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Appropriate Research Methods

7. Danger in Dichotomizing

Danger in Falsely Dichotomizing Research Methods

The notion of “appropriateness,” as applied to social and behavioral research methods, refers to the most suitable research approach associated with different points across the broad spectrum of methodologic strategies.  Just as it is inappropriate to distinguish high from low interventions, it is also inappropriate to falsely dichotomize research methods as:

  • Quantitative vs. qualitative;
  • Hard vs. soft;
  • Deductive vs. inductive; or
  • Objective vs. subjective.

The utility of a particular methodologic approach is, in large part, a function of the load you're asking it to carry and to whom it's being delivered.  The appropriateness of any research methodology depends on the phenomenon under study: its magnitude, the setting, the current state of theory and knowledge, the availability of valid measurement tools, and the proposed uses of the information to be gathered.  So the appropriateness of any research method is determined not by some abstract norm or idealized Popperian conception of science, but by:

  • The nature of the problem under consideration;
  • The community resources and skills available; and 
  • The prevailing norms and values at the national, regional, or local level.

Acceptance of the notion of "appropriate methodologies" requires adaptation and refinement of traditional quantitative research methods in order for these methods (such as social surveys and conventional experimental designs) to remain applicable to the emerging approach to population health. Moreover, well-designed and carefully conducted qualitative studies, including ethnographic interviewing, participant observation, conversation or narrative analysis, case studies, and focus group activities, are now required not only to complement quantitative approaches, but also to fill explanatory gaps where quantitative techniques are suboptimal or even inappropriate.

One problem is that quantitative and qualitative methods are viewed by their more rigid adherents as fundamentally incompatible rather than as mutually enriching partners in a common enterprise.  Many quantitative social scientists view qualitative approaches as inductive, subjective, unreliable, and "soft."  These advocates of quantitative methods constitute the dominant force in behavioral and social science research (and control the purse strings).  Likewise, researchers employing qualitative methodologies see quantitative researchers as positivistic, mindless data dredgers who suffer from hardening of the categories.

Figure 2

Figure of Typology Relating Levels of Intervention to Appropriate Evaluation Methods as described in the text.