Are Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Educational Research Compatible?
There has been an ongoing debate with regard to the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative approaches to educational research as these approaches tend to have links to different methodological philosophies, which are based on different and sometimes contrasting positions with respect to ontology (which is concerned with the nature of the particular phenomena being investigated) and epistemology (which is concerned with the method of investigating the phenomena). This paper presents some arguments with regard to the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative approaches to educational research- with particular focus on English language teaching (ELT) related research. However, this paper highlights the point that research method of a study should be driven by research goals and contexts, rather than a personal inclination to a particular approach.
Keywords: qualitative, quantitative, compatibility, positivism, interpretivism
This paper commences with a statement made by my friend very recently, who is associated with a well-known university in Nepal, in the capacity of a lecturer and a thesis supervisor, “This is the age of qualitative research; quantitative approach has no value these days and there is no possibility of combining these two approaches as they see the world differently”. I found his argument challenging and this paper is the result.
The history of the development of research methodologies is complicated as it varies somewhat across fields. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was little quantitative research in many fields. This developed from around the 1920s onwards, coming to dominate many fields in the 1950s. There was also an introduction of the qualitative approach, most probably around 1950s. In the 1970s to 90s, qualitative research grew in popularity in many fields and the debate about qualitative versus quantitative declined at that time because new qualitative approaches were developed. The quantitative-qualitative debate was revived somewhat in the first decade of this century as a result of the rise of the evidence-based policymaking and practice movement, and its advocacy of randomized controlled trials (Hammersley, 2014).
It should be noted that a great deal of educational research is concerned with explaining the educational issues in a society. Educational research is a systematic and rigorous inquiry into educational issues. It aims to produce new knowledge. This means the results of educational research would not already be known to any intelligent and thoughtful citizen and all educational researchers hope that their work will have beneficial consequences.
Educational research is based on empirical data; and is mainly designed to inform public policy-making about educational problems. However, educational researchers have various purposes. For instance, an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher may carry out action research to find out the effectiveness of a particular teaching technique, either an already used technique or a new one, which he or she wants to implement in his or her classroom. Another EFL teacher might be interested in investigating other EFL issues associated with his or her students; and so on.
However, it is highly important that educational researchers use proper methods of inquiry so that their research questions are addressed properly. Educational researchers use two main kinds of inquiry: quantitative and qualitative and they hold different views with regard to the nature and use of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Hammersley (1996) states:
At one end is the idea that ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ refer to internally coherent and comprehensive research paradigms, which are founded on incommensurable philosophical and/or political presuppositions. At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that quantitative and qualitative are complementary methods which should be used as and when appropriate, depending on the focus, purposes and circumstances of the research (p.2).
Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that there are many researchers who view that these two approaches can have a peaceful combination. There was a movement of the ‘mixed method’ approach around 2000 (Lund, 2012). The supporters of the ‘mixed-method’ approach argue that quantitative and qualitative approaches can be combined and doing so helps to shed more light on the issue under investigation. Ercikan and Roth (2006, p. 14) further argue, “Polarization of research into qualitative and quantitative is neither meaningful nor reflective of the realities of research.” Convinced by the argument to some extent, this paper attempts to provide some further arguments with regard to the compatibility of qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Compatibility of qualitative and quantitative methods
Before making any sort of claim with regard to the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative approaches, it is worth pausing and considering what we mean by qualitative and quantitative approaches. The differences between the two approaches lie in their ontological as well as epistemological assumptions. The quantitative approach “has been shaped by loosely defined sets of philosophical ideas of positivism” (Hammersley, 2014a, p. 17), whereas the qualitative approach is based mainly on the philosophical ideas of interpretivism.
