The Unexpected in Mixed Methods Research

It is with great expectation that mounting attention is being given to mixed methods research (MMR). The utilization the-unexpectedof various methods – a combination of those that focus on the quantity of something (i.e., quantitative methods) along with ways to explore the quality of something (i.e., any number of qualitative methods and techniques) – holds the promise of “richer,” more encompassing research solutions that go beyond the one-sided mono-method design alternative. Indeed, MMR offers the potential of added value to both the sponsors as well as the consumers of research.

There are many different ways to configure a MMR study. As briefly mentioned in a January 2017 RDR post, there are various typologies or defined formats that can guide an MMR design; better still, however, are flexible approaches to MMR that enable the researcher to shift methods as warranted by incremental outcomes and fully integrate methods throughout the process.

Regardless of the roadmap the researcher follows, it is often the case that, at some point in time in a MMR study, a qualitative component will be conducted to help explain or give deeper understanding to survey data. This particular type of sequential approach (quantitative followed by qualitative) can be extremely useful in gaining the contextual knowledge – the why, what, how, who, when, where of an attitude or behavior – that enlightens the researcher with real meaning behind otherwise plain-wrapped discrete bits of data. Jellesmark, Herling, Egerod, and Beyer (2012), for instance, conducted a survey concerning the fear of falling among elderly people who recently underwent a hip replacement, asking such closed-ended rating questions as “How concerned are you of falling while cleaning your house?” Jellesmark, et al. then conducted follow-up in-depth interviews with a subset of respondents in order to explore more deeply the experience of falling, asking important (almost soul-searching) questions such as “What does it mean for you to fear falling?” and “How does fear of falling affect your daily life?”

The objective in this type of sequential MMR design is to better understand – on a very human, lived-experience level – the responses to survey questions and requires a carefully chosen qualitative researcher who is fully trained and informed on the overarching research objectives as well as those specific to the qualitative component. Importantly, this researcher must be prepared for the unexpected. The unexpected can arrive in different shapes and forms. In one respect, the researcher – like all good qualitative researchers – must be ready to hear widely varying attitudes and experiences on a given topic that are beyond anything anticipated (e.g., based on earlier research). In another respect, the researcher may meet the unexpected when follow-up interviews reveal that participants have actually misunderstood the intent of the survey question and are ill-fitted for the qualitative segment of the MMR study.

This can happen, for instance, when conducting a study with young mothers concerning the degree to which fruits and vegetables are included in their children’s diets. The unexpected may happen during follow-up in-depth interviews with a subset of mothers who indicated that their children’s diet is “heavy” on fruits and vegetables yet “many” participants discuss diets full of such foods as strawberry ice cream and blueberry pie along with pickles and French fries. Assuming that the researcher’s intent was to measure the incidence of fresh fruits and vegetables in children’s diets, these participants’ comments in the qualitative segment of the MMR would be deemed irrelevant and these participants would be deleted from the qualitative sample. More important, however, is the implication these qualitative outcomes have for the research design as a whole and the survey design in particular. In this example, the researcher will need to go back to the research objectives, re-think the intended meaning of “fruits” and “vegetables,” and re-design the survey questionnaire to more accurately measure the construct of interest.

By looking for and being attuned to the unexpected in MMR, researchers can effectively “mix” quantitative and qualitative methods by integrating outcomes regardless of where this may lead, even when it leads to revamping the MMR design.

Jellesmark, A., Herling, S. F., Egerod, I., & Beyer, N. (2012). Fear of falling and changed functional ability following hip fracture among community-dwelling elderly people: An explanatory sequential mixed method study. Disability and Rehabilitation, 34(25), 2124–2131.

Image captured from: http://www.alisanagnostakis.com/on-being-different-are-you-an-apple-or-an-orange-or-maybe-an-applorange/

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