Economics Education

Research methods

Research methods

Current situation >> Research methods

main findings:

  • In Dutch economics programmes, methods courses are about numbers. They lack attention for how to capture structures, institutions, cultures, and networks.

  • The vast majority of weighted ECTSs are to obtain quantitative research (55%) and mathematical (43%) skills.

  • Hardly any attention is paid to qualitative research methods; only 2% of the weighted ECTS of methods courses are devoted to it.

The results show that there is a clear lack of diversity in the methodological skills Dutch economics students obtain. We do generally acquire an extensive toolkit of quantitative skills. But the fact that the majority of the programs do not have a single course devoted to qualitative research skills is exemplary for the general lack of attention to qualitative skills in Dutch economics education.

More explanation of this finding +
The results on research methods, see the figure above, show that we, economics students in the Netherlands, are predominantly being taught quantitative and mathematical skills, respectively 55% and 43% of the weighted ECTS. This comes at the expense of attention to qualitative research skills, namely 2% of the weighted ECTS. Only 1 of the 9 universities has a course in qualitative methods. This means that almost all Dutch universities signal to us as students that qualitative research skills are irrelevant for economists, and do not give us the possibility to learn qualitative research skills at their department.

Why does this matter?

For an economist, obtaining quantitative research skills is vital. However, economic life also involves elements that can best be understood through a qualitative research design (Chang, 2014). For example, to understand the dynamics in the banking system that lead to the development of socially dangerous sub-prime mortgage markets, detailed fieldwork and interviews with all sorts of bank employees are absolutely necessary. Likewise, to understand the field of power relations and interests surrounding the fossil fuel companies in the Rotterdam port, it is not enough to have data on flows of goods and investment around this sector. Open interviews, process-tracing and techniques like participatory observations among traders will reveal much more.

On average therefore, we as economics students are trained within a framework that aims to capture objects of study only in terms of numbers, which is profoundly problematic. The institutional, social, political and cultural dimensions which deeply shape economic dynamics are structurally overlooked in curricula, since it is often hard if not impossible to capture these in quantitative terms.

More details +
Starr (2014, pp. 239-240) emphasize that “the key distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is not words versus number per se” but “open- vs. closed-end approaches to gathering data”.

“In standard quantitative research, a pre-determined set of information items is collected from research subjects (e.g. respondents to surveys) or data-reporting units (e.g. companies filing quarterly financial reports, meteorological stations reporting weather data, etc.), where the only information collected is what has been pre-specified in the research instrument. Research subjects cannot question the questions they are asked, add nuances or caveats, or explain the reasoning behind their response. Instead it is assumed a priori that the researcher knows the specific informational items that played a central role in the subjects’ behaviours, perceptions and/or decisions, and can compellingly hypothesize how these items interrelate. In contrast, in qualitative studies, the approach to information gathering assumes that relatively flexible discussions with research subjects are needed for gaining a full and complete set of insights into the phenomenon of interest. … the strengths of each –namely, depth and complexity on the qualitative side, vs. representativeness and statistical power on the quantitative.” (Starr, 2014, pp. 240-241)

Moreover, even if a phenomenon can potentially be understood quantitatively, a qualitative research approach may still fit better. For instance, in economic studies of topics with a small number of cases, it is generally hard to derive solid conclusions from rigorous quantitative analyses. In such situations, qualitative research designs can complement or even substitute quantitative approaches.

The relevance of both quantitative and qualitative skills for an economist means that economics curricula should also enable us to obtain skills in process-tracing, interviewing, fieldwork, doing case studies, focus groups, the design of qualitative surveys, critical discourse analysis and other ways of gathering data. We, students, should be provided with a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods.

This is not to say that in a proper curriculum, we students must become experts in both qualitative and quantitative methods. Specialization must be supported. But because different methods have different (dis)advantages in different cases and topics, a good curriculum facilitates diversity of method. It enables us to (1) keep an overview of the different methods available, (2) distinguish which methods work in which cases, and (3) choose the right specialization for themselves from a pool of available methods.

More Findings

The table below provides the extended version of the distribution of research methods. Of the total ECTS spent on research skills, Dutch curricula on average devote 54.7% to quantitative data analysis. Within this segment of the curriculum, most attention is paid to applied econometrics (13.2% of total methods), followed by data selection and evaluation and regression analysis (13.2% and 12.6%). A further 42.7% of the total ECTS invested in research skills are devoted to mathematics. Within this category, there is a dominant focus on calculus and linear algebra (20.1% and 16.6% of total methods). 2.6% of the total ECTS in research skills are dedicated to qualitative analysis. Most attention here is devoted to interview design and technique, namely for 1.2%.


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Materials: Research Methods


Findings: Real World Economics


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