In a broad sense, positivism can be characterized as a way of thinking about knowledge and inquiry that takes natural science. Positivism sees the world as mostly static and seeks to apply scientific method to new fields including the study of human behavior, social institution and history (Hammersley, 2007). In positivist ontology, reality and universal ‘truths’ are externally observable (Guba & Lincoln, 1994); this means the “truth is out there and it is the job of the researcher to use objective research methods to uncover that truth” (Muijs, 2004, p. 4). Epistemologically, researchers opting for the positivist paradigm are assumed to use scientific methods to uncover knowledge that is highly objective and empirically verifiable. In other words, positivism refers to the belief that it is possible to create new knowledge free from bias, and that facts can exist separately from the influence of people or researchers and the world around them. Thus, for quantitative researchers, knowledge that counts is precise, objective, verifiable and replicable; therefore, they employ strategies of inquiry such as experiments and surveys.
However, in interpretivist ontology the social world is considered personal, internal and subjective. The knowledge that counts is subjective, context-related, process-oriented, holistic and internally consistent (MacCleave, 1989). In other words, people, unlike atoms or chemicals, interpret a social phenomenon differently; the ways they interpret the environment is shaped by their culture (Hammersley, 2014a). Putting this another way, it asserts that knowledge is an interpretation of people’s experience which builds upon existing knowledge and understanding; what people understand as truth and new knowledge is highly influenced by their cultural norms as it is assumed that reality or knowledge is interpreted and constructed by the inquirer, and is susceptible to changes; besides, the research seeks multiple realities (Creswell & Clark, 2007).
However, it should also be noted that over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, a whole range of different approaches to qualitative research developed. Some of them drew on interpretivism but some of them challenged key elements of interpretivism (Hammersley, 2014b). In general, for qualitative research, knowledge and the view of the world are subject to human interpretation. For this reason, the researchers seek to understand more about individuals and individual communities and how they make sense of their world. Thus, a qualitative approach focuses on the multiple meanings of individual experiences, and uses strategies of inquiry such as narratives and case studies to collect emerging data (Creswell, 2003).
Thus, it can be concluded that a quantitative approach envisions the world mostly as static but for a qualitative approach reality is multiple and dynamic. Therefore, incompatibilists argue that the two approaches are incompatible as they have different conceptions of reality, truth, the relationship between the researcher and object of investigation and so forth. Guba (1987) claims, “The one [paradigm] precludes the other just as surely as belief in a round world precludes belief in a flat one” (p.31). Smith (1983) further argues:
One approach takes a subject-object position on the relationship to subject matter; the other takes a subject-subject position. One separates facts and values, while the other sees them inextricably mixed. One searches for laws, and the other seeks understanding. These positions do not seem to be compatible (p.12).
However, it should be noted that researchers make different claims regarding the usefulness of each method. While quantitative researchers argue that human behavior and educational phenomena cannot be accurately measured unless they are expressed in numerical terms, qualitative researchers claim that qualitative data provides greater depth, a richer and more detailed picture on the issues (Taylor, Richardson, Yeo, Marsh, Trobe, & Pilkington, 1995). This dispute might have encouraged some other researchers to come up with the idea of mixing both methods. There is also a movement in favor of promoting ‘mixed methods’ that combines qualitative and quantitative approaches (Hammersley, 2014b).
Bryman (2001) argues that research should avoid epistemological division between quantitative and qualitative methods as, for practical reasons, one type of method will usually be primary, but all research is enriched by the addition of other methods. Additionally, Lincoln and Guba (2003) note:
various paradigms are beginning to ‘interbreed’ such that two theories previously thought to be in irreconcilable conflict may now appear, under a different theoretical rubric [eclecticism in this case], to be informing one another’s arguments (p. 254).
Thus, the driving motive for combining the two approaches is the belief that both kinds of research have value and that in some respects they are complementary, and there will be value in combining them. Many advocates of mixed methods have suggested that there are no epistemological differences. Another rationale to combine the two approaches is “to overcome the epistemological differences between quantitative and qualitative paradigms and to provide a royal road to true knowledge” (Bergman, 2008, p.4). Also, by mixing two methods, a researcher can utilize the respective strengths and escape the respective weaknesses of the two approaches (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998). Combining two methods sometimes can also be a way of widening enquiry and it might be superior to a single method. Hence, Bergman (2008) argues that the mixed-methods approach has become a popular way to address research questions in a variety of fields.
