Quantitative vs. Qualitative

Discuss the appropriateness of using quantitative and/or qualitative methods in a study of the role of the pastor in the post-modern Western world.

In order to discuss the appropriateness or otherwise of using either quantitative of qualitative methods in the study of the role of the pastor in the post-modern Western world, it is important to first understand what the two terms mean and how they differ from each other. When an appreciation for both methods is understood an effort can be made to determine their suitability for the specific investigation.

Quantitative Research Methods:

Firstly, quantitative methodology is research done with a view to collecting hard facts; quantifiable data which is useful in demonstrating some truth or rule or law. Underlying any quantitative research is the belief that discreet results will help the researcher to understand some empirical facts.

Creswell comments that quantitative research is often referred to as, “ the traditional, the positivist, the experimental, or the empiricist paradigm.”[1] Each of these alternative names reveals something of the quantitative method.

“The quantitative researcher views reality as ‘objective’, ‘out there’ independent of the researcher.”[2] The quantitative researcher is understood to be objective. The subject is approached as being fundamentally simple and, given the right questions, can be easily explained.

Such an inquiry is value free, that is it can be made without judgment, although a judgment is necessarily made on what questions to ask, variables to measure and so on. Often in quantitative research a conclusion (or hypothesis) has been reached prior to the research being carried out and the research is therefore designed to test or prove the conclusion.

Creswell summarizes the different types of investigation that can be employed in quantitative research into two categories; experiment and surveys.[3] Both reveal the quantifiable data nature of the research and lend themselves easily to analysis using things like graphs and tables.

Qualitative Research Methods:

Secondly, qualitative methodology rests on the presumption that a situation is more complex than the researcher can initially appreciate and that a simple answer cannot be attained a few numbers, rather a more narrative approach is required.

Again, through Creswell’s alternative names, more of the qualitative approach can be understood. It is, “the constructivist approach, or naturalistic, the interpretive approach, or the post-positivist, or postmodern perspective.”[4]

“The qualitative researcher believes that, “the only reality is that constructed by the individuals involved.”[5] The qualitative researcher is understood to be subjective. The subject is at its heart complex and therefore cannot be simply quantified.

Such an inquiry is necessarily value-bound, that is it is vitally important to recognize the assumptions/opinions of the observer in order to understand the conclusions drawn. Usually no conclusion is drawn until information is gathered and processed, that way the researcher can remain as objective as possible when collecting/analysing their information.

Creswell notes how, contrary to quantitative research, “Few writers agree on a precise procedure for data collection, analysis, and reporting of qualitative research.”[6] Examples of qualitative research might be case studies, narrative research or journalling feelings.

How would each be used in the study of the pastor:

Quantitatively, it may be helpful to survey ministers who pastor in postmodern western contexts in order to get quantifiable data. Such surveys might include questions regarding use of time, primary tasks, amount of preaching done, salary earned and so on. Each question would help the researcher gather quantifiable data which could be used to draw conclusions on the practice of pastoring in the postmodern world.

Further possible analysis might involve a comparison against equivalent data collected during the modern 19th century, if available. This would provide an insight into how the role of the pastor has changed as a result of the Western shift towards post-modernism.[7]

Qualitatively, it would be beneficial to study key scriptural texts in order to come to an appreciation of the biblical norm for the role of the pastor. This would most likely be a study the New Testament in order to understand the church office of pastor/elder more effectively.[8]

Further possible study might involve shadowing a pastor as he or she goes about their work. The researcher would be able to make observations based on how this pastor interacts with their congregation or community and draw conclusions from these. This would be another qualitative method for studying the pastor.

Additionally, in order to understand the role of the pastor in a specifically postmodern Western culture, some research into the nature of the changes that have occurred since pre-modernity and modernity might prove beneficial. This could be literature reviews of famous diaries from each period which are thought to encapsulate the worldview of the time. This would help the researcher understand the current context more clearly and to draw conclusion of the place of the pastor in it.

A mixed method approach, one in which a combination of both disciplines is employed, might be the best approach. Rather than asking the ‘either or’ question, Strauss and Corbin, in their chapter on the interplay between Qualitative and Quantitative methods, suggest that the researcher should ask, “how these might work together to foster the development of a theory.”[9] Creswell views a mixed methods approach as, “another step forward, utilising the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative research.”[10] Through mixed methods a greater variety in information can be gathered and a fuller analysis achieved.

Are either appropriate?

There are some who would argue that neither quantitative nor qualitative methods are suitable for theological research at all. John Milbank, for example, clearly believes that such theories of research are in fact “theologies in disguise.”[11] That approaching any theological research from the presuppositions associated with quantitative or qualitative research colour that research and prevent it from being good theological research.

Rather theological researchers should demonstrate certain distinctives which distance them from social research. Prayer, for example, should form a key part of theological research, with the expectation that the Holy Spirit is at work today illuminating the honest investigations of Christians. Scripture teaches that it is God that opens blind eyes (2 Cor 4:4-6) and that the Holy Spirit will lead believers into all truth (Jn 16:811). Theological research then should be as much about growing in faith as it is about ‘finding answers.’

A further distinctive should be the humility with which the researcher approaches the task. While quantitative research is essentially concerned with being proven right, the Christian should be willing and keen to be proven wrong if it means God’s truth being revealed.

Conclusion:

From a purely academic stand point, either quantitative or qualitative research methods could be used to investigate the role of the pastor in the postmodern West with expedient results.

Using purely quantitative methods will necessarily require the researcher to make certain judgements about the nature of the role before the research is conducted. this should be borne in mind when drawing conclusions in order to avoid dogmatism. Qualitative research may offer a more subjective approach to studying the pastor but will produce more open ended conclusions which are less readily applied. The mixed methods approach is most likely to help the researcher form a holistic understanding of the role in question.

Given the theological nature of the topic, any Christian who carries out such an investigation should seek to do so in an explicitly Christian fashion with a full dependence on God to reveal the truth to him and the humility to encounter answers which differ from their own at the outset of the research.


[1]John. W Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1994), 4.

[2]Creswell, Research Design, 4.

[3]Creswell, Research Design, 10-11.

[4]Creswell, Research Design, 4.

[5]Creswell, Research Design, 4.

[6]Creswell, Research Design, 143.

[7]Underlying this study is the assumption that the role of pastor is primarily defined by work carried out. This in itself is a bold claim.

[8]Grudem asserts that the office of Pastor is only explicitly mentioned once in the New Testament. More often it is understood to be an alternative designation for an elder. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 913.

[9]Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin, Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (2d ed.; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1998), 34.

[10]John W. Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches (3d ed.; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 2009), 203.

[11]John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 3.

Bibliography:

Creswell, John W. Research Design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 2009.

Creswell, John. W. Research Design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1994.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

Strauss, Anselm and Juliet Corbin. Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1998.

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