Jargon is the name we give to big labels placed on little ideas. What should we call little labels placed on big ideas? Jongar, of course.
A good example of jongar in evaluation is the term mixed methods. I run hot and cold for mixed methods. I praise them in one breath and question them in the next, confusing those around me.
Why? Because mixed methods is jongar.
Recently, I received a number of comments through LinkedIn about my last post. A bewildered reader asked how I could write that almost every evaluation can claim to use a mixed-methods approach. It’s true, I believe that almost every evaluation can claim to be a mixed-methods evaluation, but I don’t believe that many—perhaps most—should.
Why? Because mixed methods is also jargon.
Confused? So were Abbas Tashakkori and John Creswell. In 2007, they put together a very nice editorial for the first issue of the Journal of Mixed Methods Research. In it, they discussed the difficulty they faced as editors who needed to define the term mixed methods. They wrote:
…we found it necessary to distinguish between mixed methods as a collection and analysis of two types of data (qualitative and quantitative) and mixed methods as the integration of two approaches to research (quantitative and qualitative).
By the first definition, mixed methods is jargon—almost every evaluation uses more than one type of data, so the definition attaches a special label to a trivial idea. This is the view that I expressed in my previous post.
By the second definition, which is closer to my own perspective, mixed methods is jongar—two simple words struggling to convey a complex concept.
My interpretation of the second definition is as follows:
A mixed-methods evaluation is one that establishes in advance a design that explicitly lays out a thoughtful, strategic integration of qualitative and quantitative methods to accomplish a critical purpose that either qualitative or quantitative methods alone could not.
Although I like this interpretation, it places a burden on the adjective mixed that it cannot support. In doing so, my interpretation trades one old problem—being able to distinguish mixed methods evaluations from other types of evaluation—for a number of new problems. Here are three of them:
- Evaluators often amend their evaluation designs in response to unanticipated or dynamic circumstances—so what does it mean to establish a design in advance?
- Integration is more than having quantitative and qualitative components in a study design—how much more and in what ways?
- A mixed-methods design should be introduced when it provides a benefit that would not be realized otherwise—how do we establish the counterfactual?
These complex ideas are lurking behind simple words. That’s why the words are jongar and why the ideas they represent may be ignored.
Technical terms—especially jargon and jongar—can also be code. Code is the use of technical terms in real-world settings to convey a subtle, non-technical message, especially a controversial message.
For example, I have found that in practice funders and clients often propose mixed methods evaluations to signal—in code—that they seek an ideological compromise between qualitative and quantitative perspectives. This is common when program insiders put greater faith in qualitative methods and outsiders put greater faith in quantitative methods.
When this is the case, I believe that mixed methods provide an illusory compromise between imagined perspectives.
The compromise is illusory because mixed methods are not a middle ground between qualitative and quantitative methods, but a new method that emerges from the integration of the two. At least by the second definition of mixed methods that I prefer.
The perspectives are imagined because they concern how results based on particular methods may be incorrectly perceived or improperly used by others in the future. Rather than leap to a mixed-methods design, evaluators should discuss these imagined concerns with stakeholders in advance to determine how to best accommodate them—with or without mixed methods. In many funder-grantee-evaluator relationships, however, this sort of open dialogue may not be possible.
This is why I run hot and cold for mixed methods. I value them. I use them. Yet, I remain wary of labeling my work as such because the label can be…
- jargon, in which case it communicates nothing;
- jongar, in which case it cannot communicate enough; or
- code, in which case it attempts to communicate through subtlety what should be communicated through open dialogue.
Too bad—the ideas underlying mixed methods are incredibly useful.