Chapter Two: Understanding the distinctions among research methods

Humanistic and scientific epistemologies represent two different world views about what constitutes knowledge. In the humanities, aesthetics or an appreciation for the arts are included as a way of knowing. The knowing comes from the emotions and thoughts the art evokes. In an impromptu audience participation skit on the risks of binge drinking, some participants will hopefully walk away with a heightened commitment to change their drinking habits. In science, such ways of knowing might be dismissed as too anecdotal and intuitive. Knowledge comes from systematic observation of larger groups in more controlled settings. The great thing is that within these two world views, multiple research methods are available. The goal in chapter two is to provide an overview of the two approaches, based on some basic points of comparison. As the authors, we first review the basic question of why multiple methods are needed. Second, we offer a continuum to help you visualize where each method is located in relationship to the others. Third, we provide a chart identifying key points of comparison for the methods. And, fourth, we explore the boundaries of each method regarding what each can and cannot provide. We do so by addressing a common list of discussion questions, including the scholarly and professional benefits of each.

Humanistic and scientific epistemologies represent two different world views about what constitutes knowledge. In the humanities, aesthetics or an appreciation for the arts are included as a way of knowing. The knowing comes from the emotions and thoughts the art evokes. In an impromptu audience participation skit on the risks of binge drinking, some participants will hopefully walk away with a heightened commitment to change their drinking habits. In science, such ways of knowing might be dismissed as too anecdotal and intuitive. Knowledge comes from systematic observation of larger groups in more controlled settings. The great thing is that within these two world views, multiple research methods are available. The goal in chapter two is to provide an overview of the two approaches, based on some basic points of comparison. As the authors, we first review the basic question of why multiple methods are needed. Second, we offer a continuum to help you visualize where each method is located in relationship to the others. Third, we provide a chart identifying key points of comparison for the methods. And, fourth, we explore the boundaries of each method regarding what each can and cannot provide. We do so by addressing a common list of discussion questions, including the scholarly and professional benefits of each.

It is important to note one limitation to this chapter: To provide a general overview, we, the authors, necessarily describe quantitative, qualitative, and critical/rhetorical each as singular methods. In reality, each of the three have a whole toolbox of different methods available to researchers. Thus, at times we will refer to the three approaches as distinct singular methods, but at other times it is necessary to recognize each represents multiple methods. In subsequent chapters you will learn more specifically what those toolboxes contain.

Why Can't One Shoe Fit All? Or, Why Do we Need Multiple Research Methods?

Researchers are fortunate to have multiple methods to choose from because no one research method is capable of covering all angles on a given topic. As an illustration, imagine you want to study how people use social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn). You could conduct an on-line Internet survey and solicit a large number of people, but you will have to keep the questions simple and relatively few if you want a good response rate. In contrast, you could study social media by physically hanging out in a computer lab to observe and interview users to find out more about unique personal usage and perceptions, but it would take a great deal of time to study many people. In addition to the fact that different methods tend to produce different results as discussed in chapter one, a key point to understand is that all research methods have unique limitations. A given research method is only appropriate for certain research questions or goals. Just as importantly, each method carries with it underlying epistemological assumptions about how knowledge is constructed. It is important to assure a goodness of fit between the underlying assumptions of a method and the topic of study.

When conducting research, you first pick a topic – a general area of communication that interests you. Social media use is a good example. It is a hot topic because: 1) the technology is fairly new and the forms of social media available to users is constantly expanding (e.g., Foursquare , "mayorships"), 2) the number of people participating worldwide on social media is growing (see Social Media Statistics and Pew Internet), and 3) social media are cost efficient for non-profit and for-profit groups to get their messages out. Social media is an exciting research topic because there is relatively little published on it yet and because it has moved marketing communication from one-way solicitation to consumer generated two-way communication (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Students and colleagues are studying social media in every area of Communication Studies, for example:

In rhetoric:

Jenkins, E. (2008). My iPod, my iCon: How and why do images become icons? Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25(5), 466-489.

In Performance Studies:

Atkinson, J., & Dougherty, D. (2006). Alternative media and social justice movements: The development of a resistance performance paradigm of audience analysis. Western Journal of Communication, 70(1), 64-88.

In Interpersonal Communication:

Chen, S. (2009). College male students' cultural value identity in new media world. China Media Research, 5(4), 41-46.

In Organizational Communication:

Stolley, K. (2009). Integrating social media into existing work environments: The case of delicious. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 23(3), 350-371.

In Public Relations:

Waters, R. D., Burnett, E., Lamm, A., & Lucas, J. (2009). Engaging stakeholders through social networking: How nonprofit organizations are using Facebook. Public Relations Review, 35(2), 102-106.

In Journalism:

Jewitt, R. (2009). The trouble with twittering: Integrating social media into mainstream news. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 5(3), 233-240.

In Electronic Media:

Gordon, E. (2007). Mapping digital networks: From cyberspace to Google. Information Communication & Society, 10(6), 885-901.

