How to... use mixed methods research

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By Margaret Adolphus

Emerald has always had as high a regard for qualitative as for quantitative research. In fact, it has four journals devoted purely to qualitative research in particular areas.

Reading through interviews in the Meet the Editor section, it is interesting how many editors are particularly pleased to receive submissions that combine qualitative and quantitative research – the "mixed methods" approach.

However, properly used "mixed methods" research is a design methodology, a paradigm, and not just an arbitrary mix of qualitative and quantitative techniques.

This article examines what the term means, why it has come into favour, its advantages and disadvantages, and some aspects of the execution of a mixed method design. Given the impossibility of satisfactory coverage of a complex issue in a short article, it also refers to other sources of information for further reading.

Context and definitions

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, qualitative and quantitative research were seen as two opposing paradigms, each with their own supporters, most of whom would have denied the possibility of mixing them (this period is often referred to as "the paradigm wars").

For an account of the difference between the two approaches, see How to design a research study.

During the last two decades, however, qualitative research has begun to lose its Cinderella status, becoming a legitimate form of enquiry, and researchers in both camps have begun to see the importance of each other's data.

While researchers have been mixing quantitative and qualitative techniques for years, what is new is the deliberate attempt to provide theoretical background and formal design (or designs).

Mixed method research has been afforded the status of a separate design, often referred to as the "third methodological movement" (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 2003), or the "third paradigm".

Undoubtedly, what has fuelled the interest has been the increasing complexity of research problems, and the desire for an understanding that is both deep and broad (afforded by qualitative and quantitative data respectively).

The increasing importance of the link between research and policy has also played its part, as has the greater availability of data provided by the Semantic Web, which enables multiple data sets to be integrated in different ways, providing a richer and more informed picture of social phenomena.

Definitions

Grafton et al. (2011), in their literature review of mixed methods research in accounting, identify two components as key to mixed methods:

  1. integration of methods, and
  2. the fact that the research should concern a single study or programme of enquiry (as opposed to parallel studies or programmes).

Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004, p. 17) offer a similar definition:

"mixed methods research is formally defined here as the class of research where the researcher mixes or combines quantitative and qualitative research techniques, methods, approaches, concepts or language into a single study."

In his definition, Cresswell (2003, p. 5) talks about underlying philosophical assumptions that guide the collection and analysis of data, and the "collection, analysis and mixing of data", the central premise being:

" ... that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone."

Evidence for the popularity of mixed methods

Writing on either side of the Atlantic, Cresswell (2003) and Brannen (2005) provide evidence of interest in mixed methods:

  • Increased publishing activity. There have been a number of textbooks and monographs on the subject, as well as the launch of a new journal in January 2007: Journal of Mixed Methods Research.  In the USA, a number of research institutes (such as the National Institute of Health's Office of Behavioural Research, and the National Science Foundation), have held workshops or published guidelines, while in 2005, the American Educational Research Association formed a Special Interest Group on Mixed Methods Research.

  • In the UK, there have also been a number of conferences and workshops on mixed method research.

  • More and more disciplines are adopting mixed method research, such as medicine, counselling, psychology, health sciences, education and management.

  • In 2005, the International Journal of Social Research Methodology ran a special issue (Issue 3) on mixed method research.

  • The number of articles using, and on, mixed method research in journals generally has increased in recent years.

In addition, Emerald's journal Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management has just produced a special issue on "Mixed methods research in accounting". (See Further resources for information on this and other publications mentioned in this section.)