Aim. This paper elucidates the nature of metaphor and the conditions necessary to its use as an analytic device in qualitative research, and describes how the use of metaphor assisted in the analytic processes of a grounded theory study of nephrology nursing expertise.
Background. The use of metaphor is pervasive in everyday thought, language and action. It is an important means for the comprehension and management of everyday life, and makes challenging or problematic concepts easier to explain. Metaphors are also pervasive in quantitative and qualitative research for the same reason. In both everyday life and in research, their use may be implicit or explicit.
Methods. The study using grounded theory methodology took place in one renal unit in New South Wales, Australia between 1999 and 2000 and included six non-expert and 11 expert nurses. It involved simultaneous data collection and analysis using participant observation, semi-structured interviews and review of nursing documentation.
Findings. A three stage skills-acquisitive process was identified in which an orchestral metaphor was used to explain the relationships between stages and to satisfactorily capture the data coded within each stage.
Conclusion. Metaphors create images, clarify and add depth to meanings and, if used appropriately and explicitly in qualitative research, can capture data at highly conceptual levels. Metaphors also assist in explaining the relationship between findings in a clear and coherent manner.