I hope you are all doing well. This week we are moving into Chapter Five of our text. I think this is a very important chapter, and I think you will enjoy it. The thing I especially like about this chapter is the way Kumar describes the variable and shows how the variable is used in both qualitative and quantitative research.
In addition to chapter 5 and the topic of the variable, I would also like to share with you two short chapters on qualitative research. Qualitative research is something that I presume many of you will do as your graduate research thesis or project. And while Dr. Kumar does do a reasonably good job on defining and describing qualitative research, I would like to supplement what the author provides. So I will provide some reading here on qualitative research.
But before we move into chapter 5, I would like to share with you a short video that I have found regarding writing the literature review. Given that the literature review is something we develop throughout much of our research, I think this short supplemental video might be helpful as you continue to develop your own literature review. This provides a bit more information than what we viewed in the previous video on writing the literature review.
Writing the Literature Review
Also from the University of Melbourne, I found another short video clip regarding developing a research question. This might act as a nice review as you develop your own research question.
Developing a research question
Now on to chapter 5: identifying variables.
It might seem a bit strange to devote so much time to variables. We have encountered variables for so many years in our secondary school math and science that the ‘variable’ seems to have a familiarity about it. Why, one might ask, spend so much time talking about the ‘variable.’ However, that familiarity might actually prevent us from recognizing just how important it is in creating, performing, and understanding our research. It is easy to lose sight of the nuances of variables, and ways to think about variables. In many research text books, the ‘variable’ is sometimes glossed over, as if we should already understanding what it is. And yet, I have heard students in their doctoral programs struggling with variables, saying they thought they understood variables, and yet for some reason found them confusing when having to use them. Another one of the reasons I like this textbook is the way Dr. Kumar treats variables. So many of the research textbook I have looked through pass over variables as if we should already have a very good understanding of them.
This week, in Chapter 5 Identifying Variables, we allow ourselves to not only develop a familiarity with variables, but understand them deeply and meaningfully in the context of our own research.
I will mention a few things that stuck out to me as I read through the chapter. Hopefully this will act as a pre-view, or re-view for you before, or after, you read the chapter.
Operationalization — how your concept will be measured
I appreciate the way Dr. Kumar talks about concepts and the way they need to be operationalized in behavioural terms. And, further, hypotheses need to be constructed and their outcome communicated in a specific manner.
The author points out that In a research study it is important that the concepts used should be operationalised in measurable terms so that the extent of variation in respondents’ understanding is reduced if not eliminated.
How does one operationalize a concept?
We need to identify a set of criteria, or indicators, reflective of the concept. Kumar uses the example of wealth:
Some concepts, such as ‘rich’ in terms of wealth, can easily be converted into indicators and then variables. For example, to decide objectively if a person is rich, one first needs to decide upon the indicators of wealth.
It is difficult to reduce the variability and ‘fine-tune’ the research problem if we have not clearly and carefully developed our variables.
Another thing I like about Kumar’s discussion on variables is the discussion on preferences and personal experiences. We make judgments on things we experience based on our preferences, feelings, or past experiences. These things (or concepts) we are judging vary. We already have our own particular criteria. However, to communicate our preferences with others, or to compare contexts in such a way that we would want to convince others of our judgements, or to talk about the extent to which these things we are talking about vary, it is helpful, or even necessary, to measure them in some way. But how?
Well that depends on what we are measuring. No it is at this point that I feel we lose a bit of the nuance of qualitative research and Kumar’s discussion. Kumar does not speak in much depth to the way that qualitative research is largely a way that we construct our own reality. It is because of this that I includes some supplemental material on qualitative research at the end of this lecture. Be that as it may, Kumar’s discussion is easy to follow and clearly valuable for us as we develop our research skills.
Kumar continues: “An image, perception or concept that is capable of measurement — hence capable of taking on different values — is called a variable.”
If we are going to measure concepts (such as heights, feelings, judgements) it is important that we have the appropriate measuring scale (or way of classifying what we are measuring. Four commonly used scales are nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio.
It is important that we can distinguish between the concepts we are talking about and that which we are measuring (the variable). As Kumar says: Concepts are mental images or perceptions and therefore their meanings vary markedly from individual to individual, whereas variables are measurable with varying degrees of accuracy depending on the measurement scale used.
