“Research” is not a dirty word: but what is it?


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Intellectual Property of Dr. Bruce D. Watson, DEd Melbourne and attributed authors as noted.

For Private individual use. All rights reserved.

Published: www.academia.edu

Research methodology is no exception to debate as it relies on words and numbers, experience, understanding and knowledge. It attempts to bring some order to the description of natural and social phenomena and a means to how to think about them. The results of research may provide a framework of understanding suitable for discussion and debate providing that there is agreement on the methods employed to form the framework.


Most words can have more meanings than dictionaries can keep track of and all words can evoke different responses in all of us. It is therefore not unusual to find debates emanating simply from what one person perceives and understands based on their experience and knowledge, to those of another.

For instance, Hayakawa (1960) reminds us of the ‘frog for fishing bait’, ‘the frog in a throat’, ‘braided frog fasteners’, ‘paring down the frog and hoof, ‘the frog used in a vase for flower arranging’, ‘the frog of a violin bow’ and ‘the frog in which a sword is carried’. We may well ask, “What is a frog?” It clearly will depend on the context, the experience and the knowledge of an individual. The potential for debate is clearly substantial even if discussing a frog.

Positions of argument emanate from the acquiring of knowledge, and the knowledge acquired is dependent on the method of acquisition adopted and its interpretation. In the broadest sense, knowledge could be seen to be gained from personal experience, information ‘handed down’, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning or serendipity and intuition.

Research methodology is no exception to debate as it relies on words and numbers, experience, understanding and knowledge. It attempts to bring some order to the description of natural and social phenomena and a means to how to think about them. The results of research may provide a framework of understanding suitable for discussion and debate providing that there is agreement on the methods employed to form the framework.

Smith and Heshusius (1986) allude to the confusion over the definition of ‘method’. They say that the most commonly encountered meaning is ‘method as procedures’ or techniques; “how to do it”. The other characterisation is as “logic of justification”; the elaboration of logical issues and the justifications that inform practice. In this article, method refers to the technical aspects of research; the techniques; whereas methodology refers to technique and the way to think about it. There are two broad research methodologies commonly referred to as “quantitative” and “qualitative”.

Quantitative research methodology

“Empiricists” tend to operate from the premise that knowledge is derived only from direct observation and experience. Empiricists have an “Arch of Knowledge” which pre-supposes that the observation of behaviour can lead to the establishment of laws which provide for predictability and control.

Consequently any other form of knowledge is reliant on faith or the metaphysical world and therefore considered inferior by the empiricists. The “logical positivists” within the empiricism school of thought attach meaning only to what is verifiable empirically or what is a truth of logic or mathematics.

For this reason, research methods can include true experiments, quasi-experiments, and passive (non-intervention) studies. The techniques used are borrowed from natural sciences which explain physical reality or ‘outer’ observable phenomena and deliver objective scientific results.

The quantitative aspects of research may therefore involve a wide range of types of experimentation, measurement and model building but within the direct context of theories, laws and norms in the way of the natural sciences which emphasise validity, reliability and objectivity. There tends to be a separation between what is being studied and the technique adopted to attain naked facts. Lancy (1993) provides a summary of what quantitative research involves (adapted slightly):

Investigator delimits the study, selecting variables, making predictions, etc. The task is to verify or refute. Hypotheses are stated in advance.

Sample size is governed ideally by considerations of statistical ‘power “. ‘ Number of ‘things’ is preferably large.

The investigator should remain anonymous and neutral vis-à-vis the research site/subjects. The investigator gathers data via intermediary instruments like questionnaires, tests, structured observation schemes, etc.

Intrusion may be extreme in that subjects may be paid to participate in a laboratory simulation. At a minimum those studied will be aware that they are part of an ” experiment “.

The investigator assumes an unbiased stance; safeguards are employed to maintain objectivity. Context is seen as potentially contaminating the integrity of study. Procedures employed to reduce extraneous factors.

Typical study lasts some hours, perhaps some days.

