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Appraisal of a Qualitative paper : Top tips


  • Introduction

Critical appraisal of a qualitative paper

This guide aimed at health students, provides basic level support for appraising qualitative research papers. It's designed for students who have already attended lectures on critical appraisal. One framework  for appraising qualitative research (based on 4 aspects of trustworthiness) is  provided and there is an opportunity to practise the technique on a sample article.

Support Materials

  • Framework for reading qualitative papers
  • Critical appraisal of a qualitative paper PowerPoint

To practise following this framework for critically appraising a qualitative article, please look at the following article:

Schellekens, M.P.J.  et al  (2016) 'A qualitative study on mindfulness-based stress reduction for breast cancer patients: how women experience participating with fellow patients',  Support Care Cancer , 24(4), pp. 1813-1820.

Critical appraisal of a qualitative paper: practical example.

  • Credibility
  • Transferability
  • Dependability
  • Confirmability

How to use this practical example 

Using the framework, you can have a go at appraising a qualitative paper - we are going to look at the following article: 

Step 1.  take a quick look at the article, step 2.  click on the credibility tab above - there are questions to help you appraise the trustworthiness of the article, read the questions and look for the answers in the article. , step 3.   click on each question and our answers will appear., step 4.    repeat with the other aspects of trustworthiness: transferability, dependability and confirmability ., questioning the credibility:, who is the researcher what has been their experience how well do they know this research area, was the best method chosen what method did they use was there any justification was the method scrutinised by peers is it a recognisable method was there triangulation ( more than one method used), how was the data collected was data collected from the participants at more than one time point how long were the interviews were questions asked to the participants in different ways, is the research reporting what the participants actually said were the participants shown transcripts / notes of the interviews / observations to ‘check’ for accuracy are direct quotes used from a variety of participants, how would you rate the overall credibility, questioning the transferability, was a meaningful sample obtained how many people were included is the sample diverse how were they selected, are the demographics given, does the research cover diverse viewpoints do the results include negative cases was data saturation reached, what is the overall transferability can the research be transferred to other settings , questioning the dependability :, how transparent is the audit trail can you follow the research steps are the decisions made transparent is the whole process explained in enough detail did the researcher keep a field diary is there a clear limitations section, was there peer scrutiny of the researchwas the research plan shown to peers / colleagues for approval and/or feedback did two or more researchers independently judge data, how would you rate the overall dependability would the results be similar if the study was repeated how consistent are the data and findings, questioning the confirmability :, is the process of analysis described in detail is a method of analysis named or described is there sufficient detail, have any checks taken place was there cross-checking of themes was there a team of researchers, has the researcher reflected on possible bias is there a reflexive diary, giving a detailed log of thoughts, ideas and assumptions, how do you rate the overall confirmability has the researcher attempted to limit bias, questioning the overall trustworthiness :, overall how trustworthy is the research, further information.

See Useful resources  for links, books and LibGuides to help with Critical appraisal.

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Critically appraising qualitative research

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  • Peer review
  • Ayelet Kuper , assistant professor 1 ,
  • Lorelei Lingard , associate professor 2 ,
  • Wendy Levinson , Sir John and Lady Eaton professor and chair 3
  • 1 Department of Medicine, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, 2075 Bayview Avenue, Room HG 08, Toronto, ON, Canada M4N 3M5
  • 2 Department of Paediatrics and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto and SickKids Learning Institute; BMO Financial Group Professor in Health Professions Education Research, University Health Network, 200 Elizabeth Street, Eaton South 1-565, Toronto
  • 3 Department of Medicine, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
  • Correspondence to: A Kuper ayelet94{at}

Six key questions will help readers to assess qualitative research

Summary points

Appraising qualitative research is different from appraising quantitative research

Qualitative research papers should show appropriate sampling, data collection, and data analysis

Transferability of qualitative research depends on context and may be enhanced by using theory

Ethics in qualitative research goes beyond review boards’ requirements to involve complex issues of confidentiality, reflexivity, and power

Over the past decade, readers of medical journals have gained skills in critically appraising studies to determine whether the results can be trusted and applied to their own practice settings. Criteria have been designed to assess studies that use quantitative methods, and these are now in common use.

In this article we offer guidance for readers on how to assess a study that uses qualitative research methods by providing six key questions to ask when reading qualitative research (box 1). However, the thorough assessment of qualitative research is an interpretive act and requires informed reflective thought rather than the simple application of a scoring system.

Box 1 Key questions to ask when reading qualitative research studies

Was the sample used in the study appropriate to its research question, were the data collected appropriately, were the data analysed appropriately, can i transfer the results of this study to my own setting, does the study adequately address potential ethical issues, including reflexivity.

Overall: is what the researchers did clear?

One of the critical decisions in a qualitative study is whom or what to include in the sample—whom to interview, whom to observe, what texts to analyse. An understanding that qualitative research is based in experience and in the construction of meaning, combined with the specific research question, should guide the sampling process. For example, a study of the experience of survivors of domestic violence that examined their reasons for not seeking help from healthcare providers might focus on interviewing a sample of such survivors (rather than, for example, healthcare providers, social services workers, or academics in the field). The sample should be broad enough to capture the many facets of a phenomenon, and limitations to the sample should be clearly justified. Since the answers to questions of experience and meaning also relate to people’s social affiliations (culture, religion, socioeconomic group, profession, etc), it is also important that the researcher acknowledges these contexts in the selection of a study sample.

In contrast with quantitative approaches, qualitative studies do not usually have predetermined sample sizes. Sampling stops when a thorough understanding of the phenomenon under study has been reached, an end point that is often called saturation. Researchers consider samples to be saturated when encounters (interviews, observations, etc) with new participants no longer elicit trends or themes not already raised by previous participants. Thus, to sample to saturation, data analysis has to happen while new data are still being collected. Multiple sampling methods may be used to broaden the understanding achieved in a study (box 2). These sampling issues should be clearly articulated in the methods section.

Box 2 Qualitative sampling methods for interviews and focus groups 9

Examples are for a hypothetical study of financial concerns among adult patients with chronic renal failure receiving ongoing haemodialysis in a single hospital outpatient unit.

Typical case sampling —sampling the most ordinary, usual cases of a phenomenon

The sample would include patients likely to have had typical experiences for that haemodialysis unit and patients who fit the profile of patients in the unit for factors found on literature review. Other typical cases could be found via snowball sampling (see below)

Deviant case sampling —sampling the most extreme cases of a phenomenon

The sample would include patients likely to have had different experiences of relevant aspects of haemodialysis. For example, if most patients in the unit are 60-70 years old and recently began haemodialysis for diabetic nephropathy, researchers might sample the unmarried university student in his 20s on haemodialysis since childhood, the 32 year old woman with lupus who is now trying to get pregnant, and the 90 year old who newly started haemodialysis due to an adverse reaction to radio-opaque contrast dye. Other deviant cases could be found via theoretical and/or snowball sampling (see below)

Critical case sampling —sampling cases that are predicted (based on theoretical models or previous research) to be especially information-rich and thus particularly illuminating

The nature of this sample depends on previous research. For example, if research showed that marital status was a major determinant of financial concerns for haemodialysis patients, then critical cases might include patients whose marital status changed while on haemodialysis

Maximum-variation sampling —sampling as wide a range of perspectives as possible to capture the broadest set of information and experiences)

The sample would include typical, deviant, and critical cases (as above), plus any other perspectives identified

Confirming-disconfirming sampling —Sampling both individuals or texts whose perspectives are likely to confirm the researcher’s developing understanding of the phenomenon under study and those whose perspectives are likely to challenge that understanding

The sample would include patients whose experiences would likely either confirm or disconfirm what the researchers had already learnt (from other patients) about financial concerns among patients in the haemodialysis unit. This could be accomplished via theoretical and/or snowball sampling (see below)

Snowball sampling —sampling participants found by asking current participants in a study to recommend others whose experiences would be relevant to the study

Current participants could be asked to provide the names of others in the unit who they thought, when asked about financial concerns, would either share their views (confirming), disagree with their views (disconfirming), have views typical of patients on their unit (typical cases), or have views different from most other patients on their unit (deviant cases)

Theoretical sampling —sampling individuals or texts whom the researchers predict (based on theoretical models or previous research) would add new perspectives to those already represented in the sample

Researchers could use their understanding of known issues for haemodialysis patients that would, in theory, relate to financial concerns to ensure that the relevant perspectives were represented in the study. For example, if, as the research progressed, it turned out that none of the patients in the sample had had to change or leave a job in order to accommodate haemodialysis scheduling, the researchers might (based on previous research) choose to intentionally sample patients who had left their jobs because of the time commitment of haemodialysis (but who could not do peritoneal dialysis) and others who had switched to jobs with more flexible scheduling because of their need for haemodialysis

It is important that a qualitative study carefully describes the methods used in collecting data. The appropriateness of the method(s) selected to use for the specific research question should be justified, ideally with reference to the research literature. It should be clear that methods were used systematically and in an organised manner. Attention should be paid to specific methodological challenges such as the Hawthorne effect, 1 whereby the presence of an observer may influence participants’ behaviours. By using a technique called thick description, qualitative studies often aim to include enough contextual information to provide readers with a sense of what it was like to have been in the research setting.

Another technique that is often used is triangulation, with which a researcher uses multiple methods or perspectives to help produce a more comprehensive set of findings. A study can triangulate data, using different sources of data to examine a phenomenon in different contexts (for example, interviewing palliative patients who are at home, those who are in acute care hospitals, and those who are in specialist palliative care units); it can also triangulate methods, collecting different types of data (for example, interviews, focus groups, observations) to increase insight into a phenomenon.

Another common technique is the use of an iterative process, whereby concurrent data analysis is used to inform data collection. For example, concurrent analysis of an interview study about lack of adherence to medications among a particular social group might show that early participants seem to be dismissive of the efforts of their local pharmacists; the interview script might then be changed to include an exploration of this phenomenon. The iterative process constitutes a distinctive qualitative tradition, in contrast to the tradition of stable processes and measures in quantitative studies. Iterations should be explicit and justified with reference to the research question and sampling techniques so that the reader understands how data collection shaped the resulting insights.

Qualitative studies should include a clear description of a systematic form of data analysis. Many legitimate analytical approaches exist; regardless of which is used, the study should report what was done, how, and by whom. If an iterative process was used, it should be clearly delineated. If more than one researcher analysed the data (which depends on the methodology used) it should be clear how differences between analyses were negotiated. Many studies make reference to a technique called member checking, wherein the researcher shows all or part of the study’s findings to participants to determine if they are in accord with their experiences. 2 Studies may also describe an audit trail, which might include researchers’ analysis notes, minutes of researchers’ meetings, and other materials that could be used to follow the research process.

The contextual nature of qualitative research means that careful thought must be given to the potential transferability of its results to other sociocultural settings. Though the study should discuss the extent of the findings’ resonance with the published literature, 3 much of the onus of assessing transferability is left to readers, who must decide if the setting of the study is sufficiently similar for its results to be transferable to their own context. In doing so, the reader looks for resonance—the extent that research findings have meaning for the reader.

Transferability may be helped by the study’s discussion of how its results advance theoretical understandings that are relevant to multiple situations. For example, a study of patients’ preferences in palliative care may contribute to theories of ethics and humanity in medicine, thus suggesting relevance to other clinical situations such as the informed consent exchange before treatment. We have explained elsewhere in this series the importance of theory in qualitative research, and there are many who believe that a key indicator of quality in qualitative research is its contribution to advancing theoretical understanding as well as useful knowledge. This debate continues in the literature, 4 but from a pragmatic perspective most qualitative studies in health professions journals emphasise results that relate to practice; theoretical discussions tend to be published elsewhere.

Reflexivity is particularly important within the qualitative paradigm. Reflexivity refers to recognition of the influence a researcher brings to the research process. It highlights potential power relationships between the researcher and research participants that might shape the data being collected, particularly when the researcher is a healthcare professional or educator and the participant is a patient, client, or student. 5 It also acknowledges how a researcher’s gender, ethnic background, profession, and social status influence the choices made within the study, such as the research question itself and the methods of data collection. 6 7

Research articles written in the qualitative paradigm should show evidence both of reflexive practice and of consideration of other relevant ethical issues. Ethics in qualitative research should extend beyond prescriptive guidelines and research ethics boards into a thorough exploration of the ethical consequences of collecting personal experiences and opening those experiences to public scrutiny (a detailed discussion of this problem within a research report may, however, be limited by the practicalities of word count limitations). 8 Issues of confidentiality and anonymity can become quite complex when data constitute personal reports of experience or perception; the need to minimise harm may involve not only protection from external scrutiny but also mechanisms to mitigate potential distress to participants from sharing their personal stories.

In conclusion: is what the researchers did clear?

The qualitative paradigm includes a wide range of theoretical and methodological options, and qualitative studies must include clear descriptions of how they were conducted, including the selection of the study sample, the data collection methods, and the analysis process. The list of key questions for beginning readers to ask when reading qualitative research articles (see box 1) is intended not as a finite checklist, but rather as a beginner’s guide to a complex topic. Critical appraisal of particular qualitative articles may differ according to the theories and methodologies used, and achieving a nuanced understanding in this area is fairly complex.

Further reading

Crabtree F, Miller WL, eds. Doing qualitative research . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999.

Denzin NK, Lincoln YS, eds. Handbook of qualitative research . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

Finlay L, Ballinger C, eds. Qualitative research for allied health professionals: challenging choices . Chichester: Wiley, 2006.

Flick U. An introduction to qualitative research . 2nd ed. London: Sage, 2002.

Green J, Thorogood N. Qualitative methods for health research . London: Sage, 2004.

Lingard L, Kennedy TJ. Qualitative research in medical education . Edinburgh: Association for the Study of Medical Education, 2007.

Mauthner M, Birch M, Jessop J, Miller T, eds. Ethics in Qualitative Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002.

Seale C. The quality of qualitative research . London: Sage, 1999.

Silverman D. Doing qualitative research . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

Journal articles

Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper: papers that go beyond numbers. BMJ 1997;315:740-3.

Mays N, Pope C. Qualitative research: Rigour and qualitative research. BMJ 1995;311:109-12.

Mays N, Pope C. Qualitative research in health care: assessing quality in qualitative research. BMJ 2000;320:50-2.

Popay J, Rogers A, Williams G. Rationale and standards for the systematic review of qualitative literature in health services research. Qual Health Res 1998;8:341-51.

Internet resources

National Health Service Public Health Resource Unit. Critical appraisal skills programme: qualitative research appraisal tool . 2006.

Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1035

  • Related to doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a288
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.39602.690162.47
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a1020
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a879
  • doi: 10.1136/bmj.a949

This is the last in a series of six articles that aim to help readers to critically appraise the increasing number of qualitative research articles in clinical journals. The series editors are Ayelet Kuper and Scott Reeves.

For a definition of general terms relating to qualitative research, see the first article in this series.

Contributors: AK wrote the first draft of the article and collated comments for subsequent iterations. LL and WL made substantial contributions to the structure and content, provided examples, and gave feedback on successive drafts. AK is the guarantor.

