This is “Triangulation”, section 5.3 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0).
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Up to this point, we have discussed research design as though it is an either/or proposition. Either you will collect qualitative data or you will collect quantitative data. Either your approach will be idiographic or it will be nomothetic. In truth, you don’t necessarily have to choose one approach over another. In fact, some of the most highly regarded social scientific investigations combine approaches in an effort to gain the most complete understanding of their topic possible. Using a combination of multiple and different research strategies is called triangulationThe use of several different research strategies to enhance understanding of a topic..
Think about the examples we’ve discussed of potential studies of electronic gadget addiction. Now imagine that you could conduct two, or even three, of those studies instead of just one. What if you could conduct a survey of students on campus, a content analysis of campus policies, and observations of students in their natural environments (Brewer & Hunter, 1989; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1989)?Triangulation isn’t just about using multiple strategies of data collection. Triangulation of measures occurs when researchers use multiple approaches to measure a single variable. Triangulation of theories occurs when researchers rely on multiple theories to help explain a single event or phenomenon. If you’d like to learn more about triangulation, the following sources may be of interest: Brewer, J., & Hunter, A. (1989). Multimethod research: A synthesis of styles. Newbury Park, CA: Sage; Tashakkori, A., & Teddlie, C. (1998). Mixed methodology: Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Aside from being pretty exhausted, and possibly broke, you’d probably end up with a fairly comprehensive understanding of the causes and consequences of, and campus responses to, students’ electronic gadget addictions. And certainly a more comprehensive understanding is better than a less comprehensive one. The drawback, of course, is that you may not have the resources, because of either limited time or limited funding, to conduct such a wide-ranging study.
At this stage, you may be telling yourself (or screaming at me) that it would be nearly impossible to conduct all these studies yourself. You have a life, after all. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to do everything on your own in order to take advantage of the analytic benefits of triangulation. Perhaps someone already has conducted a large survey of the topic you wish to study. You could find out how those results compare with your one-on-one interviews with people on the same topic. Or perhaps you wish to administer a survey to test the generality of some findings that have been reached through the use of field methods. Whatever the case, don’t forget about all the good research that has come before you that can help strengthen your investigation. Also keep in mind that qualitative and quantitative research methods can be complementary. Triangulation is one way to take advantage of the best in both approaches.