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Qualitative Research in Family Therapy
Comment from the Virtual Issues Editor
In this virtual issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, guest editors, Drs. Jason B. Whiting, Stephen T. Fife, and Jaclyn D. Cravens-Pickens present an informative account of the MFT field’s relationship to qualitative research as published in JMFT. Their commentary offers an informative and interesting historical account of qualitative research that shows it’s development in the MFT field over three decades. Further, they offer important reflections about the present state of qualitative research, and future directions. Articles in this review are organized by categories; “Classic Methods” in which the guest editors offer articles that exemplify the use of classic qualitative methodologies, “Trustworthiness and Credibility,” “Exceptional Sample,” and “Innovative Methodologies.” This collection of articles includes seminal works on this topic and recent exemplary works. We hope this virtual issue will inspire and inform researchers to continue to ask qualitative research questions, to develop studies that exemplify classic methods, or use an innovative methodology, to recruit exceptional samples, and attune to trustworthiness and credibility.
Each guest editor of this virtual issue has contributed to shaping the current landscape of qualitative research in the field. Dr. Whiting has been an influential researcher, presenter, instructor, and trainer in the area qualitative research for several decades. His work in the areas of mindfulness, relational wellness, and intimate partner violence have all been addressed using qualitative methodologies with the most rigorous standards. To read more works by Dr. Jason Whiting, see his university-based website: https://familylife.byu.edu/directory/jason-whiting. Dr. Fife has been an innovator in the area of qualitative process research, common factors, and healing from infidelity. Dr. Fife possesses a strong awareness of classic and innovative qualitative theory and methodologies. To read more works by Dr. Stephen Fife, see his university-based website: https://www.depts.ttu.edu/hs/cfas/fife.php. Dr. Cravens-Pickens is a leader in the MFT field in the area of couple and family technology use, as well as telemental health. Dr. Cravens-Pickens often investigates individuals’ experiences of technology, social media, and telehealth using rigorous qualitative methodologies. To read more works by Dr. Cravens-Pickens, see her university-based website: https://www.depts.ttu.edu/hs/cfas/cravens.php.
Qualitative Research In Marriage and Family Therapy
A review of qualitative research published in JMFT naturally begins with the article by Moon, Dillon, and Sprenkle (1990) on family therapy and qualitative research. Although it was certainly not the first article regarding qualitative research published in JMFT, it had a significant impact on future articles written by family therapy scholars. In this article, the authors encourage further development of the qualitative paradigm in family therapy, and illustrate how the paradigm applies to systemic family therapy research.
Following this article, Doug Sprenkle (as the editor of JMFT) continued to encourage qualitative research in family therapy with a special issue of the journal focused on qualitative research published in 1994. In his introductory editorial, Sprenkle articulated the applicability of qualitative research to family therapy. Specifically, he explained that qualitative methods are suited to describe complex phenomena, define new constructs, and discover new relationships among variables (Sprenkle, 1994). Sprenkle (1994) also went on to discuss the challenges that researchers face in publishing their qualitative research. Qualitative researchers are faced with the challenge of overcoming a historical bias that favors quantitative research methods and analyses. This historical bias manifests itself in multiple ways. First, qualitative research is still evaluated primarily on a quantitative paragigm, and journal page limits do not support the length of qualitiative result sections. Further, federal grant funders such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) prioritize quantitative over qualitative projects. While qualitative research has limitations, we also acknowledge its strengths and important contributions to the MFT field, and JMFT in particular.
Qualitative scholarship published in JMFT includes a number of interesting articles and dialogues about qualitative research in family therapy. Several researchers effectively used qualitative research to give voice to minoritized groups, such as Parra-Cardona et al.’s study on Mexican-origin teen fathers, Ripoll-Nunez et al. (2012)’s study on Colombian families dealing with family violence, and Awosan’s and Hardy’s (2017) examination of never married heterosexual black couples. Additionally, the qualitative researchers highlighted in this review demonstrate creative methodology in their use of qualitative meta-data-analysis (Knudson-Martin et al., 2009) to advocate for systemic interventions with postpartum medical concerns, the utilization of social media as a source for research data (Whiting et al., 2021), or Awosan’s and Hardy’s (2017) recruitment of black couples by going into the community in locations such as barber shops and hair salons. Finally, the guest editors make a call for continued attention to trustworthiness processes in qualitative research, and while this is needed to continue to enhance the rigor of qualitative scholarship, the review of qualitative research over the last twenty years lead to the identification of a number of articles that promoted trustworthiness and rigor.
