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The merits and shortcomings of quantitative and qualitative research

The merits and shortcomings of quantitative and qualitative research

Research methods are “technique(s) for gathering data” (Harding, 1986) and are generally dichotomized into being either quantitative or qualitative. It has been argued that methodology has been gendered (Oakley, 1998), with quantitative methods traditionally being associated with words such as positivism, scientific, objectivity, statistics and masculinity. In contrast, qualitative methods have generally been associated with interpretive, non-scientific, subjectivity and femininity.

Quantitative Research Techniques and Procedures

Qualitative analysis is a process that is often the precursor to quantitative, statistical work; a process to make the tacit underpinnings of an issue explicit; a process you can use to deepen your understanding of complex social and human factors that cannot be understood with numbers; a process that helps you figure out what to count and what to measure (Kerlin, 1999, p. 1).

A common way of conducting quantitative research is using a survey. Surveys usually involve filling in a questionnaire. There are, of course, many different kinds of quantitative research besides the survey. Observational research involves watching or observing various behaviors and patterns. More complicated forms of quantitative research are experimental research or mathematical modelling research (Peter J.P. & Donnelly J.H, 2000).

In the social sciences, quantitative research refers to the systematic empirical investigation of quantitative properties and phenomena and their relationships. The objective of quantitative research is to develop and employ mathematical models, theories and/or hypotheses pertaining to phenomena. The process of measurement is central to quantitative research because it provides the fundamental connection between empirical observation and mathematical expression of quantitative relationships.

Quantitative research is used widely in social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science. Research in mathematical sciences such as physics is also ‘quantitative’ by definition, though this use of the term differs in context. In the social sciences, the term relates to empirical methods, originating in both philosophical positivism and the history of statistics, which contrast qualitative research methods.

Qualitative methods produce information only on the particular cases studied, and any more general conclusions are only hypotheses. Quantitative methods can be used to verify, which of such hypotheses are true.

Qualitative Research Techniques and Procedures

Qualitative research is a generic term for investigative methodologies described as ethnographic, naturalistic, anthropological, field, or participant observer research. It emphasizes the importance of looking at variables in the natural setting in which they are found. Interaction between variables is important. Detailed data is gathered through open ended questions that provide direct quotations. The interviewer is an integral part of the investigation (Jacob, 1988). This differs from quantitative research which attempts to gather data by objective methods to provide information about relations, comparisons, and predictions and attempts to remove the investigator from the investigation (Smith, 1983).

According to Andrew (2007), qualitative research is a method of inquiry appropriated in many different academic disciplines, traditionally in the social sciences, but also in market research and further contexts. Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of decision making, not just what, where, when. Hence, smaller but focused samples are more often needed, rather than large samples.

According to Andrew (2007), qualitative research is used to denote approaches which are supported by a set of hypotheses concerning the way the social world functions. It deduces many of its basic principles from the perspective that there are fundamental differences between the science of human world and science of natural world and consequently needs to use distinctive methods. Here, attention is focused upon looking at the world through the eyes of studied objects and upon evolving concepts and theories which are grounded in the collecting data. So, qualitative research connected with own accounts of the individuals of their attitudes and behavior. The significance of qualitative research consists in setting stress on describing, understanding complex phenomena. It investigates, for instance, the relationships and patterns among factors or the context in which the activity happens. It is concentrated on understanding the full many-dimensional picture of the subject of investigation.

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Qualitative methods produce information only on the particular cases studied, and any more general conclusions are only hypotheses (informative guesses). The aim of qualitative research is to deepen our understanding about something, and usually this means going beyond the numbers and the statistics. Qualitative research helps us to give reasons why the numbers tell us what they do. It is often contrasted to quantitative research – and they are very often used together to get the ‘bigger picture’ of what we are trying to find out. Qualitative research helps us ‘flesh out the story’.

Face-to-Face Interviews and Focus Groups

The most common forms of qualitative research are face-to-face interviews and focus groups. Face-to-face interviews are just that: Meeting someone in person and discussing various issues. The informant – or person you are interviewing – may be an expert in a particular field (e.g. the editor of a newspaper) or they may be someone who is affected by the issues you are researching (e.g. someone who is HIV positive or who reads the media).

