Transcending an essentialized qualitative/quantitative divide when making methodological choices

Categories: Qualitative, Quantitative, Research, Research Design, Research Skills


In the first quarter of 2021 we explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We’ll continue to learn about the design stage in February with a focus on Choosing Methodology and Methods. In this post, our February Mentors in Residence discuss important considerations for research design.

When we conduct research, we navigate a series of decisions. Often, researchers expect to begin this process by deciding whether they are approaching inquiry through either “quantitative” or “qualitative” methodologies or some careful mix of the two. Following decisions about methodology – that is, the overall framework or design guiding a research study –  researchers expect to make choices about specific methods, or techniques for collecting and analyzing data, that are associated with their methodological framework.  The distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” is so pervasive that it can lead to individuals identifying themselves as “qualitative researchers” or “quantitative researchers,” and has led to a division of social inquiry into one of two spheres.

In our textbook, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology: A Student and Practitioner-Oriented Approach, we gently push back against the notion of an essentialized divide between “qualitative” and “quantitative” methodological frameworks and methods. Why do we do this? Well, we want to try to forge some connections across what often seem to be two different languages and start a conversation that can transcend the qualitative/quantitative divide. 

Instead of a division across methodologies or methods as starting place, in our textbook we start by foregrounding elements of the research process that are common in all inquiry, including ontological and epistemological assumptions/commitments, researchers’ identities, ethics, and the socio-political context. When we make choices about methodological frameworks and methods, these elements are always present, regardless of whether we are conscious of them or not.  In our text, we start by foregrounding these elements in order to illustrate how they play into all our decisions about methodology and methods, no matter what kind of methodological frameworks our research uses.  These elements make up the entire first cluster of our textbook, which then sets the stage for talking about data (how we generate it) and inference (how we make sense of our data) – as in the image below, an overview of the textbook that shows these elements as foregrounded in cluster 1:

Cluster overview (Figure 1.3 in the textbook)

Traditionally, some of these elements are discussed primarily in research that we think of as “qualitative” (for example: researcher identity), or are discussed differently depending on the methodological frameworks utilized (for instance, validity is conceptualized in different ways/with different terms depending on the methodological frameworks and data collection/analysis techniques utilized).  But really, these elements are relevant in similar ways across methodological frameworks.  Take researcher identity: our backgrounds and experiences shape the research that we conduct, no matter what methodological frameworks and data collection/analysis techniques we choose.  This is true even though much of the research using methods and methodologies we generally think of as falling into the “quantitative” domain does not explicitly engage identity. The difference is in where in the research process and researcher identity might play a role in shaping our choices.  In research that is explicitly relational, like interview-based research, researcher identities are foregrounded in how we interact with our research participants. But in research where there is no direct interpersonal contact, identity is also significant – from the way it shapes the topics researchers choose as their focus to the decisions made when concepts are operationalized as variables.  And, as with identity, so with ethics, validity, socio-political context, onto-epistemological assumptions, and so on. 

By focusing on these foundational elements, we hope to help researchers go beyond thinking about methodology and methods in a binary framework – and further, to think about the entire inquiry process, from finding questions to considering the impact and implications of their findings in a more holistic, praxis-oriented approach.  

Interested in purchasing the book?

Use this code, MSPACE20, for a 20% discount when you order the book from SAGE Publishing.

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