interpretative pluralism and counselling psychology

These analytic experiences led to a deeper reflection on the potential of a pluralistic approach to data analysis in a counselling psychology context in the light of the pioneering work of Nollaig Frost and colleagues (Frost et al., 2010; Frost et al., 2011), and Joanna and I presented our methodological explorations with pluralism at the Annual Conference of the Division of Counselling Psychology in Bristol in 2011, in a paper entitled ‘Exploring the value of interpretative pluralism in qualitative psychological studies of controversial and/or sensitive issues: Principles and practicalities’ (Jackson, Steffen & Coyle, 2011). We concluded that a pluralist stance opens up the possibility of drawing upon different methodological and theoretical resources, potentially maximising understanding and resisting reductionism. We felt that if we had stuck to a more phenomenological analytic approach, we would still have discerned the justificatory work going on in participants’ accounts but we would probably have missed the breadth and depth of it had we not explicitly looked at the data through more than one interpretative lens.

What Joanna and I were particularly keen to stress in our conference paper was the relevance of pluralism in qualitative research to the discipline of counselling psychology. Counselling psychology as a discipline is grounded in philosophical pluralism (McAteer, 2010). Searching for understanding rather than demanding universal truths, and appreciating the complexity of difference in individuals’ subjective experiences are fundamentally part of our attitudes as counselling psychologists. Our concern to respect individual differences means that counselling psychologists often find themselves engaging with conflicting viewpoints and worldviews and that we are drawn to researching issues that invite a multi-perspectival approach, due to their complexity, sensitivity or controversial nature. We thus felt that interpretative or analytic pluralism, as it is sometimes called, is uniquely suited to our core ideals (Rafalin, 2010).

Edith Steffen

Lecturer, PsychD Counselling Psychology Department of Psychology University of Roehampton. edith.steffen@roehampton.ac.uk

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Reflections on pluralism in qualitative research, by Deborah Rodriguez

2015 has been a busy year, pluralistically speaking. As can be seen, the previous guest blog posts have been written by Natalie Harrison and Astrid Coxon, who both attended the BPS’ Qualitative Methods in Psychology (QMiP) Biennial Conference at Cambridge in September 2015; but more specifically, who attended the symposium on pluralism called ‘Pluralism in Qualitative Research: emerging theory or incompatible differences?’, where two papers considered the philosophical underpinnings and methodological concerns of pluralism, and two other papers presented empirical research which used a pluralistic approach. My paper was one of the latter ones, and highlighted both the epistemological and practical challenges and benefits of applying a pluralistic approach to my current doctoral research into couples’ relational experiences as they transition to second-time parenthood (Rodriguez and Frost, 2015a). This collection of papers was well received, and they also had the opportunity to be delivered to an international audience at the APA’s Society for Qualitative Inquiry (SQIP) Annual Conference at New York in May 2015. The international coverage of pluralism in qualitative research was a fantastic opportunity to both raise awareness and to understand the ways in which pluralism is being used across the pond (for example: Wertz, Charmaz, McMullen, Josselson, Anderson, and McSpadden, 2011). In addition, I also presented another paper at QMiP 2015 titled ‘Pushing at the boundaries of qualitative research: the emergence and development of qualitative mixed methods innovation’, which discussed both qualitative pluralism and qualitative multimethods in the context of a mixed methods paradigm, and showcased each of these with a case study (Rodriguez and Frost, 2015b). In keeping with the international coverage theme, I also delivered this paper at the 11th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ICQI) in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois in May 2015. However, I pushed the boundaries of internationalism and presented it at the ‘A Day in Spanish’ stream, in Spanish! Therefore, pluralism in qualitative research has hit the Spanish speaking world at least once in the last year! Taking advantage of my presence at ICQI 2015, I also presented another paper called ‘Rethinking the adult attachment paradigm: the application of a qualitative pluralistic approach to couple relationships’, which discussed the challenges to attachment theory that a pluralistic approach can bring by drawing on my doctoral research to illustrate this (Rodriguez, Frost, and Oskis, 2015). 2015 was an extremely interesting and illuminating year with regards to pluralism in qualitative research, with many opportunities to showcase my pluralistic research, receiving widespread dissemination and engagement.

