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Qualitative Methods

9. Summary

Quantitative researchers are rightly concerned to establish correlations between variables. However, while their approach can tell us a lot about inputs and outputs to some phenomenon (e.g. communication), it has to be satisfied with a purely ‘operational’ definition of the phenomenon and does not have the resources to describe how that phenomenon is locally constituted (see Figure 1). As a result, its contribution to social problems is necessarily lopsided and limited.

Figure 1

Missing Phenomenon in Quantitative Research

Image depicting missing phenomenon in qualitative research as described in text. Inputs arrow[the phenomenon] Outputs arrow

The main strength of qualitative research is its ability to study phenomena which are simply unavailable when quantitative researchers seek to establish correlations between variables. The latter approach can tell us a lot about inputs and outputs to some phenomenon (e.g. the link between the social characteristics of doctors and patients and compliance), but it has to depend upon the use of prior ‘measures’ and does not have the resources to describe how that phenomenon (physician-patient communication) is locally constituted. Think, for instance, of what Heath’s (2004) visual data can tell us about what actually happens in the consulting room.

The conclusion I draw from this argument is that we can most satisfactorily answer research questions by combining separate quantitative and qualitative studies.

For instance, my research on HIV-test counseling (Silverman,1997) used similar data to Heath’s. Although it could add to our understanding of processes within counselor-client communication, it could not document the impact of this communication upon subsequent client behaviour. This carries an important message.

While quantitative research is blind when it does not have access to qualitative research on the local construction of social phenomena, qualitative research is immeasurably strengthened when it is combined with quantitative data about the inputs and outputs of its chosen topics. Such a division of labour would seem to be the most fruitful future path.

Heath, C. (2004). Analysing face-to-face interaction: Video, the visual and material. In D. Silverman (Ed.) Qualitative research (2nd Ed.), London: Sage: 266-82.
Silverman, D. (1997) Discourses of counselling: HIV counselling as social interaction, London: Sage.