Towards Critical and Dialogical Mixed Methods Resarch

Reflections on Our Journey

In: Doing Critical and Creative Research in Adult Education
Open Access

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Introduction

Mixed methods research (MMR) has been defined as research “in which the investigator collects and analyses data, integrates the findings and draws inferences using both qualitative and quantitative approaches or methods in a single study” (Tashakkori & Creswell, 2007, p. 4). But social scientists were using qualitative methods alongside surveys long before the term ‘mixed methods’ was introduced (Guest, 2013). Further, quantitative research has been used to advocate for social change since the time of Marx (Hall, 2003). For example, writers like Adorno and Fromm explored the rise of Nazism in Germany and the authoritarian personality using survey as well as ethnographic methods (Roiser & Willig, 2002; Cortina, 2015). These scholars and others we think demonstrate that it is possible to have an “objective approach that is contextually, historically, and culturally situated, embraces the subjectivity of individuals being studied, and doesn’t hide the values of the researcher” (Cortina, 2015, p. 395).

In this chapter, we wish to assert the value of critical MMR by exploring current debates in the literature, and reflect on our collaborative research as well as discuss the implications of what we have learned for future research. We make a case for an approach to MMR that is dialogical, creative, critical, and participatory.

Contemporary debates about mixed methods research

[I]n many discussions, the notions of qualitative research and quantitative research stand for much more than just the kind of data being used. The terms tend to stand for a whole cluster of aspects of research, such as methods, designs, methodologies, epistemological and ontological assumptions, and so on … what often is at stake in discussions between proponents of the different approaches is precisely not the nature of the data being used but bigger issues such as views about the nature of reality, the limits of knowledge, or the purpose and politics of research. (Biesta, 2010, p. 5)

Epistemological and political questions are important to consider when adopting any methodology. Positions on methods, however, tend to become ossified when articulated in terms of paradigms (Biesta, 2010). This is evident in the “incompatibility thesis”, which argues that quantitative methods are rooted exclusively in a positivist paradigm and are therefore incompatible with the constructionist paradigm that underpins qualitative methods (Doyle, Brady, & Byrne, 2009; Hodgkin, 2008). Quantitative research is characterized as involving an objective process of deduction, whereas the qualitative process is seen as involving a subjective process of induction in a particular context (Morgan cited in Doyle, Brady, & Byrne, 2009). The opposition between positivism and constructionism is thus related to an objective-subjective binary, which sees knowledge either as independent from knowers or as produced by knowers seems to us to be mistaken. Biesta challenges this binary, drawing on John Dewey’s argument that knowledge is both real and constructed. Dewey’s pragmatism, in Biesta’s view, helps researchers “ask more precise questions about the strength, status, and validity of the knowledge claims developed on the basis of particular design” (Biesta, 2010, p. 25). We agree that more open discussion about the assumptions underpinning different methods results in more fruitful dialogue. Our preferred methodology is a dialectical and dialogical approach to MMR, discussed below. This approach is consistent with the trend in adult education research toward socio-material approaches, focused on the ways in which action and knowledge give rise to systems (see Fenwick, Edwards, & Sawchuk, 2011).

MMR can, effectively and reflexively applied, addressing the weaknesses of single method studies (Mirchandani et al., 2016) – for example, the weakness in large quantitative studies of over-interpreting data, and in qualitative studies, of poor representation and a tendency to overgeneralize (Hodgkin, 2008). It can help explore and answer research questions that cannot be answered by quantitative or qualitative methods alone (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007) by providing a more complete and comprehensive picture of a phenomenon (Doyle, Brady & Byrne, 2009). For example, surveys can set the stage for the cycle of inductive/deductive1 research on informal learning and work (Sawchuk, 2008) and can reveal broader patterns.

Greene (2005, p. 209) suggests that MMR also “offers greater possibilities than a single method approach for responding to decision makers’ agenda”, for example, by providing a counterpoint to the predominant discourse of “valid, rigorous and ‘scientific’ research” in program evaluation research. But perhaps because of the predominance of this discourse, other writers observe that the quantitative elements of the methodology are often privileged (Fielding, 2012; Mason, 2006). For example, qualitative data are seen as primarily useful “to illustrate quantitative findings” or in “hypotheses development and testing” (Doyle, Brady, & Byrne, 2009, p. 179).

