by Gerard Emmanuel Kamdem Kamga
In working on a project, one may face challenges in gathering and analysing appropriate data to show the impact or value of the project. One of the key issues is choosing an appropriate method for collection of data, together with the relevant process for data analysis. In this piece I hope to throw some light on these issues by providing readers with some insight into qualitative and quantitative research methods, which are at the heart of research conducted in the social and behavioural sciences, as well as outlining a third approach, the mixed-method approach.
It is easy to differentiate between the two first approaches: quantitative research methods rely on the collection of numerical data, whereas qualitative research methods permit the collection of non-numerical or nominal data. I will elaborate on these two concepts below. Researchers generally prefer one method over the other. At least since the 1970s there appears to have been some tension between ‘quants’ (those researchers who prefer gathering numerical data) and ‘quals’ (those who have a preference for non-numerical data). Until recently most researchers were trained to use only one of these approaches. A form of intellectual xenophobia developed, in which ‘quals’ saw quantitative research as having less value, and ‘quants’ denied the validity of qualitative research (Kalof et al. 2008). Despite these conflicting views, it has been argued that ‘almost any research problem can be addressed with either qualitative or quantitative methods’ (Kalof et al. 2008). Both qualitative and quantitative approaches to research pursue a common goal, i.e. to better understand the relationship between two or more phenomena or variables. This does not mean that the methods are identical. They differ insofar as quantitative research uses statistical tests to aid in interpretation of data, while qualitative research tries to answer certain questions without the use of such statistical tools, relying instead on the researcher’s ability to observe patterns between phenomena, and on other forms of statistical analysis (Kalof et al. 2008).
The rationale for the chosen approach should be that the methodology should provide the greatest assistance in trying to answer the research question. It has been rightfully observed that ‘the point of methods is to help researchers do good work, whether quantitative or qualitative’ (Kalof et al. 2008). I will now explore further the differences between quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, before moving on to examine a third methodological appoach, namely the mixed method approach.
Quantitative research methodology relies on numerical data and statistical tests to provide an understanding of the world. Data is collected and then statistical tests are used to detect hidden patterns in the research data and to interpret what such patterns might mean. Quantitative research methods may, for example, utilise data collected by the state or by various organisations or agencies through surveys, in which people involved are requested to answer certain questions.
Qualitative research methodology does not rely on collection of numeric data, but on trying to understand and interpret narratives in the form of words in order to comprehend some aspect of the social world. The world that this method examines is the world as it is experienced and understood by people within their unique contexts. The goals of qualitative research are, therefore, to explore phenomena from the perspectives of various participating individuals, and to understand the meaning which people assign to such phenomena (Kalof et al. 2008). This is one of the main ways in with qualitative research differs from quantitative research methods. The latter may also involve administering tests or conducting research experiments in specialised settings such as research laboratories.
Unlikely quantitative research methods, which may utilise interviews, polls and surveys, and may have limited response options, e.g. ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘true’ or ‘false’, qualitative methods are suitable for conducting research regarding socio-historical, economic, cultural and political events, including analysing and comparing institutional changes and evolution of events. Qualitative methods may even make use of a wide range of data drawn from books, articles, archives, interviews and the media. Qualitative research data may also take the form of observations by the researcher, but more important is the use of direct quotes which help provide understanding of the context in which an event took place.
At the heart of qualitative research methodology is a principal research question that the researcher attempts to answer in different ways. There are generally four types of questions that qualitative researchers utilise in conducting research. Firstly, they ask theoretical questions, which not only try to link data and theory, but also try to identify relationships and patterns in the data, in order to understand differences between cases (Kalof et al. 2008). Secondly, researchers may ask sensitising questions, which help them to understand what the data mean (Kalof et al. 2008). Thirdly, guiding questions are asked to direct the course of data collection and analysis. Guiding questions are likely to change over time as theory and empirical data both evolve (Kalof et al. 2008). Finally, there are practical questions, including consideration of the particularities of the research design (Kalof et al. 2008). Qualitative researchers use inductive reasoning to focus on particular instances of phenomena in order to make generalisations. In other words, they proceed from the particular to the general.
Quantitative research methods are different.Quantitative research reports, the final output of a quantitative research study, tend to have four sections: (1) an introduction outlining the theory and prior research findings related to the topic; (2) a research design section that describes the sampling and data collection strategies; (3) a summary of statistical analysis of the data and its interpretation; and (4) discussion of the research findings and conclusions which can be drawn from the findings (Kalof et al. 2008). Quantitative researchers use deductive reasoning to work from the general to the particular, and they strive to establish a relationship between premises and to draw a conclusion.
It is possible to combine both methodologies within a single study to achieve a more efficient outcome. This decision may also be taken because of the complexity of the research study. The process of combining qualitative and quantitative methods results in a third method, referred to as the mixed methods approach.
One need not rely exclusively on either qualitative or quantitative research methods, but one can instead capitalise on the strengths of both approaches. This third option, combining in a single research project features of both qualitative and quantitative research methods, constitutes mixed methods research, such as analysis of both narratives and of numerical data. An example is a single research project which brings together an experimental research design, together with interviews with participants regarding their experience of the research study. It is important to note that although qualitative and quantitative research methods differ, they are not incompatible. They can be used together in a research study to obtain different perspectives on the same intervention. The choice of a mixed methods approach generally results in a combination of the strengths of both methodologies. Mixed methods research also provides an opportunity to engage in inductive and deductive reasoning at the same time, which may be of great benefit to a project. Benefits include: (a) triangulation, that is combining qualitative and quantitative methods in studying the same phenomenon in order to gain a convergence of research results and to increase the validity of the findings; (b) compensation, using the strengths of each method to compensate for the weaknesses of theother; and (c) expansion of results, using both methods to obtain a more complete picture of phenomena (Johnson, 2006).
The purpose of this reflection was to provide insights into quantitative and qualitative research methods, two major research paradigms in the social and behavioural sciences. Each method has its own peculiarities in terms of technique, justification and processes. Despite their differences, the methods are not incompatible, which explains the development of a third method called mixed methods research, combining qualitative and quantitative research methods. When engaged in assessing the impact of projects, researchers should always bear in mind a plurality of possibilities in terms of methodological approaches and research techniques which are available to them.
Creswell, J. 2014. A Concise Introduction to Mixed Methods Research. London: Sage
Kalof, L., Dan, M. & Dietz, T. 2008. Essentials of Social Research. Berkshire: Open
Johnson, B. & Christensen, L. 2008. Educational Research: Quantitative, Qualitative and
Mixed Approaches. London: Sage Publications.
Johnson, R. B. 2006. “Research in the Schools, Special Issue: New Directions” in Mixed
Methods Research, Guest Editor, R. Burke Johnson Vol 13(1).
Tashakkori, A. & Teddlie, C. (Eds.) 2010. Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social and
Behavioral Research. California: Sage Publications.