This all brings me to some of my current thinking about pluralism: perhaps because I am so immersed in my doctoral research that I feel as though I eat, sleep and breathe it at the moment! If one is engaging in pluralism in qualitative research and is constantly thinking multi-dimensionally, then it stands to reason that even one’s thoughts would not just go along one track on the train of thoughts. For example, if I adopt a social constructionist approach, I might then be thinking “What else might the data tell me if I looked at it sideways, or if I looked at it through a different lens (e.g. through a phenomenological approach)? There is an ongoing sense of constant consideration, continual possibilities and new opportunities. Pluralism in qualitative research encourages taking open and creative means to research, where anything is possible; it encourages the multiplicity of ideas because it advocates for a both/and approach, rather than an either/or approach. For example, I may have already decided on qualitative approaches to my research, but as I continue to attend seminars, workshops, conference presentations etc, and may learn about a different interesting method which stimulates me to consider whether the application of such an approach may facilitate insight into phenomena through another angle. Of course, I am not saying that anything and everything goes – every approach undertaken requires careful thought and consideration, and a solid rationale for its use, regardless of whether one method is taken, or several. However, although exciting and stimulating and ever-evolving, it can also feel as though it is never-ending, and within the parameters of research (be it a PhD, a funded research project, etc) pragmatic choices must be made. The sense of messiness, which provides a valuable contribution by helping to give further insight to the complexity of phenomena – for example, loose ends does not mean frayed ends (Rodriguez and Frost, 2015a) – is an inevitable part of a pluralistic approach. However, whilst there may be a sense of acceptance and comfortability in this, the messiness can also become overwhelming. Whilst addressing constraints surrounding methodolatry, this free rein can feel consuming when one is being pluralistic alone. Working in a team pluralistically may help to overcome such issues with each member of the research team applying one approach and knowing that the different lenses and findings of the others will help to bring the multidimensionality and creativity that pluralism in qualitative research encourages. However, this is not always possible and having to do it alone, in my doctoral research has been an invaluable learning tool, sometimes daunting, but mostly exciting and ever-engaging. Undertaking a pluralistic approach provides an invaluable understanding to couples’ relational experiences as they transition to second-time parenthood and a fundamental contribution to the challenges of the dominant view of attachment theory that this approach facilitates.

Deborah Rodriguez, Middlesex University

d.rodriguez@mdx.ac.uk @Deborah_Rod


Rodriguez, D., & Frost, N. A. (2015a, May & September). A methodological reflection on the application of qualitative pluralistic research to couple relationships. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association’s Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology Second Annual Conference, City University New York, New York, USA and at the 2015 BPS Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section Biennial Conference, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK.

Rodriguez, D., & Frost, N. A. (2015b, May & September). Presionando los límites de la investigación cualitativa: El avance de innovación en métodos cualitativos mixtos. (Pushing at the boundaries of qualitative research: The emergence and development of qualitative mixed methods innovations). Paper presented at both A Day in Spanish at the Eleventh International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA and at the 2015 BPS Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section Biennial Conference, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK.

Rodriguez, D., Frost, N. A., & Oskis, A. (May 2015). Rethinking the adult attachment paradigm: The application of a qualitative pluralistic approach to couple relationships. Paper presented at the Eleventh International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.

Wertz, F. J., Charmaz, K., McMullen, L. M., Josselson, R., Anderson, R., and McSpadden, E. (2011). Five ways of doing qualitative analyses: Phenomenological psychology, grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative research, and intuitive inquiry. New York: The Guilford Press.

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Guest blog by Natalie Harrison – Pluralism In Qualitative Research

This summer (2015) I attended the Qualitative Methods in Psychology conference, at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. As this was the first conference, specifically on research methods, that I had attended and presented at, I made it my mission to learn as much about the different qualitative methods as possible. To do this, I tried to attend many different talks and symposiums that had made use of methods that I might not have necessarily heard of before.

On the second day of the conference, I attended a symposium on pluralism. This is a method where researchers make use of more than one type of qualitative method and/or analysis. Having come from a qualitative/quantitative mixed methods background; I saw the obvious advantages of this type of research. What struck me was why I hadn’t heard of this before, especially with the consideration of the different epistemological points of view that each method takes. By combining more than one method, pluralism does what qualitative methods can sometimes be criticised for; show an alternative interpretation of the data.

Interpretation is a question that I had been debating in my own PhD research. Being a novice of qualitative methods, with my background securely in statistics, you begin to question whether your analysis is ‘right’ and I had certainly been asked whether someone else would be able to interpret my findings differently. However, if we use pluralism, we can see these alternative explanations, and praise the different information that they provide us with. This turns what could be seen as a limitation of qualitative research into an advantage. Compared to quantitative methods, pluralism showcases the reality of life. That everything is open to interpretation and people see things differently. This is something that I think should be embraced more often in research.

In the symposium that I attended, research was described that had made use of pluralism, collecting different types of data to analyse differently. When these were all put together, they seemed to provide a wealth of information about the perspectives of participants in the study, which would not be seen if only one method of qualitative analysis was used. This highlighted the large breadth of information that can be gathered by using multiple methods of qualitative analysis. More importantly, the different emphasis that each method took meant that information that could be excluded or not fully developed from one perspective, could be done in a greater level of detail in the other.

Overall I found the use of pluralism in qualitative research fascinating. After the conference, I immediately started to plan research studies that took this perspective. I am excited about the strides that qualitative methods are taking and this is being used much more frequently in psychological research. Hopefully this will become much more popular in the research literature as people realise the advantages of this type of research method.

Natalie Harrison

Natalie Harrison, PhD Student & Research Assistant. University of Central Lancashire & Nottingham Trent University. Nharrison1@uclan.ac.uk

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