Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed … what does it mean?

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At its most fundamental, qualitative research tends to focus on the specific, the individual, the particular; while quantitative research looks for the generalisable, and large amounts of data and/or participants. But, along with these, qualitative and quantitative research are often taken to imply different sorts of orientations towards the nature of knowledge, and even reality.

In general, the term ‘mixed-methods’ is used to describe methodologies that combine qualitative and quantitative research in some way. Different researchers take different positions on how to approach such mixing of methods – Coe (2012) describes these positions as ‘incommensurable’, ‘compatible’, or ‘pragmatic’.


Researchers may focus on the philosophical or epistemological implications of the approaches available, and consider them to imply different sorts of world views that would be difficult or impossible to combine in a single project.

They would therefore approach the idea of a mixed-methods project by thinking first about the implications for knowledge of methods they might use, and choosing those that align in a way that allows them to (fairly) easily describe what sorts of ‘truth claims’ they want to make in your research.

Be aware of whether research you are engaging with critically evaluates its method(s) – even a single-method project needs to carefully articulate what the implications, strengths and weaknesses of that method are.


Other researchers look for approaches that are (or can be made) consistent with each other regardless of the kind of data they generate.

Depending on their epistemological position, they may consider, for example, how to conduct interviews that result in ‘generalisable’ data. If they can satisfy themselves and their readers that approaches, including those across the qualitative/quantitative divide, are compatible, coherent truth claims can be made even when a wide range of methods are in use.

Alertness to tensions in underlying epistemological perspectives is critical here.

Pragmatic: Researchers taking this perspective first focus on the question they want to answer, and consider what sorts of data would contribute best to the aims of their research. Many newer researchers are drawn to the apparent openness of such a perspective, which proponents sometimes describe as rejecting a false qualitative/quantitative binary. A pragmatic position may make considering the epistemological implications of methods difficult, though, and present challenges to clearly articulate how and why particular claims are made for research. It may seem convenient to appeal to pragmatism, but we hope that part of what you will gain by taking this course is a critical approach to so-called “realism” or ‘pragmatism’ in research, which often masks unstated assumptions about knowledge and reality.

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