Qualitative Versus Quantitative Research

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Qualitative versus Quantitative Research: Key Points in a Classic Debate

James Neill Last updated:

Features of qualitative & quantitative research Main points Recommended links

Features of Qualitative & Quantitative ResearchQualitative "All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding" - Donald Campbell Quantitative "There's no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0" - Fred Kerlinger The aim is to classify features, count them, and construct statistical models in an attempt to explain what is observed. Researcher knows clearly in advance what he/she is looking for. Recommended during latter phases of research projects. All aspects of the study are carefully designed before data is collected. Researcher uses tools, such as questionnaires or equipment to collect numerical data. Data is in the form of numbers and statistics.

The aim is a complete, detailed description. Researcher may only know roughly in advance what he/she is looking for. Recommended during earlier phases of research projects. The design emerges as the study unfolds. Researcher is the data gathering instrument. Data is in the form of words, pictures or objects.

Subjective - individuals interpretation of events is important ,e.g., uses participant observation, in-depth interviews etc. Qualitative data is more 'rich', time consuming, and less able to be generalized. Researcher tends to become subjectively immersed in the subject matter.

Objective seeks precise measurement & analysis of target concepts, e.g., uses surveys, questionnaires etc. Quantitative data is more efficient, able to test hypotheses, but may miss contextual detail. Researcher tends to remain objectively separated from the subject matter.

(the two quotes are from Miles & Huberman (1994, p. 40). Qualitative Data Analysis)

Main Points

Qualitative research involves analysis of data such as words (e.g., from interviews), pictures (e.g., video), or objects (e.g., an artifact). Quantitative research involves analysis of numerical data. The strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative research are a perennial, hot debate, especially in the social sciences. The issues invoke classic 'paradigm war'. The personality / thinking style of the researcher and/or the culture of the organization is under-recognized as a key factor in preferred choice of methods. Overly focusing on the debate of "qualitative versus quantitative" frames the methods in opposition. It is important to focus also on how the techniques can be integrated, such as in mixed methods research. More good can come of social science researchers developing skills in both realms than debating which method is superior.


As mentioned in the previous chapter, qualitative research is often contrasted with quantitative research. The picture is complicated when we consider that within each of these broad categories, which we described in Chapter 1, there are what can be called 'sub schools of thought'. Nevertheless, there are some critical issues in which researchers have a tendency to jump one way or the other, depending on the set of beliefs they hold. We

believe too, that some of these issues are more important to students who are carrying out research for the first time, especially in an age when quantitative measures such as school league tables have such a high profile in the public eye. Let us consider an example:

A researcher found that in a school of twenty teachers, fifteen preferred children with special educational needs to be withdrawn from the classroom and five preferred in-class support. Should the school adopt a policy of withdrawal or should it have a mixed policy depending on which teachers were involved? The evidence, as it stands, could be used to support either. More importantly, we cannot be sure of the strength of feeling of the teachers nor why they hold their views. It might be that the fifteen dislike a particular kind of in-class support and would prefer a different kind to withdrawal. Indeed, until we find out more details of why these teachers hold their opinions, a range of possibilities can be imagined for policy and, of course, for practice.

Qualitative researchers are interested in answering those why? questions and are not prepared to simply accept the quantitative answers. That is not to suggest that the quantitative data is not important for to know that fifteen out of twenty have one view rather than another is useful. It is just not enough on its own. We could go further and say that when placed alongside qualitative evidence, quantitative evidence is both clear and powerful. Unfortunately it sometimes appears so powerful that it overpowers the opinions of the people involved and this is a danger we have to watch. In addition there are still many researchers, especially the less experienced ones, who are not prepared to 'go the extra mile' and add the extra understanding to the figures they have collected. This course is centred upon the qualitative element in research and while it is not without problems qualitative research is the major form of educational research now practised. Let us now consider the major points of contrast and debate between the broad categories of qualitative and quantitative research. The section that follows rests heavily upon a structure used by Hammersley [1991]. The arguments used here, however, are very different from his.

A. DATAWhere a quantitative researcher might seek to know what percentage of people do one thing or another the qualitative researcher pays much greater attention to individual cases and the human understandings that feature in those cases. Nevertheless, one finds the latter using terms such as 'frequently' and 'the majority of people' and so on. It could be argued that the quantitative researcher is more precise but the response would be that with people it is not possible to be so precise, people change and the social situation is too complex for numerical description. We could also ask if it is any more help to know that 58.6% of teachers in a school take one view than to know that to one degree or another, most teachers take this view? We, as qualitative researchers, would

argue the qualitative perception in this last case is a more precise reflection of the situation than the numerical perception. When you begin to interview, as part of this course, you will often find people who will offer conflicting or unclear views. Some of your respondents will say "I think this is a good idea but ..." Now in those sorts of situations do you place this person in the 58.6% or in the remaining 41.4% or create a third category? Quantitative research has a tendency to 'clarify' where clarification is not appropriate. At the heart of this discussion is a point about knowing. We might ask, "How sure can we be about what we claim to know?" In education we have to deal with what is sometimes called 'soft' knowledge, as opposed to 'hard' knowledge. We see claims [not always justified] about certainty in the natural sciences and mathematics. Qualitative researchers, and indeed educationists, have to be more circumspect. As we have seen above, quantified evidence can be very powerful but it can also hide a great deal about people, especially their understanding.

B. RESEARCH SETTINGMany qualitative researchers have long criticised laboratory based research as 'artificial' and noted that people react differently in other contexts. There are also criticisms about those researched being influenced by the researchers so that conclusions are not sound, especially when compared to research in 'natural' settings. One response to these arguments are criticisms about the artificiality of structured interviews which qualitative researchers carry out. Of course, interviews need not be structured though the central issue is about the extent to which the research act interferes with what is researched. In other words are the conclusions valid, do they reflect what they believe they are reflect or are people responding, above all, to the researchers? Hammersley argues: [p231] "In my view this distinction between natural and artificial settings is spurious. What happens in a school class or in a court of law, for example, is no more natural [or artificial] than what goes on in a social psychological laboratory." To us this is simply wrong. There is an enormous difference. If Hammersley had argued that there is some form of reaction to all forms of research we could have accepted that. He is, however, going much further. In qualitative research we seek to minimise the impact of our interventions [see triangulation below, for example] but also recognise that there are other ways in which we do intervene. This is not too much of a problem if we remember that we are not trying to create objective knowledge. Our knowledge is much softer. We cannot be certain that practical work will always make learning easier. We cannot prove that a pupil will respond positively to using a word processor. Yet we can have a pretty good idea that these maybe helpful to us in certain situations. More importantly we endeavour to 'build' theory from the ground of experience or practice. For qualitative researchers the context in which practice takes place has an important bearing upon that practice and research should be rooted accordingly.

There are other implications of our position. One of those is how we might transfer our research findings from one situation to another. This is called generalisation and we will discuss that below. Another is that qualitative research does not avoid the complexity of social life. Instead great efforts are made to illuminate and understand social situations and human feelings through immersi