Is qualitative research still considered the poor relation?

It sometimes seems that the entire area of psychology is characterised by the friction between words and numbers. When I first considered a career in psychology, as a UK student, I was faced with the confusing choice of psychology as either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. The former spoke to me of enticing social science research, such as interpersonal attraction, whilst the latter screamed scary statistics – avoid, avoid, avoid! However, in the years that have passed since I had this decision to make, psychology has increasingly come to be defined as a science and the presiding impression is that the discipline takes a distinct pride in its commitment to numbers. This is perhaps the natural outcome of living in a world which dictates that evidence counts for everything, a trend which is keenly reflected in the media’s thirst for statistics-based research stories. However, I hear you ask, what has happened to the fate of “words” during this numerical domination of psychology?

This is where the field of qualitative research enters into the equation, with a number of researchers having elected to favour data gathering in the form of words, pictures or objects rather than through the standard route of numbers and statistics. However, there has long been a sense of qualitative research as the “poor relation” of quantitative efforts. The question is whether qualitative research is still somehow perceived as being of lesser value than quantitative research, and how this affects publication possibilities?

The Qualitative-Quantitative Debate

The qualitative-quantitative debate (e.g. Rabinowitz & Weseen, 1997) is one which most psychologists will be familiar with as a result of the vast attention and literature which has been devoted to documenting the features and various pros and cons of each approach. Qualitative research tends to be described in terms of the richness, depth and complexity of data collected through means such as in-depth interviews or focus groups. The individual researcher usually becomes immersed in the data and draws upon their own personal position and understanding of the phenomenon under investigation in order to analyse the resultant script/s obtained. There are various qualitative methods of analysis available to the researcher, and they may be guided by their own convictions as to which one will be most suitable to the data under scrutiny. In the modern technological age, there are also an increasing number of software programmes, such as NVivo (e.g. Bazeley, 2007), which the researcher can use to help order their data.

The world of quantitative research is often more clear-cut in that the researcher uses measurement tools, such as specialist equipment or questionnaires, in order to gather the numerical data which they are seeking in relation to their research question. The more precise measurement techniques employed by quantitative studies is perhaps one of the reasons that this approach is held in higher regard than qualitative research. In the qualitative tradition, the researcher themselves must act as the data gathering instrument, collecting words rather than numbers to provide a rich insight into the phenomenon under investigation. The qualitative researcher must immerse themselves in their data so as to provide an interpretation of the findings. Although qualitative research can often be as rigorous and robust as quantitative research, it is perhaps this subjective element of qualitative research which renders it more open to criticism, giving rise to the implication that it is merely the poor relation of quantitative endeavours – novel but not to be taken as seriously as its statistical counterparts.

Publishing Qualitative Research

So, how has this suspected bias translated into the domain of journal publishing? There are definitely fewer qualitative contributions contained within most journals, which seems to provide confirmation that psychology is more about numbers than it is words. Qualitative researchers may view this situation positively, reasoning that their qualitative paper will be more likely to stand out amongst the proliferation of quantitative papers landing on journal editors’ desks. However, the qualitative route is not a fast track towards easy recognition, and a qualitative paper will not be selected based on its uniqueness factor alone. It must satisfy exactly the same requirements of scientific rigour that are demanded of a quantitative paper, despite the fact that the route for achieving such a benchmark is often not as clear for those doing qualitative research as it is for those using quantitative methods. For instance, research designs are likely to vary considerably between qualitative studies as there is rarely a one-suits-all formula for interpreting written data.

Gelo, Braakman, and Benetka (2008) point out that qualitative data collection procedures display a much lower degree of standardisation compared to quantitative data collection. However, that by no means detracts from the robust or reliable nature of qualitative research methods. Gelo et al. (2008) explain that qualitative studies employ rigorous research designs, such as those discussed above e.g. focus groups, and interviews, as well as naturalistic observations of real-world situations. These researchers stress that each methodology (quantitative vs. qualitative) makes use of specific research designs to provide credible, accountable, and legitimate answers to the research question. Gelo et al.’s (2008) summary of the qualitative-quantitative debate underlines how qualitative researchers strive equally as hard as quantitative researchers to achieve rigour in research design, data collection, data analysis, and data interpretation. Gelo et al. (2008) conclude that each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, but usually the strengths of one may be considered as the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa. This strongly indicates that qualitative research is in no way the poor relation of quantitative research, but rather its estimable equal.

So, in qualitative research, the researcher will have to decide which method they are going to use for collecting their data. Depending on the nature of their research question, they may elect to include interviews, group discussions, observation, reflective field notes, various texts, pictures, and other materials. They will have to carefully record this data, an exercise which is often a lot more time-consuming than the quantitative exercise of classifying features and counting them. For instance, recording the outcome of interviews discussions or focus groups can involve hours of painstaking transcription. The interviewer will have to listen back to their recording and type every word before they are able to analyse their data. The qualitative researcher may then use a variety of different approaches for the purpose of analysing their extensive data set. Qualitative data analysis methods may include but are not limited to grounded theory, thematic analysis, narratology, storytelling, classical ethnography, or shadowing. The entire process of conducting qualitative research analysis requires much time and commitment from a dedicated researcher who is willing to immerse him/herself in the data in order to produce a rich description of their findings. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the qualitative researcher will probably offer a strong defence of their research as being of equal quality to that of their quantitative counterparts.