Funding: None.

Competing interests: None declared.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • ↵ Holden JD. Hawthorne effects and research into professional practice. J Evaluation Clin Pract 2001 ; 7 : 65 -70. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ Hammersley M, Atkinson P. Ethnography: principles in practice . 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995 .
  • ↵ Silverman D. Doing qualitative research . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000 .
  • ↵ Mays N, Pope C. Qualitative research in health care: assessing quality in qualitative research. BMJ 2000 ; 320 : 50 -2. OpenUrl FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Lingard L, Kennedy TJ. Qualitative research in medical education . Edinburgh: Association for the Study of Medical Education, 2007 .
  • ↵ Seale C. The quality of qualitative research . London: Sage, 1999 .
  • ↵ Wallerstein N. Power between evaluator and community: research relationships within New Mexico’s healthier communities. Soc Sci Med 1999 ; 49 : 39 -54. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ Mauthner M, Birch M, Jessop J, Miller T, eds. Ethics in qualitative research . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002 .
  • ↵ Kuzel AJ. Sampling in qualitative inquiry. In: Crabtree F, Miller WL, eds. Doing qualitative research . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999 :33-45.

critical analysis of qualitative research essay

Criteria for Good Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Review

  • Regular Article
  • Open access
  • Published: 18 September 2021
  • Volume 31 , pages 679–689, ( 2022 )

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critical analysis of qualitative research essay

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This review aims to synthesize a published set of evaluative criteria for good qualitative research. The aim is to shed light on existing standards for assessing the rigor of qualitative research encompassing a range of epistemological and ontological standpoints. Using a systematic search strategy, published journal articles that deliberate criteria for rigorous research were identified. Then, references of relevant articles were surveyed to find noteworthy, distinct, and well-defined pointers to good qualitative research. This review presents an investigative assessment of the pivotal features in qualitative research that can permit the readers to pass judgment on its quality and to condemn it as good research when objectively and adequately utilized. Overall, this review underlines the crux of qualitative research and accentuates the necessity to evaluate such research by the very tenets of its being. It also offers some prospects and recommendations to improve the quality of qualitative research. Based on the findings of this review, it is concluded that quality criteria are the aftereffect of socio-institutional procedures and existing paradigmatic conducts. Owing to the paradigmatic diversity of qualitative research, a single and specific set of quality criteria is neither feasible nor anticipated. Since qualitative research is not a cohesive discipline, researchers need to educate and familiarize themselves with applicable norms and decisive factors to evaluate qualitative research from within its theoretical and methodological framework of origin.

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critical analysis of qualitative research essay

Good Qualitative Research: Opening up the Debate

Beyond qualitative/quantitative structuralism: the positivist qualitative research and the paradigmatic disclaimer.

critical analysis of qualitative research essay

What is Qualitative in Research

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.


“… It is important to regularly dialogue about what makes for good qualitative research” (Tracy, 2010 , p. 837)

To decide what represents good qualitative research is highly debatable. There are numerous methods that are contained within qualitative research and that are established on diverse philosophical perspectives. Bryman et al., ( 2008 , p. 262) suggest that “It is widely assumed that whereas quality criteria for quantitative research are well‐known and widely agreed, this is not the case for qualitative research.” Hence, the question “how to evaluate the quality of qualitative research” has been continuously debated. There are many areas of science and technology wherein these debates on the assessment of qualitative research have taken place. Examples include various areas of psychology: general psychology (Madill et al., 2000 ); counseling psychology (Morrow, 2005 ); and clinical psychology (Barker & Pistrang, 2005 ), and other disciplines of social sciences: social policy (Bryman et al., 2008 ); health research (Sparkes, 2001 ); business and management research (Johnson et al., 2006 ); information systems (Klein & Myers, 1999 ); and environmental studies (Reid & Gough, 2000 ). In the literature, these debates are enthused by the impression that the blanket application of criteria for good qualitative research developed around the positivist paradigm is improper. Such debates are based on the wide range of philosophical backgrounds within which qualitative research is conducted (e.g., Sandberg, 2000 ; Schwandt, 1996 ). The existence of methodological diversity led to the formulation of different sets of criteria applicable to qualitative research.

Among qualitative researchers, the dilemma of governing the measures to assess the quality of research is not a new phenomenon, especially when the virtuous triad of objectivity, reliability, and validity (Spencer et al., 2004 ) are not adequate. Occasionally, the criteria of quantitative research are used to evaluate qualitative research (Cohen & Crabtree, 2008 ; Lather, 2004 ). Indeed, Howe ( 2004 ) claims that the prevailing paradigm in educational research is scientifically based experimental research. Hypotheses and conjectures about the preeminence of quantitative research can weaken the worth and usefulness of qualitative research by neglecting the prominence of harmonizing match for purpose on research paradigm, the epistemological stance of the researcher, and the choice of methodology. Researchers have been reprimanded concerning this in “paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences” (Lincoln & Guba, 2000 ).

In general, qualitative research tends to come from a very different paradigmatic stance and intrinsically demands distinctive and out-of-the-ordinary criteria for evaluating good research and varieties of research contributions that can be made. This review attempts to present a series of evaluative criteria for qualitative researchers, arguing that their choice of criteria needs to be compatible with the unique nature of the research in question (its methodology, aims, and assumptions). This review aims to assist researchers in identifying some of the indispensable features or markers of high-quality qualitative research. In a nutshell, the purpose of this systematic literature review is to analyze the existing knowledge on high-quality qualitative research and to verify the existence of research studies dealing with the critical assessment of qualitative research based on the concept of diverse paradigmatic stances. Contrary to the existing reviews, this review also suggests some critical directions to follow to improve the quality of qualitative research in different epistemological and ontological perspectives. This review is also intended to provide guidelines for the acceleration of future developments and dialogues among qualitative researchers in the context of assessing the qualitative research.

The rest of this review article is structured in the following fashion: Sect.  Methods describes the method followed for performing this review. Section Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Studies provides a comprehensive description of the criteria for evaluating qualitative studies. This section is followed by a summary of the strategies to improve the quality of qualitative research in Sect.  Improving Quality: Strategies . Section  How to Assess the Quality of the Research Findings? provides details on how to assess the quality of the research findings. After that, some of the quality checklists (as tools to evaluate quality) are discussed in Sect.  Quality Checklists: Tools for Assessing the Quality . At last, the review ends with the concluding remarks presented in Sect.  Conclusions, Future Directions and Outlook . Some prospects in qualitative research for enhancing its quality and usefulness in the social and techno-scientific research community are also presented in Sect.  Conclusions, Future Directions and Outlook .

For this review, a comprehensive literature search was performed from many databases using generic search terms such as Qualitative Research , Criteria , etc . The following databases were chosen for the literature search based on the high number of results: IEEE Explore, ScienceDirect, PubMed, Google Scholar, and Web of Science. The following keywords (and their combinations using Boolean connectives OR/AND) were adopted for the literature search: qualitative research, criteria, quality, assessment, and validity. The synonyms for these keywords were collected and arranged in a logical structure (see Table 1 ). All publications in journals and conference proceedings later than 1950 till 2021 were considered for the search. Other articles extracted from the references of the papers identified in the electronic search were also included. A large number of publications on qualitative research were retrieved during the initial screening. Hence, to include the searches with the main focus on criteria for good qualitative research, an inclusion criterion was utilized in the search string.

From the selected databases, the search retrieved a total of 765 publications. Then, the duplicate records were removed. After that, based on the title and abstract, the remaining 426 publications were screened for their relevance by using the following inclusion and exclusion criteria (see Table 2 ). Publications focusing on evaluation criteria for good qualitative research were included, whereas those works which delivered theoretical concepts on qualitative research were excluded. Based on the screening and eligibility, 45 research articles were identified that offered explicit criteria for evaluating the quality of qualitative research and were found to be relevant to this review.

Figure  1 illustrates the complete review process in the form of PRISMA flow diagram. PRISMA, i.e., “preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses” is employed in systematic reviews to refine the quality of reporting.

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram illustrating the search and inclusion process. N represents the number of records

Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Studies

Fundamental criteria: general research quality.

Various researchers have put forward criteria for evaluating qualitative research, which have been summarized in Table 3 . Also, the criteria outlined in Table 4 effectively deliver the various approaches to evaluate and assess the quality of qualitative work. The entries in Table 4 are based on Tracy’s “Eight big‐tent criteria for excellent qualitative research” (Tracy, 2010 ). Tracy argues that high-quality qualitative work should formulate criteria focusing on the worthiness, relevance, timeliness, significance, morality, and practicality of the research topic, and the ethical stance of the research itself. Researchers have also suggested a series of questions as guiding principles to assess the quality of a qualitative study (Mays & Pope, 2020 ). Nassaji ( 2020 ) argues that good qualitative research should be robust, well informed, and thoroughly documented.

Qualitative Research: Interpretive Paradigms

All qualitative researchers follow highly abstract principles which bring together beliefs about ontology, epistemology, and methodology. These beliefs govern how the researcher perceives and acts. The net, which encompasses the researcher’s epistemological, ontological, and methodological premises, is referred to as a paradigm, or an interpretive structure, a “Basic set of beliefs that guides action” (Guba, 1990 ). Four major interpretive paradigms structure the qualitative research: positivist and postpositivist, constructivist interpretive, critical (Marxist, emancipatory), and feminist poststructural. The complexity of these four abstract paradigms increases at the level of concrete, specific interpretive communities. Table 5 presents these paradigms and their assumptions, including their criteria for evaluating research, and the typical form that an interpretive or theoretical statement assumes in each paradigm. Moreover, for evaluating qualitative research, quantitative conceptualizations of reliability and validity are proven to be incompatible (Horsburgh, 2003 ). In addition, a series of questions have been put forward in the literature to assist a reviewer (who is proficient in qualitative methods) for meticulous assessment and endorsement of qualitative research (Morse, 2003 ). Hammersley ( 2007 ) also suggests that guiding principles for qualitative research are advantageous, but methodological pluralism should not be simply acknowledged for all qualitative approaches. Seale ( 1999 ) also points out the significance of methodological cognizance in research studies.

Table 5 reflects that criteria for assessing the quality of qualitative research are the aftermath of socio-institutional practices and existing paradigmatic standpoints. Owing to the paradigmatic diversity of qualitative research, a single set of quality criteria is neither possible nor desirable. Hence, the researchers must be reflexive about the criteria they use in the various roles they play within their research community.

Improving Quality: Strategies

Another critical question is “How can the qualitative researchers ensure that the abovementioned quality criteria can be met?” Lincoln and Guba ( 1986 ) delineated several strategies to intensify each criteria of trustworthiness. Other researchers (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016 ; Shenton, 2004 ) also presented such strategies. A brief description of these strategies is shown in Table 6 .

It is worth mentioning that generalizability is also an integral part of qualitative research (Hays & McKibben, 2021 ). In general, the guiding principle pertaining to generalizability speaks about inducing and comprehending knowledge to synthesize interpretive components of an underlying context. Table 7 summarizes the main metasynthesis steps required to ascertain generalizability in qualitative research.

Figure  2 reflects the crucial components of a conceptual framework and their contribution to decisions regarding research design, implementation, and applications of results to future thinking, study, and practice (Johnson et al., 2020 ). The synergy and interrelationship of these components signifies their role to different stances of a qualitative research study.

figure 2

Essential elements of a conceptual framework

In a nutshell, to assess the rationale of a study, its conceptual framework and research question(s), quality criteria must take account of the following: lucid context for the problem statement in the introduction; well-articulated research problems and questions; precise conceptual framework; distinct research purpose; and clear presentation and investigation of the paradigms. These criteria would expedite the quality of qualitative research.

How to Assess the Quality of the Research Findings?

The inclusion of quotes or similar research data enhances the confirmability in the write-up of the findings. The use of expressions (for instance, “80% of all respondents agreed that” or “only one of the interviewees mentioned that”) may also quantify qualitative findings (Stenfors et al., 2020 ). On the other hand, the persuasive reason for “why this may not help in intensifying the research” has also been provided (Monrouxe & Rees, 2020 ). Further, the Discussion and Conclusion sections of an article also prove robust markers of high-quality qualitative research, as elucidated in Table 8 .

Quality Checklists: Tools for Assessing the Quality

Numerous checklists are available to speed up the assessment of the quality of qualitative research. However, if used uncritically and recklessly concerning the research context, these checklists may be counterproductive. I recommend that such lists and guiding principles may assist in pinpointing the markers of high-quality qualitative research. However, considering enormous variations in the authors’ theoretical and philosophical contexts, I would emphasize that high dependability on such checklists may say little about whether the findings can be applied in your setting. A combination of such checklists might be appropriate for novice researchers. Some of these checklists are listed below:

The most commonly used framework is Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) (Tong et al., 2007 ). This framework is recommended by some journals to be followed by the authors during article submission.

Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (SRQR) is another checklist that has been created particularly for medical education (O’Brien et al., 2014 ).

Also, Tracy ( 2010 ) and Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP, 2021 ) offer criteria for qualitative research relevant across methods and approaches.

Further, researchers have also outlined different criteria as hallmarks of high-quality qualitative research. For instance, the “Road Trip Checklist” (Epp & Otnes, 2021 ) provides a quick reference to specific questions to address different elements of high-quality qualitative research.

Conclusions, Future Directions, and Outlook

This work presents a broad review of the criteria for good qualitative research. In addition, this article presents an exploratory analysis of the essential elements in qualitative research that can enable the readers of qualitative work to judge it as good research when objectively and adequately utilized. In this review, some of the essential markers that indicate high-quality qualitative research have been highlighted. I scope them narrowly to achieve rigor in qualitative research and note that they do not completely cover the broader considerations necessary for high-quality research. This review points out that a universal and versatile one-size-fits-all guideline for evaluating the quality of qualitative research does not exist. In other words, this review also emphasizes the non-existence of a set of common guidelines among qualitative researchers. In unison, this review reinforces that each qualitative approach should be treated uniquely on account of its own distinctive features for different epistemological and disciplinary positions. Owing to the sensitivity of the worth of qualitative research towards the specific context and the type of paradigmatic stance, researchers should themselves analyze what approaches can be and must be tailored to ensemble the distinct characteristics of the phenomenon under investigation. Although this article does not assert to put forward a magic bullet and to provide a one-stop solution for dealing with dilemmas about how, why, or whether to evaluate the “goodness” of qualitative research, it offers a platform to assist the researchers in improving their qualitative studies. This work provides an assembly of concerns to reflect on, a series of questions to ask, and multiple sets of criteria to look at, when attempting to determine the quality of qualitative research. Overall, this review underlines the crux of qualitative research and accentuates the need to evaluate such research by the very tenets of its being. Bringing together the vital arguments and delineating the requirements that good qualitative research should satisfy, this review strives to equip the researchers as well as reviewers to make well-versed judgment about the worth and significance of the qualitative research under scrutiny. In a nutshell, a comprehensive portrayal of the research process (from the context of research to the research objectives, research questions and design, speculative foundations, and from approaches of collecting data to analyzing the results, to deriving inferences) frequently proliferates the quality of a qualitative research.

