Strengths and challenges in the use of interpretive description: reflections arising from a study of the moral experience of health professionals in humanitarian work

Qual Health Res. 2009 Sep;19(9):1284-92. doi: 10.1177/1049732309344612.


Interpretive description is a qualitative research methodology aligned with a constructivist and naturalistic orientation to inquiry. The aim of interpretive description, a relatively new qualitative methodology, is to generate knowledge relevant for the clinical context of applied health disciplines. To date there has been little discussion in the literature of the particular merits and limitations of this methodological framework. In this article I draw on my experience of using interpretive description as methodology for an inquiry into the moral experience of clinicians in humanitarian work. I identify and discuss strengths and challenges that can arise in the application of interpretive description. Strengths identified include a coherent logic and structure, an orientation toward the generation of practice-relevant findings, and attention to disciplinary biases and commitments. Challenges include limited resources for situating the methodology, challenges in employing a lesser-known methodology, and uncertainty regarding the degree of interpretation to seek.

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Disaster Planning
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Health Personnel / ethics*
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Morals*
  • Physician's Role
  • Qualitative Research
  • Relief Work
  • Research Design