Long-standing tensions between quantitative and qualitative research are far common issues in the social sciences research. The debate centres on the perception of the truth by the researchers—ontology, worldviews, etc.
Does there exist an objective truth which is independent from human perception? Or, alternatively, do there co-exist many realities based on each perception of reality which is culturally and socially nuanced?
Moreover, different epistemological approaches give a different, opposing answer to this ontological tension, which makes it go far away from détente.
Let us reflect on some key concepts before we proceed too far throughout these lines. A quantitative inquiry analyses numerical and categorical data with the aim of producing an objective—a time- and context-free—analysis by counting, comparing and statistically modelling those data. Then, this objective analysis is frequently conducted by testing theories (deductive technique) through statistical analyses and systematically setting assumptions—which may connote a detrimental simplification of its quality. A qualitative inquiry analyses physical data—words, images and audios—with the aim of producing an interpretative—a time- and context-laden—analysis by implementing thematic, narrative and image analyses. Then, this interpretative analysis is frequently conducted by drawing patterns (inductive technique) from the data analysis through exploration and hypotheses generation processes.
In philosophical terms, quantitative purists (positivists) maintain that social sciences must be objective, free of time- and context- generalisations, which must yield robust results by analysing the real causes of scientific outcomes. Then, researchers must be emotionally detached by deleting their biases—which leads them to only test and empirically justify their stated hypotheses. Qualitative purists (constructivists and interpretivists) argue for the existence of logic flows which come from specific to general, being impossible for the human lens to differentiate the real set of causes and effects as all facts and outcomes are related and inter-affected: therefore, the more time- and context- free generalisations the higher the gap between actual and theoretical output. (This has to do with Chaos Theory, which supports that many facts and effects, in those sciences in which behavioural agents interact, are unpredictable.)
The debate thereby centres on the perception of the truth by researchers. On the one hand, quantitative researchers conceive ‘truth’ as that which describes an objective, accurate reality, and is not nuanced or biased by the observer. On the other hand, qualitative researchers conceive reality as that which can be only perceived and created by individuals’ experience.
In terms of epistemology and methodology, whereas positivist paradigms support measuring causal relationships between variables through empirical indicators which represent that truth and makes it representative of a larger group than just that of the sample studied, the hermeneutical paradigm aims at investigating the reality through an interactive process between the researcher and the researched question, far from that non-nuanced, positivist reality. The main reason behind this assertion is that reality is socially constructed and hence constantly changing, based on the lens with which one constructs that reality. Under these philosophical conflicts relies the pragmatic ‘incommensurability thesis’ of Gorard/‘incompatibility thesis’ of Howe, stating an impossible combination or interaction of both lens of reality, in contrast to the well-known ‘compatibility thesis’ of Teddlie & Tashakkori, which states the existence of a potential symbiosis on its interaction, which might yield different perspectives on the same reality within a single study.
Thus, after all of this set of stances and reflections, how we can reach the ‘light of reason’? Are assumptions made on the theoretical background of empirical inquiries the quantitative-nuance for the quantitative paradigm? Does it hence mean that phenomena cannot be fully tested in isolation because those auxiliary assumptions are needed and then an alternative explanation will always still exist?
This issue implies one of the long-standing debates in the social sciences research. As in other aspects of the social sciences, there does not exist a ‘right answer’ to identify the most suitable methodology for addressing a research problem. Therefore, a research question under investigation could be approached through a wide range of different methodological designs by studying the research problem from different lens/angles. This leads to reduce the answer to a pragmatic fact: conducting the inquiry which best approach the reality under investigation and hence yield the best, most accurate insight to the research problem. Moreover, confinement of methodologies to paradigms would go to detriment of best yielding that most accurate, satisfying insight, opening the possibility to even combine methodological approaches, which is known as Mixed Methods Research.
Finally, critics of Mixed Methods Research state that the ontologies or realities—worldviews or paradigms—cannot be mixed. The rationale behind this assertion might rely in the fact that they are opposing one to another. Hence, could a research methodology which assumes a certain reality co-exist alongside another inquiry that assumes a contradictory worldview? Bearing in mind the aforesaid stance, would this mean to mix paradigms? Certainly, the aim of Mixed Methods Research is not to substitute those inquiries but instead to maximise strengths and avoid weaknesses of mono-method approaches by combining them into a more symbiotic tool. It’s in line with these aforesaid assertions when Symonds & Gorad’s words make sense to be echoed: analytic techniques are ‘chameleonic’; conceptualising a methodology as a categorical entity is dangerous and myopic, as it sets boundaries on perceptions to not to cross.