Prospects : A Road Ahead for Qualitative Research

Irrefutably, qualitative research is a vivacious and evolving discipline wherein different epistemological and disciplinary positions have their own characteristics and importance. In addition, not surprisingly, owing to the sprouting and varied features of qualitative research, no consensus has been pulled off till date. Researchers have reflected various concerns and proposed several recommendations for editors and reviewers on conducting reviews of critical qualitative research (Levitt et al., 2021 ; McGinley et al., 2021 ). Following are some prospects and a few recommendations put forward towards the maturation of qualitative research and its quality evaluation:

In general, most of the manuscript and grant reviewers are not qualitative experts. Hence, it is more likely that they would prefer to adopt a broad set of criteria. However, researchers and reviewers need to keep in mind that it is inappropriate to utilize the same approaches and conducts among all qualitative research. Therefore, future work needs to focus on educating researchers and reviewers about the criteria to evaluate qualitative research from within the suitable theoretical and methodological context.

There is an urgent need to refurbish and augment critical assessment of some well-known and widely accepted tools (including checklists such as COREQ, SRQR) to interrogate their applicability on different aspects (along with their epistemological ramifications).

Efforts should be made towards creating more space for creativity, experimentation, and a dialogue between the diverse traditions of qualitative research. This would potentially help to avoid the enforcement of one's own set of quality criteria on the work carried out by others.

Moreover, journal reviewers need to be aware of various methodological practices and philosophical debates.

It is pivotal to highlight the expressions and considerations of qualitative researchers and bring them into a more open and transparent dialogue about assessing qualitative research in techno-scientific, academic, sociocultural, and political rooms.

Frequent debates on the use of evaluative criteria are required to solve some potentially resolved issues (including the applicability of a single set of criteria in multi-disciplinary aspects). Such debates would not only benefit the group of qualitative researchers themselves, but primarily assist in augmenting the well-being and vivacity of the entire discipline.

To conclude, I speculate that the criteria, and my perspective, may transfer to other methods, approaches, and contexts. I hope that they spark dialog and debate – about criteria for excellent qualitative research and the underpinnings of the discipline more broadly – and, therefore, help improve the quality of a qualitative study. Further, I anticipate that this review will assist the researchers to contemplate on the quality of their own research, to substantiate research design and help the reviewers to review qualitative research for journals. On a final note, I pinpoint the need to formulate a framework (encompassing the prerequisites of a qualitative study) by the cohesive efforts of qualitative researchers of different disciplines with different theoretic-paradigmatic origins. I believe that tailoring such a framework (of guiding principles) paves the way for qualitative researchers to consolidate the status of qualitative research in the wide-ranging open science debate. Dialogue on this issue across different approaches is crucial for the impending prospects of socio-techno-educational research.

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Yadav, D. Criteria for Good Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Review. Asia-Pacific Edu Res 31 , 679–689 (2022).

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The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

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9 Critical Approaches to Qualitative Research

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Department of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara

Peter Chua, Department of Sociology, San José State University

Dana Collins, Department of Sociology, California State University, Fullerton

  • Published: 04 August 2014
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This chapter reflects on critical strategies in qualitative research. It examines the meanings and debates associated with the term “critical,” in particular, contrasting liberal and dialectical notions and practices in relation to social analysis and qualitative research. The chapter also explores how critical social research may be synonymous with critical ethnography in relation to issues of power, positionality, representation, and the production of situated knowledges. It uses Bhavnani’s framework to draw on Dana Collins’ research as a specific case to suggest how the notion of the “critical” relates to ethnographic research practices: ensuring feminist and queer accountability, resisting reinscription, and integrating lived experience.

Qualitative research is now ubiquitous and fairly well-respected throughout the human sciences. That Oxford University Press is producing this much-needed volume is further testament to that notion, and one which we applaud. However, although there are different approaches to conducting qualitative research, what is often not addressed are the philosophical notions underlying such research. And that is where the “critical” enters. Indeed, “critical,” used as an adjective and applied, within the academy, to methods of research is also a familiar phrase. The question is, therefore: what does “critical” mean, and how might it be translated such that present and future researchers could draw on some of its fundamentals as they plan their research studies in relation to progressive political activism?

The popularity of critical research is not predictable. Although the 1960s and early 1970s did offer a number of publications that engaged with critical research traditions (e.g., Gouldner, 1970 ), and the 1990s also led to a resurgence of interest in this area (e.g., Harvey, 1990 ; Thomas, 1993 ), it is now two decades since explicit discussions of critical research have been widely discussed within the social sciences (see Smith, 1999 ; Madison, 2012 , as exceptions).

In this chapter, we first outline meanings associated with “critical.” We then suggest that the narratives of critical ethnography are best suited for an overview chapter such as this. We consider critical ethnography to be virtually synonymous with critical social research as we discuss it in this chapter. In the final section of our chapter, we discuss Dana Collins’ specific research studies to suggest how her approach embraces the notion of “critical” ( Collins, 2005 ; 2007 ; 2009 ).

The “Critical” in Critical Approaches

“Critical” is used in many ways. In everyday use, the term can refer, among other definitions, to an assessment that points out flaws and mistakes (“a critical approach to the design”), or to being close to a crisis (“a critical illness”). On the positive side, it can refer to a close reading (“a critical assessment of Rosa Luxembourg’s writings”) or as being essential (“critical for effective educational strategies”). A final definition is that the word can be used to either denote considerable praise (“the playwright’s work was critically acclaimed”) or to indicate a particular turning point (“this is a critical time to vote”). It is this last definition that is closest to our approach as we reflect on “critical” in the context of qualitative research. That is, drawing from the writings of Marx, the Frankfurt School, and others (see Delanty, 2005 ; Marx, 1845/1976 ; Strydom, 2011 ), we suggest that critical approaches to qualitative methods do not signify only a particular way of thinking about the methods we use in our research studies, but that “critical approaches” also signify a turning point in how we think about the conduct of research across the human sciences, including its dialectical relations to the progressive and systematic transformation of social relations and social institutions.

The most straightforward notion of “critical” in this context is that it refers to (at the least) or insists (at its strongest) that research—and all ways by which knowledge is created—is firmly grounded within an understanding of social structures (social inequalities), power relationships (power inequalities), and the agency of human beings (an engagement with the fact that human beings actively think about their worlds). Critical approaches are most frequently associated with Marxist, feminist, and antiracist, indigenous, and Third World perspectives. At its most succinct, therefore, we argue that “critical” in this context refers to issues of epistemology, power, micropolitics, and resistance.

What does this mean, both theoretically and for how we conduct our research? Most would agree that whereas qualitative research does not, by definition, insist on a nonpositivist way of examining the social world, for critical approaches to be truly critical, an antipositivist approach is the sine qua non of critical research. Furthermore, it is evident as we survey critical empirical research that issues of reflexive and subjective techniques in data collection and the researcher’s relationship with research subjects also frame both the practices and the theories associated with research.

The following section begins by drawing attention to developments and debates involving the more restricted use the term critical as related to Marxism and then explores the ramifications for varying attempts to conduct critical qualitative research.

The Critical Debates

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their contemporaries (see Engels, 1877/1969 ; Harvey, 1996 ; Lenin, 1915/1977 ; Mao, 1990 ; Ollman, 2003 ) developed dialectical materialist notions of critique and “critical” that were substantively different from prior notions. They incorporated these dialectical materialist notions to develop Marxist theories and politics.

Dialectical materialism refers to an outlook on reality that emphasizes the importance of process and change that are inherent to things (such as objects, phenomena, and situations), as well as of the importance of human practices in making change. Significantly, human struggle over existing conditions and contradictions in things creates not only new conditions, but also new contradictions. This outlook serves as an analytical tool over idealist and old-fashioned materialist worldviews and as a source of strength for exploited peoples in their struggle against ruling elites and classes. It emphasizes that correct ideas, knowledge, and theoretical abstractions are established initially, and perhaps inevitably, through practice.

Dialectical materialism may be used to examine two aspects of the research process and the production of academic knowledge. The first aspect involves the writing process as it is carried out among multiple authors. At the drafting phase, the authors craft their distinct ideas into textual form. Contradictions in ideas are bound to exist in the draft. In doing revisions, some contradictions may become intensified and remain unresolved, yet, most frequently (and hopefully!), many are addressed in the form of clearer, more solid, and coherent arguments, thus resolving the earlier contradictions in the text. Yet, new struggles and contradictions emerge. The synthesis of ideas and argument in the final manuscript may again, however, engage in new struggles with the prevailing arguments being discussed.

The second aspect involves the relationship and interaction between the researcher and the interviewee. As their relationship begins, contradictions and differences usually exist between them, for instance, in terms of their prior experiences and knowledge, their material interests in the research project, and their communication skills in being persuasive and forging consent. The struggle of these initial contradictions could result in new conditions and contradictions. For example, this could lead to

the establishment of quality rapport between them, allowing the interview to be completed while the researcher maintains control over the situation;

the abrupt end of the interview due to the interviewee refusing and asserting her or his right to comply with the interview process; or

an explicit set of negotiations that address the unevenness in power relations between them, along with an invitation for both to be part of the research team and to collaborate in the collection and analysis of data and in the forging of new theories and knowledges.

In the first possibility, the prevailing power relations in interviews remain but shift to beneath the surface of the relationship, under the guise of “rapport.” In the second possibility, power relations in the interview process and initial contradictions are heightened, resulting in new conditions and contradictions that the researcher and research participant have to address, jointly and singly. In the third possibility, the research subject is transformed into a researcher as well, and the relationship between the two is transformed into a more active co-learning and co-teaching relationship. Still, new conflicts and contradictions may emerge as the research process continues to unfold. 1 In short, dialectical materialism stresses the analysis of change in the essence (1), practice (2), and struggle (3). Such analyses are at the root of how change may be imagined within the practices of social research.

Dialectical materialism, which forms the basis of the concept of “critical,” emphasizes the need to engage with power, inequality, and social relations in the arenas of the social, political, economic, cultural, and ideological. Based on this status, it is argued that an analysis of societies and ways of life demands a more comprehensive approach, one that does not view society and social institutions merely as a singular unit of analysis but rather as ones that are replete with history. Dialectical materialism directs its criticism against prevailing views or hegemonies, and, within the context of academic endeavors, engages in debates against positivism and neo-Kantian forms of social inquiry. It is this basis of “critical” that defines it in the context of research as a deep questioning of science, objectivity, and rationality. Thus, the meaning of the term “critical,” based on the idea of “critique,” emerges from the practice and application of dialectical materialism.

Historical materialism emerges from and is based on dialectical materialism. That is, any application of the dialectic to material realities is historical materialism. For example, any study of human society, its history, its development, and its process of change demands a dialectical approach rooted in historical materialism. This involves delving deeper into past and present social phenomena to thereby determine how people change the essence of social phenomena, and, simultaneously, transform their contradictions.

Dialectical materialism regards positivism as a crude and naïve endeavor to seek knowledge and explain phenomena and as one that assumes it is the task of social researchers to determine the laws of social relationships by relying solely on observations (i.e., by assuming there is a primacy of external conditions and actions). In addition, positivism separates the subject (the seemingly unbiased, detached observer) and object (the phenomenon/a under consideration) of study. Dialectical materialism overcomes the shortcomings of positivism by offering a holistic understanding of (a) the essence of phenomena; (b) the processes of internal changes, the handling of contradictions, and the development of knowledge; (c) the unity of the subject and object in the making of correct ideas; and (d) the role of practice and politics in knowledge creation.

Dialectical materialism directs its criticism against dominant standpoints. These standpoints can offer a simplistic form of idealism and philosophical materialism. Within the context of academic endeavors, the methods of dialectical materialism engage in debates against positivism and neo-Kantian forms of social inquiry. This approach challenges assertions that science, objectivity, and rationality are the sine qua non of research and that skepticism and liberalism are the only appropriate analytical positionings by which a research project can be defined as “critical.”

For instance, Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim, in developing sociological positivism, argued for a new science to study society, one that adopted the methods of the natural sciences, such as skeptical empiricism and the practices of induction. In adopting these methods, approaches relying on early positivism sought to craft knowledge based on seemingly affirmative verification rather than being based on judgmental evaluation and transformative distinctions.

Positivism and dialectical materialism were both developed in response to Kantian and idealist philosophy. In the context of the European Enlightenment, in the late 1700s, Immanuel Kant inaugurated the philosophy of critique. Positivism challenged Kant’s philosophy of critique as the basis for the theory of knowledge.

Kant developed his notion of critique to highlight the workings of human reason and judgment, to illuminate its limitations, and to consolidate its application in order to secure a stable foundation for morality, religion, and metaphysical concerns. Politically, Kantian philosophy provided justification for both a traditionalism derived from earlier periods and a liberalism developed during the ascendance of the Enlightenment.

Kant sought to settle philosophical disputes between a narrow notion of empiricism (that relies on pure observation, perception, and experience as the basis for knowledge) and a narrow notion of rationalism (that relies on pure reason and concepts as the basis for knowledge). He argued that the essence (termed “thing-in-itself”) is unknowable, countering David Hume’s skeptical empiricism, and he was convinced that there is no knowledge outside of innate conceptual categories. For Kant, “concepts without perceptions are empty; perceptions without concepts are blind” (1781/1965, pp. A 51/B 75).

The method of dialectical materialism challenges Kant’s idealism for (what is claimed to be) its faulty assertion that correct ideas and knowing about the “thing-in-itself” can only emerge from innate conceptual categories, ones that are universal and transcendental. In Kantian philosophy, there is no reality (out there) to be known. Rather, it is the experience of reality itself that provides for human reason and consciousness.

Dialectical materialism overcomes Kant’s idealism with its recognition of the existence of concrete phenomena, outside and independent of human reason. Dialectical materialism stresses that social reality and concrete phenomena reflect on and determine the content of human consciousness (and also, we would argue, vice versa). Dialectical materialism also emphasizes the role of practice and politics in knowledge development, instead of merely centering the primacy of ideas and the meanings of objects.

In sum, the core debate against positivism centers on the practices of science. Dialectical materialism regards positivist approaches as crude and naïve endeavors that seek to determine unchangeable laws of nature, rely solely on observations and “sense experience” of phenomena as the basis for knowledge, highlight the primacy of external conditions and actions to explain phenomena, and separate the subject from the object of study. That is, dialectical materialism views positivism as a form of mechanical, as distinct from historical, materialism.

This abridged account of dialectical materialism and the critiques it offers of Kantian idealism and sociological positivism can allow for the formation of a preliminary set of criteria for what may constitute the “critical.” We argue that qualitative research may be critical if it makes clear conceptually and analytically:

The essence and root cause of any social phenomena (e.g., youth and politics);

The relationship between the essence of the social phenomena under consideration to the general social totality (such as how youth and their views of politics are related to wider systems within society, such as education, age, exploitation);

The contradictions within this social phenomenon (such as how young people are expressing their discontent),

and, therefore,

How to conduct more reflexive practices that interrelate data generation, data analysis, and political engagement that challenge existing relations of power.