In Political Communication:

Tedesco, J. C. (2004). Changing the channel: Use of the Internet for communicating about politics. In L. L. Kaid (Ed.), Handbook of political communication research (pp. 507- 532). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Assuming you want to investigate the topic of social media, the next step is to figure out a research question (RQ), the general question that guides an academic study. Researchers develop their research questions by reading previous research on the topic and figuring out what questions have not been answered sufficiently. A RQ is different from a specific question one might ask in an interview or survey. Instead, it is the big question one wants to answer using the data gathered in the research process. The idea of beginning with a question comes out of scientific research methods and is used more in the sciences and social sciences than in the humanities because scientific researchers approach their work in a highly systematic way focused on answering a guiding question. There is less openness to unplanned discovery. The research question helps narrow the area of study so that the ability to obtain answers is more likely. For example, how would you even begin to research the topic of social media given its complexity? Below are examples of the types of RQs you could ask to study social media coupled with the appropriate research methods (RMs) and underlying Epistemological Assumptions (EA). Try to identify the research method the RQ calls for before reading on. A section labeled Further Thinking (FT) suggests implications to extend your thinking about designing an effective study.


RQ1: Are there age differences in the use of Facebook and Twitter?

RM1: What would researchers need to answer this RQ? The question asks to compare possible differences in age groups regarding the use of two forms of social media. To answer this question, researchers would need a larger sample of people with relatively similar demographics (except age) in terms of family income, access and use of the Internet, perhaps sex, ethnicity, nationality, etc., to be able to claim a difference or similarity beyond anecdotal observations. The survey results would be summarized quantitatively through statistical analysis of the groups and numbers to provide specific group comparisons.

EA1: Scientific/social science approach. Knowledge is proven statistically through the use of demographically representative samples of the population. The larger the sample, the stronger the conclusion. 

FT1: What other suggestions or questions can you raise regarding the appropriate methods needed for this study? For example, if the survey is conducted on-line, will that bias the results by leaving out people who do not use or have access to the Internet? And are such people proportionately different in age? Should the study be limited to participants in the U.S.? Why or why not? Could you use anything other than a survey to find out why participants use or do not use Facebook and Twitter? If so how would you do this? Finally, is this a research question worth asking? Will it yield useful information? Why?

RQ2: How do non-profit organization leaders feel about the use of social media?

RM2: What would researchers need to answer this question? The words "how" and "feel" suggest the researchers are asking for descriptive rather than predictive or comparative information. They want a picture of the ways in which non-profits are using social media and what leaders' attitudes are toward social media as a vehicle for communicating with their publics. To describe is to use words, rather than only numbers. The results will not be able to offer predictions, but may help non-profit practitioners and scholars understand what the unique barriers and advantages are for agencies with limited resources to use social media.

EA2: Qualitative, humanistic approach. The research question assumes that the non- profit leaders' attitudes are important to examine. The question is open-ended, suggesting an exploratory approach is acceptable as a basis for knowledge construction.

FT2: Are there ways you could reword the research question to enhance the data? For example, is asking how someone feels on a topic too vague? What types of questions might you ask in an in-depth interview to answer this research question? Would it be useful to know about the leaders' knowledge of social media use for contacting specific publics, which social media they use and why? What about whether the leaders find social media use effective and if so, why? This asks researchers to assess a quality – effectiveness, in which a first task would be to define what is meant by "effectiveness" and gather the appropriate information to assess effectiveness, as it is defined.

RQ3: How does President Barack Obama's use of social media construct a specific message to U.S. people?

RM3: What would researchers need to answer this question? They would need to study the websites and other forms of social media the President's administration uses. They would need to look at both the verbal and nonverbal messages contained in these locations or contexts. The research question asks to identify the persuasive strategies used and it would require identifying what specific message he is attempting to send.

EA3: The research method calls for a rhetorical analysis of the persuasive elements of the messages. The assumption is that the administration's use of social media has a persuasive as well as an informative elements.

FT3: Examine a website used by the administration such as Organizing for America. Does it give you other ideas of what should be included in this analysis? What about examining the topics addressed (and not addressed): Is there any bipartisan representation, are there underlying images of presidential power being portrayed? What do these say about the attempted message? How does the public respond?

Many more questions could be asked about social media, such as what long term effect it is having on cultural change and global relations. These few examples are meant to illustrate that a topic can be explored through different research questions, each will call for specific research methods, and each methods choice reflects underlying assumptions about how knowledge is constructed. To be a critical consumer and contributor to research, one needs to understand these relationships and identify underlying assumptions that may or may not be acknowledged in a research report.

Because scholars subscribe to a particular set of underlying assumptions, they tend to specialize in quantitative, qualitative, or critical/rhetorical methods. However, it is best to let the research question guide the methods choice. Thus, as teachers, we the authors, will not argue for the relative superiority of one method in this textbook, but instead celebrate the variety of tools available and help you learn which tools are most useful for particular types of research questions. As noted in chapter 1, Communication Studies is unique because it bridges the humanities and social sciences and, thus, is inherently interdisciplinary and multi-methodological.

