Interpretive analysis of 85 systematic reviews suggests that narrative syntheses and meta-analyses are incommensurate in argumentation
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Using Toulmin's argumentation theory, we analysed the texts of systematic reviews in the area of workplace health promotion to explore differences in the modes of reasoning embedded in reports of narrative synthesis as compared with reports of meta-analysis. We used framework synthesis, grounded theory and cross-case analysis methods to analyse 85 systematic reviews addressing intervention effectiveness in workplace health promotion. Two core categories, or 'modes of reasoning', emerged to frame the contrast between narrative synthesis and meta-analysis: practical-configurational reasoning in narrative synthesis ('what is going on here? What picture emerges?') and inferential-predictive reasoning in meta-analysis ('does it work, and how well? Will it work again?'). Modes of reasoning examined quality and consistency of the included evidence differently. Meta-analyses clearly distinguished between warrant and claim, whereas narrative syntheses often presented joint warrant-claims. Narrative syntheses and meta-analyses represent different modes of reasoning. Systematic reviewers are likely to be addressing research questions in different ways with each method. It is important to consider narrative synthesis in its own right as a method and to develop specific quality criteria and understandings of how it is carried out, not merely as a complement to, or second-best option for, meta-analysis. © 2016 The Authors. Research Synthesis Methods published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
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