Contemporary debates between neo-Kantian idealists and dialectical materialists have often been friendly regarding the direction for carving out what is meant by a critical project in qualitative social research. These debates bring to the fore issues of politics, ethics, research design, and the collection and analysis of data. They have also prompted a variety of ways in which “critical” may be used in relation to qualitative research. For the purposes of this chapter, we suggest four substantial ways in which “critical” is used in the context of qualitative research: (a) critical as a form of liberalism, (b) critical as a counterdisciplinary perspective, (c) critical as an expansion of politics, and (d) critical as a professionalized research endeavor and perspective.

Critical as a form of Kantian liberalism is one of the more conventional uses of the term in qualitative research. This use of critical is generally contrasted against the dogmatism of positivist approaches within social scientific research. Yet, to use critical in this way means that we embrace a liberalism that ends up promoting idealism in outlook and pluralism in practice. That is, Kantian liberalism presents itself as a “critical” and novel analysis by combining eclectic ideas and theories while not making known its political stand and its material interests. As a result, it supports prevailing modes of thinking that emphasize abstraction over concrete reality, and it succumbs to relativistist and pragmatist practices in research, such as “anything goes” in collecting data. In terms of methods, this use of “critical” promotes looseness and leniency in ethics and data collection and analysis, often without a structured accountability to the many constituencies that underlie all social research. Furthermore, the use of, for example, phrases such as “critical spaces,” when applied to social research, may be better understood as a celebration of method above theory and meta-theory and an engagement with some (of the often rather) excessive approaches to reflexivity and meta-reflexivity. In sum, this understanding of “critical” lacks appropriate structures of ethics and accountability and often tends to reject dialectic materialism.

The second use of “critical” in regards to qualitative research proposes a more analytical disagreement with conventional scholarly disciplines and, in so doing, seeks to take up counterdisciplinary positions ( Burawoy, 1998 ; 2003 ; Carroll, 2004 ; Smith, 2007 ). There are two main strands in this use of “critical.” One strand argues that “critical” is a means of exposing the weaknesses of conventional academic disciplines such as anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. At the same time, this strand maintains the viability of these core social science disciplines. For instance, academic feminists have continually highlighted the masculinist and heterosexist bias in what is considered top-tier scholarship and the need for these disciplines to be more inclusive in terms of perspectives and methodological techniques (e.g., Fonow & Cook, 1991 ; Harding, 1991 ; Ray, 2006 ). Yet such an approach may not inevitably focus on the fundamental problems, such as a neglect of the study of power inequalities (e.g., Boserup 1970 ; and see examples in Reinharz & Davidman, 1992 ). This second strand seeks to carve out interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary fields such as women studies, cultural studies, and area studies to overcome the paradigmatic and fundamental crises within core disciplines ( Bhavnani, Foran, & Kurian, 2003 ; March, 1995 ; Mohanty, 2003 ). Many of these interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary fields have often been more historical and qualitative in their approaches, seeking to go beyond positivist limitations and present a more nuanced and thorough analysis. However, even these multi-, inter-, and antidisciplinary fields have an uneven impact on dominant and conventional knowledge.

Moreover, both strands have not been able to overcome the increasing corporatization and neoliberalization of academic institutions. This issue addresses the increasing restructuring of public education into a private domain, one that relies on privatized practices and funding of both teaching and research. The neoliberalization of the academy is found in the ties of academic research to corporate grants, individualized career advancement, excessive publishing demands and citation indices, and the use of outsourcing for transcription, interviewing, online education, and private research spaces that are “rented” by public institutions, to name a few. These neoliberal conditions of research usually push out those critical researchers who attempt to avoid such exploitative avenues for research, writing, and collaboration. This use of “critical,” however, does expose that critical research is taking shape within contemporary processes of neoliberalism and the increasing privatization of the academy ( Giroux, 2009 ; Greenwood, 2012 ; Pavlidis, 2012 ).

The third and less familiar approach is to view “critical” as invigorating politics through the practices of feminist, antiracist, and participatory action research. This approach, for example, highlights the importance of analyzing power in research, as in terms of the conduct of inquiry, in political usefulness, and in affecting relations of power and material relations. Yet this view of “critical” is dogmatic because this approach demands that every research study meet all criteria of criticality comprehensively and perfectly.

A final use of “critical” emerges from the many scholarly and professionalized approaches that engage with the politics of academic knowledge construction while making visible the limits of positivism. “Critical” is used here as a means to focus primarily on revitalizing scholarship and research endeavors. However, we argue that even this use of “critical” ossifies the separation of the making of specialized knowledge from an active engagement to transform social life. Such a separation is antithetical to dialectical materialism. Often, this fourth form of the term “critical” is based on the logics of the Frankfurt School of critical theory (such as that of Adorno [1973] , Habermas [1985] , and Marcuse [1968] ) and other Western neo-Marxisms (from Lukacs [1971] and Gramsci [1971] to Negri [1999] ). Critical ethnographers and other critical social researchers, drawing from this tradition, often develop public intellectual persona by writing and talking about politics through scholarly and popular forms of publishing and speaking presentations and are even seen to take part in political mobilizations. Yet they can also shy away from infusing their research with a deep engagement in political processes outside the academy.

Later in this chapter, we discuss how to avoid some of the pitfalls of these four types of “critical,” but suffice it to say, in short, that it is the politics and the explicit situatedness of research projects that can permit research to remain “critical.”

Is Critical Ethnography the Same as Critical Research?

George Marcus (1998) argues that the ethnographer is a midwife who, through words, gives birth to what is happening in the lives of the oppressed. Beverley Skeggs (1994) has proposed that ethnography is, in itself, “a theory of the research process,” and Asad (1973) offered the now-classic critique of anthropology as the colonial encounter. However, although many approaches to and definitions of ethnography abound, it is the case that they all agree on one aspect: namely, that ethnographies offer an “insider’s” perspective on the social phenomena under consideration. It is often suggested that the best ethnographies, whether defined as critical or not, offer detailed descriptions of how people see, and inhabit, their social worlds and cultures (e.g., Behar, 1993 ; Ho, 2009 ; Kondo, 1990 ; Zinn, 1979 ).

It is evident from our argument so far that we do not think of ethnographic approaches to knowledge construction as being, in and of themselves, critical. This is because an ethnographic study, although not in opposition to critical ethnography or to critical research in general, has practices rooted in social anthropology. Therefore, its assumptions are often in line with anthropological assumptions (see Harvey [1990] for a recounting of some of these assumptions). Concepts such as “insider” versus “outsider,” “going native,” “gaining access,” and even conceptualizations of a homogenized and/or exoticized “field” that is out there ready to be examined by research remain as significant lenses of methodological conceptualization in much ethnographic research.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the move to reflexivity in ethnographic research, there remain enduring assumptions about best practices. As a result, a certain fetishization of research methods transpires, one that is often epitomized as reflexivity. In this instance, ethnographic and qualitative research become an ideal set of practices for extracting information. In sum, “best research practices,” as ways to extract information, reproduce core power dynamics of racism, gender, class, imperialism, and heteronormativity, which, in turn, reproduce the oppressive dynamics of noncritical qualitative research.

Furthermore, when presenting research merely as reflexive research, it is the case that the researcher can lose sight of the broader social structural and historical materialist context. In addition, a static notion of reflexivity can lead to the researcher not looking outward to assess the wider interconnections among the micropolitics of the research. That is, reflexivity is a dialectic among the researcher, the research process, and the analysis ( Jordan & Yeomans, 1995 ), but it is often presented simply as a series of apparently unchangeable/essential facets of the researcher. Our final point is that for theory to be critical in the development of research paradigms, it has to explicitly engage with lived experiences and cultures for, without that engagement, it remains as formalism (see, e.g., the work of Guenther [2009] and Kang [2010] as examples of critical qualitative research). We are very much in tune with Hesse-Biber and Leavy, who have suggested that (grounded) theory building is a “dynamic dance routine” in which “there is no one right dance, no set routine to follow. One must be open to discovery” (2006, p. 76).

An example of the limitation of conventionally reflexive research is in the area of lesbian and gay research methods that focus on the experiences of gay men and lesbians conducting qualitative research. It also offers a commentary on the role that non-normative sexuality plays in social research. By looking inward (see the earlier comment on “reflexivity”), these methodological frameworks focus on the researcher’s and participants’ lesbian/gay identifications. In so doing, this can fabricate a shared social structural positionality with research participants who have been labeled “gay” or “lesbian.” Such an approach to reflexivity overlooks the fabricated nature of positionalities and ignores the sometimes more significant divisions between researchers and participants that are expressed along the lines of race, class, gender, and nationality. Reflexivity is used only as a way to forge a connection for the exchange of information. A grave mistake is made in this rush to force similarity along the lines of how people practice non-normative sexualities ( Lewin & Leap, 1996 ; for a more successful engagement with queer intersectionality in research, see Browne & Nash, 2010 ).

The point to be made is that critical researchers should not merely ask “how does this knowledge engage with social structure?” Critical researchers, when contemplating the question “What is this?” as they set up and analyze their research, could also ask, “What could this be?” ( Carspecken, 1996 ; Degiuli, 2007 ; Denzin, 2001 ; Noblit, Flores, & Murillo, 2004 , all cited in Degiuli, 2007 ). Perhaps, borrowing from Karen O’Reilly’s thoughts on critical ethnography, one may think of critical research as “an approach that is overtly political and critical, exposing inequalities in an effort to effect change” ( Reilly, 2009 , p. 51). That is, in order for qualitative research to be critical, it must be grounded in the material relationships of history, as may be seen in the work of Carruyo (2011) , Chua (2001 ; 2006 ; 2007 ; 2012 ), Collins (2005 ; 2007 ; 2009 ), Lodhia (2010) , and Talcott (2010) .

Quantz (1992) , in his discussion of critical ethnography, suggests that five aspects are central to the discussion of critical research/ethnography: knowledge, values, society, history, and culture. So far in this chapter, we have discussed knowledge and its production, values/reflexivity and qualitative research/ethnography, society and unequal social relationships, and history as a method of historical and dialectical materialism in order to better understand social and institutional structures. What we have not discussed, however, is the notion of culture, nor, indeed, the predicament of culture ( Clifford, 1998 ): “Culture is an ongoing political struggle around the meaning given to actions of people located within unbounded asymmetrical power relations” ( Quantz, 1992 , p. 483).

Quantz elaborates by stating that culture develops as people struggle together to name their experiences (see Comaroff & Comaroff, 2012 , for a sophisticated and elegant discussion of this thinking). For example, one key task of critical research is to tease out how disempowerment is achieved, undermined, or resisted. That is, the job of the researcher is to see how the disempowerment—economic, political, cultural—of subordinated groups manifests itself within culture, and, indeed, whether the subordinated groups even recognize their disempowerment. For example, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” is one example of how the material disempowerment of many groups of women is presented, in fact, as a strength of women, and yet it takes the gaze away from seeing the subordination of women by ostensibly emphasizing women’s hidden social power.

It is critical qualitative research that has to simultaneously analyze how our research can identify processes and expressions of disempowerment and can then lead to a restructuring of these relationships of disempowerment. At times, critical social researchers engage in long-term projects that involve policy advocacy and community solidarity to link community-driven research with social empowerment and community change (see Bonacich, 1998 ; Bonacich & Wilson, 2008 ; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2007 ; Stoecker, 2012 ).

The key point is that critical qualitative research parts company with positivistic approaches because it is argued that positivism is only able to offer a superficial set of findings. Critical qualitative research hones research concepts, practices, and analyses into finer points of reference so that societal relationships may be not only understood, but also so that social power inequalities can be undermined. In short, critical social research has a Foucauldian notion of power at its very core and may thus be thought of as offering insights into people’s lived experiences ( Williams, 1976 ) as they negotiate asymmetrical societal power relations (see e.g., Novelli, 2006 ).

The Practices of Critical Qualitative Research

Within our current era of enduring global inequalities, what could constitute a truly critical approach to qualitative research? More than twenty years ago, in “Tracing the Contours” ( Bhavnani, 1993 ), it was argued that if all knowledge is historically contingent and, therefore, that the processes of knowledge production are situated, then this must apply to all research practices as well. 2 This argument was based on Haraway’s (1988) idea that the particularities of knowledge production do not lie in the characteristics of individuals. Rather, knowledge production is “about communities, not about isolated individuals” (p. 590). Building on this, Haraway discussed the significance of partiality and its relationship to objectivity. She suggested that it is the researcher’s knowledge of her own “limited location” that creates objectivity. In other words, knowing the limitations of one’s structural position as a researcher contributes to objective research because there is no objectivity that is omniscient, one from which all can be revealed (Haraway discusses this as the “god trick,” which is like “seeing everything from nowhere,” p. 582).

It is from Haraway’s insights that we develop our argument that situated knowledges are not synonymous with the static reflexivity we describe earlier. This is because, in this latter scenario, the researcher implies that all research knowledge is based on and derives from an individual’s personal historical and biographical perspectives. That is, researchers note their racial/ethnic identity, sex/gender, sexuality, age, class, and ability (i.e., biographical aspects of themselves), which are presented as essential and unchanging factors and that determine the knowledge created by the research. This has also been called “absolute relativism” ( Bhavnani, 1993 ) or “extreme relativism” ( Alcoff & Potter, 1993 ).

We suggest that the three elements central to research being “critical” are partiality, positionality, and accountability. Partiality leads to critical research interrogating prevailing representations as the research is conducted, and this builds on difference. Positionality is not about being reflexive, but about understanding the sociohistorical/political context from which research is created and thus engages with the micropolitics of a research endeavor. Accountability makes it evident that there are many constituencies to which all academic researchers are accountable—for example, their discipline, intellectual integrity, their institution and academic colleagues, the idea of rigorous scientific research, and academic freedom in research—as well as being accountable to the people with whom the research is being conducted. It is accountability that leads to a critical research project interrogating how the lived experiences and cultures of the research participants are inscribed within the research (see Stoecker, 2012 ).

What might the necessary elements be for ensuring that our research practices retain the criticality we have discussed earlier? We offer four possibilities that could form a filter through which one could decide if research is critical, using our definition of the term. First, all critical qualitative researchers should interrogate the history of ethnographic research that has led to the systematic domination of the poor; working classes; ethnic, racialized, sexual Others; women; and colonized peoples. That is, critical qualitative researchers must begin research with an understanding of how previous research, including their own, may continue to play a part in the subordination of peoples around the world, for example, by reinscribing them into predictable and stereotypical roles. Second, critical qualitative researchers should work to develop a consciousness of what might constitute critical research practices—without fetishizing methods—that challenge the system of domination often present in social research. Third, researchers who embrace critical qualitative approaches must develop comfort with the notion that they are conducting research with a purpose; that is, researchers grapple with and comprehend that critical research demands that they engage with the idea that they conduct research into research inequalities in order to undo these inequalities. Finally, critical qualitative researchers comprehend that their level of comfort can extend into the idea that research does not simply capture social realities; rather, the critical research approach is generative of narratives and knowledges. Once this last idea is accepted—namely, that knowledge is created in a research project and not merely captured—it is then a comparatively straightforward task to see the need for a researcher’s accountability for the narratives and knowledges he or she ultimately produces. In so doing, it is possible to recognize that all representations have a life of their own outside of any intentions and that representations can contribute to histories of oppression and subordination.

