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How to... use mixed methods research

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Advantages and disadvantages of mixed method research

The following quote, from the editor of the British Food Journal, sums up the advantages of mixed methods research:

" ... we particularly like papers that combine the two approaches – the sum of the two parts is bigger than the whole. The quantitative approach gives numerical data, while the qualitative approach gives underlying reasons." (See An interview with: Chris Griffith.)

Mixing data sets can give a better understanding of the problem and yield more complete evidence – the investigator gains both depth and breadth.

Amalgamating statistics with thematic approaches can help avoid over-reliance on the former and can also capture "soft-core views and experiences" (Jogulu and Pansiri, 2011) and the subjective factors necessary to elucidate complex social situations.

It can also strengthen findings – a process known as triangulation.

On a more philosophical level, mixed methods research combines paradigms, allowing investigation from both the inductive and deductive perspectives, and consequently enabling researchers to combine theory generation and hypothesis testing within a single study (Jogulu and Pansiri, 2011).

Having to use mixed methods also helps researchers to develop their skills, which is particularly important for those at an early stage of their career.

Mixed methods are not without their drawbacks, however.  An obvious one is the resources and skills required – one researcher may not be skilled in both qualitative and quantitative methods, and may have to call on the expertise of someone else, or another team, which will increase cost.

Brannen (2005, p. 5) also points out that some researchers may undertake mixed method research for pragmatic reasons, thereby running the risk that their study is not sufficiently embedded in the theory of their discipline. Furthermore Brannen (p. 6) argues there may be problems at the dissemination stage: it may be difficult to present numbers and words coherently on the same page; also to find a publication outlet as many journals have a distinct methodological leaning.

Although the latter may not be as much the case six years later, and, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, many Emerald editors welcome mixed methods.

Read Brannen's full account of the advantages and risks of mixed methods in her paper (2005, pp. 4ff). Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004, p. 20) also provide a useful account in tabular form. Malina et al. (2011) also look at the advantages and drawbacks (mostly the former) in the context of accountancy research.

While mixed methods are used widely throughout the social and behavioural sciences, there are a number of particular areas where the approach has become popular.

  • Multidisciplinary research, including research which focuses on a substantive field, such as childhood or disability.

  • Research on complex social issues, particularly populations which would be difficult to reach with a questionnaire, but where it is still necessary to employ quantitative methods to demonstrate scale and thereby achieve change (Brennan, 2005, p. 11). Examples would be disability studies, some feminist studies which aimed to identify "hidden voices", and immigration, where respondents may be hard to access by survey.

  • Complex and pluralistic contexts, for example, studies involving schools, cross-national studies, and studies where it might be important to bring in a different perspective to counterbalance, say, a rather individualistic bias from informants.

  • Practical and policy-related academic research. (Both sorts of research are needed for the reasons given above.)