Book Review: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Synthesis

Major, C.H. & Savin-Baden, M. (2010) An Introduction to Qualitative Research Synthesis: Managing the Information Explosion in Social Science Research. Abingdon: Routeldge.

Over recent years there has been a valourisation of large-scale, quantitative research from some quarters. In some ways this is no surprise as there is a ready appeal to see ‘generalised’ patterns in data which can then be used for decision-making and policy formation. However, in this scramble for the use of ‘big data’ there has also been some criticism of qualitative research as being ‘anecdotal’, too focused on the particular, and therefore of little use when it comes to decision-making and policy generation; this has unfortunately also led to a shift in educational research funding which often appears to follow this logic. This book instead focuses on qualitative research and provides a very well argued case for the synthesis of qualitative studies as an additional route to providing insights for practitioners and policy-makers.

The book has three parts, the first two of which (‘Arguing for qualitative research synthesis’ and ‘Doing qualitative research synthesis’) outline and discussion the approach, whilst the third offers examples and frameworks for carrying out qualitative research synthesises (QRS). The first section includes a very clear argument for the use of QRS as an approach for combining and interpreting qualitative research studies. A refreshing element of the first chapter is a clear engagement with the possible problems and restrictions of QRS under the title ‘Top ten criticisms of the approach, point and counterpoint’. This helps develop an honest debate about the potential limitations of the approach whilst making transparent the philosophical and methodological foundations of the approach. This critical voice is retained throughout the book and I think provides an excellent example to those new to educational research in how to build arguments whilst being transparent about both approach and possible restrictions and problems. As the authors state at one point in the book, no methodology is perfect and honest discussion of the limitations and problems which occur as research is undertaken is important. The second chapter in this first section then goes on to locate QRS within the wider field of research syntheses, discussing how it is linked to, but different from, traditional literature reviews and structured reviews such as those developed by EPPI.

The second section goes on to outline the stages in carrying out a QRS, from development of a question around which the synthesis is structured, through designing and completing a search, analysing, synthesising and interpreting the data to presenting the outcomes. The overall explanations are very clear and with the examples provided in section three, there is a good overall explanation of the approach. Importantly, the outlining of QRS is not given in the form of a ‘recipe’, as the process involves a lot of reflexivity, and therefore it is only possible to outline principles and general structures rather than giving a step-by-step ‘how to’ guide. I particularly liked the sections on establishing plausibility, including validity and trustworthiness, which stress the need for qualitative research to be clear in developing contextual information as well as clear explanations of methodology, data collection and approaches to analysis so that the coherence and quality of evidence can be transparently assessed. One table which is provided to highlight this need is given on page 61, based on a template from the Joanna Briggs Institute and could act as a more general starting point for qualitative researchers as they develop reports of their research.

A rating schedule to establish rigour in findings

  • Unequivocal

Findings supported with clear and compelling evidence

  • Credible

Findings that are plausible given the weight of evidence

  • Unsupported

Findings that are suggested but not supported by data

Reading this section, I was struck by the degree to which it would act as a useful starting point for discussion into considering quality research writing not only in QRS, but in qualitative research writing more generally.

Section three goes on to provide some interesting and useful examples of QRS studies which can be considered alongside the earlier sections to see how the process can be understood through the final product.

This book is a very useful introduction to QRS and offers both a critical and clear overview of how qualitative research reports can be synthesised and interpreted to provide broader insights into educational problems and issues. In my opinion, it sits well alongside Pope et al’s (2007) book focusing on the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative evidence in health. The approaches are different, a point which is stressed by Major and Savin-Baden, but together these two books offer critical approaches to bringing together evidence from across the research spectrum to offer new and interesting insights into educational issues.

References 

Pope, C.; Mays, N & Popay, J. (2007) Synthesizing Qualitative and Quantitative Health Evidence: A Guide to Methods. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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