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How to... use mixed methods research

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Article Sections

  1. Introduction
  2. Advantages and disadvantages of mixed method research
  3. Undertaking mixed method research: philosophy and process
  4. Conclusion and further resources
  5. References

Undertaking mixed method research: philosophy and process

A research methodology needs a philosophical and epistemological underpinning, i.e. what is the nature of the knowledge you are trying to uncover?

Quantitative research is based on positivism; qualitative on interpretivism or social constructivism: the distinction is between objective and subjective knowledge.

Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004) advocate pragmatism as the philosophical partner for mixed method research, citing the pragmatist philosophers William James and John Dewey who believed in settling metaphysical disputes by tracing the practical consequences.

Johnson and Onwuegbuzie's article provides a useful introduction to the philosophical debate, and to pragmatism. Tashakkori and Teddlie also have a chapter on pragmatism in their book (2003, pp. 51ff.). Cresswell (2009, pp. 5-11) provides a useful introduction to the different world views that accompany different research methodologies. De Loo and Lowe (2011) discuss mixed methods in the contexts of the philosophy of science.

The research question

Most researchers would see the research question(s) and/or hypotheses as fundamental to selecting the type of research methodology.  Typically, a mixed method research design should be chosen when the former are best answered by both qualitative and quantitative information.

Salfi (2011) conducted a study which looked at successful leadership practices of head teachers in Pakistan.  His research questions (RQs) were:

  • RQ1. What type of leadership practices are employed by the head teachers of successful schools in Pakistan?
  • RQ2. Is there any similarity among leadership practices of head teachers of these schools?
  • RQ3. Is there any difference between the opinions of head teachers and their subordinates regarding their leadership practices?

The author obviously needed to obtain as wide a profile as possible so his design included a survey with demographic, Likert-scaled, and open-ended questions; however, he also needed opinions, which are subjective, and best dealt with by qualitative methods.

Questions of frequency may best be explored by quantitative methods, and perception and opinion by qualitative. If the questions deal with both of these, then mixed methods are likely to be preferred. It may also be the case that the investigator wants to explore a subset of a population in greater depth, perhaps after a wider survey.

See Creswell (2009, pp. 138-142) for a discussion of how to frame mixed method questions and hypotheses.

Rationales

As early as 1989, Greene et al. (cited by Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004) suggested five main rationales for conducting mixed methods research:

  1. Triangulation – the confirmation of results by different methods.
  2. Complementarity – results from one method are used to enhance, elaborate or clarify results from another method.
  3. Initiation –- where new insights are obtained which will stimulate new research questions.
  4. Development – results from one method shape another method.
  5. Expansion – expanding the breadth and the range of the research by using different methods for different lines of enquiry.

Murphy and Maguire (2011) used mixed methods to evaluate costs and benefits of conducting clinical trials. They devote considerable space to the analysis of their data, which they had trouble triangulating: in the end, they decided that their data yielded complementary findings.

Jarratt (1996) describes an interesting research project in which she used semi-structured and non-directive interviews separately to help design two lots of quantitative questionnaires: this fits in with the development method.

Wedawatta et al. (2011) used a mixed methods approach (questionnaire and case study) to investigate the impact of extreme weather events on construction of small to medium sized enterprises. Their design could be described as both complementary, as results from the case studies threw further light on the findings from the survey, while it also initiated new knowledge and further research questions.

The important point to note here is that using different methods is not simply a matter of amalgamating the data and corroboration of results; rather, the investigator needs to think very carefully as to how the results are being combined, and what findings, or questions, arise.

Strategies and typologies

There are a number of different types of mixed method research design.  The most common terms researchers use are:

  • Concurrent or simultaneous – different research methods are incorporated into the same research study and the information integrated to interpret the results.
  • Sequential – one method is used initially, followed by another method, possibly followed by a third.

The methods may have equal status, or one may be dominant.

Jogulu and Pansiri (2011) provide the following matrix, adapted from other researchers, which illustrates the typology outlined above:

Figure1: Typology matrix

De Silva (2011) describes the adoption of mixed methods in in voluntary environmental reporting research, and her own experience of using a QUAN→qual design.

Jogulu and Pansiri (2011) analyse two management PhDs which use mixed methods research (p. 691ff). Both used a sequential strategy, using quantitative data followed by qualitative data – QUAN→qual. (For more detail on the analysis, see p. 696.)

Harrison and Reilly (2011) analyse the use of mixed method research in major marketing journals, categorizing their findings into exploratory (qual→QUAN), explanatory (quan→QUAL), embedded (in which one form of data play a supporting role), concurrent, and hybrid.

The type of design used, and in particular the dominance of qualitative or quantitative, will affect the analysis.

Brannen (2005, pp. 18-23), in her ESRC study, looks at the methods of analysis used in the papers in a special issue devoted to mixed methods research of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology: Theory and Practice (IJSRM). This section of her article provides an exceptionally useful set of commented examples.