Auditing your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) research study to some degree can be a robust, valuable, and unambiguous way to enhance quality assurance. This article is the second of two episodes that explore a range of auditing options and activities so that you can consider what might work for you and (of course) discuss it with your supervisor(s) or other relevant stakeholder.
Why would I bother generating a paper trail for my IPA?
Firstly, it is good practice and good discipline for you, the researcher, as it forces you to document and be explicit about your research/analytic decisions AND critically reflect on how they shape your findings.
As you step back from your immersion in the research process and weigh up what might be required to demonstrate and verify the robustness and coherence of the claims you are making from your findings, you are essentially ‘forced to check the rigour of one’s claims’ (Smith et al., 2009, p.183).
This is an excellent self-check process that can help ‘bake in’ quality from the get-go if you plan your audit trail and action it from the start of your project.
Side note: I encourage you to take a proactive and pre-emptive approach (natch) as you will feel the benefit of ‘front loading’ your quality processes when you get to the end of your study and face the process of writing up and getting your ‘beast’ (my affectionate term for your thesis) together, ready for submission when you will most likely be exhausted and thoroughly sick of the whole thing.
Comments and responses from an external auditor (whether that be your supervisor, or study buddy or something more formal) can stimulate critical reflection and review of what you have produced and uncover blind spots that can then be addressed.
Who might scrutinise your IPA paper trial or audit trail?
There are progressive levels of scrutiny that could be applied to your audit material.
1: The hypothetical or virtual IPA audit (Smith et al., 2009, p.183)
I also like to refer to this as ‘the solo audit’ where you file your paper trail as if someone were going to:
- Check it to make sense of your final report and corroborate the rigour of your analytic process, following the progression of arguments and analysis all the way through from the raw data to the final product
- Interrogate your interpretations and commentary, ensuring that it is grounded in the data
This basic level of self- or solo audit may be appropriate for an undergraduate IPA study or perhaps at a push for a master’s level IPA.
Why? Because the assessment process for either an UG or M level IPA thesis tends to be less rigorous or in-depth compared with doctoral-level studies (whether that be a prof Doc or a PhD) and this means that your paper trial may not be scrutinised by your examiner/marker.
Nonetheless, preparing your paper trail or virtual audit is still good practice and it is good research discipline to put yourself in the position of a reviewer who is evaluating your study for rigour, coherence, and transparency. In addition, engaging in this process will encourage explicit critical review of your study that can be hugely valuable in improving its quality.
2: An IPA audit trail within the thesis that can be scrutinised to a variety of levels
At its most basic level, your paper trail could be presented within your thesis as part of your account of your research process with supplemental documentation and material made available if necessary.
At this lowest level of scrutiny, it is likely that your supervisor will have reviewed your materials and your examiner will also have the opportunity to do this at the point of assessment. They may or may not request to view the additional/supplementary material you have prepared.
A more rigorous auditing process could be carried out by your supervisor or a peer researcher/study buddy. This could function as a series of minor audits as you progress through your research journey.
- Checking on your interview technique by reviewing your pilot or first interview with you
- Examining your first attempts at EN, developing ES and clustering to PET level, while checking that the connection between the data and the ES/PETs is preserved
- Examining your cross-case analysis for coherence
- Reviewing drafts of your written narrative account
- Reviewing drafts of all other sections, especially the method, appendices, and paper trail
3: Stepping it up a gear: applying independent scrutiny to your IPA paper or audit trail in a more in-depth way
If you wish to step it up a level, you could submit your full audit trail to an auditor that is external to your research, or perhaps partially external to your research.
This might be your supervisor or a peer researcher (partially external), or for the full Monty, someone who has methodological expertise and some knowledge of the topic area but has had nothing to do with your study at all (fully external).
In this case, you would submit a dossier of sequenced material for them to assess along the lines outlined above.
It may be necessary in this eventuality to think carefully about the volume of material submitted for inspection as your auditor will most likely have limited time available (and possibly limited inclination!). If these factors require consideration, you could perhaps present just one or two participants’ journey through the process as opposed to the entire data set.
4: Other strategies to get external eyes on your work for extra auditing oomph (technical term, obvs)
Peer researchers or study buddies can really come into their own here.