There are commonalities and overlaps in the characteristics and underlying values across the three basic research methods. Thus, rather than think of research methods such as completely independent and opposite of each other, we prefer placing the diverse methods on a common continuum.

Research Methods Epistemological Continuum

Scientific, social scientific, humanistic, and creative methods exist on a continuum representing their epistemological assumptions. We do not use the word continuum in a highly technical sense here, but as commonly understood -- as relationships between things that gradually transition from one condition to another without abrupt shifts. A color wheel is a continuum. It is clear that blue and green are different, but there are shades between them that share characteristics.

Research methods can be placed along a continuum, from the most "objective" (observable, scientific) approach to the most "subjective" (interpretive, humanistic) approach to knowledge construction. The two extremes of the continuum represent two different worldviews. However, identifying only the two extremes would leave out the majority of exciting interdisciplinary work done in Communication Studies and present a false, simplistic view that researchers never meld world views. In fact, most social science research in Communication Studies represents a blend of the two world views. Although social science researchers may use quantitative measures and statistics to analyze results, they likely also subscribe to the notion that discovering purely objective (unbiased) knowledge is not possible in studying human behavior. Conversely, some scholars in the humanities find it beneficial to apply scientific notions such as the use of mathematics to write scores of music (e.g., Fauvel, Flood & Wilson, 2003), and those who do close textual criticism argue you must have evidence from the text to support your interpretation of it (meaning you cannot rely solely on idiosyncratic and subjective interpretations). Below is a diagram of the continuum to help you visualize the relationships and distinctions in research methods and related epistemologies.

Image removed.

Assumptions for Natural Sciences and Quantitative Social Sciences Research:

  • There is an objective social reality (Truth with a capital "T") that can be measured.
  • Quantitative research should look for specific causes and effects of certain phenomenon.
  • The overall goal of quantitative research is to develop generalizations that enable the researcher to better predict, explain, and understand some phenomenon.
  • A research problem or question should always develop out of a body of literature and this research frames the study that is being done.
  • The research process and related procedures are most important for quantitative methods.
  • Data is anything that can be measured and converted to numbers.
  • Research should be theory driven, not conducted without a solidly tested theoretical base.
  • The research report is written in third person, as in "the researcher found . . . ," mirroring the emphasis on objectivity, detached observation.

Assumptions for Qualitative Social Science Research:

  • All knowing is perceptual. Thus, knowledge cannot exist separate from the knower (the researcher).
  • Multiple social realities are created and recreated in interaction, and qualitative research can help explain those realities.
  • Lay people are experts about their world and should be heard.
  • Human behavior results from a person's "free will" or choice, rather than being caused by something in her/his external environment.
  • The best categories used to organize information gained from research should emerge from the participants, rather than imposed ahead of time by the researcher or theoretical assumption
  • The researcher should actively interact with what is being researched. She or he is a part of the study.
  • Data should be rich quotations or observations provided in detailed field notes. Any conclusions or themes proposed by the researcher must be clearly grounded in the participants' words.
  • Theory tends to emerge from the data, rather than be used to direct the analysis of the data in the study.
  • A research report can be written in first-person, as in "I found . . . "; the researcher should locate her/himself in the study so that the reader clearly knows the perspective she or he is coming from.

Assumptions for Rhetorical/Critical Research:

  • Rhetoric constructs reality. Thus, rhetorical criticism not only views knowledge as subjective, but also as potentially powerful tools of influence that demand critical, watchful eyes.
  • Rhetoric is created by humans, and dominant realities emerge that favor some people over others.
  • Rhetoric involves strategic choices.
  • Rhetoric influences our thinking and belief systems.
  • Therefore, we ought to critically analyze the rhetoric that surrounds us.

Assumptions for Creative Methods:

  • Everyone has a story that deserves to be told, and listened to.
  • The universe is knowable through the close examination of a single experience, person, and/or moment.
  • The fleeting, the singular, the human, the ephemeral, the momentary is worthy of attention.
  • Knowledge is best gained when it is experienced. Performance Studies and filmmaking provides an experience of discovery for the writers, actors, and audience.
  • Part of that experience gained can be the physicality of performance.

Even though scholars in Communication Studies do not study natural science (e.g., biology, physics), they use nearly all the methods noted on the continuum. Understanding the range of methods available is necessary to make sure you select the most apt method to explore the questions you have about communication.

Key Characteristics

The continuum draws attention to epistemological connections between and distinctions among research methods. You should notice the Social Science methods are listed in between world views as they include methods that are more subjective (like ethnography) and others that are more objective (like content analysis). In reality, each approach (quantitative, qualitative, rhetorical and creative) has some flexibility on the continuum, as scholars vary in their approaches according to the research questions or goal of the project being pursued.

In addition to epistemological assumptions, other key characteristics distinguish the methods. These include:

  • Goals
  • Reasoning Methods
  • Types of RQs Answered
  • What Counts as Data
  • Criteria Used to Assess the Quality of a Study

Ultimately, though, all these characteristics link back to the base epistemological assumptions.

