The four main approaches
Types of research
Quantitative research is generally associated with the positivist/postpositivist paradigm. It usually involves collecting and converting data into numerical form so that statistical calculations can be made and conclusions drawn.
Researchers will have one or more hypotheses. These are the questions that they want to address which include predictions about possible relationships between the things they want to investigate (variables). In order to find answers to these questions, the researchers will also have various instruments and materials (e.g. paper or computer tests, observation check lists etc.) and a clearly defined plan of action.
Data is collected by various means following a strict procedure and prepared for statistical analysis. Nowadays, this is carried out with the aid of sophisticated statistical computer packages. The analysis enables the researchers to determine to what extent there is a relationship between two or more variables. This could be a simple association (e.g. people who exercise on a daily basis have lower blood pressure) or a causal relationship (e.g. daily exercise actually leads to lower blood pressure). Statistical analysis permits researchers to discover complex causal relationships and to determine to what extent one variable influences another.
The results of statistical analyses are presented in journals in a standard way, the end result being a P value. For people who are not familiar with scientific research jargon, the discussion sections at the end of articles in peer reviewed journals usually describe the results of the study and explain the implications of the findings in straightforward terms
Objectivity is very important in quantitative research. Consequently, researchers take great care to avoid their own presence, behaviour or attitude affecting the results (e.g. by changing the situation being studied or causing participants to behave differently). They also critically examine their methods and conclusions for any possible bias.
Researchers go to great lengths to ensure that they are really measuring what they claim to be measuring. For example, if the study is about whether background music has a positive impact on restlessness in residents in a nursing home, the researchers must be clear about what kind of music to include, the volume of the music, what they mean by restlessness, how to measure restlessness and what is considered a positive impact. This must all be considered, prepared and controlled in advance.
External factors, which might affect the results, must also be controlled for. In the above example, it would be important to make sure that the introduction of the music was not accompanied by other changes (e.g. the person who brings the CD player chatting with the residents after the music session) as it might be the other factor which produces the results (i.e. the social contact and not the music). Some possible contributing factors cannot always be ruled out but should be acknowledged by the researchers.
The main emphasis of quantitative research is on deductive reasoning which tends to move from the general to the specific. This is sometimes referred to as a top down approach. The validity of conclusions is shown to be dependent on one or more premises (prior statements, findings or conditions) being valid. Aristotle’s famous example of deductive reasoning was: All men are mortal àSocrates is a man à Socrates is mortal. If the premises of an argument are inaccurate, then the argument is inaccurate. This type of reasoning is often also associated with the fictitious character Sherlock Holmes. However, most studies also include an element of inductive reasoning at some stage of the research (see section on qualitative research for more details).
Researchers rarely have access to all the members of a particular group (e.g. all people with dementia, carers or healthcare professionals). However, they are usually interested in being able to make inferences from their study about these larger groups. For this reason, it is important that the people involved in the study are a representative sample of the wider population/group. However, the extent to which generalizations are possible depends to a certain extent on the number of people involved in the study, how they were selected and whether they are representative of the wider group. For example, generalizations about psychiatrists should be based on a study involving psychiatrists and not one based on psychology students. In most cases, random samples are preferred (so that each potential participant has an equal chance of participating) but sometimes researchers might want to ensure that they include a certain number of people with specific characteristics and this would not be possible using random sampling methods. Generalizability of the results is not limited to groups of people but also to situations. It is presumed that the results of a laboratory experiment reflect the real life situation which the study seeks to clarify.
When looking at results, the P value is important. P stands for probability. It measures the likelihood that a particular finding or observed difference is due to chance. The P value is between 0 and 1. The closer the result is to 0, the less likely it is that the observed difference is due to chance. The closer the result is to 1, the greater the likelihood that the finding is due to chance (random variation) and that there is no difference between the groups/variables.
Qualitative research is the approach usually associated with the social constructivist paradigm which emphasises the socially constructed nature of reality. It is about recording, analysing and attempting to uncover the deeper meaning and significance of human behaviour and experience, including contradictory beliefs, behaviours and emotions. Researchers are interested in gaining a rich and complex understanding of people’s experience and not in obtaining information which can be generalized to other larger groups.
The approach adopted by qualitative researchers tends to be inductive which means that they develop a theory or look for a pattern of meaning on the basis of the data that they have collected. This involves a move from the specific to the general and is sometimes called a bottom-up approach. However, most research projects also involve a certain degree of deductive reasoning (see section on quantitative research for more details).
Qualitative researchers do not base their research on pre-determined hypotheses. Nevertheless, they clearly identify a problem or topic that they want to explore and may be guided by a theoretical lens - a kind of overarching theory which provides a framework for their investigation.
