A number of poverty researchers have argued that only quantitative studies should be used to inform policy interventions to tackle poverty. How far do you agree with this view? You answer should include a discussion of issues related to epistemology and ontology as well as validity, reliability and generalisability.

I. Introduction

This essay discusses whether or, not quantitative method should alone be used to inform policy intervention to tackle poverty. While doing so the issues of ontology, epistemology, validity, reliability and generalisability will be examined within two of the most important research approaches, i.e., quantitative and qualitative, to identify their merits and shortcomings. The essay is therefore, organised as follows: Section II discusses the terms, ontology and epistemology and the research methods at hand, and a focus on concept of poverty studies. Section III critically examines the issues of validity, reliability and generalisability in research approaches. Section IV focuses on quantitative and qualitative studies of poverty with an attempt to identify the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. Finally, the section V sums up the discussion with an argument that quantitative studies should not be considered as the only method to inform policy interventions to tackle poverty. Therefore, this essay proposes the usage of both quantitative and qualitative research methods to inform policy intervention to tackle poverty.  

II. a. Ontology and Epistemology

Prior to conducting a research and/or beginning any study, Olson advice that ‘you must stop and think about how you came to be interested in this topic of study? When did it grab your interest?' e.g., who has influenced your interests? Why this topic is an important one? These questions underscore an important principle in researches and it brings the researcher to a particular standpoint in any study, which a person wants to conduct. ‘A person's standpoint is neither right nor wrong; it must be identified and acknowledged... it influences all aspects of our studies, beginning with the development of the research question' (Olson, 2011, p. 13). The standpoint associated with research design is rooted in the assumptions in each design, which has related to ontological view and epistemological stand of the researcher.

Before going any further, it is important to understand what is meant by ontology and epistemology and how are they going to influence the outcome of a research. According to Grix (2002, p. 175), ontology can be considered as ‘what is out there to know about it' and epistemology refers to ‘what and how can we know about it'. For any research approach, the interrelationship between ontology, epistemology and methodology is very critical and a researcher should be clear about the linkage between these important concepts. Grix (2002, p. 177) states that all researches start with an understanding of ontology, followed by epistemology and methodology. There is a logical continuity between these concepts and as such, one systematically follows the other. Ontology as such comes first for; it is the assumptions made about the nature of social reality. Briefly speaking, ontology is concerned with ‘what we believe constitute social reality'. Grix (2002, p. 177) states that epistemology deals with the theory of knowledge. It is a core branch of philosophy and is concerned with ‘claims about how what is assumed to exist can be known' (Blaikie, 2000, cited in Grix, 2002, p. 177). The term epistemology is derived from the ‘Greek words of episteme (knowledge) and logos (reason) and focuses on the knowledge-gathering process and is concerned with developing new models or theories that are better than competing models and theories' (2002, p. 177).

In the above paragraph, definitions of ontology and epistemology has been provided and so far it is understood that a researcher's ontological position effects his/her epistemological stand which in turn influences his/her choice of methodology. Considering the two well-known approaches i.e., quantitative and qualitative, it is important to know the fundamental differences between the both which would later guide us to adopt any or both of them for a poverty research. Onwuegbuzie & Leech (2005, p. 377) states that the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research exists, according to the purists, on ontological and epistemological grounds added with a researcher's ‘axiology, rhethoric, logic, generalization and causal linkages'. To add more to the above statement, Bryman (1993, p. 3) argues that the discussion on ‘quantitative research' and ‘qualitative research' denotes divergent assumption about the nature and purposes of research in the social sciences. Furthermore Babbie (2007, p. 26) states that the distinction between quantitative and qualitative researches is essentially ‘the numerical and non-numerical data', produced by the research, which enables a researcher to measure the ‘maturity' or ‘calculate an average'. Morgan and Smircich say (1980, p. 493) that different assumption regarding epistemology and reality pose interesting problmes of epistemology. The different world views they reflect imply different grounds for knowledge about the social world. They argue that as we pass from the assumption to assumption along the subjective-objective contimuum, the nature of what constitute adequate knowledge changes.