Although more attention has been given to qualitative research in family therapy over the past three decades since Moon et al.’s (1990) article, much work can still be done to improve qualitative scholarship and increase its impact on the practice of couple and family therapy. Specifically, researchers conducting qualitative research should work to increase trustworthiness through more stringent adherence to methodology, be transparent in the write up of the research report (i.e., describe steps of data analysis, provide examples of data analysis steps, utilize representative quotes), attend to sampling considersations (Patton, 1990), initiate and adhere to practices designed to promote trustworthiness and rigor, and ask meaningful qualitative questions aimed to move the needle forward in our family therapy field.
We hope this virtual issue offers useful information and inspiration to scholars as they conduct future qualitative research related to couple and family therapy. We are grateful to Drs. Carissa D’Aniello and Steven Harris for the opportunity to seve as guest editors of this JMFT Virtual Issue focused on qualitative research in MFT.
Jason B. Whiting, Ph.D., LMFT, Guest Editor, JMFT Virtual Issue, Qualitative Research
Brigham Young University
Professor, Marriage and Family Therapy Program
Stephen T. Fife, Ph.D., LMFT, Guest Editor, JMFT Virtual Issue, Qualitative Research
Texas Tech University
Associate Professor, Couple, Marriage, and Family Therapy Program
Jaclyn Cravens-Pickens, Ph.D., LMFT, Guest Editor, JMFT Virtual Issue, Qualitative Research
Texas Tech University
Associate Professor, Couple, Marriage, and Family Therapy Program
Qualitative Research in Family Therapy
Jason B. Whiting
Brigham Young University
Stephen T. Fife
Texas Tech University
Texas Tech University
Parra-Cardona, J. R., Sharp, E. A., & Wampler, R. S. (2008). “Changing for my kid”: Fatherhood experiences of Mexican-origin teen fathers involved in the justice system. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(3), 369-387.
This article uses descriptive phenomenology (Porter, 1994). The justification for methodology was rooted in ensuring that ethnocentric biases towards Latino fatherhood were reduced; giving space for Mexican-origin teen fathers to share their stories and what is important to them. The authors provide a clear discussion of how the data was analyzed following Porter (1994) guidelines, and the authors integrated concrete examples of strings of data that helped form the final themes. Another way in which Parra-Cardona et al. (2008) provide an exemplar of classic methodology is their attention to trustworthiness steps, including the use of multiple interviews to gather depth of data and generate more rich descriptions, utilization of an audit trail, co-investigators to discuss the coding process, and the researcher having expertise with the population of interest. Finally, the results were presented with quotes to support their connection to the experiences reported by the participants, and the quotes were connected back to individual participants to show that these experiences were true of the sample, not limited to one specific participant. A possible limitation of this article is the lack of transparency on the research questions, and the majority of the data analysis steps (conducting interviews and coding them) were conducted by the first author, who also led the therapy groups with the participants.
Givropoulou, D., & Tseliou, E. (2018). Moving between dialogic reflexive processes in systemic family therapy training: An interpretative phenomenological study of trainees’ experience. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 44(1), 125-137.
Interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) is an inductive qualitative method that allows for in-depth exploration of a subjective experience. IPA is a practical application of phenomenology, which many researchers have found useful when studying populations discussing a specific experience or phenomenon. In this study, family therapy trainees share their own growth and understanding about personal reflexivity, which includes their choices about therapeutic interventions. IPA was the optimal choice in methodology for this study because the authors aimed to explore the experiences of systemic family therapy trainees regarding the development of their reflexive abilities.
Constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2000) was used to better understand the process of appraisal and types of appraisal distortion that individuals report during couple conflict. The researcher collected their sample from couples in therapy, hoping that engaging in the therapeutic process would aid in reflexivity of participants on the phenomenon in question. The researcher carefully outlined how Charmaz’s four stages of grounded theory data analysis was followed in the study. With the support of a research team, the primary researcher and four research team members independently coded the data and then meet to discuss their findings. Such strategies help to ensure that developing themes stay grounded in the data, a hallmark of grounded theory methodology. The researcher described trustworthiness steps, including use of a coding team, memo writing, participant triangulation, and saturation of data. The study resulted in the development of a theoretical model depicted visually with a figure. Again, a hallmark of classic grounded theory methodology. The author provides a clear description of the model, the relationship between categories, concepts were defined, and exemplar quotes were used to help highlight how the final theory emerged from the data.