We propose that it is the actual practice of research, and, perhaps, even the idea of researcher as witness ( Fernandes, 2003 ), and not a notion of “best practices,” that keeps the politics of research at the center of the work we do. This includes insights into the redistribution of power, representation, and knowledge production. We suggest that critical research is work that shifts research away from the production of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and edges or nudges it toward a more transformative vision of social justice (see Burawoy, 1998 ; Choudry, 2011 ; D’Souza, 2009 ; Hussey, 2012 ; Hunter, Emerald, & Martin, 2013 ).

Thoughts from the Field

Here, based on Collins’s fieldwork, we highlight a set of critical methodological lessons that became prominent while she was conducting her field research in Malate, in the city of Manila, the Philippines, currently a tourist destination but once famous as a sex district. We define her work as a critical research practice.

Since 1999, Dana Collins has conducted urban ethnographic work in Malate, exploring gay men’s production of urban sexual place. She has been interested in the role of “desire” in urban renewal, and, in particular, how informal sexual laborers (whom she terms “gay hospitality workers,” a nomenclature drawn from their own understandings of their labor and lives) use “desire” to forge their place in a gentrifying district that is also displacing them. This displacement has involved analyzing urban tourism development, city-directed urban renewal, and gay-led gentrification, as well as informal sexual labor.

The research has involved her precarious immersion in an urban sexual field. She undertook participant observation of gay night life in the streets, as well as in private business establishments, and conducted in-depth and in-field interviews with gay business owners, city officials, conservationists, gay tourists, and gay-identified sexual laborers. In addition, she drew on insights from visual sociology and also completed extensive archival work and oral history interviewing. In all of this, she explored the collective memories of Malate as a freeing urban sexual space.

There exist multiple and shifting positionalities of power, knowledge, exchange, and resistance in her research. For one, she points out that she occupies multiple social locations as a white, lesbian-identified feminist ethnographer from a US university, one who forges complicated relationships with urban sexual space, sex workers, and both gay Filipino men and gay tourists.

A critical research practice at heart involves the shifting of epistemological foundations of social science research by addressing core questions of how we know what we know, how power shapes the practices of research, how we can better integrate research participants and communities as central producers of knowledge in our research, and how we can better conceptualize the relationship between the research we do and the social justice we are working toward in this world. 3 Such questions function as a call to action for critical researchers not only to examine the power relations present in research, but to generate new ways of researching that can confront the realities of racism, gender and class oppression, imperialism, and homophobia. This is about not only becoming better researchers, but also about seeking ways to shift the very paradigm of qualitative research and ensuring its service to social change. We have learned to use these questions as a central and ongoing part of the research we do.

Feminist and Queer Accountability to the Micropolitics of the Field

One of the primary tenets of critical qualitative research is that researchers must work with a wider understanding and application of the politics of research. For Kum-Kum Bhavnani (1993) , this means that one needs to be accountable to the micropolitics of research because such accountability destabilizes the tendency to conduct and present research from a transcendent position—the “all knowing” ethnographer, the “outsider” going in to understand the point of view of “insiders,” the attempt to (avoid) “go(ing) native,” and the researcher who aims to “gain access” at all costs and in the interests of furthering research. Micropolitics is not only the axis of inequality that shapes contemporary field relations; it is also the historical materialist relationship that constitutes the field and informs the basis of critical qualitative research. Micropolitics therefore is a critical framework that questions the essentializing and power-laden perceptions of research spaces and people because it encourages both a reflexive inquiry into the limited locations of research, and it involves the more critical practice of the researcher turning outward, to comprehend what Bhavnani calls the “interconnections” among researcher, research participants, and the social structural spaces of “the field.”

Micropolitics illuminates how all research is conducted from the limited locations of gender, race, class, sexual identification, and nationality, as well as illuminating the interconnections among all of these locations. This is not a simplistic reflexive practice of taking a moment in research to account for one’s positionality and then moving on to conduct normative field work; Bhavnani has been critical of such moments of inward inspection that lack substantial accountability to the wider micropolitics of the field. Rather, this move requires an ongoing interrogation of the limited locations of research that show how knowledge is not transcendent. Furthermore, when used reflexively, limited locations offer a more critical framework from which to practice research.

Micropolitics encouraged Collins’ attention to the limited location of a global feminist ethnographer doing research on gay male urban sexual space in Manila. For one, she moved among different positionalities throughout her research—of woman, queer-identified, white, US academic, tourist, ate (Tagalog term for older sister)—and none of these positions was either a transcendent or more authentic standpoint from which to conduct ethnographic work. So, for instance, as a white tourist, she moved easily among the gentrifying gay spaces because these spaces were increasingly designed to encourage her movement around Malate. This limited location showed the increasing establishment of white consumer space, which encouraged the movement of consumers like herself yet dissuaded the movement of the informal sexual laborers with whom she was also spending time—the gay hosts. Her limited location as a white woman researcher from a major US university meant that gay hosts sometimes shared their spaces and meanings of urban gay life with her, yet many times those particular spaces and dialogues were closed—she was not allowed into the many public sexual spaces (parks and avenues for cruising and sex late at night), yet gay hosts treated her as an audience for their many romantic stories about the boyfriends they met in the neighborhood.

Hosts emphasized that they gained much from hosting foreigners in terms of friendship, love, desire, and cultural capital. Yet they monitored the information they shared because she remained to them a US researcher who wielded the power of representation over their lives, despite her closeness with a group of five gay hosts. Hence, gay hosts often chose to remain silent about their difficult memories of sex work or any information that could frame them as one-dimensional “money boys,” as distinct from the “gay”-identified Filipino men who migrated to Malate to take part in a gay urban community.

Micropolitics challenges the authenticity of any one positionality over another; it was Collins’ movement among all of them, as well as her ongoing consideration of their social structural places, that provided her with a more critical orientation to the research. She suggests that she was not essentially a better “positioned” researcher to study “gay” life in Manila because she too is gay. Rather she found that differences of race, class, gender, and nationality tended to serve as more enduring, limited locations that influenced relationships within this research and that required ongoing critical reflexive engagement.

We want to add that a queer micropolitics of the field also offers critical insight into how identities are not stagnant but rather can be fabricated and performative during the research process. This moves researchers away from an essentialist take on their standpoint because an essentialist mind-set can lead to a search for the authentic insider and outsider. It can also lead to an essentialist social positionality that is more conducive for researching. Queer micropolitics show that research is made up of a collection of productive relations and identities. So, for example, her lesbian identification did not create a more authentic connection with gay hosts in Manila; rather, she often fabricated a shared “gay” positionality. This was a performance that served as a point of departure for her many conversations, from which she could proceed to share meanings of what it meant to be “gay” in the Manila and the United States.

Some of the productive relations that arise in research are the continuum of intimacies that develop while doing research. So, like feminists before her, she chose to develop close friendships with hosts where they genuinely loved (in a familial way) as they spoke of love. While learning about gay life in Malate, she stroked egos, offered advice, cried over broken hearts and life struggles, and built and maintained familial relations. Queer micropolitics shows, however, the limitations of such intimacies because intimacy does not equal similarity—the differing social locations of class, race, gender, and nationality meant that the experiences of urban gay life varied immensely. Thus, building such intimacies across these differences requires both the recognition and respect for boundaries that hosts constructed. She had to learn to see and know that when hosts became quiet and pulled away these were acts of self-preservation as well as acts of defiance against the many misrepresentations of their lives that had taken shape in academic research and journalistic renderings of their place in “exotic” sex districts.

A queer micropolitics also shows how research is an embodied practice: researchers are gendered, racialized, classed, and sexualized in the field. This became most apparent as she walked alone at night in the “field” and developed a keen awareness of the deeply gendered aspects of Malate’s urban spaces. For one, her embodiment was a peculiar presence because women in Manila do not walk alone at night. This includes women sex workers who publicly congregate in groups or with clients and escorts; otherwise, they are subject to police harassment. Hence, her very movement in the field as a sole woman felt like a transgression into masculine urban space because her feminine body was treated as “out-of-place” in the public spaces of the streets at night—she was flirted with, name called, followed, and sexually handled as she walked to gay bars for her research. As much as her queer location afforded her an understanding of how gender is a discursive production on the body, replete with the possibility of her being able to transcend and destabilize the gendered body as a biological “reality,” she confronted the discomfort of being read as a real woman in what became predominantly men’s spaces at night.

Yet this gendered embodiment, in part, shaped her knowledge of the district as she developed quick and knowledgeable movement through the streets, a queer micropolitical reading of urban space that arose out of this limited gender location. She was aware of the spacing of blocks, the alleys, the street lighting, and the time of night when crowds spilled out from the bars and onto the streets, allowing her to realize that a socially vibrant street life actually facilitated her movement. This queer micropolitical reading of urban space showed how both researchers and research participants do not simply exist in a neutral way in city space; rather, gender leads to our use and misuse of urban space. She has juxtaposed her experience with those of research participants in her study. The latter spoke at length about their exploratory and liberatory experiences of urban space, replete with their access to masculine sexual spaces—parks for cruising and sex, city blocks for meeting clients or picking up male sex workers, and alleys, movie theaters, and mall bathrooms for anonymous sex.

This queer micropolitical read of Malate’s gentrified space showed how very different was her access to the newly opening bars, restaurants, cafés, and lifestyle stores. Her whiteness signaled assumptions of her class location and positioned her as part of the international presence that this gentrifying space was targeting and whose movement among establishments was encouraged. She received free entry, free drinks, exceptional hospitality, and invitations to private parties, and her movements were closely monitored as she entered and exited establishments for the sake of “protecting a foreign tourist from street harassment” (interview with bar owner).

Overall, she experienced whiteness and class as equally embodied because these locations signaled her power as a “legitimate” consumer, allowing access to urban consumer sites and a privileged movement among gentrified spaces. This embodied experience of gentrified space differed from that of her gay hosts, who were often denied access to these establishments for being Filipino, young, working class, gay, and interested in foreigners. Contrarily, their bodies were constructed as a “threat” to urban renewal in the district.

Resisting Reinscription

Critical qualitative research is also concerned with the politics of representation in research. This requires a hard look at the implicit imperialisms of ethnographic work, including the tendency to go in and get out with abundant factual information, as well as the lasting impact of objectificatory research practices on fields of study. Such practices are evident in the now global rhetoric about the so-called Third World prostitute, who in both academic and journalistic renderings tends to be sensationalized and sexually Othered. This rendering is part of a long history of exoticization that has denied subjectivity and rendered invisible the lived experiences of sexual laborers around the world.

Such failed representations are part of what Kum-Kum Bhavnani (1993) has called “reinscription”—the tendency in research to freeze research participants and sites in time and space, thus rendering them both exotic and silenced. Reinscription denies agency to research participants and renders invisible the dynamic lived experiences of those same research participants. Doing research in both postcolonial and sexual spaces means that researchers must grapple with how our research participates in histories of reinscription—we both enter into and potentially contribute to a field that has been already “examined,” overstudied, and often exoticized. Thus, a critical qualitative approach is one that begins with a thorough understanding of these histories of representation so that we are not entering fields naïvely, as spaces only of exploration. Rather, we enter with knowledge of how the field has already been constituted for us through reinscription. A critical orientation has a core objective of understanding how our representations of research at all levels of the research process could contribute to exoticization by reinscribing participants and sites.

The issue of reinscription became particularly apparent when Dana Collins interviewed gay hosts and grappled with what appeared to be their elaboration of a contradictory picture of their sexual labor, as well as of their lives. In short, hosts tended to “lie,” remain silent, embellish “truths,” and articulate contradictory allusions to their life and labor in Malate. When Collins began her interviewing, she held the implicit objective of obtaining the “truth” about hosts’ lives, which she believed resided in “what they do” in the tourism industry. She was concerned with the “facts” about their lives, even though gay hosts were more likely to express their desire—desire for relations with foreigners, desire to migrate to a “gay” urban district, desire for rewarding work, and desire for community and social change. She struggled with many uncertainties about the discussions: how could they hold a range of “jobs” and attend school, yet spend most of their days and nights in Malate? How could they understand gay tourists as both boyfriends and clients? Why resist the label “sex worker” yet refer to themselves as “working boys” and claim to have “clients?” She struggled to make sense of the meanings that hosts offered even as she simultaneously felt misled concerning the “real” relations of hospitality.

Interviewing hosts about sexualized labor—as a way to produce a representation of sex work—did not facilitate the flow of candid information; hosts later expressed their view that sex work and their lives were already “overstudied.” Many researchers had previously descended on Malate to study sex work, and the district was a prime location for the outreach of HIV/AIDS organizations, some of which had breached the confidence of the gay host community. In short, Dana mistakenly started her research without the knowledge of Malate as a hyperrepresented field, and her research risked reinscribing gay hosts’ lives within that field as static and unchanging.

Importantly, those gay hosts who resisted becoming the “good research subjects” who give accurate and bountiful information, prompted a radical shift in her research framework. They told her stories about their imagined social lives, which encouraged her to rethink her commitment to researching sex work because the transformation of the discourses offered another view of the district, their work, and lives, one that offered a more visionary perspective. She began to focus less on “misinformation” and instead followed how hosts framed their lives. She treated these framings as social imaginings in which Malate features prominently in their understandings of gay identity, community, belonging, and change. In short, their social imaginings functioned as counternarratives to reinscription and offered their lived experience of urban gay place. Such imaginations expressed hope, fear, critique, and desire—in short, they present a utopic vision of identity, community, and urban change.

Integrating Lived Experience

Finally, critical qualitative research is a call to study lived experience, which is a messy, contradictory realm, but a deeply important one if we as critical researchers are truly interested in working against a history of research that has silenced those “under study” (see Weis & Fine, 2012 ). Paying attention to lived experience allows us to better engage with the contradictions mentioned earlier because lived experience is about understanding the meanings that research participants choose to share with researchers, and it is also about respecting their silences. As Kum-Kum Bhavnani (1993) has argued, silences can be as eloquent as words. Finally, integrating lived experience can take a critical qualitative project further because lived experience allows researchers to explore the epistemological relationship of the meanings and imaginings offered by research participants and to be explicit about the project of knowledge production. In other words, a central guiding question of critical qualitative research is how can research participants speak and shape epistemology, rather than solely being spoken about or being the subjects of epistemology?

Collins used hosts’ social imaginings as an epistemological contribution because their imaginings showed how hosts draw from experiences of urban gay community to articulate their desires for change, despite their simultaneous experiences of inequality and exclusion. We read social imaginings as a subjective rendering of urban place—the hosts’ social imaginings expressed their history, identity, subversive uses of urban space, and, ultimately, the symbolic reconstitution of that urban space. In this way, hosts were refiguring transnational urban space by writing themselves and their labor back into the district’s meaning, even as the global forces of tourism and urban renewal threatened to displace them.

