Why fieldwork might be worth it
8 July 2015
Kellogg Scholar Christine Paget (DPhil Education) writes about mixed-methods research in the context of her research and fieldwork.
A Reflection on Mixed-Methods Studies: Why Fieldwork Might Be Worth It
Although perhaps a little abrupt, I’d like to start with a disclaimer. The following blog entry is more of a personal (semi) organized train of thought on the philosophy of mixed-methods research in the context of my research rather than a more formal review of the literature or a position piece. It is intended to foster discussion and reflect some of my current thoughts regarding my upcoming fieldwork and DPhil progress.
A little background on my work: I’m currently in the DPhil programme in the Department of Education at Oxford. I’ve passed my ToS and am about to embark on my fieldwork. My study is a mixed-methods study involving the analysis of large scale national assessment data, and then conducting interviews that are intending to contextualize and nuance my quantitative findings. I’m nervous about this fieldwork for a number of reasons. First, it is horrendously expensive. I’m Canadian studying at Oxford and my fieldwork is in the North East of Brazil (Paraiba). It all adds up to some hefty bills! It really means I’m all in – I have everything on the line in this program. Secondly, my first language is English. I lived in Brazil for two years in my early twenties, I’ve worked hard to maintain my fluency in Portuguese, but I haven’t been back to Brazil in almost a decade. I’ve anticipated participating in about 20 interviews in Portuguese as my fieldwork – am I going to be able to keep up? Thirdly, I’m worried that I will get there and no one will speak to me. I’m pretty sure most students go through a bit of this anxiety with fieldwork. Will anyone show up? Will they answer my questions? How will I find participants? All of these questions, anxieties, and issues are making me wonder if I’ve really made the right decision. Should I really do a mixed-methods study?
I am by no means a philosopher but recently began picking up some books on educational philosophy. I’ve become more and more interested in the philosophical debates surrounding epistemology. Specifically I became interested in the competing claims of positivist empiricist and interpretivist epistemological theories that may underpin quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Arguments regarding the deep divisions between these two approaches are not without merit. Nor is the argument that any such epistemological divide may be meaningless or artificial. I, however, have chosen to look to a few educational philosophers who straddle these theories and look for connections rather than walls. I am currently re-reading some of the writing that I will present here in a search for confidence and justification for the fieldwork I have planned to begin in July.
MacIntrye (1984) is one my primary sources for mixed-methods research justification. MacIntrye argues that uncovering statistical regularities (i.e. quantitative research) is important in studying and understanding human behaviour, however, it is “crucial to notice their [elements of unpredictability in human behaviour] intimate relationship to the predictable elements” (p.102). Essentially, qualitative research is inexorably intertwined with quantitative research; patterns and observations in one are related to observations and patterns in the other. Further, and perhaps most poignantly for my study in education, McIntrye (1984) states that, “[w]e cannot, that is to say, characterize behavior independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible both to agents themselves and to others” (p.206), and additionally that, “in successfully identifying and understanding what someone else is doing we always move towards placing a particular episode in the context of a set of narrative histories, histories both of the individuals concerns and of the settings in which they act and suffer” (p.211). The settings, meanings, narratives, experiences, and perceptions of people is necessarily integral to the interpretations of statistical quantitative patterns just as those same statistical patterns can bring some meaning and clarity to these settings.
Stenhouse (1975) addresses the importance of quantitative research – what MacIntyre refers to as statistical patterns of predictability – in educational research when he says, “we can perhaps generalize about variables likely to be important and needing therefore to be monitored” (p.136), and further goes on to state, “what is needed is a grasp of the range of problems and effects with enough contextual data to … anticipate what sorts of things are likely to happen …” (p.136). Stenhouse’s argument invites the researcher to use statistical data in a speculative and suggestive style; as instruments of exploration to be used in addition to qualitative contextual data. Thus, I have come to a personal conclusion that the best way to bring meaning, context, and relevance to my study is to use a dynamic and flexible range of research methods that most appropriately and comprehensively address my research questions. For me and my study, this means fieldwork is absolutely integral to ecologically valid analyses and conclusions.
In the literature, proponents of Mixed Methods Research (MMR) suggest that the major advantage of its use is that it is likely to provide complementary strengths and non-overlapping or compensatory weaknesses, and can answer a more diverse set of questions whilst providing more complete and comprehensive knowledge (Creswell, Plano Clark, Gutmann, & Hanson, 2003; Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). Teddlie and Sammons (2010) go on to state, “[i]t is the generation of new knowledge that goes beyond the sum of the QUAL and QUAN components that makes MMR so valuable in understanding social phenomena, such as educational effectiveness” (p.116). Further, Mixed Methods researchers argue that complex real world contexts demand research that takes multiple perspectives and experiences into account. The pluralistic methods offered by a Mixed Methods methodology is most likely to yield the most valuable information that best acknowledges that some phenomena are contextual and others have much wider applications and ramifications (Siraj-Blatchford, Sammons, Taggart, Sylva, & Melhuish, 2006).
The Mixed Methods research design of my study is a sequential integrated design which relies on a synergetic relationship between quantitative and qualitative approaches. It is widely argued that this interactive and integrated process of data collection, analysis, and interpretation facilitates the presentation and consideration of a greater range of data, resulting in more holistic, nuanced, and valid accounts of complex phenomenon (Day, Sammons, & Gu, 2008; Jang, McDougall, Pollon, Herbert, & Russell, 2008; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2003).
These are snippets of direction that I am currently clinging to. As I said before, I’m all in. I want to do this research to the best of my abilities. I want this research to produce something complete and useful – something that can contribute to my field of research in what I will perceive to be a meaningful way. If those are my goals, then it looks like fieldwork is worth it. Wish me luck!
Creswell, J., Plano Clark, V., Gutmann, M., & Hanson, W. (2003). Advanced Mixed Methods Research Designs. In A. Tashakkori & C. Teddlie (Eds.), Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social and Behavioural Research (pp. 209–240). London: SAGE.
Day, C., Sammons, P., & Gu, Q. (2008). Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Methodologies in Research on Teachers’ Lives, Work, and Effectiveness: From Integration to Synergy. Educational Researcher, 37(6), 330–342.
Jang, E. E., McDougall, D. E., Pollon, D., Herbert, M., & Russell, P. (2008). Integrative Mixed Methods Data Analytic Strategies in Research on School Success in Challenging Circumstances. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 2(3), 221–247.
Johnson, R. B., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2004). Mixed Methods Research : A Research Paradigm Whose Time Has Come. Educational Researcher, 33(7), 14–26.
MacIntyre, A. (1984). After Virtue. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sammons, P., Taggart, B., Sylva, K., & Melhuish, E. (2006). Educational Research and Evidence-based Policy: The Mixed-method Approach of the EPPE Project. Evaluation & Research in Education, 19(2), 63–82.
Stenhouse, L. (1975). An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London, U.K.: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Teddlie, C., & Sammons, P. (2010). Applications of mixed methods to the field of Educational Effectiveness Research. In P. Sammons, B. Creemers, & L. Kyriakides (Eds.), Methodological Advances in Educational Effectiveness research: Quantitative Methodology Series (pp. 115–152). London: Routledge.
Teddlie, C., & Tashakkori, A. (2003). Major Issues and Controversies in the Use of Mixed Methods in the Social and Behavioural Sciences. In Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social and Behavioural Research (pp. 3–50). London: SAGE.