Qualitative and quantitative research in cross-cultural psychology.
Qualitative research is dominant in cross-cultural anthropology. Social scientists trained in this tradition often have contempt for the research of quantitative psychologists feeling that they distort social reality and glimpse only small portions of relevant information in a culture. The attempt to build psychology up as a quantitative science probably derived from the widespread disbelief and reaction to speculative psychological analysis found in psychoanalysis and other subjective approaches. Behaviorism that followed however seemed unsatisfactory because it did not explain much of what went on subjectively, and largely established relationships between stimuli and responses. In reaction to these concerns subjective methods came into play in cultural psychology. Qualitative methods are employed more in studies of singular cultures whereas quantitative methods are used more in the comparative approaches of cross-cultural psychology. However, even in comparative approaches culturally specific qualities are not easily understood by using quantitative methods. It seems desirable to use both approaches to gradually understand that which is similar between cultures, and also that which is specific to each society.
Qualitative research emphasizes that cultural reality is socially constructed and to understand that reality requires a relationship between researcher and the culture studied (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). Specifically the relationship in question is often between the researcher and trusted informants that are conversant with cultural values and normative behavior. From the qualitative perspective the research objective is to gradually build a complete holistic picture of the culture that provides the foundation for psychological regularities (Hwang, 2012). This objective requires that research is more broadly conducted in the natural environment, and cannot consist of paper and pencil instruments.
Qualitative methods in psychology include unstructured interviews where the researcher seeks to understand some general aspect of culture by starting conversations on topics of interest allowing the informant to respond in an open fashion and without structured constraints. Observations in the natural setting is an alternative approach that allow the coding of the observed behavior related to specific events like marriage ceremonies or the birth of a child. However, it should be stressed that spontaneous observation is of little utility. Although observation from a qualitative perspective occurs in the natural environment, the behavior of interest should focus on identifiable behaviors that can be measured at least by frequency of occurrence in order to evaluate its significance and salience. Observation requires a great deal of patience as it follows no specific time rule, and requires a willingness by the culturally identified individuals to tolerate being watched. However, the technique is most effective when the researcher becomes a participant observer, and gets included in the society observed. Interviews can also be recorded and subsequently coded for frequency of responses. When the culture has written traditions it is also possible to evaluate texts. The insight that the researcher possesses about the culture is of great importance in qualitative research, and if not present creates obvious validity problems. Theory development using qualitative research is an inductive process where the researcher gradually builds abstractions based on multiple sources (Silverman, 1993; Charmaz, 1995).
Content analysis is another qualitative approach. Typically the investigator gathers relevant documents and summarizes the manifest and latent content of the writing. A variety of written or performed material can prove useful including taped conversations, media programs, newspaper articles and books. The initial task of the researcher after studying the material is to establish coding categories. For example if hostility is of interest the researcher may establish what words are associated with the concept and then count the frequency in a given communication. Next the investigator tries to interpret what the frequencies mean in the cultural context. The presence or the frequency of reference to the issue can provide important information about a cultural context that later can be investigated by means of hypothesis testing studies. However, there are situations when for legal or moral reasons subjects do not want to provide written material in which case the interview may be a more useful methodological strategy (Shirav & Sobel, 2006).
From the perspective of qualitative research quantitative results are often seen as distortions of the underlying reality. However, there is no reason why both approaches cannot be employed as they are not antagonistic, but rather complementary. Qualitative research can be used in the initial exploratory stages to obtain familiarity with the context or explore for key determinants. Quantitative methods can build on this initial conceptual development and be used for comparative studies. The argument by qualitative researchers is that the complexity of cultural behavior can never be fully understood using quantitative means, but rather by first understanding the important contextual variables. In qualitative research the scientist seeks to understand the values of a culture not from a priori conceptions as seen from the outside, but in the terms of the conceptions existing in the culture. An obvious danger of quantitative research is that the constructs examined are developed from the framework of the culture of the researcher. The very objects of study and methods used in such comparative approaches can create bias in the data and interpretations.
The differences between qualitative and quantitative approaches are related to the historical divisions between emic and etic conceptions of research. From the emic approach research should only be conducted within a culture and researchers examine one culture at a time. The structural relationships discovered in the process and any criteria used to evaluate findings are developed from these internal characteristics. On the other hand the etic approach seeks to understand cultural behavior from outside the cultural system studied and engages in comparative studies. In etic research the methodological structure employed is developed by the researcher, and evaluative criteria are based on the assumption of the universality of psychological phenomenon (Berry, 1969).
In practice both methods are employed in cross-cultural psychology. Segall, Dasen, Berry and Poortinga (1999) suggested that researchers start with an "imposed etic" by applying constructs developed outside the culture. As knowledge develops from the culturally comparative studies the researcher becomes more sensitive to the similarities with other cultures and also the culturally specific. Eventually, researchers may discover that the traits examined have universal features, and that other aspects are culture specific (Berry, 1969).
During this writer’s work with the Aborigines in Australia a combination of these methods were used to understand fringe dwellers behavior, attitudes of whites toward Aborigines, discrimination, and alcohol related behaviors (Larsen, 1977, 1978, 1981). These studies were based first on subjective qualitative approaches, and then followed by more quantitative analysis. For example, to understand the domain of white attitudes toward aborigines the researcher first informally engaged patrons in conversation about Aborigines in a variety of natural settings like hotels and bars to collect statements that could represent the attitude universe. These were then edited and subsequently used in unidimensional scaling approaches.