In conclusion, we seek to highlight how critical research insists on the interplay of reflexivity, process, and practice. In particular, we encourage critical researchers to be mindful of the multiple meanings and usages of the term “critical” so that we can make more explicit our political interests and stand within our disciplines, the academy, our community, and the world. We offer dialectical materialism as a distinct mode of critical analysis that emphasizes an analysis of change in essence, practice, and struggle. We also suggest that, for researchers to be critical in their research, they should strive to take up research questions and projects that study change, contradictions, struggle, and practice in order to counter dominant interests and advance the well-being of the world’s majority. We should strive to build new research relationships—such as overcoming the faulty divides between researchers and research participants and by promoting systems of community accountability—that dialectically fuse research, political activism, and progressive social change.

Furthermore, we suggest that critical research can agitate against the homogeneity of ethnographic representation, allowing for the realities of people’s lives to come into view. Critical researchers recognize the contested fields of research; yet this requires our critical engagement with the research process, as a reflexive, empathetic, collective, self-altering, socially transformative, and embedded exercise in knowledge production. Therefore, critical research can resist imperialist research practices that are disembodied and that assume a singular social positioning. We use an imperative here to say that we must conduct research as embodied subjects who shift between multiple and limited locations. We also have to find more ways to remain accountable to our communities of research as a way to undo implicit imperialisms in social research. Critical research can work against the remnants of an objectivist and truth-seeking method that supports prevailing interests, classes, and groups while embracing research from social locations that offer situated knowledges and the possibility for greater shared understandings. Finally, critical research can engage the micropolitics of research and foreground the need for the accountability of researchers to resist reproducing epistemic violence.

This last is an idealist imagining of what should happen. However, a number of research projects have approximated closely to these goals.

Parts of our argument have appeared in some of our earlier work (e.g., Bhavnani & Talcott, 2011 ; Collins, 2009 ; 2002 ; Chua, 2001 ).

Although we, as the chapter’s three authors, do not usually use “we” in our writing as a general pronoun, it is the most direct way to offer our insights in this section.

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What difference does one course make? Assessing the impact of content-based instruction on students’ sustainability literacy

  • Inan Deniz Erguvan   ORCID: 1  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  11 , Article number:  708 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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  • Language and linguistics

Composition studies, with their cross-disciplinary role in students’ academic lives, can be essential in placing sustainability at the center of students’ learning. This research assessed the impact of content-based instruction on students’ sustainability literacy in a first-year composition course through a mixed-method design. In the quantitative part of this case study, 221 students in different classes of a first-year writing course in a higher education institute in Kuwait during the Fall term of 2022 were first given a pretest to determine their sustainability literacy levels. During a 6-week period, 121 students participated in the content-based instruction emphasizing sustainability, while 100 students comprised the control group, receiving curriculum without any emphasis on sustainability. The allocation of students in these two groups was random, determined solely by the classes they were enrolled in at the beginning of the semester. At the end of the semester, both the experimental and control groups were given a posttest to measure the impact of the instruction on their sustainability literacy levels. For the qualitative component, 60 students from the experimental group and 60 students from the control group were tasked with composing an essay identifying Kuwait’s major sustainability challenges and proposing corresponding solutions. The impact of content-based instruction on students’ literacy levels was measured by conducting a qualitative and quantitative content analysis on their writing. The results showed that the experimental group students made statistically significant improvements in their sustainable literacy levels, scored better on the posttest, used more sustainability terms and concepts, and identified more sustainability-related challenges and solutions in their essays.


Our planet faces a critical emergency, evident in ecosystem devastation, species extinction, the depletion and destruction of vital resources, widespread pollution, and extreme poverty affecting billions of people. Scientists attribute these challenges significantly to our ignorance of the limits of Earth’s resources.

With its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is one of the most important attempts to solve the intricate global issues of our day. Reaching the objectives of sustainable development (SD) requires education. According to the UN, sustainability literacy includes the mindsets, abilities, and information people need to genuinely commit to creating a sustainable future and make wise decisions in that direction (Decamps, 2017 ).

The Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) framework, developed by the UN, serves as a roadmap for institutions and educators to revise curricula and teaching pedagogies based on sustainability principles. This framework is employed by hundreds of universities worldwide (Yuan and Zuo, 2013 ). ESD has gained political and institutional acceptability in many parts of the world recognizing the potential of promoting sustainability literacy to foster creative solutions to the world’s problems.

There is consensus that higher education institutions (HEIs) ought to promote sustainable development via research and activism since all students, regardless of their field of study, have the capacity to be social change agents. As a result, pupils need to acquire the skills necessary to contribute to a sustainable future (Buckler and Creech, 2014 ).

HEIs are responsible for teaching sustainability literacy and producing environmentally conscious citizens, given their ability to shape students’ attitudes and perspectives (Stephens et al. 2008 ). This endeavor holds particular significance in creating a new generation keenly aware of the global environmental challenges we are going through (Koehn and Uitto, 2017 ).

Leal Filho ( 2010 ) argues that universities cannot avoid dealing with the biggest problems that humanity is currently experiencing. Additionally, he contends that ESD is especially important in higher education since students will soon be pursuing careers in a variety of fields and will need to understand how their careers can contribute to the solution of sustainability issues. According to Leal Filho ( 2010 ), ESD will inspire students “to take action both during their time as students and, later on, as professionals” (p. 2). Therefore, in order to effectively address the difficulties they will experience in their various disciplines, undergraduates should develop competence-based sustainability awareness and literacy.

Sustainable development is not restricted to a single science. Composition studies, with their inherent cross-disciplinary and distinctive purpose in students’ academic lives, can play an important role in making sustainability a core focus of the curriculum. Composition instructors have the freedom to teach in a variety of contexts and disciplines. While teaching composition is as labor-intensive as any other subject in higher education, writing instructors have more clout to urge students to investigate a wide range of topics than academics who teach in more specialized fields (Owens, 2001 ).

Although certain curricular initiatives have been the subject of research, the impact of curriculum design on improving sustainability understanding has not received as much attention. Because of this, there are currently no guidelines in the literature for developing curriculum that specifically address sustainability learning objectives. Therefore, the goal of this project is to enhance students’ sustainability literacy by supporting the development of a structured curriculum in a first-year writing course. In order to do this, this study examined the benefits of utilizing textual and audiovisual materials in content-based instruction to introduce students to the three dimensions of sustainability as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Content-based instruction (CBI) is a popular approach to language education that combines content and language learning. Content-based education varies from standard language classes in that language comes second to content. This teaching technique is deemed effective because it employs English as a medium to impart content knowledge while providing various opportunities for students to use English in class (Brinton et al. 2003 ). Thus, the use of English stems from meaningful purposes (content learning) and frequent practice (opportunities to use English), resulting in an environment conducive to rich discussions, ultimately improving language fluency while reinforcing the content taught in a variety of academic areas. In other words, content-based language acquisition gives pupils a valid or relevant purpose to use the language they are learning (Kennedy 2006 ).

The CBI is seen as an effective tool for preparing students for higher education studies in a new language and context. Song ( 2006 ) conducted a long-term study to find out how well CBI worked for ESL students at a community college in the United States. According to the study, students enrolled in the content-linked ESL program passed the ESL course with greater marks and pass rates. They also performed better in follow-up ESL and developmental English classes. Overall, compared to their peers, the ESL students who were linked to content demonstrated higher levels of long-term academic performance. Higher GPA overall, graduation and retention rates, and English proficiency exam pass rates were all indicators of this achievement.

According to Stoller ( 2004 ), CBI stands out for its dedication to both language and content-learning objectives. Over the years, the program has garnered support as a result of students’ improved language skills and content-area knowledge at the elementary, middle, and post-secondary education levels, which attests to its perceived successes. According to Kennedy ( 2006 ), kids who study languages in addition to other subjects perform better academically and are able to make links between their studies and the real world. Multiple teaching methodologies are employed in content-based foreign language instruction, which also accounts for the variety of learning styles and intelligences present in the classroom (Kennedy, 2006 ).

However, despite the abundance of interest in using CBI to increase students’ awareness of certain topics and concepts, there is still a lack of research in assessing the impact of CBI on sustainability literacy. There are a few case studies, several reports of individual attempts and class practices to implement CBI in EFL classes to familiarize students with sustainability concepts (Vorholt, 2018 ; Schneider, 2017 ), and the empirical studies tend to focus on assessing teachers’ perspectives on teaching sustainability to their students (Shah et al., 2022 ; Maijala et al., 2023 ). Additionally, studies assessing the impact of CBI on students’ sustainability literacy with an experimental research design are very rare in the literature. Thus, this research is expected to make an important contribution to the field of sustainability education in higher education institutions.

This research employs a case study approach due to its ability to allow in depth, multifaceted explorations of complex issues in a real-world context (Crowe et al., 2011 ). This methodology aligns with the exploratory nature of this research, enabling us to generate a contextualized understanding that contributes to the existing body of knowledge. The selected case institution offers a valuable opportunity to examine a real-world scenario that is both relevant to our research questions and has generated practical implications for decision-makers in the field.

The main research questions that will guide the study are as follows:

Did the content-based instruction have any significant effect on the participants’ sustainability literacy levels?

Are there any differences between the control and experimental groups’ essays in terms of students’ perceptions of sustainability challenges and their solutions in Kuwait?


The idea of sustainability is not so new; it existed before the field of environmental sciences as we know it today. Nonetheless, the need to use resources sustainably has become more widely recognized due to factors including population growth, increased consumption following the Industrial Revolution, and the threat of the depletion of essential resources like coal, oil, and wood. Fears that living standards would not be maintained for current or future generations sparked a style of thinking that led to the creation and acceptance of sustainable development (Du Pisani, 2006 ).

Although there is still no commonly accepted definition of sustainability, its context has eventually widened to include “three pillars”; namely the social, economic, and environmental aspects of sustainability (Purvis et al., 2019 ). Initially, the focus was mainly on the environmental dimension of sustainability and many researchers considered this dimension more important than the other two, however, later, the economic, and social dimensions started to attract similar amounts of attention (Colantonio, 2007 ).

Following the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which was the first UN conference devoted to environmental issues, there have been global efforts to redefine sustainability. There are many definitions of sustainable development, but the one that is most often cited comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987 ).

Solutions to sustainability issues, whether ecological, social, or economic, hinge on decision-making processes at both the organizational and individual levels. It is important to recognize that organizational decisions stem from individual choices (Carley and Behrens, 1999 ). Therefore, the success of sustainability goals largely relies on individual decision-making, particularly in consumer behavior. By opting for sustainable choices, consumers can drive demand for sustainable products and services, articulate their values, reduce their environmental footprint, and contribute to building a culture of sustainability. The positive effect of education on pro-environmental consumption behaviors is evident in the literature (AlNuaimi and AlGhamdi, 2022 ; Adjengdia and Schlegelmilch, 2020 ; Achola et al., 2020 ) and was recognized in the Brundtland Report ( 1987 ).

Furthermore, in 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Commission on Sustainable Development emphasized the crucial role of information in informed decision-making. Hence, education emerges as a vital instrument in achieving sustainability goals. It empowers individuals and communities to take meaningful action and make informed choices that safeguard the environment while promoting social and economic development.

Sustainability literacy

Organizations from a variety of sectors have prioritized educational projects aimed at improving people’s understanding of sustainability because they believe that a sustainable future requires a society that is knowledgeable about sustainability. The significance of sustainability education has been emphasized recently by international organizations, private companies, and most significantly, higher education institutions. Renewing interest in creating trustworthy assessments of sustainability literacy and knowledge has coincided with the increased emphasis on sustainability education.

Various approaches have been used to develop a valid assessment tool for sustainability literacy. One noteworthy example is the SULITEST (Sustainability Literacy Test), established after the Rio+20 Conference (Decamps et al., 2017 ). SULITEST is an online standardized set of multiple-choice questions that can be used globally, alongside specialized modules tailored to specific national, regional, and cultural contexts. Décamps et al. ( 2017 ) outlined the structure of this tool and highlighted its potential for measuring sustainability literacy on a global scale, recommending its adoption by educational institutions.

Similarly, Zwickle and Jones ( 2017 ) developed a web-based survey tool to assess the sustainability knowledge of undergraduate students at Ohio State University; this tool involved 1000 participants and comprised 16 multiple-choice questions. In the United States, the American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) introduced the Sustainability Tracking Assessment Rating System (STARS) in 2010, with participation from more than a thousand institutions by 2022. The STARS evaluates the sustainability efforts of colleges and universities in the U.S., rewarding institutions that offer a greater number of sustainability-related courses or even require students to complete at least one sustainability course as part of their general education requirements (Bullock and Wilder, 2016 ). Participating institutions assess the sustainability literacy of their students, focusing on their knowledge of sustainability topics and challenges.

As higher education institutions and society at large increasingly prioritize the importance of individuals’ understanding of sustainability, the need for accurate assessments of sustainability knowledge becomes more significant. The development of improved measures of sustainability knowledge is anticipated to enhance sustainability education and ultimately cultivate a population with higher levels of sustainability literacy (Kuehl et al., 2023 ).

Sustainability in Kuwait

Kuwait is identified as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, owing to its substantial revenues derived from the oil sector. The country enjoys an abundance of wealth from the oil sector which make up more than 90% of Kuwait’s export earnings, a dependence that makes it difficult to diversify the economy and develop other industries that are less reliant on fossil fuels (Eltony, 2002 ). Consequently, Kuwait encounters various sustainability challenges, primarily stemming from its heavy reliance on oil revenues (AlOthman and Palliam, 2018 ). Some of the major environmental challenges faced by Kuwait are air pollution, water scarcity, and waste management. The country has high levels of air pollution due to its petrochemical industry activities and transportation. Water scarcity is a significant issue in Kuwait, where desalination plants are relied upon to meet water needs. Nevertheless, Kuwaitis consume a staggering 520 l of freshwater per capita per day, one of the highest in the world (Kuwait National Development Plan, 2017 ). Waste management poses another significant challenge, as Kuwait generates large amounts of waste due to high mass consumption, necessitating proper disposal and recycling methods (Al Yaqout et al., 2002 ; Koushki et al., 2004 ). Currently, water and energy consumption, along with waste production per capita, rank among the highest globally in Kuwait.

The country has launched several initiatives to promote sustainable development, and the most significant initiative is the Kuwait National Development Plan (KNDP) that serves as a roadmap for sustainable development in Kuwait. The KNDP emphasizes the importance of economic, social, and environmental sustainability and sets targets for reducing carbon emissions, improving waste management, and promoting renewable energy (Kuwait National Development Plan, 2017 ). Kuwait officially embraced the SDGs in September 2015, subsequently integrating them into its Vision 2035 plan.

Despite these efforts, Kuwait currently holds the 101st position out of 163 countries, with an overall score of 64.53 (Sachs et al., 2022 ). Furthermore, there remains a gap in the implementation of sustainable practices by government agencies and a lack of sustainable awareness among the public. Very few studies exist in this domain, with the overarching message emphasizing the need for greater awareness of sustainability in Kuwait. For example, a study by Al Qattan and Gray ( 2021 ) revealed that government policies and practices inadequately address pollution issues, particularly in Kuwaiti water bodies. Similarly, AlSanad ( 2015 ) found that lack of awareness acts as a main barrier to adopting sustainable construction approaches in Kuwait and stresses the need for governmental initiatives such as standards, policies, and incentives to promote sustainability. According to similar research (Koushki et al., 2004 ; AlSulalili et al., 2014 ; Al Beeshi et al., 2020 ), there is a dearth of public knowledge of sustainable waste management techniques and municipal programs for waste prevention, reduction, or recycling.