Focus groups involve discussions with two or more participants. While questions for focus groups need to be prepared to guide and focus the discussions, the responses are often free-ranging, as the participants are encouraged to explore the issues at hand in an in-depth way.

While focus groups and interviews will help you develop explanations for quantitative data, sometimes they can provide you with quantitative data themselves

Basic Differences between Quantitative and Qualitative Research Techniques

Quantitative and qualitative research methods differ primarily in:

their analytical objectives

the types of questions they pose

the types of data collection instruments they use

the forms of data they produce

the degree of flexibility built into study design

The key difference between quantitative and qualitative methods is their flexibility. Generally, quantitative methods are fairly inflexible. With quantitative methods such as surveys and questionnaires, for example, researchers ask all participants identical questions in the same order. The response categories from which participants may choose are “closed-ended” or fixed. The advantage of this inflexibility is that it allows for meaningful comparison of responses across participants and study sites. However, it requires a thorough understanding of the important questions to ask, the best way to ask them, and the range of possible responses.

Qualitative methods are typically more flexible – that is, they allow greater spontaneity and adaptation of the interaction between the researcher and the study participant. For example, qualitative methods ask mostly “open-ended” questions that are not necessarily worded in exactly the same way with each participant. With open-ended questions, participants are free to respond in their own words, and these responses tend to be more complex than simply “yes” or “no.”

In addition, with qualitative methods, the relationship between the researcher and the participant is often less formal than in quantitative research. Participants have the opportunity to respond more elaborately and in greater detail than is typically the case with quantitative methods. In turn, researchers have the opportunity to respond immediately to what participants say by tailoring subsequent questions to information the participant has provided. Merriam (1988) provided a basis for differentiating qualitative and quantitative research techniques based on their characteristics.

Characteristics of Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Point of Comparisons

Qualitative Research

Quantitative Research

Focus of research

Quality (nature, essence)

Quantity (how much, how many)

Philosophical roots

Phenomenology, symbolic interaction

Positivism, logical empiricism

Associated phrases

Fieldwork, ethnographic, naturalistic, grounded, subjective

Experimental, empirical, statistical

Goal of investigation

Understanding, description, discovery, hypothesis generating

Prediction, control, description, confirmation, hypothesis testing

Design characteristics

Flexible, evolving, emergent

Predetermined, structured


Natural, familiar

Unfamiliar, artificial


Small, non-random, theoretical

Large, random, representative

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Data collection

Researcher as primary instrument, interviews, observations

Inanimate instruments (scales, tests, surveys, questionnaires, computers)

Mode of analysis

Inductive (by researcher)

Deductive (by statistical methods)


Comprehensive, holistic, expansive

Precise, narrow, reductionist

However, there is a range of flexibility among methods used in both quantitative and qualitative research and that flexibility is not an indication of how scientifically rigorous a method is. Rather, the degree of flexibility reflects the kind of understanding of the problem that is being pursued using the method.

Merits of Quantitative Analysis

The use of surveys permit a researcher to study more variables at one time than is typically possible in laboratory or field experiments, whilst data can be collected about real world environments.

The usefulness of a survey is that the information you get is standardized because each respondent – the person who fills out the questionnaire – is answering the exact same questions. Once you have enough responses to your questionnaire, you can then put the data together and analyze it in a way that answers your research question – or what it is you want to know.

Since case studies follow a structured format, different situations can be compared or analyzed comparatively. Case studies are typically short (often no more than 5 pages long) and usually only contain the essential information needed to present a situation and, if necessary, to describe and properly analyze a problem.

Quantitative data can determine when students have achieved or failed a task, and they can provide national ranking, percentiles, and allow researchers to conduct comparison analyses. Nevertheless, they cannot provide the “total” picture of why a particular student has either succeeded or failed (Burnaford et al., 2001; Gall et al., 1996 and Mc Bride & Schostak, 2000).

