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What Is Meta Synthesis And How To Perform It

Published by at December 28th, 2023 , Revised On February 5, 2024

In research and literature reviews, it is common to come across many individual qualitative studies. While each study has its own unique insights, there is a growing need to integrate findings from multiple qualitative researches to provide a broader understanding of a particular topic. This is where meta-synthesis comes into play. Let’s define meta-synthesis.

What Is Meta-Synthesis?

Meta-synthesis is a method used to integrate, evaluate, and interpret findings from multiple qualitative studies on a similar topic. It does not simply aggregate or sum up the results, but aims to create a new, holistic interpretation. Think of meta-synthesis as a way of building upon the insights of various studies to come up with a comprehensive understanding that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Steps Of Meta-Synthesis

Here is why it is important to perform meta-synthesis. 

Broader Insights

Individual qualitative studies are instrumental in presenting a detailed understanding of specific themes or subjects. They research specific phenomena and offer nuanced observations and detailed interpretations. However, these studies often focus on a narrower scope due to their inherent depth. This is where meta-synthesis can help. 

By aggregating and analysing findings from multiple qualitative studies, meta-synthesis allows researchers to discern common themes, detect contradictions, and recognise overarching patterns across various studies. Instead of isolated insights from single studies, meta-synthesis provides a panoramic view of a given topic, which helps in integrating diverse perspectives and creating a more comprehensive understanding.

Increased Generalisability

Every individual qualitative study is conducted within a particular context, involving a specific population or setting. As such, its findings might not always directly apply to other contexts or groups. However, when you combine the findings from multiple studies through meta-synthesis, you are incorporating a diverse range of contexts, settings, and populations. 

This diversity strengthens the validity of the synthesised findings, as it reduces the influence of outliers or unique circumstances that might skew results in a single study. Therefore, the conclusions drawn from a meta-synthesis can often be generalised to a broader population, enhancing their relevance and applicability.

Policy And Practice Implications

In policymaking and professional practice, there is a pressing need for decisions to be based on strong empirical evidence. Single qualitative studies, while informative, may not offer the comprehensive perspective required for significant decision-making. Meta-synthesis, on the other hand, compiles a wealth of insights from multiple studies, providing a more holistic view of the topic at hand. 

Such comprehensive insights can be invaluable for policymakers and practitioners. It enables them to design interventions, policies, and practices that are grounded in a broad spectrum of research findings, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of successful outcomes.

Foundation For Future Research

One of the paramount benefits of meta-synthesis is its potential to lay the groundwork for future investigations. By analysing a collection of studies, meta-synthesis can pinpoint areas that are under-researched, highlight contradictions between studies that need resolution, or identify new emerging patterns that warrant further exploration.

Researchers can then use these insights as a roadmap, guiding them towards areas where additional qualitative investigations can be particularly beneficial. 

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How To Perform – Steps Of Meta Synthesis

Meta-synthesis is a method used in research to integrate findings from qualitative studies. It is a systematic approach designed to provide a more comprehensive understanding of a particular topic or issue than can be gained from a single study. The aim is to interpret and amalgamate different qualitative findings to develop new insights or create a broader theoretical framework.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to perform meta-synthesis:

Step 1: Formulate A Research Question

Clearly state the research question or objective you intend to address. This will guide your selection of studies and your synthesis process. 

Step 2: Develop Inclusion And Exclusion Criteria

Determine which studies will be included or excluded based on aspects like date of publication, methodological quality, population, and other relevant factors.

Step 3: Search For Studies

Use academic databases like PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, or specific databases related to your field. Ensure you use comprehensive search terms to capture all relevant studies.

Step 4: Select Studies

Screen titles and abstracts against your inclusion criteria. After this initial screen, read the full texts of potential studies to ensure they meet your criteria.

Step 5: Appraise The Quality of Studies

Assess the methodological quality of each study using appropriate critical appraisal tools for qualitative research.

Step 6: Extract Relevant Data

Create a data extraction form that collects key information from each study, such as study aims, population, methodology, and findings.

Step 7: Begin The Synthesis Process

There are various methods for conducting a meta-synthesis, including:

  1. Thematic Synthesis

Identifying themes or concepts in each paper and then integrating them. Thematic synthesis is a method used in systematic reviews, particularly for synthesising qualitative research. It is an approach to identify, analyse, and report patterns (themes) within data. Thematic synthesis is especially valuable when combining findings from multiple qualitative studies, providing a more comprehensive understanding of a particular phenomenon.

  1. Meta-Ethnography

Meta-ethnography is a systematic, qualitative synthesis method primarily used to interpret and integrate findings from multiple qualitative studies on a particular topic. Developed by Noblit and Hare in 1988, meta-ethnography has gained popularity in health and social care research, among other fields.

Meta-ethnography is distinct from other methods of synthesis in that it focuses on interpreting and translating concepts and metaphors across studies, rather than aggregating or pooling data.

  1. Grounded Theory

Developed by sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s, Grounded Theory is a research method used to develop theory that is “grounded” in data systematically gathered and analysed. Rather than starting with a hypothesis, researchers collect data and allow the theory to emerge from that data. 

