Mixed methods can mean more

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called ‘research'”

Albert Einstein

As I was searching for ideas to start this blog, I happened upon an interesting post by leakygrammar about mixed methods research. His post, about the way that the combination of qualitative and quantitative are meant to bring out the best in each other but at times can leave the reader feeling ‘let down’, struck a chord with me because my research is firmly rooted within the mixed methods paradigm.

Mixed methods research combines elements of qualitative and quantitative research approaches in order to further our understanding of what is being investigated. Being able to confirm an argument or the existence of a phenomenon by using two or more independent methods should mean that uncertainty is greatly reduced. Where the use of mixed methods is appropriate, it can have a number of advantages. According to Johnson et al. (2007), mixed methods can:

  • allow researchers to be more confident of their results;
  • stimulate the development of creative ways of collecting data;
  • lead to thicker, richer data;
  • lead to the synthesis or integration of theories;
  • uncover contradictions;
  • by virtue of its comprehensiveness, serve as the litmus test for competing theories.
bird boxes community

Image from See-ming Lee

The article that leakygrammar discusses in his post investigates fluency development in a group of American college students studying Mandarin in China. By the end of the course the students’ fluencies all improve, but some people improve more than others. The author gathers quantitative data about how their fluency increases and uses qualitative observations to contextualize these results to give us a fuller picture of why there are differences between the individual student’s progress. Her qualitative data are taken from conversations with the students themselves, participant observations, observations of their classes, conversations with their teachers, and from reading their journals.

At the start of the course, the students take a language pledge to only speak Chinese, both in and outside of class. In general, the results show that those who observe the pledge increase their fluency more than those who do not. This seems logical, but of course, the actual situation is much more nuanced that this.

Leakygrammar’s post focuses in on the case study of Emily. Emily is of interest to Hang Du, the author of the article, because even though she speaks a lot of English with her classmates and does not observe the language pledge to speak only Chinese, she improves her fluency in every measure. Therefore, Hang Du uses her as a case study, a traditional qualitative research tool, to find out why she improves so much, when other non-observers of the language pledge do not.

The author explains that very early on in the course, Emily begins to explore the city by herself using taxis and buses and going into shops. Chinese bus passengers and taxi drivers have a fascination with speaking to American students who can speak Chinese and so Emily is in fact creating opportunities for herself to speak Chinese. On one college trip, Emily takes the opportunity to speak to local people and bargain with stall owners. Emily also reports strangers in supermarkets asking her lots of questions once they found out that she could speak Chinese, and she takes a trip to a popular Chinese holiday destination where she goes surfing.

Chinese stall

Image from dcmaster

The fact that Emily goes surfing is not in itself important, but Hang Du’s qualitative reporting of her conversation with Emily about the trip tells us two things. Firstly we hear of another opportunity Emily took to experience Chinese culture and language. It also demonstrates that Emily’s fluency in Chinese has increased to the point where when she doesn’t know the word for ‘bruise’, she has the linguistic agility and confidence to be able to communicate her message effectively and probably learn the Chinese word for bruise in the process. The key to Emily’s progress is her personality and motivation. She creates opportunities for herself to speak Chinese outside of the classroom with native Chinese speakers, and this is why her fluency improves much more than her classmates who do not.

This type of information about the students’ personalities, activities, and behaviour is the fine-grained, detailed, textured qualitative data that the researcher can provide us with after spending three months with the students and gathering over 2,400 pages of notes. Without this information we would not have such understanding of why Emily progresses differently from her peers. The results of the study show that overall, students, like Emily, who improve their language, whether or not they follow the pledge to the letter, are those that create social networks for themselves with Chinese speakers and go out into the culture and speak Chinese.

Mixed methods are not appropriate for every research situation. However, it can be healthy to complement previous research using alternative methodologies. Every approach has its strengths and weaknesses and after all, our common pursuit is one of knowledge and understanding, so why not use all the tools that are available to us to try to find the answers we seek.

References:

Du, Hang (2013) The Development of Chinese Fluency During Study Abroad in ChinaThe Modern Language Journal97:1, 131–143, Spring 2013

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