Doing a Masters in Education Part 1: ditching the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’

Although I failed to make it to ResearchED for a second year in a row (next year, I hope…) I did enjoy following the sessions online. One session I found a bit troubling, however, was the one on research methods in education. I should note straight away that I was not in the room and so I may be completely misrepresenting the content, but I did follow the slides online (thanks to @cazzwebbo) which outlined the main stages that one goes through in completing a piece of educational research. I had a number of issues with the slides, but my main issue was with those that characterised research in the field of education as ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’. In fairness to the speaker, this is very common. I think, however, that it is the source of many problems in research. I want to use this post – and some follow-ups – to explain why, particularly with a view to helping teachers starting out on masters degrees this year. Let’s start with the two slides that riled me. Take a good look, as we are going to be returning to the criteria used to defined ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ research throughout this post.



So, now that we’re clear about what ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ research is, let’s try and categorise some kinds of research that are done. I have even found some nice pictures to help.

3 I have no idea what these two men are doing, but my guess is that this is mathematics or physics research – surely these if anyone should fit our description of quantitative research? Let’s start with the obvious: there data is numerical rather than based on language (or hang on, is mathematics just a different language?) Another part of the definition is that quantitative researchers use tools whereas qualitative researchers use themselves as the main research instrument. Is this right? Although computers are becoming more of a tool in mathematical research, the mathematician is still the main research instrument, working away at problems with her pen and paper. What about the question of meaning? According to our definition, quantitative researchers do not concern themselves with meaning, yet I am confident that there are plenty of astrophysicists and molecular biologists out there who have said, on getting their results, “so what does all this mean”? I think quite a few scientists would find it fairly insulting to be told that – because their work is quantitative – it focuses on explanation but not on meaning. That annoyance would probably turn to amusement if you then told them that they, as quantitative researchers, know clearly in advance what they are going to test or measure!

4 What about historians? These researchers, working with their documents, must surely be qualitative? According to our definition, this means they start with questions rather than hypotheses. It is, however, clearly the case that historians are capable of starting with hypotheses (e.g. medieval peasants were good Catholics) which can then be evaluated using the available source material (which is written and pictorial). Our definition states that qualitative researchers are subjective. Questions about objectivity abound in history (there are numerous books on it) but it is certainly true that there are many historians who aim to be objective when handling their source material, something which, on our model, makes them a quantitative researcher.

5 I think the first time I encountered the word ‘fieldwork’ was when I, as a boy, went through my ‘dinosaurs’ phase and I found out about palaeontologists (I think Jurassic Park had just come out). I also definitely had an Egyptians phase when I found out about the fieldwork of archaeologists. Now on our definition, fieldwork is a characteristic of qualitative research, yet I would struggle to see geology, palaeontology or archaeology as qualitative research.

My point here – as will now be clear – is that the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ are near useless for describing kinds of research. The kinds of research that people do – including in the field of education – cannot be neatly pigeon holed into these categories. Occasionally you hear that it is not the research itself which is qualitative or quantitative, but rather the data being used in the research. I have more time for this argument, but even this is a weak point. Data made up from words and images might well be called qualitative and data made from numbers quantitative – but even this is misleading! I could, for example, take a piece of writing and then conduct an analysis in which I count the number of grammatical errors or right-branching sentences it contains. The best defence I can make of the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ is that they describe the method used to analyse the data that have been collected in research. It does perhaps make sense to talk in terms of a ‘quantitative analysis’ or a ‘qualitative analysis’, though I have to admit that I find even this use of the terms simplistic.

The problem with using the labels ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ is that they encourage us to see research as belonging to one camp or the other: one can do either qualitative research or quantitative research. Alternatively, one can mix these two together and get mixed research (which is confusingly often called mixed methods, which muddles it even further). Seeing research in terms of being ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ massively oversimplifies the kinds of research that it is possible to do which, counter-intuitively, actually makes it harder to carry out good research, labouring under the belief that research needs to be categorised in this way.

I think research in education could quite happily ditch the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ and be a lot happier. Currently, they serve to obfuscate. This is not, however, to say that I think categorising research types is not important. In fact, I think it is very important. I shall use my next post to explain why.

5 Comments on Doing a Masters in Education Part 1: ditching the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’

  1. I’ve been having similar thoughts. The distinction I see is between descriptions of lived experience, and objective observation/measurement. History is in the first category in as much the raw materials, the sources, are usually accounts of people’s own experiences. But it seems ridiculous to make the usual categorisations, particularly when they are used to indicate some kind of cod philosophical outlook which often seems to be discussed in place of whether the methods are valid and reliable. Every time I see ludicrous methods, or opinions masquerading as research, dressed up as a principled rejection of the “positivist” use of quantitative methods I despair. There’s a lot of bullshit out there and the model described above is part of it.

    • Michael Fordham // 8 September 2014 at 22:09 // Reply

      I could write another post of this variety on the slide from ResearchED that said that research is either positivist or relativist (the former I think is meaningless, while the latter has multiple meanings in different fields). What bothers me is that it encourages people (including teachers) to sit down and say “so am I a relativist? Does that mean I do qualitative research?” Or “I want to work with numerical data – does that make me a positivist?” It’s a massive distraction from (a) the work that actually needs to be done and (b) the very real theoretical issues which do underpin research work.

      The other distinction which is so often missing (and its absence often characterises weak research) is that between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. Often there is not sufficient clarity as to whether some that is the case (or was the case) is being described, or whether a case is being made for how things ought to be. There’s quite a lot of this on the new BERA blog.

  2. I don’t think these terms were ever intended to apply to maths or history research. My understanding is that they were developed in the social sciences field (primarily psychology and sociology), when advocates of “qualitative” research decided they didn’t like the mainstream emphasis on measuring things numerically, because it was too “positivist”. The argument now in psychology is between those who contend that qualitative research is only good for exposing issues that should then be investigated further using quantitative research, and those who argue that qualitative research is an equally valid way of reaching such conclusions as it is possible to reach (these people often also hold post modernist views about the impossibility of truth, and thus the central importance of power/hegemony issues and “liberatory” practice as the only way to go). Google “critical psychology” for some insights into this latter way of thinking – that’s the term that is used.

  3. Interesting post. I thought hard enough about this to warrant a blog post rather than just a comment. It’s here if anyone’s interested.

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