Recognizing the advantage of diversity of methodological approach, quantitative and qualitative techniques are often used side-by-side within the same research (see Bryman, 1992). However, it should be noted that there are certainly some questions that clearly call for either a quantitative or a qualitative answer. Most other questions, though, could be addressed using either type of data, in principle.
My view is consistent with the researchers who hold a view that peaceful combination of multiple paradigms is feasible in research inquiry. For Denzin (1978), “peaceful combination of two methods helps to develop a deeper understanding of a phenomenon” (as cited in Lund, 2012). Using a quantitative method, concepts can be operationalised in terms of well-defined indicators, tracing trends and relationships, making comparisons, and using large and perhaps representative samples. A qualitative method has the strengths of sensitivity to multiple meaning, logical ground, great methodological flexibility and in-depth study of smaller samples which helps to study the process and change (Maxwell, 1998). Considerations of these aspects imply that a quantitative method can be strong in those areas where a qualitative method is weak and vice versa. Putting this another way, one method is more suitable to answer one type of question and another method is more suitable for another type of question.
The use of both quantitative and qualitative approaches might be sometimes desirable too. For instance, when a researcher wants to generalize the findings to a population and develop a detailed view of the meaning of a phenomenon or concept for individuals, the advantages of collecting both closed-ended quantitative data and open-ended qualitative data support to best understand a research problem (Creswell, 2003). To give a much more specific example, if we are interested in finding out the impact of the Nepalese school leaving English examination on classroom teaching and learning, we may need to carry out a survey among a large number of students and teachers, who are learning or teaching English at secondary schools in Nepal and generalize the findings. The survey is likely to give us an overall picture of the impact of the test on their classroom practices. This means the survey gives us preliminary information related to our main issue. Then, to have in-depth information on how the test has impacted classroom activities or to understand the feelings of teachers and students, we can observe some classes and also interview some teachers and students. The qualitative approaches, including interview and observation, can provide depth in the research inquiry as the researcher can gain a deeper insight into the phenomenon from narratives. Then, a quantitative approach of data collection can bring breadth to the study by supporting the researcher with accumulating data about different aspects of a phenomenon from different participants. Mixing two methods, therefore, offers the possibility of combining two sets of strengths while compensating at the same time for the weaknesses of each method. Thus, “the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods is often proposed, on the grounds that this cancels out the respective weaknesses of each method” (Hammersley, 1996, p. 11).
A mixed-methods approach might possess several other benefits. It provides rich insights into various phenomena that cannot be fully understood by using only qualitative or quantitative methods. Collecting diverse types of data best provides an understanding of a research problem. It also offers greater insights on a phenomenon that each of these methods individually cannot offer (Johnson & Turner, 2003) and provides more valid and stronger inferences than a single method (Teddle & Tashakori, 2009). It also promotes the credibility of inferences obtained from one approach (Ventakesh, Brown & Bala, 2013). Additionally, it supports triangulation, which is generally accepted as a strategy for validating results obtained with the individual method (Bergman, 2008). This means, it provides a greater opportunity for a greater assortment of divergent or complementary views; such divergent findings are valuable as they not only lead to extra reflection and enrich our understanding of a phenomenon, but also open new avenues for future inquiries (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009). Additionally, findings offer a holistic view of a phenomenon and provide additional insights into different components of a phenomenon, which might help for generating substantive theories (Ventakesh et al. 2013). Therefore, the polarization of two approaches might be unfortunate as the divide between the two may hide many of the common features between the two. Hence, we need a more integrated epistemology which can accommodate the two competing paradigms in a peaceful way (Olsen, 2004) and offer some benefits.
However, the degree of benefits that can be achieved by mixing the two methods might be affected by the way we combine quantitative and qualitative data. The two methods can be combined either sequentially (i.e., findings from one approach inform the other) or concurrently (i.e., independent of each other). Ventakesh et al. (2013) state:
In a concurrent design, qualitative and quantitative data are collected and analyzed in parallel and then merged for a complete understanding of a phenomenon or to compare individual results. In contrast, in a sequential mixed methods design, quantitative and qualitative data collection and analyses are implemented in different phases and each is integrated in a separate phase (p.17).
