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A small - but important - rant about 'that' image - dump the qual/quant wars

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

If you're on Twitter you've likely seen this image doing the rounds in recent weeks...

And you've likely also seen many responses that indicate a resonance with this suggested contrast between qualitative and quantitative research - and perhaps you've been titillated by the image, smiled, laughed or thought "yeah", and maybe you re-tweeted or commented.

After all...qualitative researchers know well the creativity and 'messiness' involved in research and analysis that the image clearly evokes - in contrast to quantitative research.

Is it funny … or is it real?

Well, it might be funny and for some, it might be real, but I have issues with this image. What does it actually say? To start with it suggests that quantitative research is serious, ordered … perhaps boring? If I was a quantitative researcher I’d not be delighted with this one-dimensional portrayal. But what about the qualitative image?

What does the image evoke for you...?

For me, these are the contrasts that came to mind...

· that qualitative research is fluffy, whereas quantitative is....planned…?

· that qualitative research is creative, whereas quantitative is...ordered…?

· that qualitative research is fun, whereas quantitative is...serious…?

· that qualitative research is subjective, whereas quantitative is...objective…?

· that qualitative research deals with interpretations, whereas quantitative deals with... facts…?

You may see different contrasts, but likely in the same broad areas.

Eerm..where is mixed-methods research?

As well as the contrasts that this image evoked in me, I wondered: Where is mixed-methods research in all this? For me that omission speaks volumes.

Contrasts help our understandings

My rant goes beyond this particular image to the broader contrasts made between qualitative and quantitative research. Contrasts do need to be made. Understanding anything involves contrasts - because knowing what something is, is always partly about what it isn't. And the contrasts between qualitative and quantitative research are particularly important when we're first introduced to the idea that research happens in different ways, from different perspectives or standpoints, for different purposes, in different contexts, and with different intended outcomes.

Time to dump the stereotypes

The way contrasts are evoked by the image may be amusing, titillating, even resonating – but they are stereotypes. How disappointing that these stereotypical contrasts are still so entrenched and perpetuated. Because most - if not all of them - really aren't true. And however important the contrasts are we don’t do our collective scholarship any good by propagating such stereotypes.

Warring factions

We do need to be aware of and understand the long-standing quantitative/qualitative “paradigm wars”. That's crucial in placing our research activities in context. But surely we can make the necessary contrasts without perpetuating unhelpful and inaccurate stereotypes...and particularly for those who are entering into research? Mixed-methods scholars have done a great deal of good to address the paradigm wars. But where is the image that includes them? (do let me know if I've missed it...)

Loosen up, Christina, it's just a bit of fun...

If you've got this far in my small – but important - 'rant', you might be thinking something along the lines of 'chill out woman, it's just a bit of fun'. Certainly, we all need a bit of light relief right now. I get that. The corners of my lips indeed raised themselves momentarily when I first saw the image (cue Sir Elton John, my 9 year old daughter's flamboyancy and memories of my first, totally messy qualitative analysis).

But not so much the second, third...fiftieth time I saw it... The problem is that the 'fun' in the image perpetuates the long-standing, tired, and unwarranted problems of such contrasts. I’m all for a bit of fun, but let's make fun out of our research practices in a positive way...not one that perpetuates what dozens of scholars have spent years - decades – rightly trying to dispel.

It goes both ways

Both qualitative and quantitative research are belittled on many grounds by proponents of "the other side”. Most of these grounds are ill-informed, or just downright wrong. From both ends of the methodological spectrum. And did I mention mixed-methods research...where is that, again...?

Appropriateness to the task at hand

I’m not a quantitative researcher. I learnt about quantitative research and analysis during my undergrad and masters studies, but have always primarily had an affinity to qualitative data and analysis. Why? For many reasons, but absolutely not because I believe qualitative is better in and of itself. I’m a pragmatist on this point - the data we use should be appropriate to the research questions we seek to answer, as should the analytic methods we use to analyse and interpret those data.

Some research questions are best investigated with quantitative methods, some with qualitative methods, and some with mixed-methods. I'm privileged to have undertaken loads of qualitative studies myself and with many colleagues - and to have facilitated hundreds of researchers plan and implement their projects and harness digital tools (primarily dedicated CAQDAS packages, but also other tools) for qualitative research, employing a range of analytic methods. I've also undertaken - and facilitated - numerous mixed-methods projects. So I look at the image, and the contrast it evokes, from that standpoint.

Why fight each other?

We're currently living in particularly uncertain and difficult times. Many of us are at home, trying to continue with home-life, work and various caring and community responsibilities within different levels of constrained circumstances. We're ebbing and flowing as guidelines around our physical (social) distancing come in and out of force. Each and every one of us has our own experience in this regard.

Yes, some titillation, some fun, some corners of our lips raising, is welcome. Anything that takes us out - however momentarily - from whatever struggles and pressures we’re under. I’m not against that. But as researchers, practitioners, scholars (or however we choose to define ourselves) we're also under increased pressure to validate our work - 'experts' and ‘specialists’ – researchers - are not valued or listened to in the way they once were - or perhaps should be.

So let's unite...let's respect the contrasts between quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods research and analysis - let's respect the place they each have, the different questions the seek to answer, the different ways they go about the task of understanding aspects of our world. Let's not spend our time perpetuating false contrasts, or fighting. There's enough of that going on. Let's find fun in what we do without divisive and inaccurate contrasting narratives.


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