MMR has also been described as useful in triangulating different kinds of data (Doyle, Brady, & Byrne 2009). The meaning of triangulation as “convergent validation” (Fielding, 2012), more common in early social scientific research, involves establishing construct validity via multiple data sources. However, critics argue, and we agree, that triangulation cannot be a validation strategy where different epistemological assumptions underpin the methods being combined (Fielding, 2012). A more recent view of triangulation in MMR involves seeking divergence “in the service of complexity and richness of understanding” (Hesse-Biber, 2012, p. 137). Thus, in addition to a “conjunctive” conception of triangulation, where different methods are used to explore the same questions, MMR can be used to address different research questions, described as a “disjunctive” conception of triangulation (Howe, 2012). For example, Hodgkins (2008) used surveys to examine the question, “do men and women have different social capital profiles?” followed by interviews to consider the question, “why do women participate more in social and community activities than in civic activities?” (p. 301).

Our preference is for a dialectical approach to triangulation, which involves seeking different versions of the same phenomenon and placing disparate or contradictory findings in dialogue with one another (Hesse-Biber, 2012). This approach is at once con- and dis-junctive. According to Howe (2012), this may require moving to a higher or more holistic level of integration in MMR to address different ontological ideas about causality. Howe’s suggestion resonates with discussions in our current MMR study where quantitative research team members have expressed interest in modeling the impacts of student work on their university studies based on survey data. While this modeling is a taken for granted practice in quantitative studies, discussions with more qualitatively-oriented team members reveal different ideas about the extent to which it is possible to attribute strong (deterministic) causality within open systems – systems that interact with outside factors or conditions (cf. Biesta, 2010). In addition, other team members assert the need to clarify quantitative measures of complex social phenomena (e.g. race), drawing on conceptual resources. Dialectical or holistic approaches to triangulation involve negotiating epistemological and methodological differences as researchers articulate and explore the gains and losses of different methods in their mixing (Leckenby & Hesse-Biber, 2007, cited in Mirchandani et al., 2016).

A dialectical approach to MMR is seen by some writers as consistent with a transformative emancipatory politics of research. For example, dissonant findings between and within methods are seen as an important locus for uncovering the “subjugated knowledge” of women and other marginalized groups in research (Hesse-Biber, 2012). In some cases, qualitative data are used to speak back to the concepts and interpretations of quantitative methods. Denzin (2012) suggests that like transformative emancipatory action researchers, pragmatists also posit a dialectical model, “working back and forth between a variety of tension points, such as etic–emic, value neutrality–value committed” (p. 81).

According to Mason (2006), “placing explanation at the centre of enquiry reflects an interest in the complexities of how and why things change and work as they do in certain context and circumstances” (p. 19). He encourages researchers to use MMR to try to “see and think about things differently and creatively”, in a “multi-nodal” and dialogic way. The term “multi-nodal” refers to attending to the different axes and dimensions of social experience while the term “dialogic” suggests conversation that is reflexive about different forms of data (p. 20).

Dewey’s ideas about truth as contextual and related to action imply that different knowledge results from different ways of engaging with the world (Biesta, 2010). As we reflect on our own theoretical and political commitments as educators and researchers, we posit that Vygotsky’s work further reinforces the importance of epistemological questions in thinking about research designs. It too challenges the binaries between subject and object, mind and world, theory and practice. From his perspective, knowledge emerges in and is the product of collective effort of human beings to come to grips with their world and themselves over time (Derry, 2013). Knowledge is thus seen as being constantly reconstituted and transformed by the activity of individuals in definite social contexts. Experience is an inferential activity that involves making judgments and developing concepts rather than reflecting the world in an unmediated way. For Vygotsky, theoretical understandings should be directed toward effective and responsible action in the world of practical activity. This transformative political orientation to research is consistent with our values and aims.

