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How Triangulation Strengthens Action Research

written by: Jo Murphy•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 5/23/2011

Triangulation in research increases the credibility of the research by drawing on multiple viewpoints. Teachers feel confident that they may be moving toward accuracy and reliability as they tap into a variety of sources of information, confirmation, individuals and processes of data collection.

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    Views about the Usefulness of Triangulation

    Researchers triangulate among different sources of data to enhance accuracy of their study (Creswell 2008). However this description is fairly simplistic. Gorard and Taylor put forward a more complex idea that the desired outcome from triangulation in research is for new material to synergize from the triangulated material (2004, p42-43).

    Creswell's Simple View of Triangulation

    Creswell explains the idea of data validation by saying that triangulation is the process of corroborating evidence from

    • different individuals such as parents, students and teachers in a school setting
    • types of data such as field notes, and case studies
    • methods of data collection such as documents and interviews

    This all culminates in descriptions and themes in qualitative research.

    On this account of triangulation in research, the researcher tries to draw on multiple viewpoints to draw out a theme. The situation is that simple. By drawing on multiple viewpoints, the researchers feel confident that they may be moving towards accuracy and credibility as they tap into a variety of sources of information, confirmation, individuals and processes of data collection.

    Gorad and Taylor's Explanation of the Complexity of Triangulation

    Gorad and Taylor explore a popular idea that some people hold about triangulation. On this account triangulated research employs data collected from at least three sources. They say that the fourth synergy comes from the triangulated space created by the encapsulation of the three points of view, or vantage points.

    Another view of triangulated research claims researchers need only draw upon two sources of data and that the synergy from these two viewpoints creates the third axis.

    Another point of contention within this confusing definition argues about whether Action Research data must be drawn from a single investigation or whether data from another investigation can be attracted into a second inquiry.

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    Triangulation Enables a More Holistic View of the Problem

    Blind Men and the Elephant

    The simple story of the blind people and the elephant illustrates a more holistic view of the problem. Blind people restricted to experiencing the elephant from just one attribute, labeled the elephant many different things. It is only when the whole can be perceived at once that the true story of 'what this thing is' can be told.

    So a simple definition of triangulated research techniques is 'using more than one source of data to strengthen the validity of research by telling a more comprehensive story of the thing to be examined.' On this account, research A is not validated by research B. Rather, when research A and B combine, they synergize a new understanding of phenomenon which is called C. C as an understanding wouldn't exist without either A or B, but is not actually a validation of A or B separately.

    Teachers who research as part of their professional practice have access to data from different places, spaces and sources. They can also ask the same question of community members in a variety of ways. In the story of Friday Afternoon Ambiance for example, students could have talked about how they felt in a community forum. But would they have been honest in front of their peers? Perhaps not!

    Percy the Principle might set out to find another way to add validity to the inquiry. Over the course of three weeks, different kinds of activities could be run on Friday afternoon and afterward these students could vote in a ballot. Options could be between the three activities, back to movies or to introduce a suggestion of their own. This second source of information could add substance to what might have otherwise been a skewed representation of what students really thought should be done on a Friday afternoon. On this account something entirely new may synergize from the dispirit viewpoints within the research design.

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    Why Use Triangulated Data Collection Methods?

    Triangulated methods of data collection increase the concurrent, convergent, and construct validity of research. This in turn enhances the researcher's ability to imply trustworthiness of the analysis. The account of the schools lived reality will be fuller, and it will be a more rounded account, which evidences less bias.

    If there is a weakness in one method such as asking students in front of each other; the strength of the other complimentary data collection method will balance this. There is also scope at this point to talk with students about peer pressure. They may reflect in their journals about the extent to which they "went along with others" instead of standing for what they believed.

    When testing a resulting hypothesis such as "students don't think there is anything wrong with watching movies on Friday." Personal private voices will be protected and the data validated within the comprehensive research spiral.

    Although the synergized material will be all the more valid because of the triangulated collection methodology, the point is about synergy rather than about validation (Gorard & Taylor 2004). As the research spiral strengthens the triangle of data collection, methods may raise more questions that need to be answered in a different way.

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    Triangulation Can Increase Strength and Validity of Data Collection Methods

    Creswell recommends member checking as a way of increasing the validity of data collection. In this process the researchers take their account, descriptions and themes in qualitative research back to the members to check if this adequately represents their reality. They ask members whether descriptions are complete and realistic and whether the themes are accurate to include. They would also ascertain whether themes and interpretations are fair and representative.

    An external audit is another way to check the validity of research design and data collection methods. In this instance another individual from outside the research project would conduct a thorough review of the study and report back.

    Schwandt and Halpern (1988) say auditors would typically ask questions such as,

    • are the findings grounded in the data;
    • are the inferences logical;
    • are the themes appropriate;
    • can inquiry decisions and methodological shifts be justified;
    • what is the degree of researcher bias; and,
    • what strategies are used for increasing credibility?

    Authors Creswell, Gorard and Taylor, Schwandt and Halpern put forward interesting depictions of the ways triangulation in research can validate and enhance Action Research Projects. The more complex the project, the more likely that triangulation will move toward a synergistic emphasis rather than act as justification alone. In the article Complexities of Action Research a research spiral is described, which further explains how these complexities reinforce each other.

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    References

    • Creswell, J. W. Educational Research Planning, Conducting and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. International Pearson Merril Prentice Hall. 2008.
    • Gorard,S & Taylor, C. Combining Research Methods in Educational and Social Research. Birkshire Open University Press.2004.
    • Schwandt,T.A & Halpern,E.S. Linking Auditing and Meta Evaluation: Enhancing Quality in Applied Research. Newberry Park Sage.1988.

Understanding Action Research

Get a great understanding of the action research process with these articles for the graduate student.
  1. Action Research Projects: Steps in the Process
  2. Steps to Writing an Action Research Plan
  3. Complexities Involved in Participatory Action Research
  4. How Triangulation Strengthens Action Research