As you may already know, I spend a great deal of time encouraging anyone who will listen to find a trusted ally to see them through their IPA research journey. This is often in the shape of a study buddy or peer researcher with whom you can practice interviewing, exchange draft for review and discuss your developing analysis.
A wonderful opportunity to internally audit could be to ask your study buddy to separately analyse a sample of one of your transcripts. Then you come together to discuss this analysis, its similarities and differences and the interpretations developed individually, to agree on a consensus for the analysis and any development or revisions that may be required. Note that a group effort is applied in this instance as a means to achieve completeness rather than confirmation of correctness (more on this later).
Alternatively, the study, analysis, and/or analytical decisions could be presented to a constructively critical ‘expert panel’ who assess the appropriateness of what has been done. This could be as straightforward as presenting your analysis to your local or international IPA group for feedback – group members will function as the ‘expert panel’.
For example, you could present your analysis, or an overview of one section, and request that ‘auditors’ (i.e., group members) comment on the coherence of your analytic structure and whether your interpretations and commentary are fully grounded in the data. This could even involve discussions around how and why you preferred or chose one reading of the data over another.
Audit as a measure of completeness rather than confirmation of correctness
Independent scrutiny can be applied at various stages of the IPA research process and is not about any level of audit ‘confirming’ that your analysis or analytical decisions are ‘correct’ or ‘right’.
Firstly, adopting a stance that a particular analytic account is ‘correct’ or ‘the right one’ does not sit well with IPA epistemologically speaking, given its highly interpretative nature (the clue is in the name, after all…). Qualitative epistemologies do not tend to espouse the straightforward realist notion of a ’reality’ that is ‘out there’ and ready to be ‘discovered’ provided we employ the right methods.
In other words, if we were all to analyse the same data set, we would most likely come up with different analyses because we are all different (for example, in terms of where we are positioned on the hermeneutic circle for the phenomenon in question) and will bring these differences to bear on our IPA analysis.
The epistemological position taken up by IPA would consider each of these different accounts of the same data set as equally legitimate and having equal merit. This is as a consequence of the fact that such a position holds that all knowledge, and therefore our IPA analysis, is context-specific and standpoint dependent/influenced by the perspective of the perceiver, thus all accounts have equal merit.
In this sense, the process of audit can help us ensure that the final account of our findings is both credible and justified or plausible given the data that has been collected and the analytic method employed, as evidenced by our paper or audit trail.
However, this does not mean that it is the only definitive account that could be produced from the data. Rather, it is one legitimate account that we show has been produced systematically and with research integrity through our audit trail.
Wrapping up on auditing your IPA research study
In summary, engaging in the audit process, whatever level you take it to, provides a robust quality check for your IPA research study.
Generating and documenting a thorough paper or audit trail can also help you critically reflect on the process of your research, the research decisions that you have made along the way, what was found as a result, whether alternatives have been disregarded or overlooked/missed, and what you might do differently should you repeat the process all over again.
The feedback that you receive as a result of audit activity can sometimes sting and be painful to take on board. However, it is better that the curveball hits you in the face right now, rather than it happening in your viva…
Finally, it is possible that you may not agree with what an independent auditor suggests (e.g., your supervisor or study buddy) and if you have a solid and well-thought-through rationale for not adopting the suggestions, remember you do not have to!
References and recommended reading
All that remains now, before I sign off, is to remind you again of your essential reading for this area:
No brainers and IPA-specific absolute must reads
In the second edition, pages 152-153/locations 5304-5329:
Smith, J.A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2022). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research (2nd ed.). London: Sage
In the first edition, pages 183-4:
Smith, J.A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research. London: Sage.
Other relevant journal articles that are worth reading, especially if you are doing a doctoral level study
De Kleijn, R., & Van Leeuwen, A. (2018). Reflections and review on audit procedure: Guidelines for more transparency. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 17, 1-8. Note: this is open access – yay!
Please do read Episode One if you have not yet done so for practical guidance on what a paper or audit trail is, what to include and where to position it in your thesis.
Wishing you all the best with your IPA!
Until next time,
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