Goals, or the general intent of the research, are influenced by the worldview held about how knowledge is gained. If one believes absolute truths or universal laws can be discovered, then one can make statistical generalizations (with a small margin for error), based on the results of a series of studies on samples of a population, to the whole (macro) population. That population (or macro level) for which a researcher seeks to predict behavior can be the entire student body at one university or across the country, recent immigrants living in Iowa or the Midwestern U.S., an extended family or a group of extended families, the entire U.S. population or any other demographic boundary drawn to represent a group. For example, after over 30 years of sampling populations around the world to identify the emotions linked to a set of diverse facial expressions, social scientists claim to have found six universal emotion expressions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise (Ekman, 2003). This claim is based on results from experimental groups that were statistically generalized to the world's population. This does not mean the stimuli for expressing the emotions is the same across cultures (or populations), or that an emotion (such as happiness) necessarily has a universal definition. These later stipulations are context dependent rules derived from smaller micro (usually qualitative) analyses with specific groups of people in more natural interactions (Matsumoto, 1990; Matsumoto, Franklin, Choi, Rogers & Tatani, 2002). If one believes truth is interpretive and context dependent (as some social science and most humanities scholars do), then the researcher does not seek to identify universal laws, but instead might try to identify social rules that seem to exist in a given situation that call for specific displays of emotion.

Reasoning Methods refers to how one organizes and tries to makes sense of information. The two general approaches differ in world views. These are depicted visually in the diagram below.

Image removed.

If one believes knowledge can lead to the discovery of universal laws, the researcher is more likely to use a deductive reasoning method, also called "top-down" (Trochim, 2006a). Researchers using deductive reasoning usually begin with some sort of theory to guide their analysis of the data. Often there has already been a lot of research done on their topic, so they are testing out certain elements of a theory when doing the research. They go "looking for" certain aspects of the theory in their data. Moving from general to specific allows the researcher to isolate and control for, possible contaminating influences and just put what they most want to study under the metaphorical microscope. The results are then generalized back to represent the larger population.

Conversely, if one believes knowledge can be gained through interpretation and that results or knowledge are influenced by the context in which they are studied, the researcher is more likely to use the inductive reasoning method, also called "bottom-up" (Trochim, 2006a), moving from specific examples of observation to building a more general theory to help describe or explain human behavior.

As an example of the inductive approach, Molefí Asante (1987, 2001) is an interpretive scholar in intercultural communication who argues that communication rules must be grounded in the beliefs and values of a specific group of people. He challenges previous research based on the study of European Americans that generalizes interpersonal interaction norms to all ethnic groups. He studies African American groups and finds interaction rules vary with cultural identity. Asante named his framework Afrocentricity to identify cultural themes necessary for understanding many (but not all) contemporary African American communities' interaction norms.

Why is the distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning important to understand? Trochim (2006a) explains:

These two methods of reasoning have a very different "feel" to them when you're conducting research. Inductive reasoning, by its very nature, is more open-ended and exploratory, especially at the beginning. Deductive reasoning is narrower in nature and is [often] concerned with testing or confirming hypotheses. (para. 2)

In reality, most social science and humanities scholarship involves some degree of both inductive and deductive reasoning. As noted in chapter 1, because the research process is a circular one, each step informs the others. Deductive and inductive reasoning inform each other and are both part of the process of constructing knowledge regardless of one's world view of how knowledge is best formed.

What counts as data? Recognizing the term "data" itself is more of a quantitative term and does not fit humanities methods as well, we use it to clarify that all methods have a focus of study. Another way to think of this is to apply the metaphor of a microscope and ask what the researcher plans to put under the microscope for closer analysis. The focus will dictate the use of the most appropriate method. In quantitative methods the data focus is called the Unit of Analysis. By defining the unit of analysis, the research is forced to identify the boundaries of what will be the focus of study versus for example, the context. In quantitative research, the unit of analysis is very specific and isolated. The data is reduced to discrete numbers in the form of statistics. In qualitative, rhetorical and creative work, the unit of analysis may be less clearly spelled out in advance of the study. It may be a more organic process to identify meaning or knowledge. At its basis, the unit of analysis in qualitative and humanities work is words, nonverbal symbols, and their inter-relationships.

What criteria are used to assess the quality of scientific/quantitative and qualitative/humanistic studies? As one might guess, because the goals are different, the criteria to assess the quality of work is not the same. In the scientific world view consistent with objectivity, generalizability to a larger population is paramount. In the qualitative and humanistic world views consistent with subjectivity, detailed description and in-depth analysis of a smaller data set are valued. Both world views value scholarship that advances knowledge on a given topic and that is pragmatic, advancing the quality of life for societies.

To summarize, consider the table below. You will notice we have grouped the different methods from the previous continuum into two generalized world views.