Whiting, J. B., Oka, M., & Fife, S. T. (2012). Appraisal Distortions and intimate partner violence: Gender, power, and interaction. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(s1), 133-149. Doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00285.x
Constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2004) was used to understand the role of appraisal distortions in violent partnerships and how these contribute to violence. The authors had significant research support and discussed their epistemological stance and its role on the research process. Coding was discussed between the first two authors, bracketing and memo writing were conducted to engage in reflexivity, and the authors sought theoretical saturation to enhance trustworthiness of the study. The results of this study highlight the key aspects of grounded theory methodology: data analysis resulted in the development of a theoretical model, a description of the model and the relationship between themes is provided, each theme is defined and quotes are used to demonstrate the model being grounded in the data. The authors were careful to discuss challenges to their study, and the need for memo writing to reduce researcher influence on the study. It seems as though sensitizing concepts may have been used with this study, but this was not discussed by the researcher.
Welch, T. S., Lachmar, E. M., Leija, S. G., Easley, T., Blow, A. J., & Wittenborn, A. K. (2019). Establishing safety in emotionally focused couple therapy: A single‐case process study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 45(4), 621-634.
Case studies have a rich history in mental health but have been scarce in recent decades. In this article, the authors use a theory-building case study approach to closely examine how safety is achieved with one couple during Stage 1 in Emotionally Focused Therapy. When using case analysif for theory building, the authors aim to apply observations made in a clinical case to a theory in order to evaluate and improve that theory (Stiles, 2007). The authors took several steps to support a rigorous case study design. First, they used Stiles (2007) protocol for selecting the case for analysis, and also incorporated Elliott (2002) and Kazdin’s (1981) criteria. Further, they employed intense observational analysis method using a team of four graduate student researchers who observed six therapy seccions with the couple.
One of the more common uses of qualitative methods is to do a thematic or content analysis, which consists of reviewing textual data to code and categorize it to determine frequencies and types of content found. In this article, the authors review common factors content in family therapy training programs to obtain a baseline understanding of common factors in MFT training programs, which reflects an appropriate use of the methodology. Content analysis was selected for this study because the authors aimed to obtain a baseline understanding of how common factors theory is included in CMFT training programs.
Knudson-Martin, C., & Silverstein, R. (2009). Suffering in silence: A qualitative meta-data-analysis of postpartum depression. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 35(2), 145-158. Doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2009.00112.x
Knudson-Martin and Silverstein conducted an innovative qualitative study in their 2009 paper exploring postpartum depression from a relational lens. Highlighting how research to date had primarily taken a medical or psychological framework, the authors conducted a qualitative meta-data-analysis on literature on postpartum depression seeking to develop a grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) that will help explain the relational context of PPD. The authors provide a through description of the search process for identifying and determining which research to include in their study. A list of the studies included, the discipline of researchers, population included, and specific methodology used is provided to the readers. A detailed discussion of each step of analysis is provided, and the authors state how they followed the grounded theory analysis stages outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1998) and provide a figure showing how the original research studies were transformed in the meta-data-analysis. Further, for each stage of data analysis, the authors use quotes to provide examples of how the original data was used to develop the final model of this study. The data analysis process resulted in the development of a theoretical model of how relational processes affect postpartum depression, which is visually depicted in a decision tree type model. True to grounded theory methodology, the authors provide a rich description of their model, with a summary of the model and how themes relate and interact with one another. Each theme is discussed, with exemplar quotes used to support the themes’ emergence from the data. The authors connect the quotes back to the original published study, including page numbers to aid the readers in locating the original source. This study represents an innovative use of qualitative data to help explore existing studies to determine whether researchers in other fields were finding relational themes in their study of postpartum depression. Further, the work of the researchers helped to provide justification for the need to move away from taking a strictly medical lens from this presenting issue to consider relational issues, as even within medically-focused studies, relational themes were prominent. This innovative methodology allowed the researchers to advocate for systemic interventions with this presenting medical concern.
Smoliak, O., Le Couteur, A., & Quinn‐Nilas, C. (2018). Issuing and responding to unusual questions: A conversation analytic account of Tom Andersen's therapeutic practice. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 44(3), 393-408.
Although not common, Conversation Analysis (CA) is an important tool for looking carefully at the rhythms, content, and flow of verbal interactions -- literally breaking down a conversation into its components. In this article the authors examine postmodern pioneer Tom Anderson’s therapeutic questions, and the responses that result from them.
