Critical appraisal of the main research paradigms, quantitative and qualitative methodologies, that clearly demonstrates an understanding and evaluation of their appropriate use and limitations
Effective social research is ultimately founded on comprehensive and accountable research practices. Therefore, the research process itself is reliant on the provision of a clearly delineated set of practices which are able to account for the diverse and often fragmented nature of social phenomena (Robson, 2002). The study of social forces and the manner in which they interact is thus central to a broad array of social sciences. Given this, any effective research undertaking in public health can only be achieved when formed on the foundation of sound research processes. Thus, ensuring diversity in the research process itself is paramount, in addition to accurately accounting for the benefits and potential shortcomings of specific research practices.
Given the above, it is essential that any social investigation is formed on the basis of a clear research paradigm. Paradigms in social science denote the theoretical and practical frameworks through which the research process is undertaken (Creswell, 2003). As such, paradigms engender the same degree of diversity as the research processes they aim to direct. In general social science, the two primary research paradigms which have been utilised are quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Significant divergence exists between these two methodological processes and thus their utilisation is often specific to the type of social research being undertaken. However, although distinct methodological differences do exist, the two paradigms in question can often be adopted in conjunction with one another in a way which creates a more encompassing research process and thus allows for supportable conclusions to be proffered.
As such, the purpose of this work is to assess quantitative and qualitative research methodologies in a way which exemplifies the benefits and potential limitations of both. Given that this assessment will require a strong element of comparative analysis, it is first prudent to outline the essential features of the two methodologies in question. Following this it will then be possible to account for the relative merits and pitfalls of each paradigm in a way which highlights the degree to which paradigm interaction often lies at the heart of effective social research. Moreover, this work will also examine wider factors which can impact upon the research process such as researcher objectivity and subjectivity. It will be shown that social research is often undertaken on the basis of overt preconceptions on the part of the researcher. As such, ensuring a comprehensive and accountable collaboration between quantitative and qualitative methodologies is paramount in order for verifiable and supportable conclusions to be reached.
In quantitative research effective empiricism is utilised in a way which focuses on quantitative measurement (Field, 2009). As such, quantitative methods are heavily reliant on the ability to accurately measure social phenomena. However, although measurement is a central feature of the quantitative approach, the process of measuring social events must take place in conjunction with empirical investigations. Quantitative methodologies are thus invariably linked to scientific processes which can often provide concrete data-based results pertaining to specific social processes and functions (Creswell, 2003). Developing effective models for measurement is thus paramount to quantitative examination. The instruments used to collect and collate statistical and numerical information are thus required to conform to the same high scientific standards as those used in the natural sciences. Given the innate scientific foundations of these techniques, quantitative methodologies are inextricably linked to concept of positivism. Positivism denotes an outlook on the acquisition of knowledge which gives prominence to scientific methods of social investigation (Creswell, 2003). The epistemological foundations of positivism are thus firmly rooted in the assumption that accurate scientific measurements are capable of explaining phenomena that occur both in the natural and social world. Given this, quantitative methodologies often utilise statistical and numerical information in an effort to explain social processes. As such, quantitative processes are often broad investigations which seek to assess and account for wide ranging social developments. Thus, quantitative methods invariably utilise large samples for assessment (Creswell, 2003).
As suggested above, quantitative techniques rely heavily on the application of statistical results derived from the use of clear methods of measurement. With regards to the former, statistical analysis acts as a central feature of the quantitative approach, however, effective research conclusions can usually only be derived when statistical data is assessed and examined on the basis of measurement tools (Field, 2009). Given this, quantitative methodologies tend to utilise specific statistical programmes capable of absorbing large amounts of social data and proffering results. Numerous examples can be highlighted to exemplify such necessity. In particular, quantitative research often involves the use of data collation programmes such as SPSS, which is capable of highlighting trends and social developments amidst a vast array of data sets (Field, 2009).
Like quantitative processes, qualitative methodologies aim to account for social outcomes in a way which provides an explanation of social behaviour. However, whereas quantitative methods aim to account for human behaviour via a structural scientifically orientated process as personified in the concept of positivism, the qualitative paradigm addresses social phenomena through the use of subjective assessment (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Therefore, rather than assuming a positivist position towards social phenomena, qualitative research approaches adopt an interpretevist stance (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). The ability to engage in greater interpretation of research results in conjunction with a reduced emphasis of scientific data sets thus personifies the qualitative approach. Given the nature of this approach, qualitative methods have numerous differences from their quantitative counterpart. Firstly, given that qualitative methods aim to reduce the importance of scientific processes centred on statistical assessment, the research process itself is focused on interpretative analysis of social trends in a way which aims to uncover underlying issues (Holloway & Wheeler, 2010). Thus, whereas quantitative processes aim to address research such as ‘what’ and ‘when’, qualitative assessment is more preoccupied with ‘how’ and ‘why’. Given this focus, the qualitative paradigm is more concerned with the consequences and effects of social phenomena as opposed to merely highlighting the presence of social trends via statistical evidence. Moreover, as qualitative processes aim to undercover underlying issues, then sampling of analysis generally tends to more focused and directed than is the case with quantitative assessment (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). Qualitative research thus invariably involves smaller samples which engage in more detailed assessment than would be possible with larger quantitative testing.