Kuwait’s overall score of 64.53 places it 101st out of 163 countries, notwithstanding these efforts (Sachs et al., 2022 ). In addition, there is still a lack of public understanding of sustainability issues and a gap in the way government agencies are implementing sustainable practices. There are very few studies in this field, and most of them emphasize how important it is for Kuwaitis to be more conscious of sustainability. Al Qattan and Gray’s study from 2021, for instance, showed that pollution problems are not sufficiently addressed by government policies and practices, especially when it comes to Kuwaiti water bodies. Similar findings were made by AlSanad ( 2015 ), who highlighted the necessity of governmental initiatives such as standards, rules, and incentives and discovered that a major obstacle to Kuwait’s adoption of sustainable construction practices is a lack of awareness.

In conclusion, despite bourgeoning awareness of sustainability among businesses and the government’s initiatives to promote sustainability, Kuwait still requires heightened awareness and implementation of sustainable practices and concerted efforts to address the nation’s oil reliance and propel towards a more sustainable future.


This study has a true experimental research design with random assignment of students in control and experimental groups, with a pretest and posttest administered to both groups. A mixed-method sequential explanatory approach was adopted to collect the data, which were first quantitative and then qualitative in two consecutive phases of the study (Creswell, 2012 ; Creswell and Clark, 2011 ). Using mixed methods helps to provide a more comprehensive framework of the phenomenon by enabling rich and informative data and validating and triangulating the data by analyzing the same issue through both quantitative and qualitative methods (Silverman, 2000 ).

Research population

The research population of the study consisted of students at a private university in Kuwait based on an American-style model of higher education that offers instruction in English. A total of 221 first-year composition students participated and were divided into experimental and control groups, with 100 students assigned to the experimental group and 121 to the control group. The allocation of students into these groups was random and determined by their enrollment in specific course sections at the beginning of the semester. The discrepancy in group sizes reflects variations in the number of students per course section, typically ranging from 20 to 25.

In the experimental group, 100 students received specialized content-based instruction focused on sustainability, while the remaining 121 students in the control group completed regular assignments as outlined in the course syllabus, covering various predetermined topics assigned by their writing instructors. Both groups underwent a pretest before the commencement of content-based instruction and a posttest at the conclusion of the semester.

The participants’ demographic information is displayed in Table 1 .

For the qualitative part of the study, the researcher collected essays from students at the end of the Fall semester of 2022. The research population consisted of students in both the experimental and control groups who attended the class and signed the consent form on the day of data collection, week 15 of Fall 2022. There were 65 students who produced an essay in the experimental group and 67 in the control group. Five essays from the experimental group and seven essays from the control group were eliminated because they had a very low word count (less than 100 words), thus, 120 were left for analysis.

Data collection

The quantitative section collected data through an adapted version of the Sustainability Literacy Assessment, prepared by a committee at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to measure the university’s sustainability performance, within the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) framework ( 2018 ). The assessment form included four sections, testing the knowledge level with five multiple-choice questions, and assessing students’ self-reported skills, attitudes and familiarity with some sustainability topics and concepts on a five-point Likert scale. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval (case number 278674) was obtained, and students signed the consent form before the data collection. A total of 221 students completed the questionnaire—121 in the control group and 100 in the experimental group.

Table 2 shows the reliability scores of these sections of the data collection tool. When the scales are examined, it is determined that they have a good level of reliability. A Cronbach’s alpha greater than 0.50 indicates that the scale used is reliable. This also indicates that the internal consistency of the scale used in the study is good.

In the qualitative data collection, students in both the experimental and control groups were asked to write a short essay identifying the major sustainability challenge of Kuwait and offering solutions to this problem. This session was conducted during the scheduled class time of 50 min, on the computer under the instructor’s supervision.

Data analysis

The quantitative data were analyzed using the SPSS Statistics (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) for Windows 25.0 program. Along with descriptive statistical methods (numbers, percentages, minimum-maximum values, median, mean, standard deviation), chi-square analysis was applied to test the homogeneity of the groups. The data were checked for the normal distribution compatibility with Q–Q plot drawing for its skewness and kurtosis values (±3).

For quantitative data comparison in normally distributed data, an independent t test was used for comparisons between two independent groups, and a dependent t test was used for comparisons between two dependent stages. One-way ANOVA was applied for comparisons of more than two independent groups.

Three processes comprise the data analysis process in qualitative research: arranging and prepping the data for analysis, coding and condensing the data to reduce the data into themes and presenting the data in tables and figures (Creswell, 2012 ). The content analysis method was used to assess the data collected for this study. The methodical, impartial, and, if feasible, quantitative examination of the content of different documents is known as content analysis (Bilgin, 2006 ). Content analysis’s primary goal is to find ideas and connections that will contribute to the explanation of the information gathered.

The student essays were imported into the MAXQDA 2022 program, which utilizes visual analysis tools extensively and offers a more structured approach to data analysis than manual analysis (Kuckartz and Rädiker, 2019 ). To identify the most frequent words and word combinations in the essays, a quantitative content analysis was performed using the MaxDictio function of the software. For the qualitative content analysis, a combined approach incorporating both inductive and deductive methods was employed. The researcher thoroughly reviewed the data multiple times, generating initial codes. Codes that were related to each other were then grouped together under relevant themes and assigned appropriate names. Subsequently, the obtained themes were elaborated upon in detail and the findings were interpreted.

Research Question 1

Did the content-based instruction have a significant effect on the participants’ sustainability literacy levels?

The first section of the questionnaire included five questions testing students’ knowledge of sustainability. Table 3 below shows the percentages of correct and incorrect answers in the control and experimental groups according to the pretest and posttest scores.

According to Table 3 , the experimental group of students in the posttest scored the highest percentage in the knowledge questions. The percentage of correct answers produced by the students in the control group did not show a consistent pattern, while it increased in Q1 and Q3, it decreased in Q2, Q4, and Q5.

However, for the experimental group, the students’ correct answers to all the questions increased. To assess whether these differences were statistically significant, an independent t test was conducted between the pretest and posttest scores of the two groups.

Table 4 shows the result of the independent t test conducted to compare the average knowledge of the participants before and after the CBI. There was no statistically significant difference between the control group and experimental group participants’ pretest knowledge averages, but there was a statistically significant difference in posttest averages ( p  < 0.05).

The questionnaire also included questions asking students to evaluate their literacy in skills, attitudes, and topics and concepts regarding sustainability. Table 5 shows the results of the independent t test conducted to compare the skills, attitudes, and topic and concept scores of the participants according to their groups. According to these findings, the posttest scores for skills, attitudes, and familiarity with topics and concepts were significantly greater for the experimental group participants than for the control group participants.

Research Question 2

Are there any differences between the control and experimental groups’ essays in terms of their perceptions of sustainability challenges and their solutions in Kuwait?

To analyze this question, students were asked to write an essay identifying the major sustainability challenge of Kuwait and offering some solutions to it. The essays were processed through MAXQDA, and the frequency distributions of the control and experimental group student essays are shown in Table 6 .

According to student perspectives, the major sustainability challenges in Kuwait were dependence on oil, donating money to other countries and unemployment in the economic area. In the environmental realm, pollution and littering were the most frequently mentioned problems, followed by climate change. Loss of biodiversity and scarcity of resources were the other two major environmental sustainability challenges. Social sustainability issues in Kuwait, as per student views, could be listed as health and wellbeing problems, corruption, lack of quality infrastructure, quality of education, gender inequality and discrimination and human rights issues.

Table 6 also shows the number of essays mentioning the coded sustainability problems in each group type. According to these findings, students in the control group identified similar codes for environmental and economic sustainability problems, except for unemployment, with varying frequencies. However, regarding social sustainability problems, no control group student mentioned quality of education, reducing inequality and discrimination, or traffic accidents, and only one student mentioned malnutrition and obesity, corruption and gender equality. These issues were identified by a larger number of students in the experimental group. Overall, in the sustainability problems content analysis, 94 codes were included in the control group, and 137 codes were included in the experimental group.

Table 7 below shows the codes in the student essays for solutions to Kuwait’s major sustainability problems. According to the content analysis of the essays, the control group students did not mention five solutions that were mentioned by the experimental group. These were Kuwaitization and creating jobs in the economic sustainability domain, improving the quality of education, reducing inequality and discrimination, and reducing traffic accidents in the social sustainability domain. Both groups proposed the same solutions in the environmental domain, with control group 84, and experimental 68 codes. However, overall, the control group students had 104 codes, and the experimental group students had 137 codes for sustainability solutions.

A final content analysis was conducted quantitatively, via the MAXDictio function of MAXQDA to test how many sustainability related terms and concepts the students used in their essays. The list prepared by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability (AASHE)’s Suggested Keywords for Sustainability Course and Research Inventories (The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2023 ) was uploaded to the software and the student essays were analyzed based on these keywords.

According to Table 8 , the word count of the essays in the experimental group reached 27,751, and that of the control group reached 28,303. Despite the higher word count, dictionary-based content analysis revealed that the experimental group used more sustainability related keywords, as listed in the inventory. Students in the experimental group used 122, and the control group used 97 of these suggested sustainability keywords in their essays.

This study aimed to assess the impact of a 6-week course on content-based instruction (CBI) on the sustainability literacy levels of composition students. Our findings indicate that CBI significantly improved the sustainability literacy of the experimental group, as evidenced by their post-test scores and written work.

The first research question was addressed quantitatively, revealing significant improvements in the experimental group’s knowledge levels, skills, attitudes, and familiarity with sustainability concepts compared to those of the control group. This finding suggested that CBI effectively enhanced students’ sustainability literacy.

The second research question was explored qualitatively through the analysis of student essays. The experimental group demonstrated a greater ability to identify sustainability problems facing their country and propose solutions, particularly in the social sustainability domain. Additionally, they used more sustainability-related keywords in their essays, despite the control group having longer essays.

The results of our data analysis for both research questions revealed the positive effect of CBI on student learning. Content-based instruction is indeed widely recognized for its potential to enhance language learning outcomes and our findings are consistent with those of several previous studies in the field. While sustainable development is not frequently included in language education or promoted as part of teacher preparation for language learners (Maijala et al. 2023 ), it can readily succumb to CBI. CBI has begun transforming language-learning environments into places where students utilize language to research urgent global challenges, such as climate change (Turpin, 2022 ). A wide range of curricular approaches are included in CBI, ranging from language-focused programs where content is viewed as a helpful tool for extending the goals of the language curriculum to content-focused programs where content acquisition is prioritized over language learning (Met, 1999 ). As a result, teaching environmental and sustainable education in English as a foreign language (EFL) classes is growing in popularity.

Vorholt ( 2018 ) designed and taught a 6-week CBI course titled, “Environmental Issues” to undergraduate students at Lewis & Clark College, USA. The course focused on ecology versus economy, sustainability, and activism, which involved activities such as service learning and speaking. However, although she published her experiences and guidelines for designing the course, she did not assess the impact of student learning at the end of the course. Another review involved evaluating the opportunities for using an online German class as a vehicle for sustainability education in Ecuador, through content-based instruction (Schneider, 2017 ). This paper proposes adjusting the content of an online class and offering activities that will promote sustainability in a developing economy such as Ecuador.

A similar study was conducted in Switzerland, where SULITEST was administered to first-semester students in an HE institution, both before and after the survey (Zizka and Varga, 2021 ). Although the method used was not content-based instruction, the authors suggested that students from various nationalities and linguistic backgrounds in the Swiss HEI received an introductory course in English and French to sustainable hospitality culture aimed at providing insight into hospitality and tourism challenges and to reflecting on their sustainable solutions. The course did not specifically target the SDGs, but according to the posttest results, students’ knowledge about sustainability in general improved, and even exceeded the worldwide averages overall.

An attempt to incorporate environmental sustainability was made by task-based teaching in a translation course at two universities in Indonesia (Siregar et al., 2022 ). At the end of the course, the posttest demonstrated that the student’s confidence, one of the keys to acquiring a language, increased when using specific terms. The combination of task-based learning with appropriate content that is relevant to personal life, such as environmental sustainability increased the students’ motivation to learn and benefit from the translation activity.

Task-based learning was used in a translation course at two Indonesian institutions in an effort to include environmental sustainability (Siregar et al. 2022 ). The post-test at the end of the course showed that utilizing particular terms boosted the student’s confidence, which is one of the cornerstones to learning a language. Students were more motivated to learn and gain from the translation exercise when task-based learning was combined with relevant, real-world topics, including environmental sustainability.

A closer look at the findings of the second research question highlights the fact that students in both the experimental and control groups produced the highest number of codes for sustainability problems and solutions in the environmental pillar of sustainability. This aligns with the literature which suggests that the environmental pillar of sustainability is most often the one that students are more aware of (Zizka and Varga, 2021 ). For example, Chaplin and Wyton ( 2014 ) found that university students strongly associate recycling and sustainable living, and in many cases, they are believed to be the same thing. According to Drayson et al. ( 2014 ) the environmental dimension is the most prominent dimension in university students’ understanding of sustainable development. Another study conducted in China (Yuan and Zuo, 2013 ) showed that the students’ perceptions of the top priorities for higher education for sustainable development are generally environmentally oriented.

One interesting finding of the content analysis of the essays is that students in the experimental group mentioned more social sustainability problems and solutions than did those in the control group. These essays produced codes such as corruption, gender inequality and (lack of) quality of education, which are indeed some major social sustainability challenges Kuwait is facing, as reported in the Sustainable Development Report by the UN (Sachs et al., 2022 ). Gender inequality in Kuwait has been described as “significant challenges stagnating” by the UN, scoring particularly low in indicators such as the “ratio of female-to-male labor force participation” and ‘seats held by women in the national parliament’. Despite the growing achievements of Kuwaiti women, they still face challenges in social, cultural, and political arenas (Al Zuabi, 2016 ). In his study, Al Zuabi explored the Kuwaiti women’s challenges in attaining participation in the sociopolitical development of Kuwait and found that there are barriers preventing their empowerment and effective participation in national development. The fact that four students in the experimental group presented this problem and offered solutions to ensuring gender equality in the country as opposed to zero students in the control group could be interpreted as a positive influence of the sustainability-focused CBI.

Another major social problem that the country is facing and that emerged in the experimental group essays is corruption. Kuwait’s score in the Corruption Perceptions Index is decreasing (Sachs et al., 2022 ) and is defined as a significant challenge indicator. According to Al Saif ( 2020 ), corruption is a multilayered system in Kuwait that involves more than embezzlement and money laundering, with “wasta” (the Arabic word for the use of connections and influence to gain favors) serving as the cornerstone. Although corruption poses an existential threat to the country, it remains widespread to the extent that it has “become a staple of governance and a feature of everyday life in Kuwait” (Al Saif, 2020 ). Kuwait’s ranking in corruption indices falls every year, and this major social problem was identified solely by experimental group students, rather than by the control group.

