Mixed methods and corny metaphors

Burt J. Following the mixed methods trail: some travel advice. BJGP 2015: .

It is interesting to reflect on where writing inspiration comes from – often unknown or unidentified by me – but a new Debate and Analysis article in the BJGP was clearly influenced by my children’s bedtime reading. Not sure how often that happens in academia, but there we go. For those who have not read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series about her family’s pioneer life in America in the nineteenth century, these evocative tales of long and tough wagon journeys to uncharted territories are gripping and thought provoking stories. And, you know, just as you would expect, they got me thinking about the development of mixed methods approaches.

The result was “Following the mixed methods trail: some travel advice”, and, yes, the paper is littered with references to wagons and travels. Sorry about that. I’ve personally been on the mixed methods route a long time now, and despite this if you look at my publication record it echoes pretty precisely what I say in my BJGP piece: we still have a very long way to go in actually publishing proper mixed methods work. My chief complaint is that we most often use mixed- and multi-method approaches across programmes of work, but then chop things up into methodological silos to present it separately to the world. It isn’t wrong to do this, but it’s frustrating to see such a lack of the “third effort”, in which – at the level of data analysis – we grapple with achieving the new insights [sometimes] possible by fully integrating quant and qual data. Even my PhD, which had an entire chapter of background on mixed methods and a lovely squiggly diagram demonstrating all the inter-relationships and inter-mixing of the quantitative and qualitative data elements, didn’t result in a single paper which published fully integrated analyses.

For me, the mixed methods industry (because it does feel like that at times) has done some pretty impressive groundwork on setting out the case for and parameters of the field. You can go and read about ontology, epistemology and various dense theoretical debates to your heart’s content. On the empirical front, progress has been made in that pretty much every larger piece of work funded by NIHR now includes both quantitative and qualitative elements, with researchers increasingly seeing that different ways of looking at a phenomenon can equal more holistic insights. But if you want to find a paper that presents, say, interview and questionnaire data from the same subjects in a fully integrated fashion, with a joint display juxtaposing these, it’s pretty near impossible. I even spoke to one of the Founding Fathers of mixed methods, Michael Fetters, about this, and he agreed that empirical analysis-level integration is pretty sparse on the ground.

So, what do we do about this? The first step in resolving any issue is identifying it, and the next is to get on and do something about it. Certainly within our team we have some “properly” integrated papers in development, and I am starting to see some scattered around in journals. This is, of course, all good news, and I look forward to adventures with you all as we travel on (singing songs from Calamity Jane if you’re feeling really enthusiastic…).

You can access the full paper here (if you can access BJGP). Otherwise, get in touch.

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