The various discussions and assessments undertaken above have thus highlighted the primary features of the quantitative and qualitative research paradigms. What is clear from this examination is that in terms of epistemological foundations there are significant differences between the two approaches. In addition, given that each approach assumes a different epistemological starting point, then the intrinsic features of the research process itself differs considerably. Given that obvious differences exist between the two approaches then one can naturally conclude that the relative benefits and limitations of each paradigm would utliamtely be dependent on the nature of the particular research being undertaken. Indeed, in the assessment of benefits and limitations this seems a pertinent place to begin.
As suggested above, quantitative research processes usually involve larger sampling than their qualitative counterparts. As such, which paradigm is the most beneficial would ultimately depend on the nature of the research itself. For example, research such as opinions polls and public opinion-based surveys require a wide sampling base in order to for potential conclusions to achieve validity. As such, quantitative techniques utilising statistical processes and specific programmes such as SPSS act as the primary paradigm for the majority of opinion polls undertaken (Field, 2009). The information derived from opinion polls is rarely complex or detailed. The use of simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers are often adopted and therefore the quantitative paradigm is ideally suited to such research. Alternatively, qualitative techniques are of little, if any benefit in discovering the sentiments of large segments of the population. Simplicity and a reliance of statistical soundness is paramount for such research, thus, in this specific case it is possible to see the degree to which quantitative techniques are more beneficial. Ultimately, in cases where a wide and generally simplistic sampling is required, quantitative techniques are far more effective at ensuring comprehensive, valid and supportable conclusions (Creswell, 2003).
Alternatively, in instances where specific and focused research is required, quantitative techniques often lack the ability to ensure detailed conclusions. Statistical assessment may be beneficial for highlighting general trends in large samples; however there is little benefit of adopting such techniques if one wishes to account for issues and factors which act as the foundation of social behaviour. Naturally, in order to undertake such detailed assessment a smaller sample base is required. Thus, the fact that qualitative assessment usually involves small samples and focused investigation inevitably means the qualitative paradigm is more effective in carrying out specific detailed research (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). For example, a research undertaking which aims to account for the consequences of child abuse in later life would obviously require focused research techniques. Naturally, one such technique would be the use of interviews. Of course it is the case that interview techniques are often utilised in quantitative processes, however, as suggested above, their use is generally wide-ranging with little potential for detailed investigation into individuals. Alternatively, qualitative techniques with their emphasis of detail and wider consequences are ideally suited to child abuse example. In particular, offering accurate and validated conclusions regarding as issue as sensitive as child abuse would not only require a strong element of tact but also in-depth assessment (Parahoo, 2006). Uncovering the underlying consequences of something like child abuse could thus only be attempted effectively through a qualitative approach.
As such, the above discussions highlight the degree to which the relative benefits and limitations of quantitative and qualitative research techniques is very often dependent on the kind of research being undertaken. In cases where large samples are required, quantitative processes are more effective, however, in instances where detailed and focused investigation is required in order to uncover underlying issues and factors, then the qualitative approach has greater benefits. However, in attempting to ascertain benefits and limitations as a comparative assessment it is essential to the address the issue of the researcher. Both quantitative and qualitative techniques require the active inclusion of the research in the research process (Thomas, 2009). However, although quantitative techniques require the inclusive activity of the researcher, such requirement is far more prevalent with qualitative research. Given the intrinsic features of the qualitative paradigm as outlined above, there is a clear need for the research to assume an active in the process. Thomas (2009) suggests that as qualitative techniques aim to address underlying concerns and highlight assumptions which are often innately personal in nature, there is clearly a need to engage actively with the research process. Returning to the qualitative example used above, effectively ascertaining underlying issues in child abuse rely heavily on the nature of the questioning adopted. As such, during the interview process the researcher needs to take a proactive role which ensures that such underlying issues are uncovered whilst simultaneously accounting for the emotional state of the interviewee. Generally speaking, such issues impact upon the processes of quantitative assessment to a far lesser degree. Once again this difference reemphasises the degree to which different research paradigms are more beneficial than others for specific types of research. However, it is also essential to address the problems which can arise when active researcher involvement is required in order to effectively carryout a particular research endeavour.
