Abductive reasoning and qualitative research

Nurs Philos. 2012 Oct;13(4):244-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1466-769X.2011.00532.x.


Abduction, deduction and induction describe forms of reasoning. Deduction and induction are discussed in the nursing literature. However, abduction has been largely neglected by nurse scholars. In this paper it is proposed that abduction may play a part in qualitative data analysis - specifically, in the identification of themes, codes, and categories. Abduction is not, in research, restricted to or associated with any particular methodology. Nevertheless, situating abduction in qualitative research facilitates the identification of three interlinked issues. First, it is suggested that abductively derived claims require support from deductive and inductively sourced evidence if they are to 'hold' and, yet, in qualitative research this is clearly problematic. Second, difficulties in choosing between alternative plausible hypotheses (i.e. concerning theme, code, and category description) are explored through an examination of the 'generality problem'. Third, the role of background and auxiliary theories in adjudicating between hypothesis options is discussed. It is argued that if qualitative researchers utilize abductive inference in the manner suggested, then the peculiarly fallible nature of abduction must be acknowledged and, in consequence, the action guiding potential of qualitative research findings is compromised.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Nursing Research*
  • Qualitative Research*