Skip main navigation

Principle 1: Valuing other disciplines

What it is the value of qualitative and quantitative research? In this article, the BREcCIA project team share their experience from the field.

At the core of the first BRECcIA’s first principle, valuing disciplinary methods, is an openness to different ways of seeing and thinking that expands the nature of inquiry—the ways in which we question, hypothesise, explore, and discover.

Key to building a fruitful and collaborative multi-disciplinary research group is a basic understanding of the role and value of qualitative and quantitative research in the natural sciences and social sciences. This includes the ways in which different disciplines can enrich each other as a multi-disciplinary research team works towards its research objectives.

No singular discipline or methodology is sufficient to address global challenges. The power of a multi-disciplinary research team resides in researchers with varying expertise leveraging their disciplinary knowledge and methods to investigate and offer possible solutions to complex issues. Often, the effect of multi-disciplinary work is that it alters the way in which researchers think, not only about the process of research but also about the nature of knowledge and the relation between systems.

Below, you will review the definition, role, and value of qualitative and quantitative research. This is followed by three questions that will help a new multi-disciplinary researcher conceptualise how to present and conceive of disciplinary-specific research in the context of a multi-disciplinary team.

Definitions of qualitative and quantitative research

Qualitative Quantitative
Qualitative research focuses on how people think about and understand the world around them, including the environment. It typically uses interpretive methods to forefront the complexities of human thought and behaviour. Quantitative research stresses objective methods to describe, test, and measure phenomena. It aims to produce quantifiable data, including about the social world, that can be communicated through statistics.

The data and evidence quantitative researchers engage with is numerical in form, gathered through instruments of measurement. The data and evidence qualitative researchers engage with is narrative in form, gathered from interacting with human subjects, their experiences, and their histories through methods such as surveys, interviews, ethnographic fieldwork based on participant observation, and narrative analysis.

Two researchers take part in fieldwork, examining farmland in Keyna © University of Southampton

Two researchers take part in fieldwork, examining farmland in Keyna © University of Southampton

Objectivity is the goal of both the natural and social sciences. While both qualitative and quantitative research requires data analysis and interpretation by a researcher, methods and results are made reliable through a variety of best practices employed to ensure that methods are robust, interpretation informed, and that a researcher’s personal bias does not affect the research process. A social scientist, for example, will ensure that there are enough respondents in a survey pool so that patterns in responses are not skewed and, as with all research, a discussion of data and conclusions drawn will undergo a rigorous peer review process before publishing to ensure their validity.

Both qualitative and quantitative researchers therefore share the goals of objectivity and truth in their dedication to observation and forms of measurement and testing, though these forms might not look the same. This can serve as the point of departure for a multi-disciplinary team’s initial conversations on research design and implementation as well as the later stages of analysis, where qualitative and quantitative data can be triangulated to determine next steps in the research process or reach a conclusion.

The role of qualitative and quantitative research

Qualitative Quantitative
To develop an interpretation of human thought and behaviour in a social context to understand why and how humans do things, from establishing kinship networks to voting. To generate quantifiable and generalisable data that will provide greater knowledge and understanding of a given phenomenon and explain relationships between variables.

Both qualitative and quantitative research works to understand and explain phenomena, their components, their origin, and consequences. In the context of global challenges, this shared goal can result in suggestions for change at local and national scales.

In a multi-disciplinary research scenario, the role of qualitative and quantitative data is to explain aspects of the world around us and deepen the context of data to develop a more multi-faceted and rich picture of a research issue. For example, in a BRECcIA research project, Frank Musa, a Research Fellow at the University of Malawi, led a research team that highlighted how community climate resilience can result when natural resource management and land use is informed by gender studies and marriage traditions. A summary of the research findings is included below.

A BREcCIA research story: Phalombe, gender and land

In the Phalombe district of Malawi, fishing is a source of food that complements agricultural yields and supplements livelihood income during lean periods and when crops are affected by drought or flood. Additionally, gender norms surrounding livelihoods designate fishing as a predominantly male activity, while agriculture is primarily overseen by women. One reason for the divide in livelihood is that, under local uxorilocal marriage arrangements, men cannot be landowners.

Uxorilocal marriages describe when a couple lives with or near the wife’s kin after marriage, many times on family land. If land is granted to the couple, land use and ownership rights are accorded to the wife, while the husband is only accorded land use rights. Agricultural production is therefore seen as women’s work.
Recent climate change impacts, including stormy rainfall and riverine floods, have affected agricultural production in Phalombe, leaving households vulnerable. While villages have articulated the need for climate resilience strategies to minimise food insecurity and livelihood vulnerability, the research team found that men’s lack of land ownership rights affects their commitment to long-term investments in household and community resilience; they prefer to focus on immediate or short-term income generating activities, such as fishing, rather than dedicate themselves to climate change adaptation endeavours, some of which would increase the sustainable management of local agriculture.
In one village, a meeting to repair a dyke that would minimise flooding was largely attended by women. In this specific case, the absence of men resulted in a shortage of labor, meaning that the community could not build the dyke as quickly and that its durability might have been affected. The research team concluded by suggesting that in communities in which traditional land allocation deters climate adaptation efforts, married couples might buy land, if possible, to enable joint land ownership. This would provide the wife and the husband with a sense of ownership that would encourage sustainable and long-term investment in reducing household and community climate vulnerability.
In this study, qualitative data on marriage customs and their consequences and quantitative data on climate vulnerabilities and agricultural production build a picture of how ecological and social dynamics can inform each other to create opportunities to develop climate-resilient communities. The role of qualitative and quantitative research in multi-disciplinary projects is therefore to clarify the context of data and challenges and to offer solutions.

The value of qualitative and quantitative research

Qualitative Quantitative
The value of qualitative data is that it explores the complexity of human behaviour and gives voice to lived experiences while allowing researchers to gain insight into these experiences to generate a deeper understanding of human sociocultural behaviour. The value of quantitative data is in the clear description that numerical values provide, which can help explain and compartmentalise complex processes as well as compare results between data sets.
When taken together, the value of qualitative and quantitative research is found in the insight they offer into the relationships between society and the natural world that might otherwise go unnoticed. As a result, multi-disciplinary research opens new pathways for imagining and constructing solutions tailored to the geographical context.
Tell us your thoughts and reflections after reading this step.
© University of Southampton
This article is from the free online

How to Address Global Challenges Through Multidisciplinary Research

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now