Above all, the customary necessity of active researcher involvement in the qualitative paradigm raises a number of problematic concerns. Parahoo (2006) suggests that the foremost among these is the tendency to forge conclusions and judgements on the basis of personal factors as opposed to those of the research subject in question. This tendency forms part of a wider problem when undertaking social research in general. The process of social research itself is often formed on a wish to prove or disprove a particular hypothesis or thesis (Punch, 2006). It is important to note that this wish is not exclusive, even to qualitative research. However, it nevertheless remains the case that the willingness to provide verification to a particular thesis often acts as a key motivator of social research. Given this, the problem of researcher assumptions is of paramount concern to the research process in general and the qualitative paradigm in particular.
The essential problem suggested above is one which is common to social research in general and can broadly be summed up with reference to the dialect between objectivity and subjectivity. The former suggests that research should be conducted in a manner which ensures objective assessment takes place which removes personal assumptions as far as possible (Creswell, 2003). In its pure form objectivity precludes the involvement of any kind of human-directed assumptions, whether they are on the part of the researcher or those who are subject to the research. Naturally, in social research it is not always possible to remove the human element to such a degree; however, the wish to ensure that personal assumptions do not impede the research process is commonplace, particularly with the quantitative paradigm (Creswell, 2003). On the other hand, subjectivity denotes a willingness to actively include human assumptions in the research process and allow such assumptions to direct potential conclusions. Subjective assessment is thus closely linked to the idea of interpretation, whereas research based on objectivity is more reliant on the idea of positivism as discussed above (Creswell, 2009).
Given the above discussion, a clear problem emerges with the qualitative paradigm. Above all, if qualitative assessment is based on subjective assessment, as is often the case, then the reliability of the research produced could potentially be brought into question as the research process itself has been affected by exterior forces (Punch, 2006). The most pertinent example of such exterior forces is the individual researcher; however the willingness to either prove or disprove a thesis is equally troublesome when attempting to validate research results. Therefore, the qualitative paradigm does have serious limitations in terms of offering research conclusions and results which are unimpeded by forces outside of the actual research itself. Naturally, given the statistical foundations of quantitative research this issue poses less of a problem (Punch, 2006). However, when undertaking social research there is often a need to ensure a degree of subjective analysis, particularly if one wishes to account for the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of social outcomes and trends. Thus, once again it is possible to see how deciding on the most favourable research paradigm is heavily dependent on the kind of research being undertaken.
Thus far this work has aimed to address the two research paradigms in question on the basis of comparative assessment. Drawing comparisons between quantitative and qualitative techniques is certainly beneficial for deciding which paradigm is best suited to which type of research. However, although there is tendency to conceptualise quantitative and qualitative processes in relative isolation, there is clearly room for both techniques to be adopted simultaneously. Once again, whether the combined use of quantitative and qualitative methods is effective depends on the nature of the research in question, however, it is nevertheless the case that much social research can be undertaken using a collaborative approach.
In personifying how a collaborative approach can be beneficial, the use of a case study example would be prudent. In the study of public health a whole plethora of examples can be found. One such example is welfare dependency. Holloway & Wheeler (2010) suggests that welfare dependency and a general lack of effective employment in certain geographical areas have played a role in worsening health conditions among certain groups in society. Moreover, Parahoo (2006) points out that in areas where welfare dependency is viewed as being high, the problem of drug and alcohol abuse is more protracted than elsewhere. Given this, effectively researching welfare dependency is clearly an issue for public health professionals and academics.
When one considers what would be involved in researching welfare dependency and employment it is clear that this issue of broad, diverse and complex. Firstly, there would be a need to accurately assess the extent to which welfare dependency exists within certain geographical areas. Such assessment would thus require a relatively broad examination of figures. Thus, quantitative techniques which utilise statistical processes would certainly be beneficial in offering valid numerical data highlighting those who could be viewed as being dependent on welfare. However, attempting to investigate the impact such dependency has in terms of public health would be more difficult using the quantitative paradigm. Thus, quantitative techniques alone would be incapable of fully addresses the initial research objectives. However, structured interviews which focus on individual examples of welfare dependency and employment could certainly shed greater light on the individual personal problems which arise from such dependency. Thus, in this case a collaborative process could be beneficial, with qualitative assessment building on the statistical information derived from quantitative methods.
This work has aimed to provide a detailed assessment of quantitative and qualitative methodologies in a manner which highlights the potential use of both, along with possible limitations. What is clear from the discussions undertaken above is that one prevailing issue intermittently, yet consistently appears. Above all, whether quantitative or qualitative methods are preferential differs depending on the nature of the research in question. Thus, it is the aims of objectives of the actual research which invariably determines which paradigm will be most effective. Each paradigm has its own benefits and limitations, however, limitations in one paradigm often tend to be benefits in another, for example in the case of researcher subjectivity/objectivity. Given this, there is an obvious possibility for collaborative techniques to be beneficial. Once again, whether collaboration will result in success depends on whether the research being undertaken is suited to a bi-paradigm approach. Thus, one must conclude that the pre-research process needs to account for the relative benefits and failings of each paradigm and thus account for which approach would be best suited to the investigation in question, or in certain cases whether a mixed method could be appropriate.
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