A considerable amount of literature has grown up around the topic of research. As defined by many authors, research is the systematic implementation of the scientific method of the object or problem being studied. It is thinking of the relevant and appropriate questions that need to be asked and then assessing the most suitable means to answer those questions, along with providing evidence for those answers.
As stated by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, science can be defined as a department of systematized knowledge covering general truths, or the operation of general laws obtained and tested through scientific methods. Science is a logical advance towards understanding and discovering how things around us function. The body of knowledge is gathered through intense research of the subject under consideration. Before the twentieth century, science largely depended on the principle of induction, which was making discoveries through accurate observations and formulating theories based on the regularities observed. The scientific process was then based on the hypothetico-deductive model which was proposed by Karl Popper in 1935. Popper suggested that theories and laws about the world should come first, which should then be used to generate hypotheses which can be falsified by observation and experiment. Slowly other approaches came into being. The humanistic approach was one such approach that argued that objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective perceptions and understanding of the world. Interest in qualitative data came about as a result of dissatisfaction of psychologists such as Carl Rogers. The traditional methods failed to capture the totality of human experience. In light of recent events, qualitative research is gaining more momentum due to the broad range of questions being asked in order to understand our social world.
Scientific methodology is considered to be one of the strongest means to study truths about the world. It aims to discover, investigate and interpret various factors in a planned and systematic manner. Within research, we have two methods in relation to the kinds of questions we ask and the data we deal with. These two methods lie at opposite ends of the pole and are broadly classified as quantitative and qualitative research methods. Quantitative research is built on the foundation of numbers, heavily relying on statistical means. On the other hand, qualitative research deals with anything that is not numerical data.
For years, quantitative research and qualitative research methods have been pitted against each other, with quantitative research being given more importance. Historically, most journal articles or research were carried out using quantitative research methods. Since qualitative research largely focuses on the human factor, the traditional method to science was arguably not seen appropriate by a number of researchers.
Scientific laws are often considered generalizable, hence, giving more value to quantitative research. The research approach in quantitative research is more objective, formal and systematic in which data are used to quantify or measure the object which is being studied. The results obtained by qualitative research methods are often restricted to specific times and places. The emphasis is generally on people and the effects of social and cultural changes on behaviour. Psychology does not go on in a social vacuum and behaviour changes over time and over situations. These factors make research findings reliable only for a limited period of time. Also, a lot of subject matter in psychological research is unobservable and cannot be measured. This makes it very difficult to control variables. This is the reason why many researchers argue that the results obtained through qualitative research are not reliable or valid.
The manner in which questions are framed determines the kind of data we will need to answer those questions. As mentioned, quantitative research relies on generalization. It aims to find general truths and universal laws that govern our social life. It seeks a greater amount of data from a larger population. It believes in the norms and what the majority says in order to create laws or predictions about the social world. On the contrary, qualitative research seeks data that is very specific and ideographic in nature. It is interested in the individual and individual experiences. It relies on our ability to interpret situations and experiences in order to understand the social world.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy which constitutes valid knowledge. It deals with questions such as ‘How do we know what we know and how can we evidence what we know’. It is about the nature and scope of knowledge. Ontology is a concept which reflects our understanding of reality. Do we see reality as a fixed universal phenomenon that exists independently or are there multiple realities, where each individual has his/her own reality Quantitative research relies on positivism which one of the epistemological positions. Positivism believes that there is a straightforward relationship. Between the world and our perceptions, and there exist general laws that can predict behaviour. Qualitative researchers argue from an ontological perspective that there are multiple realities, and each one of us has our own truth, experiences, attitudes and integrations, that allow us to create our own individual realities. From an epistemological position, this is known as interpretivism, where we are interpreting realities of different individuals and trying to make sense of it with regards to the questions we ask.
Each individual has his/her own thought process, experiences, perceptions and reactions to situations. Two individuals in the same environment may have a different reaction to the same situation, and hence, this makes it important to acknowledge individual differences. It is important to allow individuals to feel, express and explain themselves in the way they deem best. This is where the importance of qualitative research methods come into play. Qualitative research allows us to accumulate rich in-depth data. It emphasizes on the human factor- where feelings, emotions and perceptions can be understood. It provides us with the most detailed understanding of situations that can be viewed from a more holistic point of view. It is concerned with factors that cannot be quantified, therefore, giving us a deeper understanding of the phenomenon being studied.
