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Types of research
Quantitative research is generally associated with the positivist/postpositivist paradigm. It usually involves collecting and converting data into numerical form so that statistical calculations can be made and conclusions drawn.
Researchers will have one or more hypotheses. These are the questions that they want to address which include predictions about possible relationships between the things they want to investigate (variables). In order to find answers to these questions, the researchers will also have various instruments and materials (e.g. paper or computer tests, observation check lists etc.) and a clearly defined plan of action.
Data is collected by various means following a strict procedure and prepared for statistical analysis. Nowadays, this is carried out with the aid of sophisticated statistical computer packages. The analysis enables the researchers to determine to what extent there is a relationship between two or more variables. This could be a simple association (e.g. people who exercise on a daily basis have lower blood pressure) or a causal relationship (e.g. daily exercise actually leads to lower blood pressure). Statistical analysis permits researchers to discover complex causal relationships and to determine to what extent one variable influences another.
The results of statistical analyses are presented in journals in a standard way, the end result being a P value. For people who are not familiar with scientific research jargon, the discussion sections at the end of articles in peer reviewed journals usually describe the results of the study and explain the implications of the findings in straightforward terms
Objectivity is very important in quantitative research. Consequently, researchers take great care to avoid their own presence, behaviour or attitude affecting the results (e.g. by changing the situation being studied or causing participants to behave differently). They also critically examine their methods and conclusions for any possible bias.
Researchers go to great lengths to ensure that they are really measuring what they claim to be measuring. For example, if the study is about whether background music has a positive impact on restlessness in residents in a nursing home, the researchers must be clear about what kind of music to include, the volume of the music, what they mean by restlessness, how to measure restlessness and what is considered a positive impact. This must all be considered, prepared and controlled in advance.
External factors, which might affect the results, must also be controlled for. In the above example, it would be important to make sure that the introduction of the music was not accompanied by other changes (e.g. the person who brings the CD player chatting with the residents after the music session) as it might be the other factor which produces the results (i.e. the social contact and not the music). Some possible contributing factors cannot always be ruled out but should be acknowledged by the researchers.
The main emphasis of quantitative research is on deductive reasoning which tends to move from the general to the specific. This is sometimes referred to as a top down approach. The validity of conclusions is shown to be dependent on one or more premises (prior statements, findings or conditions) being valid. Aristotle’s famous example of deductive reasoning was: All men are mortal àSocrates is a man à Socrates is mortal. If the premises of an argument are inaccurate, then the argument is inaccurate. This type of reasoning is often also associated with the fictitious character Sherlock Holmes. However, most studies also include an element of inductive reasoning at some stage of the research (see section on qualitative research for more details).
Researchers rarely have access to all the members of a particular group (e.g. all people with dementia, carers or healthcare professionals). However, they are usually interested in being able to make inferences from their study about these larger groups. For this reason, it is important that the people involved in the study are a representative sample of the wider population/group. However, the extent to which generalizations are possible depends to a certain extent on the number of people involved in the study, how they were selected and whether they are representative of the wider group. For example, generalizations about psychiatrists should be based on a study involving psychiatrists and not one based on psychology students. In most cases, random samples are preferred (so that each potential participant has an equal chance of participating) but sometimes researchers might want to ensure that they include a certain number of people with specific characteristics and this would not be possible using random sampling methods. Generalizability of the results is not limited to groups of people but also to situations. It is presumed that the results of a laboratory experiment reflect the real life situation which the study seeks to clarify.
When looking at results, the P value is important. P stands for probability. It measures the likelihood that a particular finding or observed difference is due to chance. The P value is between 0 and 1. The closer the result is to 0, the less likely it is that the observed difference is due to chance. The closer the result is to 1, the greater the likelihood that the finding is due to chance (random variation) and that there is no difference between the groups/variables.