Embracing Critical Theory in Quantitative Research

By Ági Szabo

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It was 2017, my postdoc fellowship was coming to an end and I was looking for opportunities to stay in academia in Aotearoa/New Zealand. A permanent job was advertised at the university I was working at: Lecturer in Health Psychology. The focus of the position was clear, applicants needed to be critical health scholars. I had spent two years doing critical health research, publishing in the top journals of my field, so I was confident I fit the job description. I mentioned to a colleague that I was planning to apply for the role. She told me not to apply. Her advice, kindly meant, was: “Don’t bother, you are wasting your time. They will never hire a quantitative researcher. You won’t even get shortlisted.” I was taken aback by her comments.

Not getting shortlisted didn’t bother me. I had applied for dozens of academic jobs by then and I wasn’t shortlisted for 90% of them. This is how academia works after all, many high-achieving people competing for a small number of positions. But the fact that I would not even be considered simply because of the methodology I use stunned me. The job description was clear, criticality was the focus; there was no mention of needing a qualitative research background. I decided to apply anyway. I saw it as an opportunity to explain to the panel how I use quantitative methods to address inequities and why it was important for students in the programme to learn to challenge traditional quantitative paradigms. My colleague’s advice was sound though, and my application did not progress.

Half a decade has passed since then. I have continued doing quantitative research, questioning how data are represented to ensure numbers are not used to further disadvantage vulnerable groups. I’m part of a different department now where my critical health research skills and approach are valued, but this experience has stuck with me. It makes me feel uneasy every time I think about what counts as critical health psychology.

Why should criticality have a methodological restriction?

I get it. I understand why the idea of critical quantitative research is difficult to embrace. Most quantitative research is conducted outside a critical paradigm. And traditional quantitative methodologies have caused a lot of harm. They tend to reduce social determinants of health, such as ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, to trait-like individual differences. They regularly overlook structural explanations for health, instead favouring strategies that teach people to live within inequitable societies. But methodology alone does not make research critical; plenty of qualitative research lacks attention to social justice and health equity.

What defines criticality?

The set of principles that underpin and motivate the inquiry should be the foundation of criticality. We can anchor quantitative research in the goals of social justice. We can actively choose to ask research questions that centre the experiences of marginalized populations. We can actively choose to include items in surveys that explore people’s experiences with social structures and the impacts of oppressive systems. We can actively choose analytic strategies that highlight the diversity of these experiences and enable the identification of underrepresented, vulnerable groups. We can choose how we interpret these data. For example, when we find differences in level of education, we can attribute these to differences in individual effort or to inequities in access to education. Critical quantitative health researchers can equally reflect on their positionality and how their own assumptions and biases influence their questions and the analytic decisions they are making. For example, I use memoing as part of my quantitative analytic practice. It prompts me to confront my biases and assumptions. It helps to keep me accountable.

Critical quantitative health psychology has unique advantages too. Numbers powerfully allow us access to patterns of experiences that reveal inequities in access to the resources needed for health – patterns we could otherwise overlook. Numbers are not self-evident: They indicate people’s self-perceptions in the moment of answering questions. Numbers also don’t speak for themselves: It is up to us as researchers how we make sense of people’s data whether numeric or text-based. By recognising subjectivity in quantitative research, critical quantitative scholars can offer counternarratives that challenge normative interpretations of numeric data.

Quantitative criticality (aka QuantCrit) is not a new idea. It has been around for over a decade and is growing. The QuantCrit movement includes scholars who, instead of rejecting quantitative work as being uncritical, use their social justice lens to improve it. They develop resources to empower others to apply principles of critical theory to quantitative inquiry. Paulette Vincent-Ruz is one of the scholars spearheading the movement, sharing simple guidelines on her website on how to #QuantCrit. I draw on her resources in my teaching a lot. It is hard work though, teaching about QuantCrit in a critical health psychology programme.

Students often learn about critical theory through examples of qualitative methodologies. They develop the idea early on that quantitative is marginalising (bad) and qualitative is empowering (good). They feel anxious about numbers, are reluctant to engage with quantitative data, and relieved to abandon quantitative methods. What’s worse, they assume that qualitative research is inherently critical. This frightens me. This false alignment between methodology and criticality limits the critical evaluative skills students can learn.

We need to teach our students how to challenge normative assumptions embedded in quantitative data, and how to apply the principles of critical theory to any research methodology. Without this, we are leaving our students unprepared to understand and challenge mainstream quantitative research. They leave our training to work in policy or health research without the skills required to evaluate quantitative health research in terms of social justice and health equity. Such oversight means we are not only enabling traditional applications of quantitative methods; we are indirectly perpetuating inequalities.

Dr Ágnes (Ági) Szabó

Senior Lecturer
Faculty of Health
Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington
New Zealand

Dr Ágnes (Ági) Szabó is a Senior Lecturer in Health at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is currently completing a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship awarded by The Royal Society of New Zealand–Te Apārangi for research titled: ‘Growing old in an adopted land: Cross-fertilizing ageing and acculturation research’. Her research focuses on intersecting areas of health, ageing and immigration. She integrates life course approaches and acculturation theory with critical gerontology and is interested in the social and cultural determinants of health and wellbeing.

2 thoughts on “Embracing Critical Theory in Quantitative Research

  1. Tracy Morison April 12, 2022 / 9:30 am

    Great post Àgnes! I try to teach students that it’s the questions that should drive our research and to reflect on the opportunities and limitations of different methodologies. I fine Sue Wilkinson’s (2000) classic paper in the Journal of Health Psych is v useful for this.

    It is astounding that ‘paradigm war’ persists. The flip side of your experience is that many journals still balk at publishing qualitative research and qual researchers often labour under colleagues’ assumptions that “anyone can do” what we do. I imagine that struggle is at the heart of the response to that application.

    I wonder, how do the hard-nosed quantitative folk who position themselves as objective Scientists respond to the ideas you’ve proposed here?

  2. Ági Szabó April 12, 2022 / 6:27 pm

    Thanks, Tracy – absolutely, others who came long before me have made similar arguments (Christina Lee, Sue Wilkinson). Despite these efforts, however, it seems to me that there hasn’t been much dialogue between the two approaches within critical health psychology.

    I don’t see the quantitative-qualitative distinction as a war of paradigms. The core of my argument is that the use of a methodology in itself does not situate research in a particular paradigm. We can use quantitative or qualitative methodologies within the critical paradigm. Similarly, you can find both qualitative and quantitative work situated within the positivist paradigm.

    As for the “hard-nosed quantitative folk”, I’m sure there are plenty who reject the idea of subjectivity in quantitative research. But you know I was trained in one of those departments and came to my senses once I was exposed to critical theory, so I guess there is hope 😉

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