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GuidesResearch methodsThe differences between qualitative and quantitative research methods

The differences between qualitative and quantitative research methods

Last updated

15 January 2023

Reviewed by

Miroslav Damyanov

Research is indispensable for understanding the world and advancing scientific knowledge.

Two approaches to this systematic information gathering are qualitative and quantitative research. Each of these has its place in data collection, but each one approaches from a different direction. Here's what you need to know about qualitative and quantitative research.

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The differences between quantitative and qualitative research

The main difference between these two approaches is the type of data you collect and how you interpret it. Qualitative research focuses on word-based data, aiming to define and understand ideas. This study allows researchers to collect information in an open-ended way through interviews, ethnography, and observation. You’ll study this information to determine patterns and the interplay of variables.

On the other hand, quantitative research focuses on numerical data and using it to determine relationships between variables. Researchers use easily quantifiable forms of data collection, such as experiments that measure the effect of one or several variables on one another.

Qualitative vs. quantitative data collection

Focusing on different types of data means that the data collection methods vary. 

Quantitative data collection methods

As previously stated, quantitative data collection focuses on numbers. You gather information through experiments, database reports, or surveys with multiple-choice answers. The goal is to have data you can use in numerical analysis to determine relationships.

Qualitative data collection methods

On the other hand, the data collected for qualitative research is an exploration of a subject's attributes, thoughts, actions, or viewpoints. Researchers will typically conduct interviews, hold focus groups, or observe behavior in a natural setting to assemble this information. Other options include studying personal accounts or cultural records. 

Qualitative vs. quantitative outcomes

The two approaches naturally produce different types of outcomes. Qualitative research gains a better understanding of the reason something happens. For example, researchers may comb through feedback and statements to ascertain the reasoning behind certain behaviors or actions.

On the other hand, quantitative research focuses on the numerical analysis of data, which may show cause-and-effect relationships. Put another way, qualitative research investigates why something happens, while quantitative research looks at what happens.

How to analyze qualitative and quantitative data

Because the two research methods focus on different types of information, analyzing the data you've collected will look different, depending on your approach.

Analyzing quantitative data

As this data is often numerical, you’ll likely use statistical analysis to identify patterns. Researchers may use computer programs to generate data such as averages or rate changes, illustrating the results in tables or graphs.

Analyzing qualitative data

Qualitative data is more complex and time-consuming to process as it may include written texts, videos, or images to study. Finding patterns in thinking, actions, and beliefs is more nuanced and subject to interpretation. 

Researchers may use techniques such as thematic analysis, combing through the data to identify core themes or patterns. Another tool is discourse analysis, which studies how communication functions in different contexts.

When to use qualitative vs. quantitative research

Choosing between the two approaches comes down to understanding what your goal is with the research.

Qualitative research approach

Qualitative research is useful for understanding a concept, such as what people think about certain experiences or how cultural beliefs affect perceptions of events. It can help you formulate a hypothesis or clarify general questions about the topic.

Quantitative research approach

On the other hand, quantitative research verifies or tests a hypothesis you've developed, or you can use it to find answers to those questions. 

Mixed methods approach

Often, researchers use elements of both types of research to provide complex and targeted information. This may look like a survey with multiple-choice and open-ended questions.

Benefits and limitations

Of course, each type of research has drawbacks and strengths. It's essential to be aware of the pros and cons.

Qualitative studies: Pros and cons

This approach lets you consider your subject creatively and examine big-picture questions. It can advance your global understanding of topics that are challenging to quantify.

On the other hand, the wide-open possibilities of qualitative research can make it tricky to focus effectively on your subject of inquiry. It makes it easier for researchers to skew the data with social biases and personal assumptions. There’s also the tendency for people to behave differently under observation.

It can also be more difficult to get a large sample size because it's generally more complex and expensive to conduct qualitative research. The process usually takes longer, as well. 

Quantitative studies: Pros and cons

The quantitative methodology produces data you can communicate and present without bias. The methods are direct and generally easier to reproduce on a larger scale, enabling researchers to get accurate results. It can be instrumental in pinning down precise facts about a topic. 

It is also a restrictive form of inquiry. Researchers cannot add context to this type of data collection or expand their focus in a different direction within a single study. They must be alert for biases. Quantitative research is more susceptible to selection bias and omitting or incorrectly measuring variables.

How to balance qualitative and quantitative research

Although people tend to gravitate to one form of inquiry over another, each has its place in studying a subject. Both approaches can identify patterns illustrating the connection between multiple elements, and they can each advance your understanding of subjects in important ways. 

Understanding how each option will serve you will help you decide how and when to use each. Generally, qualitative research can help you develop and refine questions, while quantitative research helps you get targeted answers to those questions. Which element do you need to advance your study of the subject? Can both of them hone your knowledge?

Open-ended vs. close-ended questions

One way to use techniques from both approaches is with open-ended and close-ended questions in surveys. Because quantitative analysis requires defined sets of data that you can represent numerically, the questions must be close-ended. On the other hand, qualitative inquiry is naturally open-ended, allowing room for complex ideas.

An example of this is a survey on the impact of inflation. You could include both multiple-choice questions and open-response questions:

1. How do you compensate for higher prices at the grocery store? (Select all that apply)

A. Purchase fewer items

B. Opt for less expensive choices

C. Take money from other parts of the budget

D. Use a food bank or other charity to fill the gaps

E. Make more food from scratch

2. How do rising prices affect your grocery shopping habits? (Write your answer)

We need qualitative and quantitative forms of research to advance our understanding of the world. Neither is the "right" way to go, but one may be better for you depending on your needs. 

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