Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers

My new book on Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers was published last week. It came about in an odd kind of way. Some conversations online, mostly with members of the Women in Academia Support Network, plus various comments in client meetings, and a few things I’d read, coalesced in my head into an idea. Then it just so happened that I was at a meeting for the PRO-RES project, in London, in November 2019, and also present was Katie Metzler, a vice-president of SAGE Publishing. I had met Katie before and we had chatted on Twitter. While we were catching up over pre-meeting coffee, I told her of my idea. The next thing I knew, she had whipped out her phone and asked a commissioning editor to work with me on the book.

It was an interesting book to write, tracing a journey I had made myself – if I hadn’t, I don’t think I could have written the book. My first degree, a BSc in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, was pure quantitative research. One of the things I most enjoyed was following reference trails down interesting paths in the library, and during one of these intellectual expeditions I found out about qualitative research. It fascinated me even then, and I asked if I could do a qualitative dissertation in my third year, but the answer was a resounding, rather shocked, and very firm ‘no’.

That seemed illogical to me, and slightly annoying, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t realise I had been caught up in the paradigm wars until I learned about them, much later, when I was doing an MSc in Social Research Methods in the early 2000s. The MSc covered both quant and qual methods, and you could specialise in either or both. It also taught social theory and the relationship of theory to research and research to practice. This time, my dissertation was qualitative, and I am still in touch with my wonderful dissertation supervisor Maggie O’Neill.

My PhD was mostly qualitative though I sneaked in a few bits of quant – my doctoral supervisors weren’t keen, but I have never seen the point of sticking to one or the other exclusively when some of both could work better. In the early 2000s I regularly met methodological opposition in my commissioned research. My own non-disciplinary and pragmatic approach to methods and theory is to use what is likely to work best to help me answer my research question, within the constraints of budget, timescale and so on. But some people are attached to specific methods or theories, whether through disciplinary or individual preference. I have long thought it is unnecessary and unhelpful to limit your options in that way.

In the later 2000s and early 2010s I observed little increases in flexibility here and there, such as some clinical researchers becoming more amenable to the occasional qualitative element, and some qualitative evaluators conceding that numbers could come in handy now and again. Further into the 2010s this began to pick up pace, and towards the end of the decade I noticed quantitative researchers discussing how difficult they found some aspects of qualitative research. Some comments I saved from online discussions included:

As a medic, I found some challenges personally conducting quali research – I come from a more quant background.”

I’m a biomed scientist who wants to learn and do mixed methods research. We’re not bad people but (gasp) have never been told any other method than the scientific method exists.

I was trained a positivist marine biologist and am now a marine social scientist… the field of social science has multiple philosophies that as natural scientists we rarely get to hear of, let alone understand.”

“I am also biomedical by background and have just started to use mixed methods/qual stuff. I am STRUGGLING it is really hard to wrap your head around if you’re just used to p values.”

I thought I could write a book to help people in these kinds of situations. So I did. And I’m delighted to say the finished book has already had some very good reviews. I am proud of what I have achieved with this book, and I hope it will help a lot of researchers.

By the way, if you’re interested in this subject you might want to join my Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers course at the Methods at Manchester summer school in June.

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