Report is expository in nature, consisting of a series of interlocking arguments.

Kaplan (1994) says,

“Science suffers not only from the attempts of church, state and society to control its findings but also from the repressiveness of the scientific establishment itself. In the end; each scientist must walk alone, not in defiance but with the independence demanded by intellectual integrity. That is what it means to have a scientific temper of mind.”

Qualitative Research Methodology

Qualitative research tends to describe and interpret, hence, practitioners are often referred to as “interpretivists”. Contextual phenomena such as prevailing practices, beliefs, attitudes, values, processes and trends are more at the forefront compared to quantitative research methodology. This forms the basis of the so-called social sciences in which the ‘inner’, non-observable phenomena receive emphasis to gain an understanding of social reality. One of the main characteristics of qualitative research is the focus on specific cases of phenomena so it is sometimes called “case study research”.

Qualitative research methodologies evolved as a reaction to a perception of the limitations of quantitative research, that there was more than the fact-based reality of the empiricists. Such traditions as anthropology, case study, sociology, ethnography, and historiography have principle research methodologies and techniques for the study of particular types of phenomena. Within qualitative methodologies, there tends to be an emphasis on triangulation, credibility, plausibility and coherence.

Lancy (1993) provides a simple view of qualitative studies (slightly adapted):

The investigator has chosen a topic or issue to study. Task is to discover, hypotheses emerge.

The sites/individuals chosen for the study are governed by the topic…sites/individuals/ cases are relatively few in number.

The investigator is the principle is instrument for data collection.

The research process is designed to intrude as little as possible in the natural, ongoing lives of those under study.

Investigator is aware of their own biases and strives to capture the subjective reality of participants.

Investigator uses wide-angle lens ‘to record context surrounding phenomena under study. Focus may shift as analytical categories and ‘theory’ emerge from the data.

Typical study lasts some months, perhaps years. Report utilises narrative format, there is a story with episodes.

Referring to case studies, Sturman ( 1994) says,

“While the techniques used in the investigation may be varied; and may include both qualitative and quantitative approaches, the distinguishing feature of case study is the belief that human systems develop a characteristic wholeness or integrity and are not simply a loose collection of traits. As a consequence of this belief case study researchers hold that to understand a case, to explain why things happen as they do, and to generalise or predict from a single example requires an in-depth investigation of the interdependencies of parts and of patterns that emerge.”

Demonstrating the Difference

If the question was posed, “Do student grades improve if they only receive constant positive feedback?” a quantitative researcher and qualitative researcher would seek an answer in different ways.

The quantitative researcher would select an appropriate theory related to learning and evaluation, select a random sample from several schools, have half the number of students only receive positive feedback and the other half continue to receive positive and negative feedback. An assistant may be sent to the various schools and administer a questionnaire regarding evaluation and collecting assessment data before and after the experimental manipulation. By statistical analysis the level of significance is determined.

In contrast, the qualitative researcher is likely to be an observer in a particular school. They become closely associated with several contrasting student groups and focus-in on the reactions the students are having. Spontaneous remarks are recorded in various contexts, interviews of some students are conducted and focus groups are run with teaching staff. Patterns are teased out from the notes and transcribed interviews.

Some Comparisons

Each of the research methodologies described have their strengths and weaknesses. For example quantitative research methodology can provide clear statistical analysis of interrelationships between variables in a classroom or work situation. It has the strength of being able to use large samples but a larger body of data does not necessarily equate with more definitive or useful answers. Moreover, quantitative methodology is of little assistance in arriving at what makes classrooms function or schools run better as it fails to take into account human systems. Classrooms and work environments can be a mixture of behavioural problems, personalities and values that simply are overlooked in the generalisation of numbers.

The rich descriptive nature of qualitative research methodology can go some way towards overcoming the cold-hard facts of quantitative methodology, but it can become bound in semantics and ambiguity of meaning. For example what is described as “abnormal behaviour” may be pathological or simply deviant. However, the relatively small sampling of qualitative methodologies can be a difficulty if findings are to be generalised into other settings. Before much progress can be made on any form of research there is a need for a description of the phenomena to be considered. The ‘holistic’ approach of qualitative methodologies can be enormously useful in developing, concepts and theories that can be further tested through quantitative methodologies.

