Is the qualitative / quantitative divide really a false dichotomy

There are a wide range of research techniques that are utilized in political studies. Traditionally they are categorized as either qualitative or quantitative in their methods, suggesting a divide between two opposing ideal types. This paper discusses how the researcher decides upon the most appropriate method to employ for their study and argues that whilst theoretical approaches will have a preferred, and more appropriate, research method, there can be little, if any, value in adopting a singular method approach.

Qualitative research ‘tends to focus on exploring in as much detail as possible, smaller numbers of instances or examples which are seen as being interesting or illuminating, and aims to achieve “depth” rather than “breadth” Harrison 74). The techniques often associated with this method include participant observation, interviews and focus groups. Qualitative research does not try to make predictions about what may occur, rather it seeks to explain the understandings.

This takes an inductive methodological approach, whereby the theory / hypothesis is derived from the empirical observation that is undertaken rather than the testing of a hypothesis against the data. Participant observation is a case study approach that has been defined as ‘a process in which an investigator establishes a many-sided and relatively long-term relationship with a human association in its natural setting for the purpose of developing a scientific understanding of that association’ (Burnham et al 222).

It is argued that the use of participant observation provides a greater depth of knowledge concerning the motivations, beliefs and behaviour of individuals and groups. Burnham et al categorizes four ideal roles that the researcher can adopt using this method: (1) the complete participant, (2) the participant as an observer, (3) the observer as participant and, (4) the complete observer. The first two types are the most commonly adopted and it is where the researcher gains access to a particular group and observes the behaviour and attitudes from a participant perspective.

The main difference between the two is that the complete participant will not disclose their research role whilst the participant as an observer will negotiate access ad be open about the research study. The final two are less common types and require a more formal approach to observation with briefer and more formal arrangements made to observe those informing the study. There are great advantages in adopting this method of research, notably the depth of knowledge and understanding that can be obtained.

The data collection is made easier by the relaxed and informed environment that the researcher is working in (for most types of role). This method also allows for greater flexibility of the research study as it presents an opportunity, as new data is collected or discovered, to modify and change hypotheses as the study is ongoing. However this long term commitment can also be viewed as a significant disadvantage in employing this method, as is the difficulty in gaining access for research within groups, particularly those who are known for their secrecy.

Other difficulties facing the researcher include the maintenance of objectivity and neutrality, which can sometimes be challenging when working alongside those being observed and awareness of the ethics that may be challenged, particularly when carrying out covert research studies (for example as a complete participant). This method can find itself open to criticism of its descriptive findings and should be cautioned to ensure robust accuracy and validity. Quantitative methods are primarily about a concern for quantity of data and as Miller defines it ‘it is based on the question ‘How many of them are there? (154).

Quantitative data comes in many forms and Miller distinguishes between experimental and observational data. Experimental data is most commonly collected using surveys and the results are analyzed by using a variety of statistical techniques. This statistical focus has meant that the growth of the quantitative method has been developed alongside the development in modern technology, for example the emergence of SPSS as a significant computer package. The use of surveys is more commonly associated with quantitative methods.

Surveys are useful means for finding out five different types of information: Facts (for example demographic information); Perceptions (for example what people know about political activities); Opinions (for example what people think about political activities); Attitudes (for example towards the war in Iraq); and Behavioural reports (for example how people vote in elections) . Undertaking a survey and primary analysis requires the researcher to pay particular attention to the design of the survey.

The method of data collection will vary significantly and will ultimately depend on the design of the questionnaire and model of analysis, for example there may be phone surveys, market surveys or wide scale census type surveys. Employing surveys as a method gives the researcher a number of advantages, notably the cost and breadth of the data collected in comparison with face to face interviews. Also the anonymity attached to the majority of these surveys may increase the willingness of respondents to participate in the study and thus increase the validity of the findings.

The data collected and the analysis undertaken can then be used to test any hypotheses and be applied in the prediction of changes and trends, for example how people vote in elections. However there are also disadvantages and limitations that the researcher needs to consider when employing surveys. An important limitation to note is that whilst surveys can predict on how people behave (for example who they vote for) they cannot explain why people behave the way they do (for example what causes a person to change political party allegiance).

The researcher also needs to be aware of the cost involved in the time consuming activity of survey design and piloting surveys, and the possibility of poor response rates which could affect the validity of the results and it is also worth mentioning that respondents may be unwilling to reveal more than a certain level of personal information through this method due to its impersonal nature.

Surveys can provide a powerful method to collect data from the population that can be used in explaining the political attitudes and behaviour however researchers also need to be aware that they are not perfect and there are limitations to what a survey can measure. This paper provides only a selected comparison to demonstrate the differences between the methods. However researchers can employ any number of qualitative or quantitative methods or techniques and whilst the limitations of each method will be considered primarily what shapes the researchers decision is their approach to research.

There are three approaches which have shaped the development of political science: rational theory, behaviouralism and new institutionalism and each have a more preferred, or obvious choice of method. For example rational choice theory seeks to construct mathematical models so appears more suited to the numerical data collection and analysis of quantitative methods whereas New Institutionalism relies heavily on a case study approach, and historical analysis so appears more suited to the more detailed explanation obtained through the qualitative approach.

As Sanders points out both qualitative and quantitative methods are acceptable in the behaviouralist approach as the researchers are more concerned with the way the data is utilized in evaluating theoretical propositions and systematic rather than illustrative analysis. Any discussion of qualitative and quantitative methods will ultimately focus on the division between the two. There is no reason why the two methods and techniques cannot be used in a complementary manner within political science studies, and this triangulation of methods is increasingly in popularity amongst researchers.

However it isn’t possible to state that the division between qualitative and quantitative is a ‘false dichotomy’. Rather it is clear that the divide will be found within the theoretical approaches adopted by the researcher and the approach adopted will ultimately define a preferred method for the study. Discussing the divide between the two methods indicates opposing ideal type of method, whilst perhaps the discussion should not be about divide but preference and triangulation where added value can be provided by adopting both methods.