Reflections on our engagement in mixed methods research

The degree to which we have put the different methods and findings into dialogue in our MMR studies to this point has been limited, but the necessity for such work has become clear through our review of literature and research related to student engagement, first generation students, and CSL. The discussion that follows suggests that the binaries often invoked in discussions of MMR (subjective-objective, positivism-constructivism) are also reflected in conceptual discussions about student learning. Reflection on our previous collaborative work highlights some of MMR’s pitfalls and possibilities. Taylor’s early research studies employed qualitative data collection methods to explore topics related to educational reform, school-to-work transitions, and experiential learning. Raykov’s expertise in quantitative methodology and shared interests in work and learning have fomented discussion across methods. The following section offers Taylor’s reflections on her journey in and through MMR.

We have collaborated on research related to community service learning (CSL) in Canadian universities, that is, experiential learning where “students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 222). Our data collection involved surveys of students and graduates at two universities followed by interviews.

The motivation for including an MMR design was partly instrumental; such research often has more cachet with granting agencies and policy-makers (Christ cited in Fielding, 2012). Because Taylor was the Director of Community Service Learning at one of the Canadian universities (in addition to her faculty role), it was important to her to try and combine more descriptive program evaluation research (demonstrating the “impact” of CSL pedagogy) with theoretically informed research for academic publication. Raykov proposed a mixed-method research design involving a combination of exploratory and explanatory sequential methods (Creswell & Plano-Clark, 2007).

We concur with others (Greene, 2005) that survey results are often viewed more favorably than other forms of data by decision-makers, in this case, university leaders with the power to invest resources in such programs. Also, like Hodgkin (2008, p. 296), Taylor felt that quantitative data could help paint a “big picture”, which could be complemented by personal stories to bring “depth and texture” to the research study, particularly in reports for university decision-makers. In these reports (Raykov & Taylor, 2018), we used excerpts from interviews to enliven the statistical findings (cf., Fielding, 2012).

Our process of developing the survey started with focus groups with CSL graduates to expand our understanding of the outcomes of CSL as well as to inform the design and test our items for the online survey (Rea & Parker, 2014). In order to better understand and explain quantitative results, we followed the survey by interviews with a sample of respondents. Additionally, open-ended survey questions provided data about students’ service learning experiences.

Because the CSL literature includes many large quantitative studies (often multi-university surveys of students) or small case studies (often conducted by instructors on their own classes) (Taylor et al., 2015), we thought it was important to think about how studies conducted at quite different scales inform each other. In particular, large quantitative studies, which often focus on documenting measurable outcomes of CSL, obscure the diversity and situational contours of CSL pedagogy. From our examination of the literature examining the effects of the intensity and duration of CSL, we conclude,

Much of the literature … involves quantitative, large-scale studies involving surveys of students, which are limited in their ability to probe the details of particular student experiences or to provide in-depth discussion about different “measures” of student outcomes (e.g., what intercultural competence means). In addition, the type of student service is not captured in large-scale studies. In sum, such studies cannot attend to context-specific factors. (Raykov & Taylor, 2020)

Our MMR study, in contrast, examined situational aspects of CSL that were critical to understanding survey findings, for example, students’ reflections in interviews on different community placements during their university programs. Thus, while survey findings demonstrate that students report the impact of CSL on their further education and career aspirations, interviews allowed us to understand how students’ experiences fit together to create a tapestry of meaning. For example, while survey data suggested that CSL increased students’ interest in graduate school, interview data suggested that students who participated in CSL often seek more applied and community-oriented graduate programs as opposed to traditional research programs. Interview data also influenced our analysis of survey findings; for example, we noticed that a number of students who had participated in several CSL courses were the first in their family to attend university. This led to a closer look at our survey data to compare the responses based on parental education, discussed below.

