Strengthening randomized evaluations through incorporating qualitative research, Part 1

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Randomized evaluations allow researchers to measure the impact of programs and policies on a range of outcomes. Using this approach in North America, J-PAL researchers have recently examined a wide range of topics, including the effects of Medicaid on rates of health care utilization and the impact of a housing mobility program on the likelihood of families moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods.

But what mechanisms are driving the effects of these programs and policies? How did the context, design, and implementation of the program or policy influence the result? If replicated in a different context, will the program have the same effects? Is the study asking the right question?

Researchers can often collect quantitative data and design experiments to shed light on these types of questions, but there’s always more to learn. Qualitative methods, such as direct observation, in-depth interviews, and focus groups, allow researchers to dive into these questions by examining participants’ beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and perspectives. Data gleaned from these methods can help researchers gain insight into potential mechanisms or barriers, generate new hypotheses and questions, and understand the stories behind the quantitative results.

For decades, social science scholars within anthropology, sociology, and psychology have employed qualitative methods. In recent years, many researchers within the traditionally quantitative field of economics have also incorporated qualitative methods into their studies and built teams with qualitative expertise to strengthen their research.

From our conversations with several researchers who've conducted and relied on qualitative research methods as part of J-PAL-supported randomized evaluations, we've summarized a few practical tips for those interested in integrating a qualitative approach into their studies:

  1. While developing your randomized evaluation, don't discount questions that can be best addressed through qualitative methods. These questions may challenge certain assumptions or shed light on mechanisms, contexts, or outcomes that quantitative methods may not fully capture. For example, researchers may want to gain insight into the experience of staff implementing a particular program to identify the challenges and barriers they faced, understand their perception of the program’s successes or shortcomings, and identify potential obstacles to longer-term implementation or scale-up. While this may be difficult to assess in a survey, focus groups and qualitative interviews could provide valuable insights.
  2. Account for qualitative research in study proposals and budgets. Qualitative research can require a high time commitment and can benefit from the support of specialized team members.
  3. Cultivate relationships with implementing partners. Forming a strong relationship with implementing partners is one key component to a successful and policy-relevant study and can help build a foundation for conducting qualitative research. Implementing organizations interact closely with study participants and often play instrumental roles in shaping the design and implementation of randomized evaluations. They are also well-placed to help researchers determine the best approaches to carrying out the qualitative parts of a study.
  4. Diversify your research team. Consider building a research team of individuals from different disciplines. Scholars of psychology, anthropology, sociology, and social work often have extensive experience with qualitative methods and bring valued perspectives that economists may be missing.

This blog series highlights three examples of J-PAL research teams using qualitative research methods to inform and strengthen the design, implementation, and analysis of their randomized evaluations. For part two of the series, we interviewed Professor of Public Policy and US Health Care Delivery Initiative Co-Chair Dr. Marcella Alsan about how qualitative research helped motivate and shaped the central question and hypothesis for a study on racial concordance between physicians and patients. In part three, we spoke with Professor of Sociology & Social Policy Stefanie Deluca about how the Creating Moves to Opportunity randomized evaluation, a study she co-led, embedded qualitative research methods into its study design. The series concludes with a conversation with Associate Professor of Social Work and Oregon Health Insurance Experiment co-author, Heidi Allen, on how qualitative research helped the research team make sense of some of the study’s results.

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