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Powers of qualitative research

Old-fashioned qualitative research methods are still powerful in answering the most emergent climate questions we are faced with.

In natural and social science studies, quantitative methods emphasizing numbers and statistical or numerical models are becoming the dominant approach, and climate change research is no exception. In recent years, the scholarly community has witnessed a rapid rise in unprecedented data access and computational approaches. However, we should not ignore the powers of qualitative methods. Qualitative methods usually collect information through interviews and participant observation and from archival text. Rather than using large-scale datasets with common dimensions, they focus on unique cases and mechanisms1. In particular, they are inimitable when investigating underlying causes and data that are hard to measure or scarce.

With detailed descriptions of experience and opinions, qualitative methods are not only able to answer the ‘what’ questions, but also provide a better interpretation of the ‘why’ questions. In this month’s issue, an Article by Kieran Findlater and colleagues discusses the underlying reason for why climate services fail to improve societal decision-making. Through interviews with climate experts, the researchers find that the fundamental norms, institutions and governance of science need to be rethought. See a News & Views from Meaghan Daly for further discussion of this issue.

Quantitative research relies on well-structured numbers. However, in the real world, evidence is often stored as descriptive language. Even with the growth of natural language processing (NLP) techniques2, qualitative text analysis is still essential to understand how climate social policies are designed or implemented. Two recent papers adopted such an approach. Through case-law analysis, Rupert Stuart-Smith and colleagues find that the scientific evidence submitted in climate-related cases is seriously behind the current frontier in climate science3. With both interpretative and inductive text analysis, Luis Zamarioli and colleagues examine the necessary condition of Article 2.1(c) that will facilitate consistency in climate finance flows4.

Over-reliance on quantitative research may enhance knowledge production inequality because maintaining large datasets often requires strong capacity. Since equity is one of the central issues in climate governance nowadays, field work and comparative case studies have irreplaceable roles in promoting a balanced climate research agenda. From empowering women’s agency in climate responses in Asia and Africa5 to community-based adaptation initiatives in the Pacific Islands6, qualitative studies show their power in improving climate strategy in developing countries.

This is not to say that one research method is superior to another. In many cases, a mixed-methods strategy is necessary to answer the complex questions related to climate and society. Researchers should be open-minded to different approaches and focus on the questions that need to be answered.


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Powers of qualitative research. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 717 (2021).

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