The quality of education was another social sustainability problem mentioned by the experimental group students, but not by the control group. Despite some challenges, Quality Education (SDG 4) is a domain in which Kuwait seems to be doing better according to UN standards, with its high literacy and school enrollment rates. However, the Kuwaiti education system falls far below international standards and is quite inefficient, resulting in a higher cost per student. Among 141 countries, Kuwait has been ranked 112th globally in the skillset of graduates and 83rd in the quality of vocational training, according to the Global Competitiveness Report (World Economic Forum, 2019 ). Kuwait University, the only state university in the country, was ranked 9th in the GCC region, 19th in the Arab World, and 83rd in the MENA region (Abualrub, 2016 ). The major underlying reasons include a short school year, a high repetition rate, and low expenditure on school textbooks and teaching materials (Burney et al., 2013 ). The education system would benefit from increased use of technology, improved educational curriculum, and higher recruitment standards for teachers and their teaching skills (Murad and AlAwadhi, 2018 ; AlFelaij, 2016 ; AlHashem and AlHouti, 2021 ).

Foreign language teachers can play a crucial role in promoting sustainability; however, there are certainly some obstacles to implementing sustainability education in foreign language classes. Academics’ attitudes and level of awareness play a key role in shaping the successful implementation of a range of pedagogical techniques for ESD goals (Crosling et al. 2020 ). Currently, the greatest challenge is teachers’ lack of knowledge of sustainability concepts and their limited experience in teaching sustainability (Maijala et al., 2023 ; Shah et al., 2022 ).

In some countries where sustainability issues are on the political and educational agenda, in-service courses aiming to strengthen university teachers’ competence in integrating sustainable development (SD) into their classes are underway. At Uppsala University, Sweden, such a course was open to diverse participants from different faculties and allowed for stimulating exchanges of knowledge and perspectives (Rehn, 2018 ).

Conclusions and recommendations

In conclusion, this study aimed to evaluate the effects of a six-week content-based instruction (CBI) on the sustainability literacy of first-year composition students. The results from the experimental group showed significant enhancements in knowledge, skills, attitudes, and familiarity with sustainability concepts, as evidenced by the independent t test and content analysis findings.

Quantitative analysis revealed a clear increase in students’ sustainability literacy, aligning with CBI’s recognized potential to enhance language learning outcomes. Qualitative examination of the student essays further highlighted a deeper grasp of sustainability issues, particularly in the environmental domain, echoing existing literature regarding heightened environmental awareness among students.

Additionally, the experimental group demonstrated a heightened awareness of pressing social sustainability challenges in Kuwait, such as gender inequality, corruption, and educational quality. These topics were less emphasized or absent in the control group essays, indicating the positive influence of sustainability-focused CBI on students’ understanding of the social dimension of sustainability.

This study contributes to the existing research in two significant ways. First, it highlights the effectiveness of integrating sustainability into language education through CBI within an ESL context. The observed positive impact suggests that targeted interventions can effectively enhance students’ sustainability literacy, even within traditional language-focused curricula.

Second, the study emphasizes the potential of interdisciplinary approaches to bolster sustainability education in higher education. Collaborative efforts, workshops, and training opportunities across departments can equip writing and composition instructors with the pedagogical tools to integrate sustainability into their curriculum, fostering a more sustainable language-teaching culture.

This study is subject to several limitations. These include the relatively short duration of the CBI, and a small research population focusing on a specific group of students. Importantly, this was a case study in which one faculty member designed her own course materials to integrate sustainability into a first-year writing course at a higher education institution. Despite these constraints, the results were positive. Students exposed to CBI with a sustainability theme demonstrated increased sustainability literacy, evident in their improved scores on knowledge tests, incorporation of sustainability concepts, and the identification of sustainability problems and solutions in their essays. While these findings may not be broadly applicable, they suggest the potential impact of dedicated teachers designing courses to enhance student learning. Additionally, the scope of the study was limited because the effects of CBI were measured shortly before the semester ended, precluding assessment of students’ retention levels in subsequent semesters or years. Therefore, further research is necessary to explore this aspect.

Higher education institutions have a powerful opportunity to equip students in all disciplines with the knowledge and skills needed to achieve the UN’s SDGs by 2030 (Briens et al., 2022 ). By integrating sustainability education across all programs, universities can create a generation of graduates prepared to tackle global challenges.

To this end, preparing teachers and faculty to integrate sustainability issues in language teaching is essential. Higher education institutions should create collaborative programs and training for faculty to boost their understanding of sustainability. These initiatives should educate participants on integrating environmental, social, and economic issues into their teaching subjects and encourage them to develop activities that facilitate integrated teaching approaches (Nur et al., 2022 ; Hauschild et al., 2012 ; Çetinkaya et al., 2015 ).

Finally, educators should be encouraged to conduct similar case studies to contribute to a growing body of evidence showing the positive impact of dedicated teaching efforts in promoting sustainability literacy.

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How to Write an Evaluation Essay That Engages and Persuades: Helpful Tips and Inspiring Examples

How to Write an Evaluation Essay That Engages and Persuades: Helpful Tips and Inspiring Examples

Are you feeling unsure about how to effectively evaluate a subject from your own perspective in an evaluation essay? If you're struggling to understand how to present a balanced assessment, don't worry! We're here to guide you through the process of writing an evaluation that showcases your critical thinking skills.

What Is an Evaluation Essay? 

An evaluation essay is a type of writing in which the writer gives their opinion on a topic. You look at something carefully and think about how good or bad it is. Then, you write down what you think and explain why you think that way.

When you write an evaluation essay, you make a claim about the topic. You say if it's good, bad, or somewhere in between. This type of essay can help you choose the best option out of many choices. Evaluation essays are common in school, but they can also be found in other places, like online reviews or business reports.

Keep in mind that an evaluation essay is different from a descriptive essay. A descriptive essay just tells you about something, but an evaluation essay tells you what the writer thinks about it. 

Essential Elements of an Evaluation Essay

To write a good evaluation essay, it's important to know the three main parts:

  • Criteria : To judge things like products or services, you need to have a clear idea of what you expect from them and what makes them good or bad. For example, if you're evaluating a house, you might look at things like air flow, safety, and how clean it is.
  • Judgment : This part is about deciding if the thing you're looking at meets the standards you set. Using the house example, you would check if the house is as safe as you expected, and then move on to the next criteria.
  • Evidence : Give facts and examples to support your judgments. If you say the house isn't as safe as it should be, give specific reasons why you think that.

What to Consider Before Writing an Evaluation

Before you start writing, make sure your evaluation is fair by avoiding personal opinions and backing up your claims with facts and references. It's important to be balanced and reasonable. It’s also important to learn a lot about the subject before you decide what criteria to use in your analysis. 

Choose standards that show the subject's features, qualities, and values in a good and appropriate way. Focus on supporting your main idea and make sure you have enough evidence to back up the criteria you chose.

Evaluation Essay Outline

Making a clear outline for your evaluation essay is like having a map to organize your ideas. Let's look at an example outline for an evaluation essay:

  • Tell the reader what the subject is, get their attention, and give some background information.
  • End with a thesis statement that states your arguments, sets the focus, and helps the reader understand the main point of your essay.
  • Include at least three body paragraphs, each focusing on a specific criterion and your judgment about it.
  • Support your judgments with relevant evidence and examples.
  • Summarize the main points you talked about in the essay.
  • Give some final thoughts or insights to leave a lasting impression on the reader.

How to Start an Evaluation Essay

When you start an evaluation essay, it's important to get the reader's attention right away. Here are some steps to help you write an interesting introduction:

  • Choose a topic that is both interesting and informative, and make sure you have enough material to write a detailed evaluation.
  • Set clear criteria by identifying important aspects of the subject, defining them as clearly as possible, and thinking about what your audience expects and what their standards are.
  • Gather evidence to support your judgments, including strong and accurate data and facts that show how well the subject meets your criteria.
  • Decide on the structure of your essay , such as a chronological or point-by-point format, to organize your ideas effectively.
  • Write a catchy thesis statement that clearly shows your opinion on the subject, giving readers a clear idea of what your essay is about and where it's going.

How to Write an Evaluation Essay

Now that you know how to start an evaluation essay, let's talk about how to write one that clearly communicates your assessment:

  • Pick a topic that is both educational and interesting, and make sure there's enough information to fill a whole essay.
  • Make an outline to keep your content organized and make the writing process easier. Include an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
  • In the introduction, start with a strong hook statement , give some background information, and write a clear and concise thesis statement.
  • In the body paragraphs, present your views on the topic , provide supporting arguments, and compare the subject to other topics to show its strengths and weaknesses. Think about both the good and bad points to give a well-rounded evaluation.
  • In the conclusion, restate your main points and arguments , present evidence to support your thesis, and persuasively conclude your argument.
  • Review, edit, and proofread your essay carefully to find and fix any mistakes, making sure the final product is polished.

The Structure of an Evaluation Essay

There are different formats you can use when writing an evaluation essay, each with its own unique structure and purpose. Let's take a closer look at some common evaluation essay structures:

  • Chronological structure : This structure is good when you want to describe events in the order they happened, from earliest to latest. It's especially useful when evaluating historical or current events because it allows you to give more details and descriptions.
  • Spatial structure : Unlike the chronological structure, the spatial structure is used when you want to present details of a subject based on where it is or what it looks like. This structure is often used when describing and evaluating art, architecture, or other visual subjects.
  • Compare and contrast structure : As the name suggests, this structure is used to explore similarities (compare) and differences (contrast) between subjects. Usually, the subjects being compared and contrasted are in the same category, but there can be exceptions.
  • Point-by-point structure : This is a type of compare and contrast structure that gives a general view of the individual items being analyzed. Each paragraph talks about a main point and includes the subjects as they relate to that point, rather than organizing the essay by topic.

Inspiring Evaluation Essay Examples to Spark Your Creativity

Let's brainstorm some fresh evaluation essay ideas that might interest you and get your creative juices flowing. Remember, the key to writing an evaluation that really connects with your readers is choosing a topic you genuinely care about.

  • The good and bad things about social media: Is it bringing us closer together or pushing us apart?
  • Evaluate how working from home affects how productive employees are and how they feel.
  • Compare and contrast how well traditional and alternative medicine work for treating common health problems.
  • Look at how streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are changing the way people watch TV and movies.
  • Evaluate how well governments in different countries responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Analyze how influencer culture affects what consumers buy and how they behave.
  • Compare and evaluate the user experience of popular mobile operating systems, like iOS and Android.
  • Evaluate how effective different study techniques are, like flashcards, taking notes, and practice tests, for improving grades in school.
  • Look at how being vegan affects personal health, animal welfare, and the environment.
  • Critically evaluate how diversity and inclusion are shown in popular media, like movies, TV shows, and advertisements.

Expert Tips for Writing a Compelling Evaluation Essay

To write an impressive evaluation essay that engages your readers, consider the following expert tips:

  • Read and analyze your subject carefully, taking notes as you go to help you organize your thoughts and arguments.
  • Read through each paragraph before moving on to the next section to make sure your ideas flow smoothly and logically.
  • Don't be afraid to talk about negative aspects; try to present a balanced evaluation that looks at both the good and the bad.
  • Avoid including small details that don't have enough evidence to support them , as they can confuse you and your readers.
  • Express your thoughts clearly and concisely , avoiding wordiness while still providing enough useful information.
  • Write with precision and attention to detail , following the guidelines for how to write an evaluation paragraph, to keep your readers engaged and persuaded by your assessment.

Wrapping Up

Writing an evaluation essay might seem like a challenge at first, but with the tips and examples we've covered, you're well on your way to expressing your unique perspective with confidence. The key is to stay focused, support your judgments, and keep your writing clear and engaging.

But if you're still feeling a bit unsure or short on time, Aithor is here to lend a hand. Our friendly AI-powered writing tool can help you craft personalized, high-quality essays in no time! Check out Aithor and see how it can make your writing journey a whole lot smoother.

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Improving The Care of Critically Ill Patients: Lessons Learned from The Promotion of Essential Emergency and Critical Care In Tanzania: A Qualitative Study

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Objective To describe the lessons learned during the promotion of a new approach to the care of critically ill patients in Tanzania - Essential Emergency and Critical Care (EECC)

Design A descriptive qualitative study using thematic analysis of structured interviews

Setting and Participants The study was conducted in Tanzania, involving eleven policy makers, researchers and senior clinicians who participated in the promotion of EECC in the country.

Results The five thematic lessons that emerged from the promotion of EECC in Tanzania were: (i) ensure early and close collaboration with the government and stakeholders; (ii) conduct research and utilize evidence; (iii) prioritize advocacy and address misconceptions about EECC; (iv) leverage events and embed activities in other health system interventions and (v) employ a multifaceted implementation strategy.

Conclusion The results from this study show the efficacy of a holistic, comprehensive approach in promoting EECC as each strategy reinforces the others. This approach led the to the successful promotion of EECC and the development of a National Strategic Plan for EECC by the government of Tanzania.

Article Summary Strengths and Limitations of this study:

High credibility of findings due to the in-depth qualitative data collection process and the inclusion of diverse participants, which continued until data saturation was reached.

Mitigation of personal biases by iterative sharing of findings with participants and key stakeholders

The purposeful selection of participants may have missed some stakeholders with alternative viewpoints and experiences.

We were unable to transcribe the interviews, instead, a codebook and audio recordings were used for cross-referencing which may have led some relevant information being missed.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.

Funding Statement

This work was supported by the Welcome Trust [221571/Z/20/Z], as part of the Innovation in low-and middle-income countries Flagship.

Author Declarations

I confirm all relevant ethical guidelines have been followed, and any necessary IRB and/or ethics committee approvals have been obtained.

The details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below:

The study was granted ethical approval from the Tanzanian National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR/HQ/R.8a/Vol.IX/3537).

I confirm that all necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived, and that any patient/participant/sample identifiers included were not known to anyone (e.g., hospital staff, patients or participants themselves) outside the research group so cannot be used to identify individuals.

I understand that all clinical trials and any other prospective interventional studies must be registered with an ICMJE-approved registry, such as I confirm that any such study reported in the manuscript has been registered and the trial registration ID is provided (note: if posting a prospective study registered retrospectively, please provide a statement in the trial ID field explaining why the study was not registered in advance).

I have followed all appropriate research reporting guidelines, such as any relevant EQUATOR Network research reporting checklist(s) and other pertinent material, if applicable.













Funding Statement: This work was supported by the Welcome Trust [221571/Z/20/Z], as part of the ‘Innovation in low-and middle-income countries’ Flagship.

Competing interest: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Data statement: As the qualitative data is not possible to anonymize and we lack ethical approval for public data sharing, the data cannot be made available publicly. Researchers requesting access to the data can contact the corresponding author.

Data Availability

As the project lacks ethical approval for public data sharing, we are unable to provide access to the data used in this study.

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