Methods of synthesizing qualitative research for policy and practice

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) describe synthesis as an important part of the process of knowledge translation – that is, making research useful to policy and decision makers and ensuring that new knowledge can be quickly and effectively used in programs and clinical practice.

According to CIHR, synthesis is defined as “the contextualization and integration of research findings of individual research studies within the larger body of knowledge on the topic.” However, if you’ve ever conducted or read qualitative research, you know that synthesizing qualitative studies is not the same as synthesizing a bunch of randomised control studies or cohort studies. And if you can’t synthesize qualitative research, then this can be hugely problematic when you’re trying to inform policy or advocate for system change.

In spite of the methodological differences between qualitative and quantitative research, there are a number of tools that exist and are being developed to synthesize qualitative research. One of the most well-known methods is called “meta-ethnography.” This method was first described by Noblit and Hare in 1988. They describe a 7 step process for synthesizing ethnographic research. The steps range from determining how relevant studies are related to one another, “translating the studies into one another,” synthesizing these “translations” and expressing the synthesis in a useful manner.

Meta-ethnography is just one method of qualitative synthesis – other terms include meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Synthesizing qualitative research is a bit of a contentious issue in some circles as it assumes that it is possible to generalize to some extent beyond individual qualitative research. But there are some excellent discussions of when and how it might be appropriate to do so and given the wealth of knowledge found in many qualitative studies, it’s well worth looking into these methods of synthesis.


Learn more about meta-ethnography and synthesis


Popay, J. (editor). (2006). Moving beyond effectiveness in evidence synthesis: Methodological issues in the synthesis of diverse sources of evidence. London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence

Thorne, S., Jensen, L., Kearney, M.H., Noblit, G. Sandelowski, M. (2004). Qualitative Metasynthesis: Reflections on Methodological Orientation and Ideological Agenda. Qualitative Health Research, 14: 1342-1365. doi: 10.1177/1049732304269888

References and Links on Synthesis from the Canadian Institute for Health Research:


Read studies that use a meta-synthesis approach


Sword, W., Jack, S., Niccols, A., Milligan, K., Henderson, J., and Thabane, L. (2009). Integrated programs for women with substance use issues and their children: a qualitative meta-synthesis of processes and outcomes. Harm Reduction Journal, 6:32. doi:10.1186/1477-7517-6-32

Feder, G.S., Hutson, M., Ramsay, J., Taket, A.R. (2006). Women Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: Expectations and Experiences When They Encounter Health Care Professionals: A Meta-analysis of Qualitative Studies. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166: 22-37.

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