When conducting studies on public health issues, experts from different disciplines are expected to work together towards a common goal. For instance, Watts, Phillips, Petticrew, Harden, and Renton (2011) emphasised the need for empirical evidence to justify an investment in public intervention. According to Waters et al. (2006, 285), public health funders, decision-makers, and practitioners are increasingly becoming interested in empirical evidence as justification for decision-making. Hence, it is critical to determine how the current research approaches are suitable for providing an enabling research environment. This paper examines the application of different approaches in conducting studies in public health issues. In particular, the paper examines the application of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies in studying obesity and the resulting risk factors in a population. In doing so, the merits and demerits of the two approaches were determined.
Definition of Terms and its Contested Nature
The Medical Model
The medical model dates back to the 18th Century when natural sciences started dominating the medical practice. According to Conceicao and Mccarthy (2011, 38), the medical model is based on a strong emphasis that the absence of an illness is a sign of good health. Therefore, the overemphasis of the influence of medical science tends to ignore the existence of other factors that might be related to certain public health issues (Conceicao and Mccarthy, 2011, 38; Kothari et al., 2014, 6). When conducting a research, the medical model tends to govern what a researcher measures or investigates.
Studies on multidisciplinary public health issues require a platform where experts from different fields are involved as researchers or participants (Kothari et al., 2014, 6). From a medical perspective, researchers are expected to investigate sophisticated health issues by focusing on the informed opinion of experienced experts. In this case, the researcher creates a platform for experts to give their views depending on their knowledge and experience. The uniqueness of a multidisciplinary issue is the fact that different aspects of the issue create the necessity for a variety of view, approaches, or responses. Therefore, from a medical perspective, choosing an appropriate research approach depends on the experts who are qualified or experienced enough to give informed responses (Kothari et al., 2014, 6). For instance, a study on obesity can be approached by a wide range of experts. While a medical practitioner is informed enough to discuss the technical medical issues about the disease, a public health officer is in a better place to discuss the prevalence and the economic burden of the same disease.
The Social Model
The social model examines all the possible factors that contribute to health. They include political, social, cultural, and environment as well as the personal habits (Huang, Yan, Chen, and Liu, 2016). From a social perspective, researchers are expected to investigate public health issues by focusing on the views of the target population as well as the conditions in which they live. In most cases, the lifestyle of a society influences the public health outcomes. For instance, scholars seem to agree that obesity is a global public health problem that is influenced by a wide range of socio-cultural factors (Farhat, Iannotti, and Simons-Morton, 2011, 101; Kleiner and Pavalko, 2010, 1463; Burkhauser and Cawley, 2009, 118). Therefore, the most appropriate research approach should capture these factors and determine how they contribute to obesity. The knowledge, level of awareness, and attitude of individuals towards health issues are critical in understanding such a public health issue.
For researchers, engaging members of the public is critical in investigating a problem from a social perspective. In other words, the investigation dwells on the specific social factors that lead to the problem. In doing so, it is possible to suggest evidence-based recommendations that can assist in solving the problem. In this case, the research needs quantitative empirical evidence to develop a social model. For instance, researchers can justify the need for an intervention by showing how a particular social factor leads to obesity.
Epistemology and Ontological Assumptions
While conducting a study, the epistemology assists in raising critical questions that a researcher can use to identify the most appropriate research approach (Choy, 2014, 100). For instance, the question of how the reality can be known is important when choosing the research method. Another important question is the relationship between what is known and those who know it. In a medical setting, a wide range of participants can take part in a study depending on the research objectives and questions (Choy, 2014, 100). Therefore, it is critical to determine whether the participants are in a position to give the information that is required. For instance, involving knowledgeable and experienced caregivers can assist to collect useful information about interventions for obesity. In contrast, a study aimed at understanding the attitude of patients towards the intervention requires the involvement of the patients to access first-hand information rather than what the caregivers are saying.