Adherents of each of the research methodologies have attempted to overcome the short-comings perceived by their counterparts. For example, qualitative research methodology has been criticised for the limited scope of the samples studied and generalisation of findings to other settings. This has been counteracted by the development of such techniques as multi-site studies.

Ultimately, both methodologies share similar difficulties. While their conceptual bases are different, criticism of one can be aligned to the other. For example the criticism of the laboratory-like experimentation of some techniques of quantitative methodology can be equally applied to techniques, such as case-study, of qualitative methodology. In both cases, the scale may be relatively small, the circumstances created to be particularly suitable for observation and generalisations of applicability fraught with danger .

Contemporary quantitative research is more likely to be explanatory rather than hypothetico-deductive. There is a, diminishing emphasis on formal design and more emphasis on an inferential strategy that is tailored to a specific research question. This has lead to an emphasis on ‘explanation’ rather than for ‘prediction and control’ in the logical positivist sense. It can also be observed that contemporary qualitative research tends to have more systematic methods of data storage, retrieval and analysis.

Miles and Huberman (1986) say that,

“It is important not to confuse the systematic use of tools with one’s epistomological position. Idealists can be structured; and realists can be loose.”

My Critique

Just as the traditional view of quantitative research methodology could be grossly generalised to “that which involves numbers and statistics”, qualitative research methodology may be grossly generalised to “that which involves words and description”. As will be seen, this is a far too simplistic view which results from misunderstandings of terminology which have been perpetuated over time. The terms ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ refer to research methodologies, with the associated ways of thinking about them. However, the terms have become associated with the frameworks of whole schools of thought which adopt different ways of understanding reality, i.e. empiricism emphasises “facts” and interpretivism emphasises “values”. Somewhere along the line the point has been missed that the terms are broad categories of methodologies of research.

Importantly, at the crux of both methodologies are observation and interpretation. What is observed is dependent on the ‘lens’ or knowledge base through which the world is being seen and what instruments of observation are being used or available. It is apparent that phenomena could be seen as, for example, an empirical reality or a social reality depending on the lens or theoretical construct through which the world is viewed. Through either ‘reality’ there is some form of theoretical construct through which an observation is interpreted-

The empiricists run into a difficulty by accepting only observation as a theory of knowledge. This precludes interpretation being regarded as a theory of knowledge and yet all observations are interpreted. Accepting that everything observed is interpreted would imply that empiricists can never actually reach the naked facts or ‘true world’ they seek. Similarly, the interpretivists view that there is only an ‘inner constructed’ reality, thus rejecting that there is a physical or factual reality which can be observed, runs into the same difficulty as the empiricists.

A strict quantitative or strict qualitative methodology view runs into the same difficulty as a strict empiricist or strict interpretivist view of the world. Numbers and statistics can give an air of objectivity but conclusions drawn can only be based on interpretations. Rich description may give an air of context and causality but the conclusions drawn can only be based on interpretations. To suggest that either the quantitative or qualitative methodologies are neutral belies the context, beliefs, knowledge, theories and values that individuals construct their own world from.

Rather than slavishly concentrating on a particular school of thought or paradigm as the basis for research, it is coherent theories which need to be used as the basis on which research is constructed. Evidence and claims necessarily must go hand-in-hand. Observation and interpretation are opponents so a researcher has no choice but to be cognizant of their own interpretation of reality and select research methods appropriate to the study to be embarked upon. In this way, methods employing quantitative and qualitative research techniques may be used to suit a particular research inquiry.

As Kaplan (1994) says,

“Methodology does not dictate that the soft sciences be hardened or abandoned. Neither does methodology exclude human behaviour from scientific treatment. The task is to do as well as is made possible by the nature of the problem and the given state of knowledge and technology.”


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