More than numbers: Triangulation

280px-Penrose_triangle.svg Imagine looking at a problem from different perspectives – perhaps the problem of why there are never any clean coffee cups on the ward.*

You might choose to count the coffee cups, monitor their usage, record where they are found at different times of day, or even ask members of staff about why they think there is a shortage. Using different methods to attempt to understand a problem is termed methodological triangulation.

(*Note – this is a somewhat unethical piece of work. There is no uncertainty in this situation. The cups are always in the doctors’ office. But please bear with me for the sake of this blog…..)

Alternatively, you may decide that you will just ask members of staff about the AWOL cups – you are going to ask the nurses, domestics and parents of your patients about where they might be. Trying to understand the multiple different opinions provides a more thorough investigation of the issue. This is an example of triangulation of data sources – using different people with different viewpoints to provide clarity to your work.

After all your efforts, you decide to share your findings with your registrar colleague over a hastily inhaled lunch. You ask them what they make of everything that has been said. They may detect connections you have missed or give more weight to one piece of evidence over another. This does not mean your work was wrong, just that there are multiple ways of examining the data. The use of multiple researchers in the analysis of qualitative research is termed analytical triangulation. (If the researchers approach the problem from different theoretical backgrounds this may also be termed theoretical triangulation.)

So what is the point of triangulation? Well, rather than getting you to the ‘right’ answer, triangulation gives your qualitative research depth and richness. In other words, it takes the answer to the coffee cup question from ‘the doctors never clear up after themselves’ to ‘the doctors never clean up after themselves, because they are too busy writing discharge letters, they want to leave on time one day a week and they do not see the difficulties posed to other members of staff when there are no clean cups. If this doesn’t get resolved soon then ward relationships could become pretty strained’. Now the second answer might get you somewhat closer to finding the solution to the elusive cup problem.

– Jess Morgan

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