Narrative Syntheses vs. Meta-Analyses: Different Epistemologies?

In our list of recent publications we include one Lancet (our fourth this year) and one PLoS Medicine paper. We recommend them thoroughly, but the one that piqued my interest was a paper by GJ Melendez-Torres and colleagues.[1] They considered 106 systematic reviews of health place promotion and compare the type (mode) of reasoning used in narrative syntheses vs. meta-analyses. About a quarter of the studies were meta-analyses, and the remainder were narrative syntheses. The narrative syntheses often justify not doing a quantitative meta-analysis, and when they do so, the justification was based on various forms of study heterogeneity in each case. The study is deeply philosophical, and I will have to read it a few more times before I really get it. Meta-analyses are more stylised and more clearly separate the ‘warrant’, or bridge linking data to conclusion, whereas this linkage is integral to the argument (and not clearly separated within it) in the case of narrative reviews. Narrative synthesis seems more ‘emergent’ [my word] as the writer tries to make sense of the data – a method typical of history I think. In any event the reasoning processes seem different across the methods. I think that much narrative synthesis takes place in both types of research, but it is often taken as a given in more quantitative studies. In any event, this paper takes me back to a previous News Blog where I make a plea that more attention should be paid to philosophical underpinnings of applied research.[2]

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Melendez-Torres GJ, O’Mara Eves A, Thomas J, Brunton G, Caird J, Petticrew M. Interpretive analysis of 85 systematic reviews suggests that narrative syntheses and meta-analyses are incommensurate in argumentation. Res Synth Methods. 2016.
  2. Lilford RJ. Where is the Philosophy of Science in Research Methodology? NIHR CLAHRC WM News Blog. 9 October 2015.

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