II. b. Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches

The research methodology involves presenting rules of procedure about matters such as the collection of data and their analysis, and this rule is impersonal, it is applied equally to all research works (Perakyla & Billing, 2004, p. 13). Carter and Little (2007, p. 1318) define the term ‘methodology' by referring to formal theories and school of thoughts, and over decades, methodologists have articulated a number of distinct strategies for approaching qualitative and quantitative research. Bouma (2000, pp. 170-3) points on qualitative research, according to him qualitative research tends for a different goals basically it provides an impression; to tell you what kinds or types of ‘something' there are; to tell what it is like to be, do or think something. Specifically qualitative researchers exercise great discipline in order to find out ‘What is going on here?' or from the perspective of those who are in the situation being researched. For example, study of poverty in a country, to measure poverty. Here qualitative method aims to learn ‘what is happening in a situation in order to make possible the subsequent use of quantitative method, for instance you may want to know, how many or what proportion of users of a particular service are satisfied with service delivery'. He supports both methods. However, ‘his well-executed qualitative research is often essential preparation for worthwhile quantitative research and vice versa'. This does not mean that qualitative research should be regarded as secondary to quantitative research. The relationship between both methods are symbiotic, in quantitative research, the person knows what is going on compare to qualitative method (Bouma, 2000, p. 174).

On other hand, Bryman (2008, pp. 370-3) analysed the main steps of qualitative research, such as general research question, selection of relevant site, collection of relevant data, and interpretation of data, conceptual and theoretical work and writing up findings or conclusion. He believes that most qualitative researchers, developing measures of concepts will not be a significant consideration, but concepts are very much part of the landscape in qualitative research. Silverman, say that this method gives good advantage that the qualitative researcher will get rich descriptions of everyday practice that enables them to understand this method as well as to make evaluative judgements about their own practices and experiment with the adoption of new approaches described in research findings. It has argued that qualitative research methods allow professional researcher to measure their knowledge (Silverman, 2008, p. 101). Therefore, it is important to understand discussion on quantitative approach. White a poverty analyst, states that quantitative research provides more ‘rigor' techniques. Moreover, it is in favour of economists, and this formulate policy advice with respect to some observations, such as use of common quantitative techniques in research disciplines, applying the real basis for ‘rigor' as proper application of techniques to prevent misleading at conclusion stage, and finally using appropriate settings, when combining these two research outcomes (White, 2002, p. 512).

In other words, Golafshani (2003, p. 598) describes that quantitative research generally supported by ‘the positivist or scientific paradigm' lead us to regard the world as made up of observable, measurable facts.  It is worth to understand both approaches and, White states that the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research, is the ‘oppositions' point of view between economist and social scientists, for instance quantitative approach provides a harder data than qualitative approach (2002, p. 511). Further rule intervene policy analysis upon data gathering and data descriptions.  In the shadow of this discussion, this essay tries to focus on the concept of poverty and its cause in the next section.

III. Concept of Poverty

Njeru, a poverty analyst, defines poverty using three categories i.e., absolute, relative and subjective poverty. According to him:

[absolute poverty] refers to subsistence poverty, based on assessment of minimum subsistence requirements, involving a judgment on basic human needs and measure in terms of resources... includ[ing] quality and quantity of food, clothing and shelter...[which] are then priced and the total figure or price constitute the poverty line. Those with incomes below the poverty line are the poor...relative poverty is based on judgments of members of particular societies, regarding what they see as reasonably acceptable standards of living and styles of livelihoods... subjective poverty has to do with whether or not individuals or groups actually feel poor. This is because those defined as poor by the standards of the day will probably have low self-esteem, hence see themselves as poor. (Njeru, 2004, pp. 2-5).

There are certainly criticisms related to each of these individual definitions considering the absolute, relative and subjective notions of poverty. For instance Gomm (2009, p. 252) states the absolute international definition of poverty that emphasises on household incomes based on 1 US Dollar per day is quite difficult to be adopted for the real value of 1 US Dollar varies widely in different countries. Townsend, has provided various definition for poverty and his argument for the term poverty is more objective, he highlights that ‘individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack with resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and the living conditions'. According to him this consequences produce countless meaning for example, research studies might find more poverty, matched with this definition,  but certainly some of the current assumptions that are made in comparing and constructing the more developed with the less developed societies, further any definition also has implication for policy which should be recognised at the outset. However, every society has ways to choose for identifying and trying to deal with their problems (Townsend, 1979, p. 31).