World Views:Scientific to Quantitative Social ScienceQualitative Social Science to Creative
Epistemology:Knowledge is discovered/observed (objective/predictive view)Knowledge is created, (subjective/interpretive/ expressive view)
Goal:Generalize (macro) Universal LawsUnderstand (micro) Contextual Rules
Reasoning Method:DeductiveInductive
Type of Research Questions Answered:Cause/effect, relationship, differencesExplain, understand, describe
What Counts as Data:Discrete numbers, data reduced to numerical formInterdependent ideas, words, nonverbals, visuals, communication artifacts, performance
Values/Criteria Used to Assess:Objectivity, controlled, validity and reliability, contributes to scholarship and societySubjectivity, context rich, depth of analysis, contributes to scholarship and society
Tone:Authors report findings. Write in third person. Authors' presence in the report are minimized.Authors recognizes multiple interpretations are possible, argue for an interpretation. Write in third or first person. Authors' presence in the interpretations are recognized.

Comparing and Contrasting Methods

In the remainder of this chapter, we the authors, explore each research method in detail by answering core questions you might have about how Communication Studies researchers use it:

  • What types of research questions can this method answer?
  • What counts as data?
  • What are the limits of this method?
  • What are the benefits of this method?
  • What job/professions most benefit from this method?

Quantitative Research Methods

What types of research questions can this method answer? If you see a research question with the following types of inquiries, you can bet it is a quantitative study:

  • How much?
  • How often?
  • What are the norms or averages?
  • What is the cause/effect?
  • If I manipulate or control item A, such as exposure to a violent movie, will it cause item B -- violent reactions from audience members?
  • Are there differences among groups, such as are there gender/sex differences in teens' body images?
  • Is there a relationship among the concepts being studied, such as the way one talks (conversational style) and relational satisfaction?"

Quantitative research methods are appropriate for identifying frequencies, degrees of intensity, predicting cause/effect, determining if differences among groups are significant, and identifying relationships among items of study. Quantitative methods answer questions about phenomena that can be reduced to easily identifiable variables and their related numbers or statistics.

It is important to acknowledge the power that numbers have to influence people. When a public speaker or activist website report statistics people listen: "One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime" or "Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted" (RAINN, 2009). Statistics make a reality concrete. Even though individual stories of rape survivors can be extremely compelling, statistics can help paint the larger picture of a cultural problem.

What counts as data? Numbers, discrete pieces of information that can be counted and statistically compared and analyzed.

What are the limits of this method? Even when researchers use quantitative methods for the appropriate type of research questions, what are inherent limitations of the method?

Because quantitative methods often call for grouping people into categories for comparison, such as sex or age, the very nature of using numbers can flatten out the complexities of human identity. For example, asking about differences between women and men ignores all the similarities between women and men, and differences among men, and differences among women as a result of gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, age, etc. The complexity of relationships between two people or groups is necessarily simplified by reducing descriptions of the relationships or people to numbers that represent frequencies, degrees, averages, etc. Reducing people and cultures to numerical data always involves some loss of contextual information. For example, when viewers' response options are limited on survey questions, researchers do not know why viewers responded the way they did.

Quantitative research methods often rely on self-reported information, such as in surveys. This would not be a concern in the humanistic world view that seeks to understand perceptions, but if the goals are to predict, control, and be objective, self-reporting provides a limited perspective, which may not accurately represent actual behaviors.

What are the benefits of this method? What does it get at that other methods cannot? The quantitative method can explain, predict, compare and/or confirm. This method makes problems very visible through the use of numbers. For example, in the U.S., nearly 12,000 people die every year in driving under the influence (DUI) related accidents. Police arrest 900,000 each year for DUI/DWI, and a full one-third of those are repeat offenders (Drinking and Driving.Org, 2010). Without numbers like these, the public and legislatures would not know the scope of the social and health problem and thus would be less likely to create laws to discourage it. It is difficult to create a law restricting freedoms without statistics to support the rationale for the law.

In the United States, numbers have been a predominant method of knowledge construction and will likely remain so, in part because of the ability to generalize to larger populations. Statistics make demographic summaries possible, allowing researchers to summarize across a large number of people and generalize to a larger population. Quantitative experiments and studies that are well-designed also attempt to filter out unrelated factors that could create "bias" in the study, in an attempt to make the study more accurate.

What job/professions most benefit from this method? Knowing how statistics are gathered will benefit any citizen, volunteer, and/or paid employee who seeks competence and empowerment for themselves and others. It is a part of a toolkit that helps you think critically, challenge common assumptions and myths, and analyze numbers using multiple statistical tools. For example, an understanding of quantitative methods can help you conduct a political poll, do market research, and make an argument for a financial application. It is beneficial to anyone who collects "number" data for an organization. It can be beneficial to speech writers who want to collect demographic audience analyses before giving a speech, communication professionals writing governmental grant applications for non-profit organizations, or public relations professionals who want to assess an organization's public image after a crisis, or present a new product.

In sum, the world of scientific quantitative research methods is one that values researchers' control over their own potential biases. It is a world in which knowledge or information is gathered in discrete chunks and statistically linked. It is the basis of what is traditionally known as laboratory research, and extends to survey research conducted nationally and internationally to provide statistical explanations and predictions about the current quality of life.

