Aim: In this paper, I call into question the widely-held assumption of a single, more or less unified paradigm of 'qualitative research' whose methodologies share certain epistemological and ontological characteristics, and explore the implications of this position for judgements about the quality of research studies.
Background: After a quarter of a century of debate in nursing about how best to judge the quality of qualitative research, we appear to be no closer to a consensus, or even to deciding whether it is appropriate to try to achieve a consensus. The literature on this issue can be broadly divided into three positions: those writers who wish qualitative research to be judged according to the same criteria as quantitative research; those who believe that a different set of criteria is required; and those who question the appropriateness of any predetermined criteria for judging qualitative research. Of the three positions, the second appears to have generated most debate, and a number of different frameworks and guidelines for judging the quality of qualitative research have been devised over recent years.
Discussion: The second of the above positions is rejected in favour of the third. It argues that, if there is no unified qualitative research paradigm, then it makes little sense to attempt to establish a set of generic criteria for making quality judgements about qualitative research studies. We need either to acknowledge that the commonly perceived quantitative-qualitative dichotomy is in fact a continuum which requires a continuum of quality criteria, or to recognize that each study is individual and unique, and that the task of producing frameworks and predetermined criteria for assessing the quality of research studies is futile.
Conclusion: Some of the implications of this latter position are explored, including the requirement that all published research reports should include a reflexive research diary.