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Qualitative methodology for ergonomics

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posted on 2017-01-04, 13:44 authored by Sue HignettSue Hignett, Hilary McDermottHilary McDermott
Qualitative methodology is increasingly used to lead and support Ergonomics and Human Factors (E/HF) studies in a range of contexts. This chapter provides an insight into the practical use of qualitative methodology in E/HF and outlines the theory and principles which underpin the use of such methodologies. We present an overview of the main qualitative approaches and provide guidance on undertaking a qualitative project; to support this we describe the use of thematic analysis, including examples of computer-aided analysis, discuss validity, reliability and critical appraisal in relation to research design and analysis and introduce a qualitative data management software package (NVivo). A review of the use of qualitative methodologies in E/HF (Hignett, 2001) found early examples of methodological exploration including Exploratory Sequential Data Analysis (ESDA, Sanderson and Fisher, 1997:1472). ESDA was described as ‘any empirical undertaking seeking to analyse systems, environmental and/or behavioural data (usually recorded) in which the sequential integrity of events has been preserved’ and was used as an umbrella term to group established techniques rather than proposing new ones. Sanderson and Fisher suggested three E/HF traditions supporting the exploration of qualitative methodologies (ESDA): (1) the behavioural tradition using directly observable laboratory-based experimentation, (2) the cognitive tradition to model indirectly observed or symbolic behaviour, for example in human computer interaction, and (3) the social or naturalistic tradition of social sciences as a more recent development. The use of qualitative methodologies in E/HF has increased considerably since this chapter was first written in 2005, for example in inclusive design (Fisk et al, 2009), participatory ergonomics (Dixon and Theberge, 2011), organisational ergonomics (Berlin, 2011) and workplace analysis (Lundh et al, 2011). This reflects the maturation of the qualitative – quantitative debate and the appreciation of alternative epistemological (ways of knowing) perspectives giving new and critical insights for accepted practices (Symon and Cassell, 2004). One worrying trend has been the use of qualitative methodologies without a clear statement (and understanding) of the underpinning philosophy. Although projects can be carried out to a satisfactory level without reference to the relevant theory (ontology and epistemology) this can lead to problems with the quality of the project. Silverman (2006) views this as a failure in analysis with, for example, an emphasis on the exploration of a problem and very limited testing of the findings (explanation) or proof that contrary evidence has been sought. This will be further discussed in this chapter to set out both a generic process for qualitative projects and mechanisms to ensure that reliability and validity are considered and addressed.



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

Published in

Evaluation of Human Work. A practical ergonomics methodology.


119 - 138


HIGNETT, S. and MCDERMOTT, H., 2015. Qualitative methodology for ergonomics. IN: Wilson, J.R. and Aharples, S. (eds.) Evaluation of Human Work. 4th edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, pp. 119 - 138.


© CRC Press [Taylor & Francis Group]


  • AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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This is a chapter from the book, Evaluation of Human Work, published by CRC Press [© Taylor & Francis Group].




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