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Mixed Methodology in Social Research

Updated on June 5, 2013

Combining more than one form of research is referred to as mixed methodological research. When assessing the advantages and disadvantages of combining more than one form of research technique, for the purpose of this essay, we are asking about the theoretical and practical application of mixed methodology. As such, the definition of mixed methodology used will be Bryman’s(2008); research in which quantitative and qualitative techniques are both used in a single study. Combining quantitative and qualitative techniques is often considered the third paradigm of social research; as such mixed methodology approaches have become far more common in recent years (Johnson, Onwuegbuzie, & Turner, April 2007).

But should methodologies be combined? With the many ontological and epistemological debates and differences with the social sciences is it right to use different methodology and can it be done? If they could be combined how should they be combined? But is this right or best for the social sciences? Do these fundamental scientific philosophy debates devalue or add to the final conclusions we draw from mixed methodological research? While answering these questions the advantages and disadvantages of combining more than one form of research technique will be highlighted and addressed.

Firstly, the debate around whether methodology should be combined and the theoretical problems that can arise from this, as the arguments against mixing methodological approaches are mainly from a theoretical stand point. Its reasoned the choice of method should be rooted in the ontological and epistemological arguments (Kuhn, 1962). Based on the notion that the various viewpoints of scientific philosophy should play a key role in the selection of methods.

The main argument for not combining methodologies is that epistemologically it just cannot work. The foundations of research should be based on whether the researcher believes in an objectivists or constructionists, ontology, or what they consider knowledge to be rooted in, epistemology. The idea of a research method is not just to decide how to collect your data but also making an epistemological statement (Kuhn, 1962).

Kuhn (1962) argued that what makes methodology so un-mixable is a fundamental difference in epistemological belief; this became known as the paradigm argument. Each fundamental belief of how sciences should be conducted, its methodology, is within a paradigm. Within these paradigms exist the epistemological assumptions that contain the values and methods. The argument goes that values and methods are intertwined; therefore no compatibility exists between the paradigms(Kuhn, 1962). Because of this fundamental difference the integration of methods, and the results, exists only at a superficial level. The research actually only takes place within a single paradigm (Hughes, 1990). "The proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. ... Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction" (Kuhn 1962; p149). Kuhns theoretical perspective, that it is unachievable because of deep and unquestionable epistemological differences, is not uncommon; other theorists who have a similar argument against the mixing of methodology, are Giddings and Grant (2007). Referring to mixed methods as nothing but ‘the bastardization of positivism’ (Giddings & Grant, 2007).

On the other hand, both of these theoretical assumptions have weaknesses when applied to actually conducting research, as well as some theory issues. Smith & Heshusius(1986) argued the use, and growth, of mixed methodology is based on an unfounded assumption that the methods are complimentary. This reflects the main problem with the paradigm and theory arguments; the stubborn belief that there is no interconnectivity between the various methods and epistemological stand points. When looking at the various uses of methods throughout the histories of social science, is difficult to support with evidence. There is also no coherent counter argument to criticisms that many areas of epistemology and methodology do, in fact, have overlap, common features and/or aims.

In terms of theory, as Bergman(2008) points out, mental models, such as Kuhn’s(1970) paradigms, count for little when actually conducting research. Another scientific philosopher, Polanyi(1964), sort to undermine positivism by arguing that objectivity is a false ideal. Even if a researcher comes from an objectivist ontological standpoint their objectivity is still false because all knowledge relies on cultural or personal judgments. Modernising and furthering Polanyi, Mertens(2003) reasons that epistemology and ontology do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore knowledge, and knowledge debates, are not neutrally able to only seek ‘facts’ but instead reflects the power of different parties and their social relationships within the society (Mertens, 2003). If this is the case then many arguments against, and supposed weaknesses of, mixed methodology become invalid.

When examining the disadvantages and advantages of theoretical arguments, that can be supported by evidence and knowledge debates, each side grows in stubborn opposition to one, unable to see reason. or as Kuhn (1962; p147) stated "the competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs". Along with the works of Polanyi(1964) and Mertens(2003) it appears this epistemological argument could continue forever. To avoid such in-depth analysis of detached theories and paradigms such as Morgan’s (2007) work, that do little to advance the debate, perhaps the best way to evaluate a mixed methods approach is by examining how they are combined, and their practical benefits, in their real world application. Of the many ways that methodology can be combined it is important to consider; does the methodology undermine the basic scientific principles, namely validity and reliability.

