June 18, 2009

Hybrid methods in communications research

Fascinating. This is the only word to describe yesterday's seminar delivered by Prof Debra Roter of John Hopkins University under the auspices of Warwick's Institute of Health Short Term Fellow programme and a part of Warwick's Festival of Social Sciences.

Debra, one of the most cited researchers in her field (physician-patient communication) and in fact in the top 250 most cited of all social scientists, delivered a paper on hybrid research methods (the merging of quantitative and qualitative - perhaps we should give it a name ?quantalitive or qualantitive). The context of the research was the oral communication between clinician and patient and the role of 'oral literacy'. Debra's framework for assessing the oral literacy burden (the impact of the use of jargon, complexity of language usage, the informational context and the interactive structural characteristics of dyadic exchanges) required the development of a new technique.

Simulated consultancy sessions between genuine clinicians and 'patients' (played by briefed actors) were taped. The 'patient' was asked for a post event assessment of how the session went and how satisfied they were with the encounter, the whole encounter was transcribed and analyzed for items such as use of jargon, language complexity (e.g. Fleisch-Kincaid scores) and interactivity (e.g. who spoke when and for how long), and the sessions were then viewed by 'analogue clients' (subjects recruited to watch, view and evaluate the sessions imagining that they were the client in the session and thus to objectively evaluate the interaction as an interested observer).

The output from this combinatorial approach produced quantifiable data (e.g. frequency of specific jargon, ratings of demeanour, interactivity, turn-taking, etc., ) that then permitted use of statistical tools (Debra only reported correlations within the seminar but more sophisticated analytical tools would be possible) to test for significant factors. As Debra stated, if, in a study, some main effects show up as significant despite being unable to account for all of the complexities in a research context, then something worth studying is present in the research.

The hybrid merging of quatitative and qualitative methods is not wholly original. In the management field there are many papers (e.g. Harrigan, 1983) and research methods texts (e.g. Bryman & Bell, 2007, where it is termed mixed methods) that advocate its possible usefulness. Most published research in the marketing field uses both as a matter of course (although it must be admitted that the range of qualitative techniques used is limited). Churchill's 'paradigm for development of better marketing measures' (Journal of Marketing, 1981) advocates the use of 'insight stimulating examples' and 'in depth interviews' (inter alia) as foundations in the building of robust questionaires. And content analysis is a well known technique for quantifying oral, textual and visual data to permit statistical analysis.

However, most of the previous work is triangulation (the use of different methods to investigate the same phenomenon to enable a cross-check and validity assessment) as opposed to a true hybridisation (the cross-pollinated and integrated use of methodologies to produce new insights into the phenomenon). What appears to be unique and interesting about Debra's approach is the simultaneous and multimethod extraction of information along both qualitative and quantitative lines of enquiry, leading to a richer interpretation and understanding of the phenomenon.

There is clear potential for a similar approach in the fields of marketing or business. For example, this technique applied to a study of buyer-seller interactions might prove extremely interesting and here the outcome - sale or no sale - could be even more certainly measured.

Thoughts and views on hybrid methods are welcome.


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