The approach to data collection and analysis is methodical but allows for greater flexibility than in quantitative research. Data is collected in textual form on the basis of observation and interaction with the participants e.g. through participant observation, in-depth interviews and focus groups. It is not converted into numerical form and is not statistically analysed.
Data collection may be carried out in several stages rather than once and for all. The researchers may even adapt the process mid-way, deciding to address additional issues or dropping questions which are not appropriate on the basis of what they learn during the process. In some cases, the researchers will interview or observe a set number of people. In other cases, the process of data collection and analysis may continue until the researchers find that no new issues are emerging.
Researchers will tend to use methods which give participants a certain degree of freedom and permit spontaneity rather than forcing them to select from a set of pre-determined responses (of which none might be appropriate or accurately describe the participant’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes or behaviour) and to try to create the right atmosphere to enable people to express themselves. This may mean adopting a less formal and less rigid approach than that used in quantitative research.
It is believed that people are constantly trying to attribute meaning to their experience. Therefore, it would make no sense to limit the study to the researcher’s view or understanding of the situation and expect to learn something new about the experience of the participants. Consequently, the methods used may be more open-ended, less narrow and more exploratory (particularly when very little is known about a particular subject). The researchers are free to go beyond the initial response that the participant gives and to ask why, how, in what way etc. In this way, subsequent questions can be tailored to the responses just given.
Qualitative research often involves a smaller number of participants. This may be because the methods used such as in-depth interviews are time and labour intensive but also because a large number of people are not needed for the purposes of statistical analysis or to make generalizations from the results.
The smaller number of people typically involved in qualitative research studies and the greater degree of flexibility does not make the study in any way “less scientific” than a typical quantitative study involving more subjects and carried out in a much more rigid manner. The objectives of the two types of research and their underlying philosophical assumptions are simply different. However, as discussed in the section on “philosophies guiding research”, this does not mean that the two approaches cannot be used in the same study.
Pragmatic approach to research (mixed methods)
The pragmatic approach to science involves using the method which appears best suited to the research problem and not getting caught up in philosophical debates about which is the best approach. Pragmatic researchers therefore grant themselves the freedom to use any of the methods, techniques and procedures typically associated with quantitative or qualitative research. They recognise that every method has its limitations and that the different approaches can be complementary.
They may also use different techniques at the same time or one after the other. For example, they might start with face-to-face interviews with several people or have a focus group and then use the findings to construct a questionnaire to measure attitudes in a large scale sample with the aim of carrying out statistical analysis.
Depending on which measures have been used, the data collected is analysed in the appropriate manner. However, it is sometimes possible to transform qualitative data into quantitative data and vice versa although transforming quantitative data into qualitative data is not very common.
Being able to mix different approaches has the advantages of enabling triangulation. Triangulation is a common feature of mixed methods studies. It involves, for example:
- the use of a variety of data sources (data triangulation)
- the use of several different researchers (investigator triangulation)
- the use of multiple perspectives to interpret the results (theory triangulation)
- the use of multiple methods to study a research problem (methodological triangulation)
In some studies, qualitative and quantitative methods are used simultaneously. In others, first one approach is used and then the next, with the second part of the study perhaps expanding on the results of the first. For example, a qualitative study involving in-depth interviews or focus group discussions might serve to obtain information which will then be used to contribute towards the development of an experimental measure or attitude scale, the results of which will be analysed statistically.
Advocacy/participatory approach to research (emancipatory)
To some degree, researchers adopting an advocacy/participatory approach feel that the approaches to research described so far do not respond to the needs or situation of people from marginalised or vulnerable groups. As they aim to bring about positive change in the lives of the research subjects, their approach is sometimes described as emancipatory. It is not a neutral stance. The researchers are likely to have a political agenda and to try to give the groups they are studying a voice. As they want their research to directly or indirectly result in some kind of reform, it is important that they involve the group being studied in the research, preferably at all stages, so as to avoid further marginalising them.
The researchers may adopt a less neutral position than that which is usually required in scientific research. This might involve interacting informally or even living amongst the research participants (who are sometimes referred to as co-researchers in recognition that the study is not simply about them but also by them). The findings of the research might be reported in more personal terms, often using the precise words of the research participants. Whilst this type of research could by criticised for not being objective, it should be noted that for some groups of people or for certain situations, it is necessary as otherwise the thoughts, feelings or behaviour of the various members of the group could not be accessed or fully understood.
Vulnerable groups are rarely in a position of power within society. For this reason, researchers are sometimes members of the group they are studying or have something in common with the members of the group.
Last Updated: Friday 21 August 2009