It can be argued the development of mixed methodologies happened because of a need for reliability on one hand and problems with population validity on the other (Bryman, 2008). Meaning and motives are key in complicated social phenomenon, and therefore must be understood (Weber, 1992, New Ed). So if the weaknesses and benefits of each method are assessed the research can be designed to complement each other (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2004). Regardless whether a mixed or mono methodology is used the research must be conducted properly (Bryman, 2006). Bad research can sometimes just be bad research and not the fault of the epistemological and/or methodological assumption. To this end, more data does not mean better data. Rather than a rush for data, if one method is more appropriate, it should be used (Bryman, 2006). Unnecessary data collection should be avoided, it can cloud and confuse the exact aim and outcome of the research, ruining reliability (Bryman, 2008). This keeps the focus, and allows for the reliability and validity to be kept in check. It must be also be remembered that mixed mythology does not mean one approach is dominant. Dependent on subject, different methods should be used in different ways, to different ends, as demonstrated by Hughes, K. et al(1993).

The more practical version of mixed methodology put emphasis on the variety of ways both qualitative and quantitative data can be analysed. The analytical methods are seen as capable of being fused, regardless to what extent the methods are fused (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2004). Yet, the connections between qualitative and quantitative data and data collection should not be seen as fixed. The methods are autonomous, and the method of one epistemological viewpoint can be pressed into the view of another as long as issues of reliability and validity are considered (Bergman, 2008).

However, there are some criticisms of the practical execution of mixed methodological research, other than epistemological and/or ontological disagreements. In terms of data collection are the different types to be collected at the same time, such as in a questionnaire format, and at what point does it occurs (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998, Morgan, 1998). When collecting and processing the data which type has priority, or should neither (Morse, 1991). Once the data collected how is it going to be combined; triangulation, explanation, or exploration (Creswell, 2003). Researchers could be missing key knowledge or skills (Bryman, 2008). These issues highlight how important it is to understand social research issues, plan effectively and in great detail. To understand the epistemological and ontological issues research deals with, to effectively control the research is another challenge all together. The resources you are dealing with; time, money, researchers, participants etc. should all have an effect on method choice (Walker, 1997). Mixed methods should not be seen as the universal way to research; it may enhance the findings, it may hinder the process and analytics. It may seem that if a mixture of methods are used the results are simply better, this is not the case. It up to the researcher to make the best call, which is why, again, social science education and skill is key (Bergman, 2008). The execution and understanding appear vital to assessing if mixed mythological research is best from a practical viewpoint. But what about advancing social sciences as a whole?

finally, key to examining whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages it should be considered whether mixed methods have a key role in the future of social sciences. It is difficult, and perhaps too late, to analysis mixed methods from a purely theoretical viewpoint as they have already become common place and theoretical counter arguments are well developed. When considering the theoretical perspectives of Kuhn(1962), Polanyi(1964) and Merten(2003) it is not their models that are triumphant but Bergman’s(2008) analysis. Who observed that mental models count for little in on-going research. As such it is best not to consider theoretical disagreements when trying to evaluate if the disadvantages, highlighted by scientific philosophy, can be over looked but a practical perspective. And from a practical perspective it is key to understand bad research is just bad researcher/ing (Bryman, 2008). While conducting research, if the advantages and disadvantages of each methodology can be used to try and counteract each other, then it should be done. If the analytical methods are seen as capable of being fused, they should be (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2004). ‘There would then be little or no point in wasting time and energy on enunciating principles for the contexts in which combining quantitative and qualitative research is and is not appropriate’ (Grunow, 1995; p99). However, it should also be highlighted what is key; If the research is well planned, if the methods create more than the sum of their parts, if the different methods complement each other and if resource limitations have been considered then if mixed, rather than mono, methodology is chosen it is a valid and reliable option, it is the best choice (Bryman, 2006). If it is carefully thought out mixed methods research, as with any research, then it is best for the future social sciences. Even, Kuhn(1962) admitted the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community. Looking at the steady increase in the use of mixed methods, it would appear the community has come to some form of consensus. This is because as those opposed to mixed methodology have become less vocal and the debate more a part of a social sciences education a growing number are willing to see research methods as techniques and not purely as tools for an epistemological or ontological argument (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2004).

Different methodology should complement each other, and not have to stand alone or be difficult to integrate. They should not be considered as a dry list of advantages and disadvantages but within their history, biography, social structure and milieu (Mills, 1959). As long as the principles of systematic inquiry, objectivity and theory are upheld then social research can use what methodology it pleases (Jenkins, 2002). The researcher should ‘seek elaboration, enhancement, illustration, clarification of the results from one method with the results from another’ (Greene et al., 1989: 259). This new wave of social science education and attitude can safe guard issues of reliability and validity when using a mixed methodology approach.


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