Delving Deeper into How Mixed Methods Advance Health Equity

“We cannot answer any question of relevance or impact without using mixed methods.”

With that declaration, Ruth Enid Zambrana, PhD, set the tone for a panel on the value of mixed methodology research to promote health equity at the New Connections 2017 Symposium.

Zambrana, professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and adjunct professor of family medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, explained to an attentive audience of New Connections Scholars and network members the integral contribution of mixed methodology.

According to Zambrana, using mixed methods:

  • Helps challenge racial stereotypes: By incorporating in-depth interviews with a representative sample of participants, researchers can avoid the pitfalls of perpetuating racial stereotypes. By using only quantitative methods, researchers can sometimes receive a less in-depth view of the situation, but mixed methods allow for a deeper, more inclusive view. As Zambrana elaborated, “The intersections of racism, classism, and sexism can be quantified, but the voice of who experiences it provides undeniable richness.”
  • Provides context: The experience of a poor, rural, white mother whose child has autism is different than that of a middle-class mother whose child has autism. Zambrana used this example to illustrate why researchers should consider qualitative methods to add richness to their research.
  • Informs an effective response: Mixed methods allow researchers to gain a richer understanding of the community they are trying to help and the unique barriers it faces. Once they have a clearer picture, they can better identify the interventions that can make a difference in the health of these populations.

To help scholars navigate the complex waters of mixed methodology, panelists in Zambrana’s session, and throughout the Symposium, shared the following best practices in designing studies:

  • Start with a qualitative narrative: Panelist Michael Yellow Bird, PhD, professor and director of the tribal indigenous studies program at North Dakota State University, began by acknowledging that, “It’s hard to serve two masters.” But for more effective mixed methods, he recommended starting with a qualitative narrative before moving to quantitative research.
  • Seek out a qualitative expert to examine instruments and approachesRobert Dunigan, PhD, senior research associate at the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy at Brandeis University, mentioned that many of the quantitative scales and measures he has used did not support the communities with which he works. It is important for researchers to engage expert assistance so they can design a framework that can tap into the knowledge of their communities.
  • Take a seminar to build confidence: This advice came from Christina Lee, PhD, assistant professor in the department of applied psychology at Northeastern University. Seminars will help researchers become familiar with the many types of qualitative research.
  • Read your favorite journal: Event co-chair Dharma Cortes, PhD, senior research associate at Harvard Medical School, suggested reading journals to learn more about emerging trends and different mixed methods that are proving effective.
  • Consider the ethics of your protocolsRebeca Pardo, PhD, visiting scholar at Harvard University and professor of photography at the Universitat de Barcelona, documents images posted in public spaces like social networks to study illness narratives such as the depictions and perceptions of illness. She urged scholars to think about the ethics of their frameworks while designing their studies, and to consider issues such as photo permissions and anonymity.

While mixed methods have become more mainstream, it still can be tempting for researchers grounded in quantitative methodology to ignore them. As Michael Yellow Bird remarked, “It’s safer when you’re a younger professor (early career) to use what they tell you to use, but that does not create change.”