Multiple Research Approaches in Social Sciences – Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

Jaanika Erne |

Katrin Niglas, Professor of Data Analysis at the Institute of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of Tallinn University gave a lecture: „Kombineeritud ning alternatiivsed uuringudisainid sotsiaalteaduslikus uurimistöös“ that could be translated as: „Combined and Alternative Research Designs in Social Sciences Research“ on 31 March 2011 in the framework of Studia Generalia. The lecture based on Katrin Niglas’ Ph.D. Dissertation defended at the University of Cambridge.

The lecture began with describing how understandings of the world (general understandings, ethical and religious principles, philosophy, ontology, epistemology) have influenced focusing of research methods, research techniques, research design, interests and methodological approach, and formation of research schools. Departing from fundamental questions, the lecture introduced different names to concurrent paradigms, such as positivism, post-positivism, constructivism, critical theory, pragmatism. realism, etc. The idea was that classically all those paradigms have required specific research methods – either quantitative or qualitative. For example, during certain period, constructive paradigm allowed only either qualitative or quantitative method, but today the borders between the uses of the two methods are vague.

Prof. Niglas explained that quantitative and qualitative methods may be similar, but at the same time, two qualitative argumentations may be totally different, as well as two quantitative methods may completely differ. For that reason, qualitative and quantitative research methods are understood as continuums rather than opposing each other. One may distinguish between qualitative research with quantitative elements, and quantitative research with qualitative elements.

In her research prof. Niglas has asked, whether there exists a third method in addition to quantitative (broadly defined by her as calculation/number-based argumentation) and qualitative methods (broadly defined by her as argumentation not-based on calculation/numbers), has found such method, and has named such method as mixed method.

One could understand that mixed methods mean combined qualitative and quantitative methods on the level of approach, method, and data. Katrin Niglas suggests replacement of paradigm model with continuum model, and focusing on similarities between different methodological stages/aspects instead of their differences, as well as reasoned combination of research methods, meaning that one should well reason the choice of method, as well as why methods are combined. The choice of method should be reasoned with research aims and research questions.

In the end of her presentation, prof. Niglas explained the concepts of (1) theoretical research (incl. ontological analysis, and synthesis of new knowledge, incl. further development of existing theoretical model), (2) empirical research (incl. research problem (question, hypothesis, aim, …), strategy (case study, choice-based research, experiment, ethnography, action research, …), choice-method (casual pick, one case, several cases, …), data-collection methods (structured questionnaire, non-structured interview, …), methods of data-analysis (statistical methods, coding/open coding, …), results, conclusions (descriptions, empirical generalizations, regularities …); and design research (incl. problemanalysis (needs, aims, available data/applications, … ), design of development procedure (division of labour, time-frame, used methods,… ), application development procedure (application patterns, interval versions, and final application), evaluation / assessment (testing of application, evaluation deriving from standards, users’ feedback, … ), generalizations (recommendations to practisers and developers, models, and standards, development methodologies, local/contextual theories, …)

For me – I understand clearly now that if my research is theoretical, I may bravely stay to theoretical research model, incl. ontological analysis, and synthesis of new knowledge, incl. further development of existing theoretical model, without the further need to necessarily combine my method with empirical research methods – which may mean mixed methods that are not obligatory, but their use in its worst sense may also mean ending up with „mixed up methods“ instead of mixed methods!

The ECPR has invited prof. Katrin Niglas as a lecturer to the ECPR Summer School on Methods and Techniques with the course “Mixed Methods Designs”, which course inter alia focuses on more advanced mixed methods designs, some examples of mixed methods sampling and data collection strategies, and some methods for mixed methods data analysis. The participants in the course are expected to be familiar with most common QUAN and QUAL research designs, and have some experience in using QUAN and/or QUAL methods and techniques for data collection and analysis.