Psychology, experimenting, and ethics

There exists in the social sciences, an ongoing debate as to how research should be conducted for maximum benefit. Should research focus on using quantitative methods, or qualitative methods?

Qualitative methods

  • accumulate data in the form of words, pictures, or objects.
  • are described as subjective – the researcher’s interpretation of events is important.
  • aim to provide a complete detailed description of an event or phenomena, often focusing on the experiences of an individual and the meaning of their behaviour.
  • primarily use semi-structured, or unstructured interviews and participant observations, as well as transcripts of conversations and interviews which are then analysed for meaning using techniques like discourse analysis or grounded theory.

Quantitative methods

  • accumulate data in the form of numbers and statistics
  • are described as objective – data is analysed using statistical tests like correlation, chi-square, and t-tests in relation to pre-determined hypotheses
  • aim to classify events, count them, and then construct statistical models that can be repeatedly tested and validated

When conducting investigations, psychologists have clear guidelines to adhere to in terms of ethical considerations. Importantly, studies must not produce any negative outcomes for participants, and, as psychological studies have a wide impact on society, findings must be reported in an accurate, and unbiased way.

But is this accurate, unbiased reporting easy – or even possible at all?

The choice of approach used rests with the individual researchers, and as such is informed by their prior experiences and often reflects idealogical and professional biases.

Often, quantitative methods are selected because the researcher believes that a high degree of objectivity can be attained by carefully defining units of measurement, whereas a researcher choosing to use qualitative methods may be more inclied towards the view that such objectivity is not possible as the study must already be heavily influenced by societal and personal ideas about what is important. A researcher holding such beliefs would emphasise their background and their orientation so that readers were aware of it.

The culture and societal influences acting upon the individual researcher, or the organisation are key factors in determining the type of study conducted. However, rather than arguing for or against each approach, we may be better placed to consider how qualitiative and quantitative methods can be combined in studies. Integrating both approaches in mixed method studies may prove more beneficial than debating which method is superior.

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