A concept cannot be measured. While they do exist and we do talk about them (like the extent to which we enjoyed a meal) these concepts are too subjective in terms of how we would want to use them in our research. So what do we do? We convert our concepts into measurable variables.
You can see in Table 5.1 a number of concepts and a number of variables. And, it is easy to see how the concepts are rather subjective experiences and the variables are measurable (by either our ruler or placing in our basket (as in the case of religion).
From here Kumar shows us how to convert our concepts into variables. From my experience working with students, understanding this is so helpful. It is so easy to jump into qualitative or quantitative research without having adequately converted concepts into variables. Once concepts are converted into variables, it becomes much easy to understand how we might observe, manipulate, or interpret the variables we have decided to work with.
Kumar’s Table 5.2 provides a nice way of showing the conversion concepts to variables and then how we might create decision level working definitions from the variables we have.
From here Kumar helps us distinguish between different types of variables from different relevant view points. What follows seems to be quite straight forward.
Perhaps something to emphasize, at least to my way of thinking, is the importance placed on measurement. Once again, this gives qualitative research a bit of a positivistic, or qualitative feel. You might feel the same as you contrast Kumar’s writing here with the Chapter below on What is Qualitative Research. It is, for me, the importance placed on ‘measurement’ — making measurement central to any enquiry — that gives Kumar’s descriptions and explanations of qualitative research a quantitative feel. Perhaps you will sense the same thing when you read Chapter One of the included resource.
According to Kumar:
“Measurement is central to any enquiry. In addition to the ideology and philosophy that underpin each mode of enquiry, the most significant difference between qualitative and quantitative research studies is in the types of measurement used in collecting information from the respondents. Qualitative research mostly uses descriptive statements to seek answers to the research questions, whereas in quantitative research these answers are usually sought on one of the measurement scales (nominal, ordinal, interval or ratio). If a piece of information is not collected using one of the scales at the time of data collection, it is transformed into variables by using these measurement scales at the time of analysis. Measurement on these scales could be either in the form of qualitative categories or through a precise unit of measurement. Those scales which have a unit of measurement (interval and ratio) “are considered to be more refined, objective and accurate. On the other hand, nominal and ordinal scales are considered subjective and hence not as accurate as they do not have a unit of measurement per se. The greater the refinement in the unit of measurement of a variable, the greater the confidence placed in the findings by others, other things being equal. One of the main differences between the physical and the social sciences is the units of measurement used and the degree of importance attached to them. In the physical sciences measurements have to be absolutely accurate and precise, whereas in the social sciences they may vary from the very subjective to the very quantifiable. Within the social sciences the emphasis on precision in measurement varies markedly from one discipline to another. An anthropologist normally uses very ‘subjective’ units of measurement, whereas an economist or an epidemiologist emphasises ‘objective’ measurement.”
I would like to share with you chapters 1 and 2 of the book qualitative research: a guide to design and implementation. Should you decide to do qualitative research for your masters thesis or project you might find this book of value. You have access to the entire book from our library’s e-book central.
The point that I would like to emphasize here, that I mentioned briefly earlier, is the differing perspectives on what is deemed to be reality.
In chapter 1 the authors bring out something very important that Kumar seems to gloss over. In the section philosophical perspectives I think you will find this to be vaulable in the way you contrast qualitative and quantitative research. Here are the authors point out the different perspectives on reality that both quantitative and qualitative research take. Here the authors write:
First, it is helpful to philosophically position qualitative research among other forms of research. Such a positioning entails what one believes about the nature of reality (also called ontology) and the nature of knowledge (epistemology). A positive orientation assumes that reality exists out there and that it is observable, stable, and measurable. Knowledge gained through the study of this reality has been labeled scientific. . . . Interpretive research, which is the most common type of qualitative research, assumes that reality is socially constructed; that is, there is no single, observable reality. Rather, there are multiple realities, or interpretations, of a single event. Researchers do not find knowledge; they construct it.
I hope you found what I have provided here to be a reasonable amount of reading. I completely understand that some ideas can be quite difficult to become comfortable with. If you are able to continue to incorporate the Feynman technique of imagining that you are teaching these ideas to a novice, I am sure you will force yourself to slow down, reflect, and internalize the ideas presented. I hope so.
And I do hope that you are feeling more and more confident in your understanding of research as we continue to move through this process.
I won’t ask any questions today. Next day, I will be posing some questions that help us to continue to make distinctions between the different aspects of research.
Until next time, have a great week!