Volume 21 (2010)
Issue 2

Special Issue:
Qualitative Methods and
 Systemic Research

Guest Editor: Claire Glasscoe

The idea for this Special Issue took shape at an Association for Family Therapy conference in 2008 in Manchester, UK. Those who attended that conference may well recall the energy and enthusiasm the symposium on qualitative methods generated amongst speakers and delegates. For many clinicians, their training might not have included an introduction to qualitative methods, and research is frequently seen as something someone else does – approached with some trepidation. Yet for those training today, whose courses do embrace a research component the opportunity to conduct their own enquiry about what interests them is relished and they are often astonished and exhilarated by the process. Indeed students, from a variety of backgrounds are surprised at how much their personal study reveals to them about their understanding of family processes, their skills as therapists and their own epistemological position and conceptualisation. Perhaps fired by the experience of their students, many established therapists are now embarking on doctoral training, late on in their career, as a means to savour the essence of systemic therapy and reflect on their practice and thinking. In this project we want to demystify, illuminate and present research, particularly qualitative research in all its guises, as accessible and enriching to all systemic practitioners, whatever model or theoretical approach they prefer to adopt.


Our endeavours are hindered though by one recurring snag. As systemic psychotherapists, consultants and/or trainers our focus is relational and currently there are no obvious quantitative or qualitative research methods that naturally lend themselves to the issues we want to address – those pertaining to relationship, social interaction and family dynamics. Intuitively, we may be more attracted to qualitative methods, which seem to approximate to our practice as therapists because these often involve us in interviews and consideration of context, meaning and narrative patterning. Yet still we struggle with how these existing methods might help us to answer questions about systemic processes and how these studies might provide convincing evidence for the efficacy of our practice so that we can justify the existence of our profession in the current climate of radical cuts within public services.


The conference symposium involved prominent qualitative methodologists debating the relative merits of a diverse range of approaches available.  To open up a dialogue we posed a question for debate: ‘How do qualitative methods relate to family therapy, systemic practice, relational ideas?’ The aim was to showcase three distinct modes of enquiry (Discourse Analysis (DA), Narrative Analysis (NA), and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)). The list was by no means exhaustive but these were qualitative methods that we knew fitted reasonably well with systemic research but were not widely familiar to the majority of practitioners or researchers. We invited workshop presentations from doctoral students, who had experimented with these intriguing methods to illustrate them. A ‘Question Time’ panel discussion followed this workshop with leading clinical researchers who were familiar with the approaches and could articulate them for the audience (Charlotte Burck, Tavistock Centre and Rudi Dallos, University of Plymouth). They were joined by expert methodologists who each represented one of the showcased methods (Dave Harper, University of East London – DA, Michael Murray, Keele University – NA and Jonathan Smith, Birkbeck, University of London – IPA). The panel members responded to prepared questions posed by Bernadette Wren, Tavistock Centre who chaired the discussion.


This special issue of Human Systems intends to consolidate and extend that process by presenting a collection of qualitative research papers that then provide a basis for conversations around qualitative research and clinical practice. We hope to demonstrate that qualitative research: (i) has a rich variety of proven methodologies; (ii) is an approach to inquiry that is fully compatible with current systemic epistemologies and is a practicable option for busy practitioners; (iii) offers inspiration and information that practitioners can use to develop their thinking and enhance their practice; and, (iv) is making a unique contribution to the evidence base of the systemic therapies.


Manuscripts were invited from systemic therapists who had conducted research using qualitative methods either during a master’s or doctoral training or at a more advanced level of the research endeavour afforded by funded academic projects. We received fourteen expressions of interest with an intention to submit a paper; seven of these materialised into completed papers and two more arrived in draft form that did not develop any further. The reviewing process involved two referees for each of the seven complete manuscripts. One referee was asked to apply a research methods perspective to their critique while the other was asked to concentrate on the clinical perspective, considering the conceptualisation and clinical value of the report. There was often some overlap between these two lenses and the combined view was certainly interesting.


Our reviewers all responded wholeheartedly to the project and took seriously the aims set out in our manifesto. I would like to acknowledge their efforts here with my sincere thanks to:


John Burnham, Moira Doolan, Peter Emerson, Liz Forbat, Helga Hanks, Mark Hayden-Laurelut, Michael Larkin, Pieter Nel, Sim Roy-Chowdhury, Peter Stratton, Arlene Vetere, Bernadette Wren.


Their critical analysis of the manuscripts provided us with searching assessments and helped the authors to achieve a more elegant, methodologically sound and scholarly piece of writing. This was a reflexive and iterative process that sometimes involved a conversation between the authors and their reviewers, which in one instance warranted publication in its own right.


Consequently, the authors for all four manuscripts accepted for publication have worked hard on their papers following reviewers’ comments to refine their thinking. The accepted papers include four distinct qualitative methods, not dissimilar to those chosen for the symposium: Conversation Analysis (CA/CDA) – Jerry Gale, Georgia USA, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) – Robert McCandless and Virginia Eatough, London UK, Grounded Theory (GT) – Gwynneth Down, London UK and a Thematic Analysis (TA) from Lieven Migerode, Liesbeth Vander Elst and Peter Rober in Belgium. Despite showcasing Narrative Analysis at the AFT conference no example was forthcoming as an acceptable paper. However, one of our reviewers performed what can only be described as a narrative analysis with one manuscript. This method is not to be confused with Narrative Therapy and those interested may find Reissman’s work illuminating (Reissman 1989, 1992).


