An SNJ Associates Series: Research Methodology
Issue 1: Quantitative Versus Qualitative Approaches
Let’s start at the beginning…
We are very excited today to launch the first issue in our new series examining quantitative, qualitative and mixed methodology approaches to completing research. This series is created and presented to our site visitors, who are new or beginning to explore how research is done. At SNJ Associates, we are focused on health and well-being research with a specific interest in social epidemiology. There are many different approaches in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies and we will emphasize those approaches that are common to the health and well-being research.
We will mention, where warranted how other types or approaches in research methodology fit in the grand scheme of what we are discussing, but we will not go into detail about methodologies that are more common to other disciplines. For example, ethnographic research is a very common approach used in the social sciences for anthropology research where a researcher may put together a summary of a particular culture or cultural phenomenon by immersing themselves in the culture for quite some time thus, we may mention how ethnographic methodology fits within the larger classification of research methodology but we will not discuss the specifics of ethnographic research. If you are looking for information on a particular methodology that is not covered in our series, please contact us and we will do our best to point you in the right direction.
In order to get started, this post is going to present two distinct approaches to completing research known as quantitative and qualitative methodology and specifically compare both methodologies from a general perspective to help all our readers get a sense of each distinct method. As we proceed through the series, we will go into the detail for each method and also cover the mixed-methodology approach, which is a combination of both the quantitative and qualitative methods combined together.
What is the difference between quantitative and qualitative research?
Quantitative research approaches generate numerical data or information.
For example, in the quantitative approach, a study would record a piece of data in some form of a numerical format. The data could be a birth-date, a blood pressure reading or perhaps a number on a pain scale from 1-10. Quantitative methods use various mathematical models and statistics to understand and interpret the research results. Quantitative research focuses on counting, recording and capturing data and then use various statistical (or mathematical) models to interpret the study data in order to make conclusions about the overall study findings. Common data collection tools used in quantitative methods are questionnaires, surveys, measurements, and other options with a goal to collect or measure information in some form of numerical data. Researchers using quantitative methodology approaches purposely remain very objective and distant themselves as not influence the outcome or results of the study.
Qualitative research generates text, themes, and descriptions.
Qualitative research approaches generate data or information that record experiences and/or perspectives that use language, images, or observations that commonly capture human behaviour. Qualitative research generates text, themes, and descriptions. For example, a qualitative method would record a piece of data in some sort of non-numerical format. The data could be an observation of the researcher, an open-ended interview where participants are free to provide whatever information they would like in response to an open-ended question or use an image such as a photograph. The main objective of the qualitative research is exploratory in nature and attempts to provide a detailed description of the research topic of interest. Examples of data collection tools used in qualitative research include individual in-depth interviews (structured and unstructured), discussion groups or focus groups, narratives from people sharing their experiences, or the content analysis of some pre-existing text or images. A key characteristic of the qualitative method is that researchers themselves use a subjective approach to collect information and immerse themselves in the process.
The Proverbial Question: When To Use Quantitative Method & When To Use Qualitative Methods?
This is a very difficult question to answer definitively. The reality is there is a lot of chatter across disciplines and among researchers about when to use which research methodology. It is important to understand that each approach has unique and compelling strengths along with specific weaknesses depending on what it is the researcher is trying to accomplish. A great way to think about whether a quantitative or qualitative methodological approach is best for your research is to always think from the end and importantly you must consider your research question (if the concept of a research question is also new to you read our previous posts What is Research? and Creating and Editing a Research Question).
Look at your research question and think about whether it makes sense to have the data for the study in numeric form or descriptive text. Also, if you do not know a lot about your topic and you are trying to figure out where the research should go or what questions need answering in your topic area then an exploratory approach using qualitative methods may provide a wide perspective of results for you to consider. Conversely, if your research question lends itself to asking how many, or how often something occurs, you can see that counting and numerical data will make sense.
It is also pertinent to think of your study participant. Is it reasonable to have them provide details of their experience without too many parameters or prompts from you or would you prefer participants to answer specific pre-defined questions that you need to focus on for your topic and in-line with your research question and/or hypothesis? In the first instance you may simply use an open-ended unstructured questionnaire and in the latter example, you may have a number of choices of answers that make up a scale.
Of course, our discussion here is an over-simplified and somewhat academic explanation for the purpose of learning. Always use common sense and logic before you get all caught up in the plethora of arguments surrounding which research methods to use and under what circumstances. The reality is that in most research there is a benefit to using a mix methodology approach where both quantitative and qualitative methodologies are used within the same study in order to enrich the data.