Qualitative Research Methods

What types of research questions can this method answer? Qualitative research methods solicit words that describe. Research questions that begin with "What" or "How," and seek to enhance depth of understanding call for the use of qualitative research methods. Researchers use qualitative methods to answer questions about the nature of something:

  • What is it like?
  • How does it happen?
  • What do the community members think?
  • How do they view this issue?

Usually the research questions are sufficiently broad and nondirectional to allow the researcher a good amount of exploration. Thus, qualitative research questions do not use words such as "effect, influence, impact, determine, cause, and relate" (Keyton, 2011, p. 67). When April Chatham-Carpenter and Victoria DeFrancisco decided to study women and self esteem, they had one basic research question: "How do the women in the study conceptualize and build their self- esteem?" They chose to use qualitative methods and did 1-2 hour interviews with women about their life experiences related to self-esteem (e.g., Chatham-Carpenter & DeFrancisco, 1997, 1998).

Qualitative methods are not typically helpful for studying highly controlled laboratory types of research where the goal is to replicate behaviors or predict cause and affect relationships. Qualitative research questions call for studying more naturally occurring interactions or areas that have not had much research done on them. In this latter instance, qualitative findings often serve as the basis for larger quantitative studies.

What counts as data? Words, images, naturalistic observations. Anything that helps the researcher describe and understand participants' world views.

What are the limits of this method? Even when researchers use qualitative methods for the right type of research questions, what are inherent limitations of the method?

In qualitative research, the limits are often the limits of the researcher. The researcher is the instrument of the study, so the strength of the method is relative to the experience and talents of the researcher. In the qualitative and humanistic world view, knowledge is seen as connected to the knower. The researcher and the research results are not independent, and the validity or accuracy of the results are dependent on how well the researcher represents the participants' voices and experiences.

Qualitative researchers recognize all knowledge as bound by time and context. Qualitative research is limited to a focus on a particular group at a particular time. Thus it is not possible to generalize to whole populations based on a study of a few members. The aim of qualitative research is to capture patterns of experience that may "ring true" in other similar contexts or help explain the patterns; it cannot be used to make universal claims.

Qualitative research often takes longer to conduct than quantitative studies do. Qualitative researchers cannot simply convert their findings into numbers, but have to transcribe interviews and field notes (often hundreds of pages) and review them over and over again to come up with themes. They often spend multiple months in the "field" collecting their data, before even getting to the place where they are doing such transcribing and analysis.

What are the benefits of this method? What does it get at that other methods cannot? The qualitative method provides depth in exploration, description, interpretation, and evocative understanding. Qualitative methods are useful for exploring a new topic, and they can help refine the focus of necessary research for follow-up quantitative studies. Although qualitative methods are used to study a smaller group of people than quantitative methods, the sample size and results are usually more generalizable than the critical rhetorical approach that may study only one text. The qualitative method can give the researcher shades of meaning not evident from numbers alone. The qualitative method provides in-depth description that quantitative methods cannot. It helps generate theory, because of the room for exploration mentioned earlier. It brings data to life, by having participants say how they feel in their own words, thus providing the "insiders" perspective used to give voice to individuals' experiences that have previously been ignored. Whereas people in a quantitative study are often called "subjects" of study, they are referred to as "participants" in qualitative research.

What job/profession most benefits from this method? Developing skills in qualitative research will benefit any profession that calls for being able to note what others might take for granted in observing human behavior and culture. Using qualitative methods helps raise awareness that people's voices are important. To be an effective leader means being able to appreciate and value input and dialogue with employees. Skills in qualitative methods also raise awareness of one's own influences on interactions and the co-construction of meanings. Communication consultants and public relations professionals use qualitative research methods to solicit and better understand employee or particular publics' perspectives and then are able to summarize, analyze, and make recommendations for actions based on these. Qualitative methods can help organizations understand a problem or issue, and adjust strategic plans accordingly. There are several faculty in Communication Studies who have had careers in business management, sales, public relations, and training and development. They say that all the research methods were useful. However, as organizational communication scholar and co-author, Tom Hall said, at the end of the day, observation (via qualitative methods) is most often used in the business/management setting" (Hall, personal communication, January 21, 2010).

In sum, the world of qualitative research methods is one that values observation and interaction with people experiencing everyday life in unique social contexts. The unique contexts tied to the topic of study (e.g., cancer survivors, organizational conflicts), background of the participants (e.g., race, ethnicity, sex, gender, citizenship, sexual orientation, etc.), and larger social and historical context are a part of what the researcher studies, but they also necessarily discourage the researcher from making any generalizations or predictions beyond the group observed.

Critical/Rhetorical Research Methods

What types of research questions can this method answer? Rhetoricians are researchers who study how others use or perform verbal and nonverbal symbols. A rhetor is the person who creates or communicates the message being analyzed. The word critical, in some ways, refers to the goal of rhetorical study to get people to question assumptions, to not default to simplistic understandings of meaning. It seeks to expand and develop complexity, not reduce it to numbers and data. Critical rhetoric is a method that seeks depth, often analyzing a single text, rather than a collection of data (e.g., interviews).