Key processes in grounded theory include coding (open, axial, and selective), constant comparison, and theoretical sampling. The ultimate aim is to develop a theory that offers an explanation of the main concern of the population of the substantive area and how that concern is resolved or processed.

  1. Narrative Synthesis

Narrative synthesis refers to an approach used in systematic reviews and developing search strategies, particularly for bringing together findings from multiple studies. It’s commonly used when quantitative meta-analysis is not possible or appropriate, especially when reviewing diverse forms of evidence, including qualitative research, observational studies, or intervention studies with a variety of outcome measures.

Narrative synthesis aims to provide a descriptive overview and interpretation of the evidence on a particular topic, based on a structured and transparent methodology.

Note: The choice of method depends on your research question and personal or disciplinary preference.

Step 8: Develop Higher Order Interpretations

Once initial themes or findings are extracted, the goal is to look for patterns, relationships, or inconsistencies to generate new insights or overarching themes.

Step 9: Present The Findings

Clearly present the results of your meta-synthesis, including how studies were selected, the quality of included studies, the process of synthesis, the main findings, and their implications.

Step 10: Discuss And Conclude

Highlight the significance of your findings in the broader context of your field. Discuss limitations and implications for practice, policy or further research, and conclude by emphasising the value of the meta-synthesis in enhancing understanding of the topic.

Step 11: Review And Refinement

Consider having peers review your synthesis to ensure you have not missed key insights or interpretations.

Step 12: Document Everything

Ensure every step of your meta-synthesis process is thoroughly documented to ensure transparency and reproducibility.

Challenges In Meta-Synthesis

While meta-synthesis is a powerful tool, it is not without its challenges:

  • Heterogeneity: The diverse nature of qualitative studies can make it challenging to compare and contrast findings.
  • Subjectivity: Interpretation plays a big role in qualitative research, and this can introduce biases in meta-synthesis.
  • Quality Variance: The quality of qualitative studies can vary significantly, impacting the reliability of meta-synthesis.

Difference Between Meta-Synthesis And Systematic Review

Meta-syntheses and systematic reviews are methods used to collate, analyse, and synthesise findings from multiple studies, but they differ in focus, approach, and purpose. Here is a breakdown of their differences:

Meta Synthesis  Systematic Review
Nature & Purpose This approach is typically used for synthesising findings from qualitative studies. The aim is to generate new interpretations or theories from the amalgamated findings, providing a deeper, richer understanding of a phenomenon. This method can be applied to both qualitative and quantitative research. Its primary aim is to critically appraise and summarise the existing evidence on a specific research question.
Type of Research Synthesised  Generally focuses on qualitative research, though there are variants that might integrate both qualitative and quantitative findings. Can include both qualitative and quantitative studies, or can focus on one type, depending on the research question.
Analysis The emphasis is on interpreting and re-conceptualising findings to develop new overarching themes, metaphors, or theories. Involves extracting and synthesising data to answer a specific research question. When quantitative studies are reviewed, it often involves meta-analysis (a statistical method to combine the results of individual studies).
Outcome Typically results in new conceptual understandings or theoretical developments regarding a topic. Produces a summarised answer to a specific research question based on existing literature and often evaluates the quality and strength of the evidence.
Methodology More interpretive in nature, requiring researchers to deeply engage with the data to identify overarching themes or concepts across studies. More structured, with defined criteria for searching, selecting, and appraising studies. The process is explicitly outlined to ensure transparency and reproducibility.


Meta-synthesis offers a structured way to derive deeper insights from a range of qualitative studies. Integrating findings from multiple sources allows for a richer, more comprehensive understanding of complex topics. Like all research methods, however, it requires rigorous application and a systematic approach to ensure the findings are reliable and valuable.

Researchers, policymakers, and professionals can immensely benefit from understanding and employing meta-synthesis in their respective fields. It broadens the horizon of knowledge and sets the stage for impactful, evidence-based decisions and strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Meta-analysis is a quantitative method that combines results from multiple studies to provide a single estimate of an effect, often using statistical techniques. Meta-synthesis, on the other hand, is a qualitative approach that integrates findings from various qualitative studies to generate new insights, interpretations, or theories. Both aim to summarise and consolidate research evidence.

Meta-synthesis in qualitative research refers to a systematic approach used to integrate and interpret findings from multiple qualitative studies. It aims to produce a higher-order synthesis or new understanding, rather than aggregating data. Meta-synthesis captures the essence and complexities of phenomena and can generate novel insights or theories.

The term “meta-synthesis” evolved from the growing interest in synthesising qualitative research during the late 20th century. While it’s difficult to attribute the term to a single individual, scholars like Margarete Sandelowski and Julie Barroso have significantly contributed to its conceptual development and methodology in the realm of qualitative research.

  • Enhances understanding by integrating findings from multiple studies.
  • Generates new theories or insights.
  • Captures the complexities of qualitative data.
  • Addresses research questions that individual studies cannot answer alone.
  • Increases the applicability and generalisability of qualitative findings to broader contexts.

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