Regarding sequential combination, Achterberg (1988) suggests that a qualitative method should precede quantitative methods so that detailed information can be collected and more directed, specific quantitative procedures can be developed. However, the type of combination should be driven by research goals and context. In general, if the research goal is to understand the phenomenon as it happens, it seems that a concurrent approach will be better, but if the researcher expects that findings from a method (either qualitative or quantitative) will support later (quantitative or qualitative) study, then a sequential approach should be used (Creswell, 2003).
However, mixing quantitative and qualitative methods may not be an easy task. It possesses several threats. It cannot be guaranteed that the mixed-method research has achieved its goal. Some researchers (e.g. Sarantakos, 1993; Silverman, 1993) envision some practical difficulties associated with mixing qualitative and quantitative components. For instance, data collection and analysis might be a very lengthy process. Therefore, it might be more expensive in terms of cost and time. It might also be the case that mixing data from different sources can sometimes lead you nowhere. So, Creswell (2003) argues that triangulated research may run the risk of taking on too many unfocused questions all at once unless it has a sense of which method is primary. There might be frequent problems in relating two different kinds of information and draw a conclusion from them (Hammersley, 2014). Therefore, mixing methods is not a solution in itself, it might also create some problems.
Thus, it can be concluded that no research method can be superior or inferior in itself. The success of a study is likely to depend on the skill of the researcher, that is, the way they design the study in order to answer their research question. It is important that a researcher puts the research questions first. In other words, research questions, not the research methods, ought to drive our research. Rather than to be highly inclined to only one method, the researchers should have an open heart to accept whatever method their research goals require; the methods should be appropriate according to the research problem rather than methodological dogmatism. The purpose of any kind of research is to generate knowledge rather than to concretely realize one method or another; research methods are just a means to answer our knowledge-constitutive questions (Ercikan & Roth, 2006).
There is an ongoing debate concerning the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative approaches. However, some similarities exist between the two and also some possibilities to combine them. Beside some limitations, such combination might offer much more benefits than a single method can offer. There are certain situations where ‘mixed methods’ are desirable. Therefore, my claim is that if the combination of two methods helps researchers to find theoretically plausible answer to their research question, they should undertake such research without much consideration of their differences. However, it is very important that whatever research strategy is employed, one needs to be wise and be aware of the assumptions it involves, what threats to validity may be in play, and what kinds of inferences from the data would be legitimate, and so on.
It should be borne in mind that a research inquiry is a matter of what works. So, researchers should find out what works and what does not. They should be clear about some questions such as what the goal of my research is, how I can know the kind of phenomena that I want to know, how I can organize or interpret the data that I collect from different sources and so on. There should not be an automatic preference for one technique above another; selection of a research method should be driven by the research goals and context (Hammersley, 2014b). There are a number of positions to choose from: treating a quantitative or qualitative approach as superior; choosing one or the other ‘paradigm’ according to one’s political, ethical, or aesthetic preferences but recognizing that both are valid in their own terms; choosing between them according to which is fit for purpose in answering a particular question; or seeking to combine them in order to maximize their strengths. Therefore, Hammersley (2003) puts forward the argument for fitness for purpose. Thus, we need to close down the qualitative-quantitative debate and give priority to the one which best answers our research questions. To conclude, we should not select methods “simply according to whether they are appropriate to some pre-given and fixed research problem […], both problem and methods must be reshaped iteratively” (Hammersley. 2003, p. 4).
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Mrs Saraswati Dawadi is currently a PhD student at the Open University, England. She has earned master’s degree in ELT from Tribhucan University, Nepal and MA: TESOL from Lancaster University, England, as a Hornby Trust Scholar 2013/2014. Prior to starting her study in England, she was a lecturer at Tribhuvan University. Her interest sits broadly within language assessment, second language acquisition and English language teaching. She has published a couple of articles in different journals.