The trustworthiness of results is the bedrock of high quality qualitative research. Member checking, also known as participant or respondent validation, is a technique for exploring the credibility of results. Data or results are returned to participants to check for accuracy and resonance with their experiences. Member checking is often mentioned as one in a list of validation techniques. This simplistic reporting might not acknowledge the value of using the method, nor its juxtaposition with the interpretative stance of qualitative research. In this commentary, we critique how member checking has been used in published research, before describing and evaluating an innovative in-depth member checking technique, Synthesized Member Checking. The method was used in a study with patients diagnosed with melanoma. Synthesized Member Checking addresses the co-constructed nature of knowledge by providing participants with the opportunity to engage with, and add to, interview and interpreted data, several months after their semi-structured interview.
This is when data, analytic categories, interpretations and conclusions are tested with members of those groups from whom the data were originally obtained.
This can be done both formally and informally as opportunities for member checks may arise during the normal course of observation and conversation.
Typically, member checking is viewed as a technique for establishing to the validity of an account.
Lincoln and Guba posit that this is the most crucial technique for establishing credibility. However, this technique is controversial.
The Positive Aspects of Member-checking
- Provides an opportunity to understand and assess what the participant intended to do through his or her actions
- Gives participants opportunity to correct errors and challenge what are perceived as wrong interpretations
- Provides the opportunity to volunteer additional information which may be stimulated by the playing back process
- Gets respondent on the record with his or her reports
- Provides an opportunity to summarize preliminary findings
- Provides repondents the opportunity to assess adequacy of data and preliminary results as well as to confirm particular aspects of the data
The Drawbacks and Problems with Member-checking
Morse (1994), Angen (2000) and Sandelowski (1993) offer a comprehensive critical of the use of member checks for establishing the validity of qualitative research.
- Member checking relies on the assumption that there is a fixed truth of reality that can be accounted for by a researcher and confirmed by a respondent
- From an interpretive perspective, understanding is co-created and there is no objective truth or reality to which the results of a study can be compared
- The process of member-checking may lead to confusion rather than confirmation because participants may change their mind about an issue, the interview itself may have an impact on their original assessment, and new experiences (since the time of contact) may have intervened
- Respondents may disagree with researcher's interpretations. Then the question of whose interpretation should stand becomes an issue.
- Both researchers and members are stakeholders in the research process and have different stories to tell and agendas to promote. This can result in conflicting ways of seeing interpretations.
- Members struggle with abstract synthesis
- Members and researchers may have different views of what is a fair account
- Members strive to be perceived as good people; researchers strive to be seen as good scholars. These divergent goals may shape findings and result in different ways of seeing and reacting to data
- Members may tell stories during an interview that they later regret or see differently. Members may deny such stories and want them removed from the data
- Members may not be in the best position to check the data. They may forget what they said or the manner in which a story was told
- Members may participate in checking only to be 'good' respondents and agree with an account in order to please the researcher
- Different members may have different views of the same data
Angen, MJ. (2000). "Evaluating interpretive inquiry: Reviewing the validity debate and opening the dialogue." Qualitative Health Research. 10(3) pp. 378-395.
Creswell, JW. (1998). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design Choosing Among Five Traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Lincoln, YS. & Guba, EG. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Morse, J. (1994). "Designing funded qualitative research." In NK. Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 220-235). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Sandelowski, M. (1993). "Rigor or rigor mortis: The problem of rigor in qualitative research revisited." Advances in Nursing Science. 16(2), pp1-8.