From an “everyday” pragmatic position, our use of mixed methods research may be regarded as unproblematic – data from surveys and interviews were used in mostly descriptive ways to paint a picture of the impacts of CSL on students in two Canadian universities (Taylor & Raykov, 2014; Raykov & Taylor, forthcoming). We asked students about their motivations for participating in CSL in surveys and used interviews to gain further understanding about their responses, for example, what students meant by saying they were motivated to “contribute to community” or to “develop employability skills”. Methodologically, full integration of data has not yet been pursued since quantitative data were analyzed initially and compared to preliminary analysis of qualitative data to produce reports.2 Thus, the degree to which we have put the different methods and findings into dialogue to this point is limited.

Conceptual and epistemological tensions have become evident, however. For example, when conducting interviews with students who had completed several CSL courses during their undergraduate programs, we noticed that a number were “first generation” or “first in family” students, students whose parents had not attended university. Their comments about their experiences in university, including their relationships with professors and other students, feelings about their ability to participate effectively in classes, and ideas about what they would do following university suggest that CSL played an important role in their identity formation processes as undergraduate students. As a result of these interview data, we returned to our quantitative data analysis to see if differences between students who were “first generation” and other students were evident in their survey responses. At the same time, we explored the literature on first generation students in service learning and in universities.

Our review highlights the limitations of existing literature (Taylor, Yochim, & Raykov, 2018). In previous research quantitative data focused on narrow outcome measures (e.g., post-secondary education retention or completion rates) were usually privileged over qualitative data (e.g., Lee, 2005, Wilsey et al., 2014; Yeh, 2014; York, 2013). In addition, many studies were conducted in the US where the post-secondary education system has a “steeper prestige hierarchy” across institutions than in Canada (Davies & Hammack, 2005, p. 93). The findings of Canadian studies were inconsistent; for example, some studies found differences in post-secondary education retention rates for first-generation youth while others did not (Butlin, 2000; Finnie, Childs, & Wismer, 2010). Quantitative findings speak to the difficulties associated with trying to measure and predict outcomes for first generation students given the complexity of their interactions with their social worlds (Lehmann, 2012). Quantitative studies about service learning also give inadequate attention to its diversity – some CSL courses focus on developing students’ technical skills while others aim to involve students in social transformation (Butin, 2010). Diverse practices reflect the plurality of theoretical influences on service learning (Taylor, 2014). Studies also tend to gloss over the diversity of first generation students; for example, how parental education intersects with other social markers (such as race and ethnicity), and varies by geographical and social location (McKay & Estrella, 2008; Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005). In combination, the literature prompts questions about the underlying conceptual understandings of studies, their design, and their findings. It became clear that the overlapping concepts of “first generation”, “student engagement”, and “experiential learning” needed to be unpacked.

First of all, the term “first generation” is tied to concerns about lower rates of access to and persistence in higher education for particular groups of students. But the use of parental education as a proxy for disadvantage ignores both how parents’ educational attainment intersects with other markers of difference and how the concept may reinforce the perceived deficits of some students when measured against the profile of the successful, engaged student, discussed further below.

Second, the concept of student engagement, as portrayed in the US literature is rooted in psychological “input-environment-output” models (e.g., Astin, 1991; Kuh, 2008) that attempt to capture the myriad of variables at play at different stages in students’ experiences through university. But writers drawing on Bourdieu’s critical analysis suggest that the definition of “engagement” (e.g., the kind of activities seen as valuable) is based on a student profile that does not reflect the realities of working-class students (Stuber, 2009). Traditional universities often see the cultural capital and habitus of working-class students as less legitimate than others (Finnegan & Merrill, 2017). Bryson (2014) further critiques measures of student engagement that use an aggregate of survey items, noting that the standardization of questions (e.g., in the National Survey on Student Engagement) lacks sensitivity to local contexts, and the closed nature of questions allows no voice for students. His own definition of engagement seeks to capture the richness and diversity of students’ experiences, seeing it as a space of transition.