So far, ontology, epistemology, methodology (quantitative and qualitative approaches) and the concept of poverty have been examined in the previous paragraphs. However, in order to be able to argue for any methodology to be used for poverty research it is critical to understand the important elements of research approaches that are validity, reliability and generalisability. As such, the following heading will focus on these concepts and its relation with the two important research methodologies and its effect on poverty research.

IV. Validity, reliability and generalisability

To assess a research work reasonably, it is necessary to focus on the issues of validity, reliability and generalisability. Babbie, defines these terms as ‘quality of measurements' and according to him; validity is concerned with measurements and actual measure rather than something else, and reliability is a matter of dependability, ‘if you made the same measurement again and again, would get the same result? Let's see how field research stack up in these respects (2007, p. 307).

Babbie (2007, p. 141) argues that reliability is the quality of measurement of methods, suggesting that the same data would have been collected each time in repeated observations of the same phenomenon. In the context of a survey ‘question' that did you interview any poor family this week?' May have higher reliability than question ‘about how many times you did interview poor people?'  Validity is describing a measure that accurately reflects the concept it is intended to measure.

Another example, ‘your IQ would seem a more valid measure of your intelligence that would the number of hours you spend in the library. Though the ultimate validity of a measure can never be proven, we may agree to its relative validity on the basis of face validity, criterion validity, content validity, construct validity, internal validation, and external validation however, this must not be confused with reliability' (Babbie, 2007, p. 143). Generalisability is another key concept in research methodology and it depends closely on type of conversation in research studies, and according to Perakyla (2004, p. 329)  generalisability describes the extent to which research findings can be applied to settings other than that in which they were originally tested. In other words a research findings may be entirely valid in one setting but not in another. For example, a small survey of your local population may be easier to control - you can minimize response and completion rates thus ensure the study is valid, but it may be difficult to generalize findings elsewhere. Surveying a larger population may improve generalisability, however if in doing so you fail to achieve adequate response rates the validity of the study will be compromised. However these terms are different in quantitative approach.

Golafshani (2003, p. 597) believes that ‘the use of reliability and validity are common in quantitative research' for instance, quantitative researchers who use logical positivism employ experimental methods and quantitative measures to test hypothetical generalizations, in other words in explains the social problems. "Charts and graphs illustrate the results of the search, and commentators employ words such as ‘variables' ‘populations' and ‘results' as part of their daily vocabulary it is known as the synonym for quantitative search" (Bodgan and Bilek, 1998 cited in Golafshani, 2003, p.597). Likewise, the consistent accurate representation of total population under study counted as reliability, if a similar methodology is considered during the research and this will be reliable, she states that there are three types of reliability in quantitative research 1) the degree to which a measurement, given repeatedly, remains the same 2) the stability of a measurement over time; and 3) the similarity of measurements within a given time per period (Krik and Miller, 1986 cited in Golafshani, 2003, p.598).

In the above paragraphs, definitions of validity, reliability and generalisability has been provided and to certain level it is clarified to quantitative and qualitative researchers in order to consider the influences of his/her choice in study of poverty research.

V. The research and study of poverty

Mwabu, a poverty analyst, argues that quantitative methods can help us to find answer to a particular question about poverty, in other words it is a single approach to poverty in order to understand some essentials of poverty such as ‘numerical information derived from large scale and representative population samples. Although qualitative data can also be used to supplement the work of poverty measurement, they are not the main focus in this type of poverty analysis. Further even such data are collected; they are often converted into numerical data, amenable to statistical analysis which requires comparative advantage in skill endowments and the types of poverty. (Mwabu, 2004, pp. 2-4).

Both quantitative and qualitative approaches have their individual strengths and weaknesses, for example one of the quests of poverty research is to identify the causes of poverty which both research approaches can help the researchers and policy makers (Mwabu, 2004, p. 4). According to Kimalu ‘lack of human capital has been identified as the main source of poverty in Kenyan communities' (Kimalu cited in Mwabu, 2004, p. 4). Alkire (2007, p. 4) believes that poverty researchers do not explicitly explain the rational for the particular dimensions they do choose, without understanding the basis of their choices, the reader is unable to examine, trust or question the selection with respect to its dimensions. Hence, it creates confusion whether ‘the choices one of convenience, or the researchers making a claim regarding people's value, and on what basis? Alternatively, are they following a convention within the literature? Possibly, she argues that in some research, poor people may not be involved in research consensus or some local elite may hijack the research. Alternatively, a direct beneficiary, cannot necessarily object if he/she disagrees with the way he/she treated as the objects of study (2007, p. 23).