The methods used here are varied although not exhaustive and offer variants that are in sympathy with the questions posed, the proclivities of the enquirer and the consulting or supervising team. Other enquirers with a different set of circumstances may have chosen a different question, or felt a different method or variant of method fitted better for them, their colleagues and their thinking. For example, Gale reveals some subtle distinctions within the broad church of discourse analysis, while McCandless and Eatough chose a perspective on phenomenology that focuses on a Husserlian essence of lived experience in preference to a Heideggerian view that may have been more contextual. Given the anthropological heritage endowed to us by Gregory Bateson one method is conspicuous by its absence - an ethnography. This approach would involve considerable commitment on the part of the researcher to do well and that may explain our caution. For those passionate about this methodological approach though, the rewards, in my view are well worth the effort. Take for example Myra Bluebond-Langner’s work with chronic childhood illness (Bluebond-Langner 1991 & 1996). Several authors here have attempted to adapt the available methods to their own purpose (for example, Migerode at al) or employed more than one method (for example, Down who used both grounded theory and discourse analysis to address different aspects that interested her and reported the former here). The exemplars offered are designed to invite readers to begin to explore and discover this territory.


As a contribution to this process, in addition to the papers that were submitted to the journal, this issue includes an invited section that offers a meta-perspective on the application of qualitative methods for researching family therapists and systemic practitioners, illustrated by material from the accepted papers. Thus the idea used at the AFT conference of the panel discussion is applied here to the papers published in the journal special issue, offering an overview of qualitative methods for family therapy while drawing examples from the work published in the issue. Our discussants guide the way through considerations of conceptualisation, methodology and debates around practice based evidence and evidence based practice. The discussion paper has evolved into a debate with an overview paper from Bernadette Wren and Charlotte Burck both based at the Tavistock Centre and a collection of critical thoughts from Rudi Dallos (University of Plymouth), Liz Forbat (University of Stirling), Sim Roy-Chowdhury (Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust) and Peter Stratton (University of Leeds).


In conclusion, producing this special issue revealed qualitative research as versatile, highly systemic and feasible to attempt with modest resources. The systemic community has begun a fruitful relationship with a diverse set of approaches and yet we cannot simply take research methods off the shelf and apply them arbitrarily. We need to be creative in our approach for our questions to breathe life and elucidate what is happening within the scope of our philosophical position and perspective. The process is reflexive and this alone has the potential to enrich our thinking. By going one step further and locating qualitative research at the heart of our practice, the potential to evidence fundamental systemic change becomes a real possibility for practitioners. A contribution that would complement and provide subtle nuance and explication to the more positivistic bald outcome statements service commissioners often hear.




Bluebond-Langner, M. (1991). Living with cystic fibrosis: a family affair, In J.D.Morgan (Ed.), Young People and Death (pp. 46-62). Philadelphia: Charles Press.

Bluebond-Langner, M. (1996). In the Shadow of Illness: Parents and siblings of the chronically ill child, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Riessman, C.K. (1989). Life events, meaning and narrative: The case of infidelity and divorce, Social Science and Medicine, 743-51

Riessman, C.K. (1992). Making sense of marital violence: One woman’s narrative. In G.C. Rosenwald & R.L. Ochberg (Eds.), Storied Lives the cultural politics of self-understanding (pp. 231-49), New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Claire Glasscoe, Senior Research Fellow & Systemic Psychotherapist, University of Liverpool Academic Child Mental Health Unit, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Eaton Road, Liverpool  L12 2AP

Email: glassc@liv.ac.uk

Showing 9 items
Editorial Claire Glasscoe 171-175 Editorial Enlish 
Discursive Analysis: A Research Approach For Studying The Moment-To-Moment Construction Of Meaning In Systemic Practice Jerry Gale 176-207 Abstract Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish 
How Can This Person Get Me So Wrong?”: A Qualitative Study Examining The Self Of The Systemic Training Supervisor Robert McCandless and Virginia Eatough 208-236 Abstract Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish  
Relationships Between Healthcare Staff And Families In A Paediatric Hospital: A Grounded Theory Study Gwynneth Down 237-269 Abstract Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish 
Speaking Of Autism In Sessions Of Couple Therapy Lieven Migerode, Liesbeth Vander Elst, and Peter Rober 270-284 Abstract Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish 
Dialogues in Systemic Research - Commentary On Qualitative Methods And Systemic Research Charlotte Burck & Bernadette Wren 285-290 Abstract English 
Constructivism and constructionism both, in relation to qualitative research - Commentary On Qualitative Methods And Systemic Research Rudi Dallos 291-292 Abstract English 
Strengthening The Position Of Family Therapy And Systemic Practice Through Methodology - Commentary On Qualitative Methods And Systemic Research Liz Forbat 293-294 Abstract English 
Can Psychotherapy Research be Systemic? - Commentary On Qualitative Methods And Systemic Research Sim Roy-Chowdhury 295-298 Abstract English 
Showing 9 items