In positivism, epistemology examines how the researcher can investigate an issue as a natural science since knowledge is believed to come from an external reality that can be measured (Howlett, 2013, 32). Therefore, it is important to hypothesise ideas and use empirical approaches to test them. The researcher focuses on ensuring that the study is objective. Contrastingly, epistemology in interpretivism research paradigm allows the researcher to investigate a phenomenon in a different way since the social context differs from the natural science (Howlett, 2013). Howlett (2013, 32) used the terms interpretivism and qualitative interchangeably. Therefore, interpretivism represents the research paradigm while the term qualitative represents the resulting research approach. According to Howlett (2013, 32), the qualitative perspective is based on the belief that knowledge comes from the internal reality of a person or a group.
When choosing the most appropriate research approach, it is important to consider the ontological position, which examines the fundamental nature of existence. The ontology supports the thought that there is no right or wrong answer since different people tend to view the same issue differently (Choy, 2014, 100). In particular, the ontology can be examined from two viewpoints: positivism and constructivism. Studies in social sciences can be examined from an organization or culture viewpoints. According to Bowling (2014, 139), positivism is based on the assumption that a single objective reality exists, which can be ascertained by the senses and tested using scientific approaches. For instance, organizations tend to possess tangible rules, procedures, and regulations that govern the action (Bowling, 2014, 139). In other words, the organization has an external reality to the employees within it. The reality represents a social order that requires the parties to conform to the values, rules, and regulations. From a positivist viewpoint, a social phenomenon has an existence that is independent of the actors within it.
On the other hand, interpretivism or social constructionism gives an alternative ontological position. According to interpretivism, a social phenomenon and its meaning keep on changing with time (Choy, 2014, 100). Therefore, it is necessary to continually revise the meanings through social interactions. This ontological position is important in medical studies where the researcher is eager to understand the ever-changing challenges. In most cases, these challenges are associated with the many social factors that influence how people live and how their lifestyle changes affect their wellbeing (Choy, 2014, 100). With interpretivism research philosophy, it is possible for researchers to record different accounts of the social world which keeps on changing making it difficult to develop a generalized finding in a study.
Quantitative Research Approach
The medical model supports quantitative research approach since it based on the belief that scientific research can produce a cure for any illness. In particular, the model is linked to quantitative research since it makes health a measurable attribute, where the researcher determines whether the disease is present or not (Conceicao and Mccarthy, 2011, 38). For examine, a quantitative study on obesity can focus on the prevalence of the problem and the risk factors. According to Hills (2000, 4), research on issues to do with public health has been primarily focusing on quantitative methods and statistical data. After conducting quantitative studies for decades, researchers have made significant contributions to the body of knowledge on public health issues; for instance, disease-related issues, population data, and the occurrence of certain health problems in different societies (Hills, 2000, 4). When dealing with a public health issue, a quantitative research approach provides several merits. Firstly, as the term stipulates, quantitative research approach allows the researcher to quantify the outcomes. In other words, a quantitative research method creates a platform for collecting numerical data, which can be quantitatively analysed to come up with statistical evidence (Bowling, 2014, 139).
With statistical evidence, researchers can test the hypotheses they assumed during the literature review. In a public health setting, statistical evidence is critical in showing the extent to which a public health is problematic. For instance, the information regarding the prevalence of a disease, its economic burden, and the cost of preventive interventions can be accurately been calculated using a quantitative approach. One of the characteristics of quantitative research approach is the generalizability. For instance, a study by Watts, Phillips, Petticrew, Harden, and Renton (2011, 2) revealed the necessity of basing intervention decisions on the evidence generated elsewhere to make inferences on how the findings can be generalised to accommodate the area of interest.
In a recent meta-analysis, Barr-Walker (2017, 69) compared the applicability and reliability of qualitative and quantitative approaches in a public setting. The study involved 33 quantitative and 21 qualitative studies. The findings showed that public health worker preferred using quantitative data than qualitative findings. Evidently, dealing with statistical evidence makes it easier to understand meaning due to statistical evidence Conceicao and Mccarthy (2011, 38). The use of charts and tables provides the much-needed visual impression that improves in discriminating the findings to the public health workers, administrator, and policy-makers.
An understanding of the model of health provides crucial insights regarding the applicability of qualitative approach in public health studies. The social model of health is based on the argument that health is not just the absence of a disease but a state of complete social, mental, and physical well-being (Huang, Yan, Chen, and Liu, 2016). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the social aspect of life is a wider determinant of health that captures the conditions in which an individual work, lives, and age (Huang, Yan, C...
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