According to Mwabu (2004, p. 4) the poverty research for policy makers and researchers is vital to compare the poverty trends among various social groups of rural and urban populations. For instance, quantitative approach would help to understand income poverty, including an extended analyse of nutrition and health poverty, which provides valuable information about non-income aspect of poverty. Subsequently it helps to analyse qualitative poverty dimensions, such as ill health, malnutrition, and lack of capabilities can successfully identify human capital as the main determinant of poverty status of individuals and communities.  He states further that such dimension enable us to show/introduce the contribution of improving human capital to poverty reduction (Mwabu, 2004, p. 5). Then the complexity of poverty depends on its phenomenon.

Njeru (2004, p. 9) believe that qualitative research enables researcher to gain empathic understanding of social phenomena; facilitates recognition of subjective aspects of human behaviour and experiences, and to develop insights into group's lifestyles and experiences that meaningful, reasonable and normal to those concerned. Kunbar a poverty researcher (2001, p. 2) states that qualitative study of poverty does not provide enough credibility for the policy makers and instead quantitative approach can provide a greater facts to policy makers. However, the policy debate is ongoing between ‘quantitative' and qualitative researchers but according to him, ‘quantitative approach plays dominant roles in policy-making circle (2001, p. 3).

Below study discusses on poverty research in India, where Vijayendra Rao, a poverty analyst, carried out this study in Karnataka, Southern India, focusing on two different issues the ‘backward caste' a community of potters and study of poverty ‘risk and networks' in Delhi (Kunbar et al, 2001, pp 65). He applied quantitative and qualitative approach to analyse the socio-cultural and economic systems in livelihood. After first fieldwork, he came to know more about potter community, by applying in-depth interview with individuals which he was told about ‘domestic violence', by a woman had been severely beaten by her husband. Therefore, she trusted him and disclosed truth by adding this information: ‘our husband beat us all the time and no one helps us and they spend all the family money on alcohol' this states the household behaviour (Kunbar et al, 2001, pp 66). During the fieldwork, he observed a festival, which many families participated in and as a result around 15% of household's budget spent in festival to generate their social status, such dimension, and states ‘real' inequality in the various communities across the research populations.

VI. Conclusion

To conclude, first, the ontological views and epistemological positions of the quantitative approach and qualitative approach are very different. These unique aspects considerably affect each approach's respective understanding of poverty and the way it has researched. The quantitative definition of poverty does not cover a great dimension of the concept, and fairly it draws a certain poverty line for the non-nutritional dimension. With this exclusion of the non-nutritional dimension from poverty, the quantitative approach simply cannot measure what it intended to measure; Altogether, the internal validity of the findings of this approach can be called into research question, especially as a result the utilisation of this findings alone could be misleading when planning policy interventions. However, the macro level analysis of the extreme dimension of poverty by quantitative approach should not be underestimated, as it is certainly useful for a wider generalisability.

Second, the richer definition of poverty that the qualitative approach can offer demonstrates that this method covers wider dimensions of poverty. Further, this approach's attention to contextual details can often aid in producing rigorous and trustworthy findings. Nevertheless, a certain probability for misinterpretation and bias in this method is inevitable, and such errors could powerfully influence the dependency of the findings, as reliability in this method does not matter. Moreover, such qualitative findings relate to a particular situation that may be difficult to generalise the findings for a wider population - this may be a significant concern in planning policy interventions to tackle poverty a community or a region.

Third, Howard White states that both approach its own value in social analysis; no reason can serve as an appropriate argument to give primacy to one over the approach. Different methods are necessary to deal with different challenges, and a combination of techniques will ultimately provide better insight than either one could if used in isolation (2002, p. 519).

Finally, this essay suggests that quantitative studies alone are not sufficient to inform policy interventions to tackle poverty. Overwhelmingly, both quantitative and qualitative studies should be used in planning policy interventions to tackle poverty. Frankly speaking, there seem to be only two appropriate options: either findings from quantitative and qualitative studies should be presented together but as two separate sets of recommendations to policy-makers, or to combine into a mixed approaches in which the qualitative study should be based on quantitative findings. Thus, all studies should be conducted with the final goal to produce constructive recommendations, which can inspire policy interventions in tackling poverty.

Reza Kateb, MSc. Student in public policy

School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol


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Pic: Ali Omed