Deciding when and how to use a Mixed-Methods design
Quantitative vs. qualitative
Up until about two decades ago, academicians advocating use of the quantitative research method and the ones favouring the qualitative method tended to be at loggerheads with each other about the ‘superiority’ of one approach over the other. This situation came to be referred to as the paradigm wars! Gradually, both sides began to realise the benefits of both paradigms.
How about a mix of both?
A ‘mixed’ approach allows flexibility in designing your research, allowing you to combine aspects of different types of studies, which can help you arrive at more comprehensive results. Studies combining qualitative and quantitative methods are commonly called ‘mixed-methods’ studies. They are also referred to as multi-method or multiple methods studies.
Deciding when to use a mixed-methods approach
As a researcher, you might often find yourself wondering whether to use a quantitative or qualitative approach to tackle your specific research question. However, both qualitative and quantitative methods can be used in the same study. Mixed-methods research is quite common in health care research, e.g. qualitative research along with randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Mixed methods are also widely used in the social and behavioural sciences.
Here are some specific situations that can benefit from mixed-methods approaches:
- If you need to increase the comprehensiveness and confidence of the findings, i.e. when qualitative or quantitative research alone is not adequate to answer the research question fully.
- If you are involved in multidisciplinary research, requiring researchers from several disciplines, each following an assortment of research designs.
- If you need to overcome individual biases, e.g. interviewer bias, informant bias and recall bias.
- If you want to incorporate a qualitative component into an otherwise quantitative study (or vice versa) for both objective and subjective understanding of a problem, e.g. determining to what extent the frequency of unseasonal rain (quantitative) reflects farmers’ perceptions of climate change (qualitative) in Bangladesh.
- If you are interested in clarifying how a phenomenon is changing over time, e.g. understanding the reasons why farmers are increasingly adopting hydroponics (qualitative) and determining the changing trends in numbers of farmers adopting it over time (quantitative).
If your research involves one or more of the above, you might need to consider employing mixed-methods research.
Example of mixed-methods study
Check out this study where a mixed-methods design was used to explore the use of, well, mixed-methods research: Why, and how, mixed methods research is undertaken in health services research in England: a mixed methods study. (O’Cathain et al., 2007)
Note: The link takes you directly to the Design part in the Methods section. If needed, you may scroll to the top to view the paper from the beginning.
Implementing a mixed-methods approach
- Identify the feasibility of using mixed methods (as discussed above). Weigh the various pros and cons involved.
- Familiarise yourself well with different qualitative and quantitative research methods. (For more details on quantitative and qualitative study design, refer to these articles: How to design a quantitative research study and How to design a qualitative research study)
- Identify the data collection strategies, e.g. interviews and questionnaires, performance tests and observation, questionnaires and follow-up focus groups.
- Collect and analyse the quantitative and qualitative data; this can be done concurrently or separately.
End note: When you can, mix it up!
The addition of qualitative data can expand and strengthen quantitative findings; meanwhile, the incorporation of quantitative data can validate qualitative results. For any research question, if you can use both qualitative and quantitative methods, you will be able to maximise the merits of both. Thus, a mixed-methods approach holds the key to a more holistic understanding of your research.
Read previous (third) in series: How to design a qualitative research study
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