Psychology Research Methods: Overview

It has been a while since I actually written anything of this sort. I still have doubts if I should restart this writing habit using research methods as a kickstart but we will see where we can get from here. Do excuse my seemingly random subject codes for this write-up and many to come.

The R Word

The word “research” evokes fascinating mental images. Be it scholarly looking people in long, elegant lab coats scribbling off a note pad, tired but relentless students peering for information over mountains of literature of both digital and physical variety, people getting together to discuss and debate over a certain topic, or bamboozling graphs and equations consisting of runic characters. All of these impressions, while stereotypical, actually sums up research rather accurately.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Basically, research is all about asking questions and answering them with style and technique. A great show that depicts the noble pursuit of knowledge, from asking questions as a prologue, to answering them and asking more questions as an epilogue.

Like it or not, research builds up the foundations for psychology as a field of study. There is close to no way to test hypotheses and assumptions we have about the human mind, identifying trends and patterns, then formulate theories, without utilizing proper rigorous research methods. It is not uncommon to dread research, but it is an essential bitter-sweet process which all psychology students will have to go through. At the same time, it is entirely possible to enjoy the research process. Psychology research mimics detective work in many ways: spotting patterns and trends, identifying flaws and problems, attempting to replicate, and putting together details like a jigsaw puzzle. To many people, research can be an extremely thrilling vocation and is a highly desired skill in the workplace. At its highest level, psychology research can be some of the most intellectually challenging processes in human existence and often under-appreciated, something I will get to elaborate more once we get to discuss more about science and the scientific method some day.  

But I am not here to vent about under appreciation. Ain’t nobody got time for that! I am here to give readers a easy entry point into what it means to be involved with psychological research.

Quantitative Approach

The quantitative method of psychology is born to test psychology as a field of science, a field that investigates phenomenon pertaining to human thought and behavior. This approach assumes that even psychological phenomenon is something that can be measured meaningfully, using a post-positivism point of view (feel free to compare with absolute positivism!). The quantitative approach in most primarily interested in relationships (causation and correlational) of variables. Does lack of sleep causes stress? Or does it merely correlate with stress while moderated by other factors such as exposure to sunlight?

For the most part, the quantitative method reduces complex phenomenon into basic variables that can be expressed in numbers, and attempt to draw different type of relationships between them through statistical methods (oh the horror!). A good relationship is one that has cause and effect tested, and can be successfully replicated in future studies. It allows researchers to test hypotheses (educated guesses) and uncover patterns in psychology, so that we can make useful generalizations about human behavior, which is one of the goals of psychology as a science. Surveys and experiments are the primary methods for data collection of quantitative research and is largely dependent of having a large sample size.

Qualitative Approach

The qualitative method is more exploratory in nature. The qualitative method by itself is not interested in establishing relationships but rather investigating stories, details, experiences, and meanings. It assumes a social constructivism point-of-view, where everyone’s reality is different due to the complexity of perceptions and upbringings. This method by itself cannot be considered scientific but it remains essential for the sustenance of psychology as it is meant to explore themes and constructs, which can often lead to the birth of useful theories and tests. It mainly deals with descriptions and derives meanings from them, where themes are discovered. The themes are then discussed and recorded for use in other studies.

Qualitative studies do not seek to reduce human phenomenon into basic relationships and numbers but focuses on the meanings of human phenomenon. It seeks to describe and explore underlying meanings such as thoughts, opinions, experiences, and motivations, which can be difficult to analyze quantitatively. Instead of making generalizations, qualitative studies want to dive deep into the psychological human world and uncover unique, rich, and textured descriptions. The more varied the constructs are, the better the quality of the study.

General Differences

  1. Qualitative studies seek to dive deep and explore human experiences for psychological constructs. Quantitative studies seek to make draw relationships between psychological variables and make generalizations. 
  2. Quantitative studies prefer large homogeneous populations (where individual differences are minimal) while qualitative studies can make do with small samples and love outliers or deviant cases. To the former, participants are often merely numerical and categorical data, to the latter, every participant is an unique fountain of rich data waiting to be tapped.
  3. Quantitative methods measure data, qualitative methods describe data.
  4. Qualitative methods are meant for research gaps where literature is insufficient or constructs that are not meant to be measured, quantitative methods are meant for research gaps where relationships are not clear.
  5. Both are impactful in their own ways, but qualitative findings are easier to understand for laypeople (the world at large), meanwhile quantitative findings appeal more to a scientifically educated audience.
  6. Quantitative methods are often simplistic and parsimonious during data analysis (assuming one knows the statistical tests well enough), qualitative methods’ data analysis are extremely tedious and time consuming. 
  7. Quantitative methods follow a series of strict research procedures (more systematic), qualitative methods require a certain amount of flexibility (more freedom and room for intuition).
  8. In terms of researcher traits, quantitative researchers are preferred to be more efficient, mathematically oriented, and have thorough understanding of statistical tests, qualitative researchers are preferred to be more linguistically gifted, patient, and emphatic yet impartial. 

Why Not Both?

Indeed.

If a researcher is passionate and skilled enough, he or she could actually employ both quantitative and qualitative methods together. This merges the advantages of both approaches (the scientific and logical methodology of quantitative methods and the exploratory and flexible nature of qualitative methods) and cancels out their individual weaknesses (loss of meanings in quantitative approaches and lack of predictability of qualitative approaches), making way for a more powerful form of methodology known as the mixed methods approach. 

I could dedicate entire posts to describe mixed methods research, but for now it is sufficient to know that it is possible and powerful, yet rife with its own issues. First of all, mixed methods isn’t exactly part qualitative and part quantitative (as in one does both parts half-completed and link them together, so one can afford to be not well learned in both methods), it actually involves complete understanding of both approaches to be able to conduct a proper mixed method research. Researchers have to conduct both complete studies to achieve the mixing of methods.

Also, as described throughout the entire article, both methods are extremely distinct and often seeks to answer different questions. This requires the researcher(s) to be able to “shift gears” when needed, to move from interested in exploring phenomenon into seeking to draw relationships between constructs, from seeing participants as raw numeric data to viewing them as complex beings. Thorough understanding of the philosophy behind both methods is needed to do mixed methods properly. More often than not their only similarity is that both are fueled by curiosity and passion. To top it off, mixed methods remains an under explored option (due to, I suspect, the amount of “research purists” in the field), as such our knowledge about it is extremely limited as of now.

In short, mixed methods is tough, expensive, and extremely time consuming. This is why a successful completion of a mixed method study is truly a mark of an accomplished researcher of psychology with sound philosophical prowess and acumen.

Hopefully, following will be more articles that describe psychological research and comparing/contrasting both quantitative and qualitative methods. 

Sources for external reading.

What is the Difference between Qualitative Research and Quantitative Research? by Susan Wyse, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.snapsurveys.com/blog/what-is-the-difference-between-qualitative-research-and-quantitative-research/

Mixed Method and Mixed Model Research. Retrieved from http://www.southalabama.edu/coe/bset/johnson/lectures/lec14.htm

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