CritQuant: School of Education Faculty and Students Join a Movement to Disrupt Traditional Research Methods

A group of Syracuse University School of Education faculty and graduate students are part of a growing movement in academia that is re-evaluating long-held assumptions about research design.

Critical Quantitative Theory seeks to disrupt the traditional dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative research methods, with the former typically assumed to be more rigorous and suited to “hard” sciences and the latter seen as more subjective and better suited for use with critical theoretical perspectives. By disrupting this dichotomy, CritQuant—sometimes called QuantCrit—seeks to use data and statistics in a more equitable way, arguing that by doing so, it might become a useful and more racially just method of examining social justice questions.

Introduced in a 2018 Race Ethnicity and Education journal article—“QuantCrit: Rectifying Quantitative Methods Through Critical Race Theory”—this method calls on education researchers to explore inequity by examining data sets and statistics through critical analytical frameworks, such as critical race theory (CRT), intersectionality, and feminism.

At the School of Education, an interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students has been meeting twice a month—since spring 2023—as the Critical Quantitative Research Forum. Among its original members are Bong Gee Jang, Associate Professor of Reading and Language Arts; Dawn Johnson, Associate Professor of Higher Education; Yanhong Liu, Associate Professor of Counseling and Human Services; Qiu Wang, Associate Professor of Quantitative Research Methodology; Julia M. White, Associate Professor of Teaching and Leadership; and doctoral student ParKer Bryant, a Lender Center for Social Justice Fellow,

Change and Possibility

“There is a primacy to quantitative data because it is seen as objective, so its findings have a privileged status,” says Professor Johnson. “Some people tend to trust quantitative data and see it as more valid than qualitative research methods, such as ethnographies, interviews, or case studies.”

“We can’t put all the work of addressing critical equity questions on qualitative researchers, so how can we use statistics to tell the story of social justice, point out inequities, and put forward ideas of change and possibility that illuminate and address structural inequalities?”
Professor Dawn Johnson

One reason for this paradigm, explains Johnson, is that in qualitative research, the researcher is the “instrument” that gathers data, through an interview or by analyzing texts “as opposed to a quantitative instrument, such as a survey that is analyzed by software.” Thus, the quantitative researcher is assumed to be impartial and their experiences or beliefs irrelevant. That assumption has sometimes cloaked biased research and conclusions, as with the widely criticized 1994 study The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

“If quantitative research is the privileged approach, then it needs to be transformed if we are going to work toward equity,” Johnson continues. “We can’t put all the work of addressing critical equity questions on qualitative researchers, so how can we use statistics to tell the story of social justice, point out inequities, and put forward ideas of change and possibility that illuminate and address structural inequalities?”

“I’ve been thinking about this since I was a grad student,” she adds.

A Challenging Space

As a current doctoral student, ParKer Bryant is researching the impact of academic language on creative thought. It’s a topic traditionally suited to qualitative methods, such as interviews, surveys, and ethnography, she says. However, she became interested in CritQuant “because I wanted to explore my research question thoroughly. I’m already familiar with qualitative research, but I want to understand quantitative methods such as linear and advanced statistical models. There’s no reason not to know quantitative models.”

The research forum is collegial, Bryant observes. “What I tell my friends is that faculty really want to be there, so it feels as if you are having high intellectual conversation among colleagues. It’s a challenging space.”

Bryant was invited by the faculty members to join an internal grant project that continues the forum’s work.

“How Can Educational Inequities Caused by Racial Wealth Gap Be Reduced? A Critical Quantitative Analysis of Individual, Home, and School” is using quantitative methods to examine whether individual or institutional-level factors have a greater influence on “the mediated relationships among socioeconomic status, opportunity to learn, and students’ learning outcomes.”

Group of people standing in front of a zoom screen
The CritQuant Research Forum meets in person and online in October 2023.

“This study aims to contribute to advancing quantitative methods in educational research using the CritQuant framework based on critical race theory and intersectionality,” writes Principal Investigator Bong Jee Jang. “We believe that educational scholars would benefit from our work in considering CritQuant as a racially just method.”

Peeling Back Assumptions

Given her scholarly work focuses on the effects of campus climate on the sense of belonging of students of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, Johnson is well-situated to critique the quantitative vs. qualitative dichotomy.

The reason why qualitative research is appropriate for answering questions of social justice is that “it can tap into communities the way that other research can’t, by asking about lived experiences or centering marginalized and minoritized voices.”

Conversely, quantitative research is seen as not amenable to social justice work because statistics can be used to advance and explain non-equitable conclusions, as in The Bell Curve.

“The history and restrictions of quantitative methods are seen as having limited value in an equity agenda. Folks like myself, trained in quantitative methods, are trying to figure out ways to use statistical research methods within critical frameworks such as CRT.”

One technique to make quantitative research more equity-minded—“positionality”—dispenses with the idea that the researcher is impartial. “CritQuant forces researchers to position themselves in the research and asks them to consider their biases and subjectivity,” Johnson notes. “Research questions arise from somewhere, after all.”

Johnson says her research interests often return her to when she was Director of Minority Student Affairs at Worcester (MA) Polytechnic Institute, supporting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. “That experience created lots of questions for me, and I often think back to the challenges my students had,” Johnson recalls.

“My experiences as a Black woman working at primarily white institutions frames where I’m coming from in my research, and CritQuant makes me reckon with that,” Johnson continues. “Qualitative researchers are expected to do this work, so why aren’t quantitative researchers expected to do the same? We encourage our doctoral students to write out their positionality in their research design, in order to peel back assumptions of unbias and objectivity.”

Structures and Systems

Another technique is embedded in the CritQuant forum’s grant project and speaks directly to why the method has the power to transform educational research.

“Quantitative research often can situate deficits on the people being studied, whereas CritQuant research can be used to examine structures,” explains Johnson. “In other words, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to fix the student, but critical quantitative research has the power to examine whether outcome differences might be environmental or institutional. Maybe we don’t need to fix the student but instead look at fixing the structures and systems.”

As education graduate students ask more questions about how to integrate CritQuant into their research topics, the research forum is becoming a space where faculty can share their own experiences and challenges, such as how to use quantitative methods with subject groups that are small in number or how to incentivize participation ethically.

“I research groups that are already minoritized on campuses,” Johnson observes, “so when researching campus climate, I have to be able to overcome survey fatigue and build relationships in order to ask questions about racism and sexism. There is an extra labor required on the part of the researcher.”

Johnson sums up the work of the research forum as enacting the “critical” part of Critical Quantitative Theory. “It’s exciting to engage with faculty and graduate students in an informal way to sort that out.”