Meta analyses are common in quantitative work, but rare in qualitative work, which makes this review of multiple studies the one to go to for understanding multicultural supervision, or to understand the usefulness of qualitative meta-analyses.
Whiting, J. B., Cravens, J. D., Sagers, A., PettyJohn., M. & Davies, B. (2020) Trauma, social media, and #WhyIDidntReport: An analysis of Twitter posts about reluctance to report sexual assault. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. Doi: 10.1111/JMFT.12470
Social media content is a rich reservoir of first-person accounts of compelling and timely topics. However, this data is often broad, but not deep, which is an inexact fit for some qualitative tools. In this case the authors examined hundreds of tweets about reasons for not reporting sexual assault. The first step was to organize them using content analysis techniques, and then use constructivist grounded theory methods to organize these categories according to the processes suggested by the data. In this way, the content analysis brought together large amounts of data, which created rich categories that could be examined for process, per grounded theory, which helped represent these survivors’ challenges in a rich and detailed way. The ethics of utilizing online content not intended for research continues to be an important area of consideration for researchers.
Ripoll-Núñez, K., Villar-Guhl, C. F., & Villar-Concha, E. (2012). Therapeutic Change in Colombian families dealing with violence: Therapist, clients, and referring systems in conversation. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 168 – 186. Doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00297.x
Ripoll-Nunez et al. (2012) offer a unique and important way to collect data for systemic therapists and offer a methodologically sound article. Their sample included clients receiving mandated services for family violence, therapists at a clinic treating the mandated clients, and judges who sentence families to services. The data included interviews from all three groups of participants (early, middle, and end of therapy), as well as the court letters for referral to services and outcome data from treatment services. The one critique was the limited details on the coding steps/process, although the authors do state they followed Strauss’ constant comparative method (GTA, Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The research team included six members, who independently coded, then met weekly to discuss analysis process and emerging themes. Further, Ripoll-Nunez et al. provide a strong discussion of the steps taken to enhance the trustworthiness of their study, which lead the guest editing team to also give this article consideration for our exemplar trustworthiness articles. For trustworthiness, the researchers clearly describe the strategies used in this study, they developed a creative prompt to enhance researcher reflexivity, they adhere to GT analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), and a by recruiting a diverse sample of participants that all represent the area of interest they are able to engage in the triangulation of data (i.e., multiple perspectives from different parts of the treatment system (clients, therapist, judge), as well as types of data used – interviews, referral letters from the judge). The study resulted in the development of two theoretical models, one that depicts the process of change for therapists, and one that shows the theory of change for clients. In the discussion of the results, the researchers provide discussion of how each theme relates to one another and offers direct quotes to support the development of themes/categories grounded in the data.
Awosan, C. I., & Hardy, K. V. (2017). Coupling processes and experiences of never married heterosexual black men and women: A phenomenological study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(3), 463-481.
One thing qualitative research excels in is helping readers understand and appreciate an experience at a deep level. More than statistics or percentages, voices can enlighten. In this study, Awosan and Hardy identify a social trend (changes in Black marriage) which has been subject to discussion and speculation, but little research. They went the extra mile in recruiting broadly to understand this issue, finding participants “through study flyers posted on a university campus in the northeast, in neighborhoods, community health centers, hair salons, and barber shops; through mass e-mail to a Black graduate-student-union Listserv; and through word of mouth.” This resulted in powerful data and results, consisting of voices of authority on this issue.
Trustworthiness and Credibility
Hair, H. J., & Fine, M. (2012). Social constructionism and supervision: Experiences of AAMFT Supervisors and Supervised Therapist. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(4), 604-620. Doi:10.1111/j.1752.0606.2011.00255.x
Hair and Fine provided an in depth discussion of their theory and methodology, so much so that it resulted in an appendix item to further process the intersection of social construction and phenomenology. To provide readers with an understanding of how two forms of phenomenology were combined and used in this study, the authors developed a table outlining each step of data analysis, providing example quotes. Phenomenology (transcendental, Moustakas, 1990) and (existential, Polkinghore, 1989) were used in combination. To engage in reflexivity, the researchers share their own stories to help paint a picture of their autobiographical lens. This occurred before the interviews, resulted in bracketing, and then continued throughout the analysis process. Memo writing occurred throughout the research process, which further enhanced the reflexive process. Following recommendations from Polkinghorne (1989), the authors engaged in member checking by sending the final composite description and asking participants to respond to two questions: “How do my descriptive results compare with your expectations?” And, “Have any aspects of your experience been omitted?” A limitation of this study was that there was no specific outline of the steps used to enhance trustworthiness, and no mention of who was responsible for the coding process.
