Using Qualitative Research Strategies for Public Health Law Evaluation: A Methods Monograph for the Public Health Law Research Program

Public Health Law Research, Forthcoming

38 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2012

See all articles by Jennifer Wood

Jennifer Wood

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: March 1, 2012


Qualitative research helps form our understanding of relationships between law, legal practices and public health. Because of its inductive nature, qualitative research generates insight into previously unstudied (or understudied) mechanisms of legal effect. Its various methods and strategies help uncover ways in which laws have effects that lie outside existing theories and models, and for which standardized quantitative measures do not exist.

Different data collection tools can be used alone or in combination. Semi-structured one-on-one interviews involve open-ended questions that generate detailed narrative data on an individual's unique knowledge and experience. Focus groups create opportunities for participants to build on others' insights, contradict them, or refine them, generating insight that would not emerge through individual interviews. Direct observations can help understand how an action is carried out, and can reveal the cultural norms that guide behaviors. The collection and analysis of written texts can help us understand how issues are framed and articulated, and can capture forms of reasoning that help us understand human practices.

Qualitative tools can be deployed within broader research approaches or strategies. Ethnographic studies are ideal for understanding the behavioral or cultural norms that guide the practices of groups or organizations. Case studies illustrate a process, and are suited to answering questions of how a law was crafted, passed, or implemented. A "grounded theory approach" produces a theory of a process, behavior or interaction, and consists of guidelines for generating theory inductively from the data. An action research approach involves researchers and practitioners (or members of a community of interest) working hand-in-hand in all stages of a research project, from conceptualizing the problem to identifying a needed change, to developing ways forward to improve practice. Qualitative research can form part of a mixed methods study that integrates quantitative data to offer a richer set of answers than provided by quantitative or qualitative research on its own.

Regardless of research strategy, studies must be designed with appropriate sampling strategies, and researchers must ensure validity and reliability. Purposeful sampling strategies are common in qualitative research, and their choice depends on the research question, types of data collection methods deployed, availability of participants, and resources of the researcher. There are several strategies that researchers can employ to make sure that findings are valid, including use of "negative case analysis" or "communicative validity" processes where researchers subject their claims to other researchers with relevant content and theoretical expertise. It is important to guarantee the reliability of qualitative research by utilizing consistent and systematic procedures for gathering and analyzing data. Finally, good quality research involves a robust cyclical engagement between descriptive data and higher levels of abstract understanding, which is facilitated by a process of coding (assigning concepts to segments of data).

Keywords: public health law research, law evaluation, qualitative research

Suggested Citation

Wood, Jennifer, Using Qualitative Research Strategies for Public Health Law Evaluation: A Methods Monograph for the Public Health Law Research Program (March 1, 2012). Public Health Law Research, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Jennifer Wood (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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