Critical/rhetorical research methods can answer research questions such as:

  • What does a text mean?
  • How should a text be interpreted?
  • What persuasive elements are being used?
  • Why does this matter?
  • Is a text ethical/aesthetic/effective/truthful?

These are very broad questions, and in truth, rhetorical scholars generally do not begin with a specific research question to answer. Instead, when approaching the analysis of an act of communication, they ask: What is going on here? And why does it matter? (Zarefsky, 2010). To begin with a specific question presumes one already knows what is going on with an act of communication, a presumption that would be inconsistent with the goals of rhetorical study. The goals are not to answer research questions, as much as to get the reader of a rhetorical criticism to think differently and much more deeply about how communication works so that they pose their own questions of how to act, respond, behave, overcome, liberate, etc. For example, when critical rhetorician and co-author, Catherine Palczewski (2005) wrote about postcards distributed in the U.S. prior to (white) women winning the right to vote, she was able to identify more subtle ways in which anti- suffrage messages were mainstreamed in the public by using satiric images that suggested (white) men would be emasculated if women got to vote. Her work encourages realizations about why it took 75 years for the suffrage movement to win this right, as well as the racism, classism, and heterosexism inherent in the debate (to see sample postcards: Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive).

What counts as data? The data used consists of speeches, essays, conversations (in print), poetry, novels, stories, comic books, TV programs, films, arts, architecture, plays, music, dance, ads, furniture, automobiles, dress, etc. Basically, any symbolic action can be considered.

What are the limits of this method? Even if researchers use the critical/rhetorical method for appropriate goals, what are inherent limitations of the method? Rhetoric can never give a certain or non-contingent answer. Criticism is at its best when the critic argues for an interpretation, and presents compelling evidence for that interpretation. But even with the strongest argument and best evidence, certainty cannot be achieved, because, after all, the human world of symbol use is dependent on the rhetor's intentions when using the symbol AND people's interpretations of the rhetor's perceived intentions, which can differ for each member of the audience. The interpretation of rhetoric used by others represents the author's perspective; it is not usually based on the solicited or unsolicited views of others.

What are the benefits of this method? What does it get at that other methods cannot? The close analysis of symbol choice moves beyond reporting data. Instead of saying "these themes are present," it answers a "so what" question. What does it mean that the public language about paying taxes in the U.S. shifted historically from duty to burden (Lakoff, 2003)? What does it mean that women do not describe themselves as agents when describing a maternity leave policy, but rather see themselves as pawns in a game (Misenbach, Remke, Buzzanell, & Liu, 2008)? What does it mean that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial possesses conflicting meanings of patriotism, hopelessness and waste (Blair, Jeppeson, & Pucci, 1991)? If it is true that language constructs reality, rhetorical criticism encourages researchers to see the infrastructure of that construction, not just the façade (quantitative) or the floor plan (qualitative).

What job/profession most benefits from this method? The methods of rhetorical criticism teach one to think critically about common assumptions. They also teach one to build a strong argument based on research collected from multiple sources to assist in the in-depth analysis of verbal or visual messages. These are skills that will assist anyone who wants to learn to be an informed consumer or contributor to organizations. The professions of speechwriter; teacher in public speaking, argumentation, debate, or law; public relations campaign creator; marketing planner; public policy or non-profit advocate benefit from such skills.

In sum, rhetoric is the conscious use of symbolic means to influence a social reality at a particular place, in a particular time, and to a particular audience. Symbolic means can include verbal as well as visual means. Critical rhetoricians conduct a close analysis of such rhetorical efforts to make the tools of influence visible and to help others understand the power of such tools.

Creative Methods

As noted previously, this textbook does not include a separate in-depth chapter on the creative method, in part because this method often relies on methods already included in the book, such as qualitative and critical/rhetorical. We include it in this chapter to recognize it is a part of the Communication Studies discipline. What types of research questions can this method answer? Like critical/rhetorical studies, creative work does not generally begin with a specific research question. To begin with a specific question would be to unnecessarily limit the exploration. Instead, the researcher/artist needs to be open to discovery. Thus, creative scholarship can address questions that come from gut reactions such as,

  • Whoa, isn't that interesting?
  • I wonder why?
  • Why did this make me feel and act this way?

Creative scholarship in communication studies includes such fields as performance studies and filmmaking, and they are both methods of knowledge creation. For example, creative work can be a way to share research done with another method (i.e., qualitative ethnography or interviews). Because scholars often discover knowledge in the process of creative work, creative methods are also a mechanism of knowledge creation and data collection. The visual presentation allows the audience to interpret it, and perhaps talk back to the creator, thereby influencing how the meaning of the project will evolve. In addition, performances and films themselves can be a subject of study. One can analyze a play, documentary, or performance art.