To establish trustworthiness and credibility of qualitative research, methodologists such as Creswell (2013) recommend using at least two procedures to increase trustworthiness of a qualitative study. In Knoble and Linville’s inductive qualitative content analysis, they exceeded recommendations by taking multiple steps to enhance the trustworthiness of their study. The authors acknowledge how their personal and professional experiences played in the research process and were transparent with readers about personal and professional factors that influence their lens as members of the research team (reflexivity). Reflexivity was achieved by bracketing, acknowledging researcher biases, and memo writing. Additionally, the researchers strictly followed the analysis steps of a well-established qualitative methodology (Sandelowski, 2000). The authors describe peer debriefing (Creswell, 2008) and cross coding to reach consensus during data analysis. Internal and external audits were conducted to ensure that the codes reflected the responses of the participants. The authors also used an audit trail with a detailed overview of the analysis process to increase dependability (Anfara et al., 2002). Further, the authors used sophisticated data triangulation including interviewee perspective, field notes, researcher experiences (clinical and personal), themes from the literature (also known as bracketing strategies). One limitation of this article is that although the researchers clearly attended to trustworthiness in their study, there is no specific section on trustworthiness in their paper.
Ward, D. B., & Wampler, K. S. (2010). Moving up the continuum of hope: Developing a theory of hope and understanding its influence in couples therapy. Journal of Martial and Family Therapy, 36(2), 212-228. Doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2009.00173.x
In this grounded theory study (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), two internal reviewers open coded interviews, one coded all 15, and one 5 of 15. An internal reviewer also reviewed the final copy of the results to ensure that quotes were not taken out of context. An external reviewer who was familiar with the topic reviewed the theory and pushed for further axial coding. Informal conversations with colleagues and advisors to discuss the unfolding theory and be challenged on alternative ways to interpret the data. Member checking occurred in two stages. First, all interviewees reviewed the final copy of the transcript and asked to send in corrections to the researchers. Second all participants were provided a copy of the results and given 10 days to give feedback – 7 therapists did so. The researcher took process notes (reactions, insights, theory ideas, emotions), to aid in memo writing and reflexivity. The researcher provides detailed information about their characteristics to the reader, to further help with researcher reflexivity and transparency about how the researcher’s experiences influenced the research process. A specific section on credibility and trustworthiness was included in the paper.
Grounded theory tools are used often in qualitative research to understand processes and create theoretical models of interactions. In this project, constructivist grounded theory (as defined by Charmaz, 2014) was used to understand the changes that occur in intimate relationships that change from violent to non-violent. In this case the first author also had substantial engagement in the field, working with survivors of violence, prior to these in-depth interviews. Researchers included several procedures to support trustworthiness and credibility into their study design, therefore, this study can serve as a model for conducting a trustworthy and rigorous grounded theory study. First, researchers interviewed and analyzed the data concurrently, wrote research memos, and conducted an audit trail to track their methodological decision making. They used line by line coding to generate categories, and identify relationships between categories during the focused coding stage. In vivo codes were used when possible. The authors further described memo writing and diagraming in order to develop categories and map relationships throughout the entire analytic process. The first author also relied on the second author as a peer debriefer during the data collection process. A peer debriefer also assisted with reflexivity and maintaining awareness of researcher bias. It is worth note that this study focused on couples who had been violent. When conducting qualitative research with individuals who have engated in violence, and other things that may evoke a personal reaction in the qualitative researcher, procedures to trustworthiness and credibility become increasingly important.
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Kazdin, A. E. (1981). Drawing valid inferences from case studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 49 (2), 183–192. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.49.2.183
Moon, S. M., Dillon, D. R, & Sprenkle, D. H. (1990). Family therapy and qualitative research. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 16, 357-376.
Moon, S. M., Dillon, D. R., & Sprenkle, D. H. (1991). On balance and synergy: Family therapy and qualitative research revisited. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 17, 173-178.
Sandelowski, M. (2000). Whatever happened to qualitative description? Research in Nursing & Health, 23, 334-340.
Sprenkle, D. H. (1994). Editorial: The role of qualitative research and a few suggestions for aspiring authors. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 20(3), 227-229.
Stiles, W.B. (2007). Theory-building case studies of counselling and psychotherapy. Counselling & Psychotherapy Research, 7(2), 122–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/14733140701356742