Mixed-Methods Research


Ryan Deuel

In the halls of the academe, there are rules, very strict rules, in which communities of academic peers, within particular disciplines, enforce and regulate themselves in order to determine which scholarship meets the highest standards and if it will be published and shared.

In the positivist tradition of conducting research, scholars start with a hypothesis. They then test their hypothesis by gathering data from a small sample population, record it, measure it, categorize it, and draw conclusions. This quantitative method, which is frequently used in the natural sciences, allows for discoveries to be made through deductive reasoning, in order to posit objective outcomes, that can be applied to an entire population. 

Qualitative research, meanwhile, tends to be exploratory in nature and focuses more on the human social condition. Data can come in the form of observation, conversation, focus groups, and also from the use of language and images. It is up to the researcher to apply inductive reasoning to existing literature, theory and methodology, and to subjectively construct new meanings and position it within their discipline. 

These two very different approaches to conducting research have led to what some in academia have referred to as the “culture wars” among scholars. However, there is a third way, or a third paradigm, which allows for the blending together of both the quantitative with the qualitative, resulting in what’s known as the mixed-methods approach. By its nature, mixed-method approaches give scholars the opportunity to study complex problems using multiple methods, and it allows for research to cross disciplines.

Example #1: Frog Legs
In the late 1990s, frogs with multiple leg deformities began showing up in agricultural ponds across North America. Many ponds were known to be contaminated with pesticides and herbicides. But, it was not happening everywhere. So, was it the chemicals causing the deformities? Or, something else?

“Mixed-method approaches are used for complex problem solving because there is no single method that answers the question,” said Sara Ashpole, assistant professor of environmental studies who teaches Global Amphibian Decline. “You have to get this massive body of evidence looking from many different angles, and only then can you start piecing it together. We have to go beyond correlation of studies to causation: The body of evidence has to speak on the whole.”

In the example of the frogs, researchers initially conducted field studies using quantitative methods and did find a link between herbicides and pesticides and frog deformities. Their studies were published in Nature, the leading peer-reviewed journal in academia, even though it wasn’t happening everywhere the herbicides were found. Chemical companies began denying it was true.

Then came the mixed-methods approach, which first started by looking at the literature. Field studies were conducted. After that, both highly controlled and highly manipulated laboratory studies took place. Finally, researchers carried out extensive computer modeling that predicted patterns, leading to further field testing to see if the models actually predicted a consistent finding of contamination and deformity in the amphibian populations. Many possible causes were hypothesized and tested; after 15 years of research, significant connections and relationships in the ecosystem emerged.

So, did herbicides cause frog leg deformities?

“Herbicides caused higher levels of algae, which supported higher-level populations of snails, which increased the level of parasites, called a trematode, in these snails,” Ashpole explained. “So, at the right moment in time when a frog is developing its legs, the trematode parasite–which is there because of the snail, which is there because of higher levels of algae, because of higher levels of herbicides–buries itself in the leg-bud and causes the deformity. So, it wasn’t a direct link, but a cascade.”

In order to find out in which ponds this would happen, researchers had to create models to determine when the herbicide treatments were taking place, how quickly it filtered into the wetland, if it would cause a spike in the amount of algae, snails, parasites, etc., and the exact time that the infection occurred. 

“Predictive models told us these are the variables and this is what is likely to occur,” she said. “Once they had that, field biologists could go out and predict when we would have these outbreaks. And that prediction was correct.” 

That’s an example of a mixed-method approach within a discipline. But, what about a mixed-method approach that crosses disciplines? 

Example #2: The Hybrid of Hard Sciences, Language and Graphic Illustration

Retiring Piskor Professor of English Sid Sondergard has been working on a new book of essays entitled Food for Thought: Graphic Essays on Anthropophagy with his St. Lawrence colleagues who come from a variety of academic fields. His aim in creating each of the essays was to employ cross-disciplinary approaches in both qualitative and quantitative methodologies and to combine the results with graphic media representations. 

“Mixing methodologies made it possible to create this series of collaborative articles that were then adapted into scripts so they could be illustrated in comic book style,” Sondergard explained. “It allowed for the creation of scholarly graphic essays.” 

The St. Lawrence professors loosely wrote their essays revolving around the topic of cannibalism, literally and metaphorically, throughout human history. Each essay is illustrated and reads like a graphic narrative, by artists that include St. Lawrence students and alumni, including Shanshan Jin ’17, Eric Miller ’14, Chris Peterson ’05, Eric Russell ’08 and Sangyu Xi ’19. 

Chapters include intriguing topics such as “Being What We Eat: A Modern Proposal for Resource Recycling and Cultural Reassessment,” which, with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Murphy, looks to Jonathan Swift’s satirical “A Modest Proposal” for a model of how to rethink resource use today. 

In “Consuming Anger: Chinese History, Literary Culture, and the Power of the Metaphor,” Sondergard and Associate Professor of Modern Languages Zhenjun Zhang look for cultural explanations behind Zheng Yi’s book, Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China.

Sondergard worked across disciplines with Assistant Professor of Mathematics Natasha Komarov in “The Family that Feasts Together: The Mathematics of Sawney Bean’s Cannibal Enclave.” Komarov created an algorithm that assessed the historical record which credits the family of Scotland’s favorite early modern cannibal with consuming more than 1,000 people, and proved it wrong.

“Working across disciplines,” Sondergard said, “allows us to find answers to problems that we couldn’t have discovered on our own.” For Sondergard, it also results in an innovative delivery mechanism of information for a variety audiences that might not otherwise consume the results of these academic pursuits.

And for Ashpole, the mixed-methods approach naturally fits within the liberal arts pedagogical environment at St. Lawrence. 

“For me, it’s taking a liberal arts approach to complex systems and problem-solving to get students to draw greater links across disciplines. This is a proxy for all sorts of problems,” she said. “Complex problems are not solved by a single individual; they’re solved by interdisciplinarity and out-of-the-box thinking. The sooner the student gets that, the sooner they can figure out where they fit in.” 

Page excerpts top to bottom: "Cellular Anthropophagy: An Anthropomorphic Parable of Prion Misfoldings, Bacterial Intection, Thwarted Utopia and Zombie Conversions," written by Emily Dixon and Sid Sondergard, illustrated by Sangyu Xi '19; "Being What We Eat: A Modern Proposal for Resource Recycling and Cultural Reassessment," written by David Murphy and Sid Sondergard, illustrated by Erik Russell '08; and "The Family That Feasts Together: The Mathematics of Sawney Beane's Cannibal Enclave," written by Natasha Komarov and Sid Sondergard, illustrated by Matt Howarth.