In support of qualitative research: the value of qualitative insight for policy formation

For many people, working in the tangible, measurable area of hard figures provides an element of certainty to decision making processes. It is perhaps for this reason that quantitative research was, for many years, the largely uncontested preference for decision makers and people looking for research to evidence their decisions.research

Some criticisms that are often made of qualitative research are that it:

  • can be limited in scope and size and have a longer turnaround time than quantitative studies;
  • can be difficult to replicate and scale to achieve multiple results across multiple test sites
  • can be too reliant on researcher interpretation, perception and experience, and therefore too exposed to bias and unreliability.

In contrast, quantitative research is stereotypically presented as producing results that are consistent and replicable; and therefore ‘higher quality’ and ‘more valid’.

A question of quality

Qualitative research has always suffered from a reputatio of being less rigorous. Instead of dealing with empirical data, it deals with the more human side of research and the effects of a programme. It questions the reasoning of understanding, and the emotional implications of an intervention. As a result, qualitative researchers approach their subject from an entirely different epistemological standpoint (i.e. they have a different view of what ‘knowledge’ is, what should be judged as evidence, and what should not).

This challenges the understanding of what is meant by “research standards”. While quantitative researchers base their understanding on demonstrable results which can be proven and replicated to the same standard, qualitative research brings to the fore questions of researcher subjectivity, the concepts of validity and reliability of results and questions of ethics. It also stresses the importance not only of measuring information to gain results, but gaining results through examining and interpreting experiences and social contexts. It considers these social factors on policy outcomes rather than by categorical measurement using a predefined scale.

A mixed methods approach

While this traditional dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research methods is convenient, in practice many organisations value the social dimension especially when looking at understanding the impact of policy interventions.

In fact many local authorities and public sector bodies, including the Greater London Authority (GLA), are increasingly looking to qualitative researchers to form part of their wider research teams. In a policy context, it is clear that qualitative research has its place alongside quantitative research as part of a mixed methods approach to evidence based policy making.

Some of the things that qualitative research brings to policy research are: a flexible research method (the methods of collection and analysis can easily be changed as the research is being conducted and the data emerges); and very rich data (if done correctly, one study could provide research data for a number of research tasks).

It allows for a deeper understanding of what lies behind results – not just that something has had an impact, but why. It also allows researchers to understand social phenomena from an individual perspective and consider the specific contexts and conditions which have contributed to it (for example, the experience of stigma or discrimination).group-discussion_unsplash

Giving a voice to marginalised groups

Qualitative research is also finding a role in evaluative research teams, looking at the meanings and constructions which made an intervention effective or ineffective and potential steps to make it more successful in the future.

One example is in engaging with hard-to-reach or marginalised people. While quantitative research would tell you that certain groups of people engage less frequently in community groups for example, qualitative research would help to explore what motivates people to engage, and therefore tease out potential methods to increase engagement. Qualitative research also allows for bespoke research questions on niche topics to be created and explored thoroughly. This can be useful for local authorities who wish to explore issues at a local level with specific communities which would not necessarily be distinct within wider national quantitative data sets and statistics.

Supporting the personalisation agenda with bespoke research

Qualitative research is also becoming more popular as a supplementary option to hard data and raw statistics because of the increased importance which is being placed on individual experience and personalisation in public services, particularly, but not exclusively within health and social care. Qualitative data allows researchers to get an in-depth view of how people experience services.

While it will never be a replacement for the empirical data produced by quantitative data, qualitative data brings its own benefits and enhances understanding around policies in a way that hard data often cannot. It encourages professionals to think beyond figures as a benchmark for outcomes. It also allows them to gain rich data on the experiences of marginalised groups in society, who often go unrepresented in large national quantitative data sets.


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