Inconsistent use of critical incident technique in nursing research

Caroline Bradbury-Jones, Siobhan Tranter

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    45 Citations (Scopus)


    Aim. This paper is a critique of the use of critical incident technique in nursing and a demonstration of how its development has resulted in inconsistency and confusion.

    Background. Critical incident technique is used globally by nurse researchers to explore a plethora of nursing issues. Its main strengths are flexibility and adaptability, but its popularity has resulted in ambiguity and confusion.

    Data sources. A search of the CINAHL database for the period 1956-2007 was performed using the search terms critical incident technique and nursing. Together with hand searching, this produced a total of 59 papers. The papers were analysed according to country of origin, research topic, sample size, data collection method, inclusion/exclusion criteria, data analysis and terminology. We then categorized the results of this analysis depending on similarities and differences in the papers.

    Discussion. We focus on two areas: methodology and terminology. From a methodological perspective critical incident technique has become inconsistent and in relation to terminology, the diverse language associated with the technique has created confusion. Moreover, issues of rigour may be compromised as a result of this inconsistency. A great deal of inconsistency has been created by nurse researchers' attempts to advance critical incident technique. This has led to confusion, which is not helpful for advancing nursing knowledge.

    Conclusion. While embracing the continued development of critical incident technique, we advocate a standardized approach to its use. Unless nurse researchers are alert to the methodological and terminological inconsistencies in use of the critical incident technique, it risks becoming an interminable quagmire through which navigation will be impossible.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)399-407
    Number of pages9
    JournalJournal of Advanced Nursing
    Issue number4
    Early online date1 Sept 2008
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2008


    • Critical incident technique
    • Flexibility
    • Nursing research
    • Qualitative research
    • Rigour


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