Both quantitative research and qualitative research have the same ultimate goal: which is to find the truth and seek answers to specific questions. Since qualitative research deals more with human experiences, there may exist subjective experiences and biases. After all, we are all human beings and there will be a case of individual differences while dealing with people. This is where the issue of reliability and validity is raised, where many researchers believe that qualitative research is not ‘scientific enough’. Quantitative researchers argue that the results are not replicable or reliable, as they may change on different days with different people, but this is where the human factor and individual differences that exist around us come into play. Quantitative data may be more valid, reliable, generalizable, objective and have a larger sample population, but everything cannot be quantified. One cannot quantify psychological factors such as emotion, motivation, feelings, belief and so on. Human behaviour cannot be measured. Even though data may lack generalizability due to the sample size of the population, but more in-depth data can be gathered from the chosen population in qualitative research.
What we need to understand is that qualitative research cannot be considered less scientific due to validity or reliability. These are quantitative constructs and qualitative research is not concerned with them. Another factor which is often considered a limitation in qualitative research is generalizability. It is important to note that qualitative research does not seek to generalize. It is more concerned with gathering in-depth data from a chosen population. Qualitative data is subjective in nature due to individual differences that exist around us. This cannot be a criterion for it being considered less scientific. Many quantitative researchers also argue that qualitative research does not use generate a hypothesis, and hence cannot be considered a scientific methodology. Instead, qualitative research is guided by one or more research questions, which is different from hypotheses. Contrary to a hypothesis, a research question is more open-ended and helps identify the phenomenon that the researcher wants to investigate.
There are various strategies and processes for validating qualitative research. Trustworthiness is a concept which refers to how authentic and truthful the findings of the research are, while rigour is a concept that talks about being thorough and accurate with the research. As mentioned by Tracy , for ‘qualitative research to be of high quality, it must be rigorous’. One way to enhance trustworthiness and rigour is triangulation, where multiple data sources, analytic methods or researchers are used to study the object or question under consideration. There are a number of ways in which we can evaluate the trustworthiness in qualitative research. Adapted from Lincoln and Guba, there exist various terms which are used in quantitative research which makes it more trustworthy and scientific. Similarly, there also exist qualitative constructs which can be used to make the findings of the research more authentic.
Validity is one such construct which adds to scientific reasoning of quantitative research. Joppe describes validity as a construct that determines whether the research truly measures what it intended on measuring and how truthful are the results. Qualitative research has its own methods and procedures to obtain validity, it is simply different from quantitative approaches. The qualitative construct for validity is credibility, which tests whether the findings make sense and can be considered plausible. A number of techniques can be adopted to promote rigour, such as member checking, prolonged time in the field, peer debriefing and so on.
Reliability refers to the extent to which results are consistent over time, an accurate representation of the population and if the study can be reproduced under a similar methodology. The qualitative construct for reliability is dependability. Dependability establishes the findings as consistent and replicable. This can be done through an audit trail of decision making throughout the research process.
The qualitative term transferability can act as a substitute for the term generalizability. It refers to the extent to which results can be transferred to other contexts or settings. This can be assured through a rich description of the setting and participants.
The term confirmability can be used as a substitute for confirmability which refers to the degree to which the results could be corroborated by others. It also refers to the confirmation of the researcher’s position and influence. This can be balanced through reflexibility, by keeping a reflexive journal. Reflexivity is an ongoing, internal, critical dialogue of the researcher with regards to their own assumptions and perceptions and the way it may impact the research that they are carrying out.
It is difficult to have one, universal way or reason for conducting research due to the copious amount of the questions one can ask. According to Sparkes and Smith, qualitative researchers have no reason to be defensive about their work. A large array critical work has been generated by the interpretivist, ethnographic and critical community. Qualitative research has the power to generate new theories, refine existing frameworks, generate behaviour change and develop applied practices. They not only increase our knowledge base but continue to increase the number of questions being asked and answered, along with explanations being provided for those answers. Our social world benefits from both quantitative and qualitative research, and the method used will is dependent upon the question posed. Qualitative research strategies have standards and guidelines which ensure scientific rigour and credibility, which the ultimate aim of finding the truth and establishing theories. Therefore, qualitative research needs to be considered as much as a scientific tool as quantitative research methods.