In quantitative research, the researcher neither participates in nor influences what is

being studied; thus, he/she examines the circumstances objectively. In some qualitative research, the researcher may play a more subjective role and participate by being immersed in his/her research. That is, the observer may be the teacher or the facilitator. This role is often the case with when action research, case studies, and focus groups are used in educational research.

Advantages of surveys

Good for comparative analysis.

Can get lots of data in a relatively short space of time.

Can be cost-effective (if you use the Internet, for example).

Can take less time for respondents to complete (compared to an interview or focus group)

Specific concrete example;

Can help with problem solving;

Are often interesting to read.

Demerits of Quantitative Analysis

A key weakness of quantitative analysis is that it is very difficult to realise insights relating to the causes of or processes involved in the phenomena measured. There are, in addition, several sources of bias such as the possibly self-selecting nature of respondents, the point in time when the survey is conducted and in the researcher him/herself through the design of the survey itself.

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. Quantitative research has a tendency to clarify where

clarification is not appropriate. (Mc Bride& Schostak, 2000, pp. 1-2)

Disadvantages of Surveys

Responses may not be specific.

Questions may be misinterpreted.

May not get as many responses as you need.

Don’t get full story.

Can take time to develop;

Depending on format, may need some level of good writing skills;

Do not usually give broad overview of issue at hand.

Merits of Qualitative Techniques

The approaches of the qualitative research differ from the methods of the quantitative research. Quantitative methods have their aim in dividing into clearly defined parts, or variables. When we research an issue which we know how to quantify, for example, what can be quantified for sure, we may leave out the factors which are crucial to the real understanding of the phenomena under study (Andrew, 2007).

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Qualitative methods are helpful not only in giving rich explanations of complex phenomena, but in creating or evolving theories or conceptual bases, and in proposing hypotheses to clarify the phenomena. Besides, value of the qualitative research consists in validity of the information received; people are minutely interviewed so as the obtained data would be taken as correct and believable reports of their opinions and experiences. Its major disadvantage is that small group of interviewed individuals can not be taken as representative (Andrew, 2007).

Case studies involve an attempt to describe relationships that exist in reality, very often in a single organization. Case studies may be positivist or interpretivist in nature, depending on the approach of the researcher, the data collected and the analytical techniques employed. Reality can be captured in greater detail by an observer-researcher, with the analysis of more variables than is typically possible in experimental and survey research.

Another type of qualitative analysis is site visits. Site visits help you understand your research better; site visits (e.g. when you visit an organization, a manufacturing plant, a clinic or a housing project) are very useful and sometimes even necessary ways of gaining additional insight and making your theoretical information concrete in your mind. They allow you to observe what is going on, and to ask questions you may not have thought about.

Qualitative research has a phenomenological focus that can provide an enriched and

detailed description of the participants’ actions and/or viewpoints (Veronesi, 1997).

Advantages of Face-to-Face Interviews

Can allow for in-depth knowledge sharing;

Helps to develop the bigger picture;

Helps with analysis of results;

Good for networking (e.g. you may be referred to other people to interview).

Advantages of Focus Groups

Good for community participation (grassroots input);

Helpful in developing ideas and sharing latent, or hidden, knowledge spontaneously;

Enables you to get information from a number of individuals simultaneously.

Advantages of Site Visits and Observation

Demerits of Qualitative Analysis

Case studies can be considered weak as they are typically restricted to a single organization and it is difficult to generalize findings since it is hard to find similar cases with similar data that can be analyzed in a statistically meaningful way.

Disadvantages of Face-to-Face Interviews

Can be time consuming;

May be difficult to arrange an interview time;

Can be difficult to compare and analyze information.

Disadvantages of Focus Groups

Can be difficult to set up;

Participants may need to be paid;

Need to be sensitive to who the facilitator is;

May need a translator;

Sometimes difficult to organize and analyze information.

Disadvantages of Site Visits and Observation

Take time;

Can be expensive (depending how far you need to travel);

With observation in particular, you need to be careful how you interpret what you see. With site visits, you may want to make sure you have a guide so that you can ask questions

However, the disadvantage of the quantitative as well as qualitative research is that they do not always underpin

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