Tensions in the literature highlight more fundamental questions about what can be known and what it means to know something as well as political questions about whose knowledge and what kind of knowledge is valued. Many studies assume that student learning involves the individual and cognitive acquisition of knowledge and skills, evident in the language of measuring “gains in learning” (Finley & McNair 2013) or survey items that ask students to self-report their increase in skills. However, other theorists (e.g., Vygotsky) would emphasize the contextual, embedded, fluid, and dynamic aspects of human development (Derry, 2013). Research drawing on socio-material ideas is likely to focus on how students realize their relationship to the world through learning, exploring their predispositions and actions, wider social and cultural values, and the culture and resources of the learning site (Hodkinson, Biesta, & James, 2007; Bryson, 2014; Stetsenko, 2008).

The preceding discussion informs our research on CSL. As noted above, the service learning literature typically pays little attention to the diverse aims of this pedagogy and the situational contexts of that learning. Our final section provides a brief discussion about how our reflections on MMR inform our ideas about future research and writing.

Moving Toward Dialogical, Creative, Critical, and Participatory MMR

What does the discussion above mean for our MMR studies, in particular, how to ensure that our qualitative data and quantitative data analyses are in conversation and that our conceptual and political commitments are reflected in both? The above discussion of first generation students and CSL suggests the importance of theoretically informed, reflexive quantitative data collection. We tried to address the problematic nature of homogenizing and decontextualizing CSL by including questions in our survey about what type of CSL students participated in it and what they did, as well as providing contextual information about programs in written reports. Our survey also gave students voice (to a limited degree) by including open-ended questions about how they thought service learning affected their university experience. Finally, we included questions that go beyond narrow outcome measures (e.g., academic performance) to include items related to graduates’ subsequent civic engagement, development of personal ethics, ability to take an active role in learning, and to be reflective on learning, etc.

More integration of quantitative and qualitative data is needed, particularly in areas where data seem inconsistent. One example involves our lack of statistically significant survey results for first generation students compared to others on several items. Meanwhile, our interviews with a sub-sample of first generation students suggest that their CSL experiences were highly influential for developing their sense of confidence as “knowledge producers” as well as for widening their horizons for action. A second example concerns students’ motivations for enrolling in CSL classes. Our survey results suggested that many students entered CSL courses for seemingly instrumental reasons (e.g., résumé building, to gain particular skills). Interviews, however, suggest that while students may have been attracted by the idea of “skills development” initially, their reasons for continuing to be involved were more complex and their post-graduation reflections reveal changes over time. Participants often attributed their growing confidence as they approached graduation to moving “out of their comfort zones” from campus to community (with support) and learning to handle contradictions and tensions.

Four commitments inform our research design for our current MMR study (with four other co-investigators) on the ways in which undergraduate students move between work (paid and unpaid) and their studies. First, we think that qualitatively-driven MMR has potential for “generating new ways of understanding the complexities and contexts of social experience” (Mason, 2006, p. 10). Thus, our research team will employ a multi-nodal approach as we follow eighty students over three years of their university programs, in addition to conducting an institutional survey of all undergraduate students.

Second, we will place disparate or contradictory findings in dialogue with one another by seeking more comprehensive explanatory frameworks (Howe, 2012) and considering how different dimensions and scales of social existence intersect or relate (Mason, 2006).

Third, we will explore the creative possibilities of MMR by including data sources that go beyond surveys and interviews. Since our research includes undergraduate students, many of whom participate in social media, we plan to include a variety of qualitative data collection methods, which, combined with survey data, will allow us to gain a “wider and deeper picture from all angles” (see Fielding, 2012, p. 128).

Finally, we have clear political commitments in our MMR, focusing on students who are perceived as experiencing more challenges in higher education – first generation students and international students. Part of our commitment to change involves ensuring that students benefit not only from the dissemination of outcomes (uncovering subjugated knowledge), but also from their involvement in the project (see Sweetman, Badiee, & Creswell’s, 2010, discussion of criteria for transformative research). In sum, our approach to MMR seeks to be dialogical, creative, critical, and participatory and puts to one side unhelpful binaries related to earlier debates in social science.

Notes
1

While inductive research approaches tend to derive categories from the data, deductive approaches structure the analysis on the basis of previous knowledge (cf., Elo & Kyngäs, 2008).

2

In part, this is because of the timing of phases of data collection since qualitative data analysis has lagged the quantitative analysis.

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