Performance Studies adds a unique dimension to the knowledge continuum in that the enactment of a story creates a new experience each time for the performers as well as for the audience. The actors are required to engage the material in a very physical, rather than only a cerebral, way. Performance studies scholar Elysse Pineau explains the relationship between performance and creation of knowledge: "We explore . . . through the act of performance. That means using embodied rehearsal as a method of discovery and aesthetic performance as a means of communicating what we've learned" (as cited in Stucky, 2006, p. 265). A performance is not only a means to convey a message, but it inspires the message.

Performance Studies and filmmaking methods are useful when there is no single answer to a question. The author of a performance and the actors may take a creative turn when the data collected is really poetic, when it gets at the basic question of what it means to be human, to be vulnerable, and to be an individual. The question Performance Studies and film audiences need to answer is: what does organizing, analyzing and presenting the data in this particular way add to the understanding of it. For example, would giving the people whom you interviewed the chance to perform their stories in public affect the power of the data?

What counts as data? Data can be gathered for the purpose of the project (e.g., qualitative ethnography can be translated into a play, interviews translated into a documentary); it can be found because it preexists the project (a novel); or it can be created for the project (autoethnography). The data is subject to constant changes because there is a feedback loop: the creative work generates audience response, the researcher analyzes the audience response, reworks the creative work – sometimes finds the data in the performance, and so it goes.

What are the limits of this method? Even if researchers use performance studies for appropriate goals, what are inherent limitations of the method? Performance Studies is not suited to fixing data for all of eternity. Live performance is fleeting and ephemeral. Its value is in the here and now. Creative work (particularly performed creative work) is not good at preserving findings. Because performances evolve and change, they are always a work in progress, not a final product. A written script cannot capture all that is at play. Documentaries are better at fixing data, but even they are of a moment. Audiences need to remember that even documentaries are not objective truths, but a filmmaker's interpretation of events and issues.

What are the benefits of this method? What does it get at that other methods cannot? Performance Studies and filmmaking are best used when the data would die if it was not collected at the moment. Creative projects such as filmmaking and performances are best when the deepest and most intimate look at an experience, a moment, a person is necessary. Scholars Barone and Eisner (2012) claim, "Art based research represents an effort to explore the potentialities of an approach to representation that is rooted in aesthetic considerations and that, when it is at its best, culminates in the creation of something close to a work of art" (p. 1).

Creative scholarship can be used to explore findings from previous research methods, and in the process generate new findings. A benefit of creative work is that it allows one to double check the findings. Do they ring human? Do they ring true to those interviewed? It may be the biggest finding is not presented in the creative work, but is discovered as a result of its performance, and then is presented in a different version, such as a journal article. A Performance Studies colleague, Karen S. Mitchell (1996) offers a good example of this evolution of knowledge. She conducted a qualitative ethnography for over a year by joining a local romance readers' book group, attending meetings and reading the books circulated through the club. The ethnography included qualitative interviews with other members. From these experiences, Mitchell scripted a play folding the story of one epic romance novel into the stories of the women's lives from the club. The performances and audience reactions to it (including some book club members) caused Mitchell to think further about what she had learned and the power of the performance. In addition to scripting and directing a play, she was compelled to write about the whole process in a research article in the Journal of Theatre Topics (1996).

Creative work, performance and documentary are methods of investigation. Performance in particular allows the performers to step outside of themselves, to become observers of themselves. When done right, creative scholarship enables one to learn. Mitchell explains, "Through rehearsal, you embody; through embodiment, you learn; through performance, you share what you've learned" (Mitchell, personal communication, March 3, 2010).

Creative scholarship is useful in attempting to capture or portray the complexities of individual or group identities that would be flat and one-dimensional on paper. As a method of delivery, the creative visual presentation rather than paper presentation makes the information more accessible to audiences than might be true of an academic journal article. Creative work is multi-modal, using bodies, voices, movements, images, emotions, and memories to enhance the presentation of information. Film, photography, live performance and other arts make ideas come alive. Art based research can raise important questions, generate conversation, and provide a social service when other means of problem solving are ineffective (Barone & Eisner, 2012).

What job/profession most benefits from this method? Creative methods teach one to pay attention to detail and to empathize with human experience. They teach an appreciation of aesthetic ways of knowing and creativity. These are valuable qualities for a number of professions and jobs, such as community organizers, documentary filmmakers, videographers, social welfare leaders, tourism, cultural curators with museums or folklife festivals, community educators (e.g., sex educator, violence prevention, health), and oral history project managers. The limit of the jobs is the limit of one's imagination and ability to advocate for oneself and the group one represents.

In sum, creative scholarship in Communication Studies can be used to convey information and/or to create knowledge through a visual and oral experiential method. In this case, information is not limited to dry description, but the intent is to embrace participants through multiple senses of knowing.


The authors' intent in this chapter was to provide a framework to compare basic characteristics of the variety of research methods taught in the field of Communication Studies. This comparison should help students understand how the diverse methods are distinct from each other before being immersed in the specifics of conducting research in, and reading the results of, each method. It should also help students to understand the methods share some commonalities as they are able to locate the diverse methods on a continuum from scientific to humanistic contributions for knowledge construction. And, most importantly, it should illustrate that regardless of method, all knowledge construction involves some form of data collection and analysis.


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