The Modern Perspective

The classic Qualitative-Quantitative debate has juxtaposed qualitative and quantitative research with the outcome often highlighting the differences between both methods. However, in the words of Donald Campbell, “All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding” (as cited in Mile & Huberman, 1994, p. 40). It may be that there is not a clear dividing line between the qualitative and the quantitative in the way that it has been traditionally presented. This particular viewpoint is also championed by Trochim (2006) in the web-based textbook, “Research Methods Knowledge Base.” The author of this resource argues that there is little difference between qualitative and quantitative data. They acknowledge it may seem odd to argue this when, after all, qualitative data typically consists of words while quantitative data consists of numbers. However, they do not see these methods as fundamentally different, citing the singular reason that all qualitative data can be coded quantitatively. They also point out that there are an increasing number of researchers blending the two traditions in order to get the advantages of each. Indeed Gelo et al. (2008) extol the virtues of integrating qualitative and quantitative approaches by way of Mixed Methods Research (MMR), overcoming the limitations faced by each in isolation.

Within my own PhD research, I have utilised the mixed-methods approach to gain the advantages of both the qualitative and quantitative traditions, and so I personally have experienced research involving phases with a varying focus on words and numbers. The paradigm of quantitative versus qualitative no longer appears relevant, as there is a shifting perception that all research consists of both words and numbers. The qualitative researcher may use coding to analyse the frequency of references in their word-based data, whilst the quantitative researcher will invariably have to use words to construct their measurement instrument. For example, a questionnaire study is devised using both words and numbers as all questions must be worded in order for respondents to answer on a numerical scale. Therefore, I have also come to the conclusion that neither approach exists in isolation, although it is typically the case that researchers feel more comfortable aligning themselves with one tradition or the other. It is also necessary to categorise one’s research in order to find an appropriate publishing outlet and reach the correct audience.

The psychology community may cross boundaries in terms of their potential scope for publishing, such as with my own PhD research topic which crosses over into the business world. As such, I was very interested in an editorial which appeared in the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ) last year. The new editorial team (Bansal & Corley, 2011) added their voices to provide strong support for qualitative research which they evidenced by the fact that two of their associate editors are now dedicated exclusively to managing qualitative papers through the review process. Bansal and Corley (2011) conveyed their thoughts through a first-person dialogue under the banner of: “The Coming of Age for Qualitative Research: Embracing the Diversity of Qualitative Methods.” I can really recommend reading this short editorial as the editors take stock of how far qualitative research has come, and the way in which it is now viewed within the publishing world. Overall, the outlook for qualitative researchers appears to be more positive than ever, with journal editors, such as those at AMJ, currently welcoming a wide range of qualitative research submissions, whether they follow the more traditional form of coding or take a more novel approach.

Ultimately, the personality of the individual researcher, as well as their life experience, will inform the research path they follow to some degree so, in the words of Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” This brings me back full circle to my initial reflections on the conflict which I first encountered when choosing whether to study psychology as a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts. The interesting outcome of my dilemma was that I chose to do neither in the end, instead opting to do an English degree, followed by a Graduate Diploma in Psychology. I feel that I have struck a balance between the qualitative and quantitative to some degree, but I guess my first love will always be for words. For aspiring qualitative researchers out there with a similar passion for words, it would appear that qualitative research has gradually shaken off its reputation as the poor relation to quantitative methodology, and the scope for publishing your work, providing it is of high quality, is more favourable than ever before.

References

Bansal, P. T., & Corley, K. (2011). From the editors. The coming of age for qualitative research: Embracing the diversity of qualitative methods. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2), 233-237. Retrieved from  http://journals.aomonline.org/amj/editorials/Apr11_Bansal_Corley.PDF

Bazeley, P. (2007). Qualitative Data Analysis with NVivo. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gelo, O., Braakman, D., & Benetka, G. (2008). Quantitative and qualitative research: Beyond the debate. Integrative Psychological and Behavioural Science, 42(3), 266-290.

Miles, Matthew B., & Huberman, A. Michael. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rabinowitz, V. C., & Weseen, S. (1997). Elu(ci)d(at)ing epistemological impasses: Re-viewing the qualitative/quantitative debates in psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 53(4), 605-30.

Trochim, W. M. K. (2006). The qualitative debate. Retrieved April 6, 2012, from the Research Methods Knowledge base website: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/qualdeb.php

About the author

Marie Dunnion

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  • David

    Hi,

    interesting introduction to good-old the qualitative-quantitative debate in the context of academic publishing. What I am missing in the above article, though, is a consideration of the deeper distinction(s) between qualitative and quantitative research on the level of epistemology and ontology. From my understanding, quantitative and qualitative research is often based on starkly different assumptions, e.g. positivistic and reductionist assumptions in quantitative research that are fundamentally questioned if not rejected by many qualitative approaches (Willig, 2008). It is these epistemological and ontological differences that, for me, make it hard to see how you can combine qualitative and quantitative research in the same research for they are (often) based on diametrically-opposed assumptions on what it means to be a person.

    References

    Willig, C. (2008). Introducing Qualitative Research in Psychology. Open University Press.

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