Research Design Review is a blog devoted to qualitative and quantitative research design issues. Yet, there is an imbalance in these discussions with many of the posts dedicated to qualitative design and methods. The reason boils down to the fact that there is simply a lot to say about qualitative design. And this is because relatively little is written or discussed in the research community in answer to such questions as, “What is the basis of sound qualitative research design?” “What are the necessary components to a ‘quality’ qualitative design?” and “How does the researcher effectively put into practice these quality design elements?” These are the questions routinely addressed among dedicated survey researchers yet too often absent in the qualitative orbit.
An underlying current running throughout RDR is the idea that quality design issues are important to all research, regardless of whether the researcher leans more to the qualitative or to the quantitative side of the equation. Pushing this idea one step further, there is an even more subtle suggestion lingering in RDR that researchers might do well to free themselves from their qualitative or quantitative “hats” and instead take on the mantle of Read Full Text
The October 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology includes an interview with developmental psychologist, Jerome Kagan. In this interview he talks about psychology’s research “ghosts,” referring to the dubious generalizations psychologist’s make from their often-limited research. Kagan’s primary point is that “it’s absolutely necessary to gather more than one source of data, no matter what you’re studying,” and that these multiple sources of data should come from verbal and behavioral as well as physiological measures. Only by combining these various perspectives on an issue or situation – that is, utilizing data taken in different contexts and by way of alternative methods and modes – can the researcher come to a legitimate conclusion.
This is not unlike triangulation, esp., in the social and health sciences, which is used to gauge the trustworthiness of research outcomes. Triangulation is the technique of examining a specific research topic by comparing data obtained from: two or more methods, two or more segments of the sample population, and/or two or more investigators. In this way, the researcher is looking for patterns of convergence and divergence in the data. Triangulation is a particularly important design feature in qualitative research – where measures of validity and transferability can be elusive – because it furthers the researcher’s ability to gain a comprehensive view of the research question and come closer to a plausible interpretation of final results.
Scholars teach the importance of including some form of triangulation in research designs yet there is not a lot of evidence that this occurs in the real world of applied qualitative research. While there are an increasing number of ways to gather qualitative feedback – particularly via social media and mobile – that provide researchers with convenient sources of data, applied researchers would benefit from more discussion on case studies that have utilized multiple data sources and methods to find reliable themes in the outcomes. Importantly, it is further hoped that applied researchers use this contrast-and-compare approach to scrutinize the research issue from both traditional (e.g., in-person group discussions, in-depth interviews, in-home ethnography) and newer (e.g., online based, mobile device) information-gathering strategies.
The triangulation concept is just one way that researchers can add rigor to their research designs and manage the potential “ghosts” of groundless assumptions and misguided interpretations.
Sharlene Hesse-Biber at Boston College authored an article in Qualitative Inquiry in 2010 titled, “Qualitative Approaches to Mixed Methods Practice.” In it, Hesse-Bider presents six case studies that utilized mixed-method (quantitative and qualitative) research designs that were “qualitatively driven.” Unlike other mixed-method research where the quantitative portion is designed as central to answering the what and how questions of the research, these studies relied on qualitative methods as the primary source of insight combined with quantitative methods for supporting data.
One of the case studies deals with the gender-wage gap in the marketplace and specifically the impact of “structural factors” or processes within the workplace that contribute to this gap. The design was a “nested” approach with closed-end questions embedded in otherwise unstructured qualitative in-depth interviews. The research resulted in a meaningful blend of hard data pertaining to the wage gap enriched by the stories respondents shared about the workplace environment. Or more accurately, the result was a rich knowledge of the workplace culture via respondents’ stories supplemented by numerical data.
In this research, the researcher did not attempt to analyze research findings by merging qualitative and quantitative outcomes but rather was “comfortable residing on multiple levels and in multiple realities that inform one another.” Said another way, it was the researcher’s understanding of the complexity of human existence that was important. To simply say that consumers, business customers, volunteers, employees are multi-dimensional misses the point. Researchers can look at their respondents from many angles regardless of research method. But it is the ability to fully appreciate the layers of “realities” by way of the contribution of each method in its own right that maximizes the researcher’s potential worth to the ultimate users of the research.
The true value of our work does not lie in a focus group, a survey, spying on the social media chat du jour, or a glimpse of whatever a respondent elects to reveal from their mobile device. Our value as researchers is our ability to analyze beyond stories or the smattering of understanding from any one method, and to utilize higher level analytical skills to lay out each piece of the research and create a mosaic that brings us ever closer to the realities of the very people who are at the core of what we do.