There are three basic approaches to research in the social sciences -- quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods. Quantitative research involves the use of statistical or mathematical data to report the results of empirical studies. Qualitative research relies on human accounts and experiences to explain the why and how of various phenomena. A mixed-methods approach combines techniques from quantitative and qualitative research to create a unique methodology that is tailored to a specific study.

Quantitative Methods

When researchers collect quantitative data, all of it is retrieved in numerical form. Most times, quantitative studies ask very focused or narrow research questions that relate directly to the data. Researchers should be able to generalize results, so conclusions drawn from one particular study can be applied to similar situations. Quantitative research utilizes mainly scientific methods to generate hypotheses or develop ways of measuring phenomena. Thus, this research tradition is often tied to Positivism, which advocates testing hypotheses empirically through observation. Quantitative research leaves little room for interpretation by the researcher -- the numbers tell the story.

Narrative Analysis

A narrative analysis of data focuses on how, why and for whom something is said. There are three prominent methods of analyzing narrative data: Labov’s Structural Model, Gee’s Poetics and Reissman’s Performance Analysis. Labov’s model focuses on the structure of a narrative by identifying six common elements: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution and coda. Gee’s Poetics approach shifts away from the function of language to the structure of speaking. In other words, how something is said is just as important as what is said. Like Labov, Gee does not consider context to be a pressing factor. Reissman’s performance analysis is useful for narratives that are “performative” in nature. To qualify as performative, a narrative must have five elements: direct speech, asides, repetition, expressive songs and alternation between verb tenses. Unlike the other two narrative approaches, Reissman advocates close attention to the context of the performative speech.


Phenomenology is the study of the way humans experience things. Each “thing” or phenomenon has a specific essence that is subjective to the person who experiences it. Phenomenology focuses on the synthesis of a textural description and a structural description of what the researcher studies. The person who experiences the phenomenon provides the textural description, which may be obtained through interviews, observations or other data collection techniques. The researcher provides the structural description, which is the interpretive analysis of the phenomenon. The result is the careful synthesis of the textural and structural descriptions to reveal the essence of the phenomenon as experienced by the participant. Phenomenological research also must be used in conjunction with a method of narrative analysis. Because researchers study the experiences and accounts of people through what they do and say, they must employ a technique to analyze words and actions.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theorists provide accounts of social processes and answer the question “how” as it relates to these processes. Unlike other qualitative research techniques, grounded theory allows the theory to rise from the data rather than framing the data with a theory from the start. In other words, this is an inductive research approach rather than a deductive one. Grounded theory involves three iterative, non-linear phases of coding -- initial, axial or focused and theoretical -- that ultimately result in the emergence of theory. The end result of a grounded-theory research study is a story or an account of a process. Because of the complexity of grounded theory, it is not recommended for novice researchers. However, the flexibility affords researchers some latitude in the collection and analysis of rich data required to ensure rigor and validity.

Mixed Methods

Because research in social sciences can be very complex, researchers often combine approaches from quantitative and qualitative traditions to create what is known as mixed methodology. Using techniques from both traditions enables researchers to customize their approaches to studying the phenomenon of interest. It allows them to choose the most appropriate ways of analyzing a topic. For example, if a researcher is studying the effects of standardized testing on classroom instruction, she may decide that test scores are best analyzed using statistical -- quantitative -- measures. However, because statistics do not capture words or emotions, she may also choose to interview students and teachers about their experiences with standardized testing and the effects on classroom instruction -- qualitative research. In this way, the researcher more effectively analyzes this topic by the use of two different methodological approaches.

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