For the remaining segments of this series, I’m going to specifically focus on the role of qualitative research in the context of impact evaluation. It is often the case that qualitative methods go under-appreciated in this context – after all, the focus is usually on outcomes – and it’s not always obvious how qualitative research can contribute. Yet, qualitative research methods can be incredibly useful for impact evaluations. In this section, I’ll discuss a few ways in which qualitative research can help make an impact evaluation stronger.
Anyone who has had the dissatisfaction of receiving a single score on a written exam, essay or performance evaluation, with no further explanation, can probably understand the value of qualitative information. Let’s say this score was high, for example 98 out of 100. Not so bad, you think to yourself, and maybe you don’t worry too much about it. But still, some small part of you may wonder “Why were those 2 points deducted? And why was it that I did so well anyway?” If the score was lower than you expected, the situation is more troublesome. You don’t know what expectations you failed to meet and it isn’t clear how you can do better next time. You may even feel the score was unfair. By including a few sentences in addition to an exam or test score, a teacher can convey: why he assigned the score, what he think went well (and should be continued) and what went wrong (and needs to be improved.)
A similar logic applies to impact evaluation. Sometimes impact evaluations measure a change in outcomes, without providing contextual information. For example, a study might measure the impact of self-help groups on monthly earnings and report that self-help groups caused members to increase their monthly earnings by 25 percent. This would be great news and valuable from a policy perspective, but maybe we want to know more than simply whether or not the program was effective at improving outcomes. Maybe we want to expand the program so it reaches more people and would like to understand the conditions under which the program was successful. We might want to know the program’s staff structure, its outreach methods, the beliefs and motivations of participants who join the program, components of the program that participants found particularly valuable, or challenges the program faced and how these were overcome. Qualitative research methods provide a structured means for obtaining this sort of information.
elf. Sometimes it is necessary, or even more appropriate to use either a qualitative or quantitative research approach instead of a combined, “mixed-methods” approach; however, that is often the exception rather than the norm. Usually, research – evaluation, in particular – that combines both quantitative and qualitative approaches is able to tell a more complete, comprehensive and ultimately more valuable story than research that favors a particular approach over the other.