Assignment 1 Essay
Length: 3000 words
Question: Identify and distinguish the features of quantitative and qualitative research methods as they are applied within the broad field of communications research. Critically evaluate and analyse the advantages and limitations of the two methods. Are they mutually exclusive, and if not, under what conditions can they be reconciled?
Comparing and contrasting quantitative and qualitative research: features, advantages, limitations, and reconciliation in communications research
This paper explores quantitative and qualitative research approaches – essential tools for media and communications researchers in modern and postmodern society – and specifically identifies and distinguishes their features with regards to their historical development; their epistemological, ontological, methodological, and analytical and interpretive frameworks; discusses their major advantages and limitations; and, via a brief review of conceptual and practical efforts at reconciliation, offers a perspective on future holistic approaches with both methods. While in principle quantitative and qualitative research together has so much to offer, in practice it will be left to the context, agenda, and skill of those asking the questions and conducting the research that will determine if and how effectively they are used together.
If research is the “process of asking questions and finding answers” (Bertrand & Hughes 2005: 7-8) then quantitative and qualitative research are simply different approaches. The quantitative research process generally involves the collection of a statistically representative number of pre-structured responses to pre-structured questions via a survey instrument (e.g. questionnaire); or the recording of pre-structured observations of behavior or response following the exposure or introduction of selected stimuli via experimentation. Answers are sought in questions relating to the relationship between numbers and statistics and often applied in a social science context (Alasuutari 1995: 8; Weber 2010b). The qualitative research process generally involves the collection and observation of a smaller sample of detailed responses to open ended questions in a conversational context, or behavior in a natural environment, via one-on-one interviews, focused group interviews, observation, or ethnographic immersion. Answers are sought in questions of meaning and social ritual and often applied in a humanities context (Hansen et al 1998: 261; Jensen 2002b: 255; Weber 2010b).
Both approaches, however, are attempts to understand media and communications in modern and postmodern society across commercial, professional, and academic contexts (Bertrand & Hughes 2005: 2). Their respective histories have led to often conflicting perspectives as to how each can be employed and has even been likened to the worship of different religions and gods (Mahoney & Goertz 2006: 227). Quantitative research was imported from the natural sciences (e.g. physics, biology, etc) and the belief that there is a knowable world out there waiting to be discovered. From a communications perspective, this involved audience measurement and measuring the effects or outcomes of media usage on audience opinions, attitudes and potential behaviors (Gunter 2000: 22; Ruddock 2001: 3). Qualitative research, by contrast, has generally evolved to fill the “gap” of quantitative research. There were brief contributions in the 1940s via military applications (Gunter 2000: 42) and then, outside of commercial purposes, from the 1980s onwards had a larger contribution in understanding the unique circumstances of media and communications in a post-industrial society, and specifically questions of meaning and context (Gunter 2000: 45; Jensen 1993: 2). Qualitative research borrowed from disciplines such as psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, psycholinguistics, and semiotics to achieve this (Martínez 2008: 26), and generally posits that any knowledge is a “product rather than a discovery” of communication research (Ruddock 2005: 5).
The first and key distinguishing feature of quantitative and qualitative research, and often touted as indicative of their incompatibility, is the epistemological paradigms – their view on the nature of knowledge – they espouse (Howe 1988: 10). Quantitative research is often connected with a positivist epistemology and qualitative research with a critical epistemology (Gunter 2000: 22; Jensen 2002b: 255; Neuman 2007: 42-43). Positivism posits that reality has objective “truths” to be discovered if only the right research question and design were initiated. Stemming from the natural “hard” sciences, positivism has been influential in the growth of modern society as it has been linked to questions of population regulation and nation building due to its focus on numbers (Reinard 2006: 5; Webb et al 2002: 46). A critical epistemology states that social life is fundamentally different from other sciences studied and their principles cannot simply be transported over (Neuman 2007: 42); instead what is needed is an emphasis on three aspects: context, meaning, and process. That is, the different meanings we give to media and communication in different contexts as reality is “constructed” in an ongoing manner.
The second distinguishing feature of the two approaches concerns ontological questions – the nature of being itself. Intimately connected with epistemological considerations, here I propose that the notion of totality and objects contrasts with that of parts and subjects to distinguish quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research is concerned with the former: the overall totality of media and communications and what has been called the naïve realism accompanying it (Bertrand & Hughes 2005: 12). There is an underlying logic that society can be “captured” in its totality at a point in time, understood, and deconstructed – what you see is literally what you get. Qualitative research is concerned with the latter: the varying parts and subjects of a vast totality that can be imperfectly understood but never in totality– what you see is not necessarily what you get (Bertrand & Hughes 2005: 12).
Their respective methodologies of data and observation collection differ greatly: this is the third distinguishing feature of the two approaches. Quantitative researchers generally seek large, representative, replicable samples of the population to study. The number of individual observations may range from 100 to over 100,000 and a national census is the largest research of a quantitative nature conducted. The researcher themselves are generally external to the study and manage the implementation of a survey or experimental design to ensure it is credible and robust. Once the data or observations have been adequately collected, it is only then that it is analysed. By contrast, qualitative researchers generally seek much smaller samples, down to the individual level, that are not necessarily representative of a population but rather indicative instead. Qualitative research is also generally not replicable and the researcher themselves can be involved, often intimately, in the data collection process, especially in focused group discussions, one-on-one interviews, and ethnographic immersion. Collection and analysis are not mutually exclusive and are often a joint ongoing process that unfolds together with the research project. Put another way, quantitative researchers study data; qualitative researchers study people.
The fourth and final distinguishing feature of the two approaches is their analytical and interpretive approach, which has been described in different ways: deduction versus induction (Jensen 2002b: 259); measurement versus meaning (Jensen 2002b: 255); production of observations and unriddling versus purification and unriddling (Alasuutari 1995: 13-20); patterns, contrasts, clustering, and partitioning variables versus plausibility, metaphors, conceptual coherence, and general laws (Bertrand & Hughes 2005: 85-95); average effects versus individual effects (Mahoney & Goertz 2006: 229); actions versus intentions; breadth versus depth; and totality and sub-group analysis versus group level and individual ideas and behaviour. This list is not exhaustive, though it does highlight the differences as well as bring into the discussion the three preceding distinguishing epistemological, ontological, and methodological features – preferences, contexts, and choices made earlier on in the research process in many ways determine the mode of analysis to be undertaken and how descriptive and causal inferences – knowledge – will be generated.
As such, quantitative and qualitative research often guides, implies and gives preference to different models and theories of communication (McQuail 2000: 52-57): quantitative research is more likely to espouse transmission and publicity models, whereas qualitative research is more likely to espouse ritual / expressive and reception models.
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