Dental News - What does it mean to ‘do research’? (Part Two)

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What does it mean to ‘do research’? (Part Two)

Dennis J. Tartakow, DMD, MEd, EdD, PhD, is Editor in Chief of Ortho Tribune U.S. Edition. (DTI/Photo Dennis J. Tartakow)
Dennis J. Tartakow, USA

Dennis J. Tartakow, USA

Thu. 25 October 2012


As Part 1 left off, the following outline and categories explain the differences between various research approaches: I) Quantitative research; II) Qualitative research (phenomenology, ethnography, case study, grounded theory and historical); and III) Mixed research.

Quantitative research — is research that involves an investigative approach that is often used in science, medical and dental milieu; it refers to the systematic and empirical investigation of a social phenomenon via statistical, mathematical or computational techniques and developing or employing mathematical models, theories and hypotheses pertaining to phenomena.

The process of measurement is vital to quantitative research because it provides the fundamental connection between empirical observation and mathematical expression of quantitative relationships. Quantitative data is any data that is in numerical form such as statistics, percentages, etc., and relies primarily on the collection of quantitative data and typically follows all the paradigm characteristics of quantitative research, which is either experimental or non-experimental research. The basic building blocks of quantitative research are variables. Variables are the opposite of constants (something that cannot vary, such as a single value or category of a variable).

Qualitative research — is research that relies on the collection of qualitative data by seeking out the “why,” not the “how,” of its topic through the analysis of unstructured information, such as interview transcripts, open-ended survey responses, e-mails, notes, feedback forms, photos and videos. It doesn’t just rely on statistics or numbers, which are the domain of quantitative researchers. A qualitative research study is an investigative approach or method of inquiry employed in many different academic and social sciences disciplines that are concerned with society and human behaviors.

These include: anthropology, archaeology, criminology, economics, education, linguistics, political science, international relations, sociology, geography, history, law and psychology. A qualitative research study is used frequently in market research, which is any organized effort to gather information about customers or markets and often a very important component of business strategy. Qualitative researchers aim to gather in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior, investigating the why and how of decision-making and not just what, where or when.

Qualitative research is used to gain insight into people’s attitudes, behaviors, value systems, concerns, motivations, aspirations, culture or lifestyles. It’s used to inform business decisions, policy formation, communication and research. Focus groups, in-depth interviews, content analysis, ethnography, evaluation and semiotics are among the many formal approaches that are used, but qualitative research also involves the analysis of any unstructured material, including customer feedback forms, reports or media clips.

Collecting and analyzing this unstructured information can be messy and time consuming using manual methods. When faced with volumes of materials, finding themes and extracting meaning can be a daunting task.

Below are examples of five different types of qualitative research approaches:

  • Phenomenology — The researcher attempts to understand how one or more individuals experience a phenomenon. For example, interviewing 20 widows and asking them to describe their experiences of the deaths of their husbands. Phenomenological research investigates various reactions to or perceptions of a particular phenomenon. It assumes some commonality to the perceptions of human beings and how they interpret similar experiences, seeking to identify, understand and describe these commonalities.
  • Ethnography — The researcher focuses on describing the culture of a group of people. Note that a culture is the shared attitudes, values, norms, practices, language and material things of a group of people. For example, deciding to live in Mohawk communities and study the culture and their educational practices.
  • Case study — The researcher focuses on providing a detailed account of one or more cases. For an example, studying a classroom that was given a new curriculum for technology use.
  • Grounded theory — This is an approach to generate and develop a theory from data that the researcher collects. For an example, collecting data from parents who have pulled their children out of public schools and develop a theory to explain how and why this phenomenon occurs, ultimately developing a theory of school pull-out.
  • Historical — These are research events that occurred in the past. For example, studying the use of corporeal punishment in schools during the 19th century.
  • Mixed research — is research that involves the mixing of quantitative and qualitative methods or paradigm characteristics. The mixing of quantitative and qualitative research can take many forms; the possibilities for mixing are almost infinite. There are two broad classes of research studies that are currently being labeled “mixed methods research”: single approach designs (SADs) and mixed approach designs (MADs). These are additional qualitative and/or quantitative strategies that are employed to enhance research quality. These classifications require that a distinction be made between research strategies and research approaches.

A research strategy is a procedure for achieving a particular intermediary research objective such as sampling, data collection and/or data analysis. Sampling strategies or data analysis strategies are also important factors in research and information gathering. Multiple strategies are used to enhance construct validity, which is a form of methodological triangulation and is now routinely advocated by most methodologists. Mixing or integrating research strategies such as qualitative and/or quantitative approaches in any and all research activity is now considered a well thought-out and common feature of good research design.

A research approach refers to an incorporated set of research philosophies and general practical guidelines. Approaches can be holistic procedural guides or broad methodologies that are associated with particular research analytic interests or motives. Examples of research approaches include surveys, correlational studies, experiments, ethnographic research and phenomenological inquiry. Examples of analytic interests are population frequency distributions and prediction. Each approach is ideally suited to speak to a particular analytic interest: (a) experiments are ideally suited to address explanations or probable cause; (b) surveys address population frequency descriptions, correlation studies and predictions; (c) ethnography addresses descriptions and interpretations of cultural processes; and (d) phenomenology address lived experiences or descriptions of the essence of phenomena.

In a single approach design, only one analytic interest is pursued. In a mixed approach design, two or more analytic interests are pursued. However, a mixed approach design may include entirely “qualitative” approaches, such as combining an ethnographic and a phenomenological inquiry, or entirely “quantitative” approaches, such as combining a survey and an experiment.

It has become routine to use the terms “method” and “methodology” synonymously, but there are philosophical reasons for distinguishing the two. The term method connotes a way of doing something, as in a procedure. The term methodology implies a dialogue concerning methods, i.e., an exchange of ideas regarding the competence and correctness of a particular combination of research philosophy and actions.


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