Qualitative or Quantitative?


One of the main debates in psychology is the one between qualitative and quantitative methods of research and data collection/analysis.

Lets firstly look at quantitative methods. A quantitative research design is “a formal, objective, systematic process in which numerical data are utilised to obtain information about the world” (Burns and Grove 2004). There is an emphasis on numerical data in quantitative design, therefore the research methods used are those which will gather this type of data and measure things numerically, such as:

  • structured interviews – with set questions and set answer options
  • experiments – where results are measured on a numerical scale such as reaction time or the amount of correct answers
These methods are used to gather results which are used to try and prove or disprove a hypothesis. The hypothesis is presented first, then methods are used to test it further, this is a deductive approach.
When the data has been collected, to analyse it quantitatively, statistical methods are used. Data is often summarised into tables, and the averages, or main variables  are plotted on a graph. Data can also be analysed through statistical programmes such as SPSS where you input the data, and the programme provides a detailed output of table summaries and box plots.
Quantitative methods are objective and should allow repetition which produce similar results. Large samples tend to be used to be able to gather a lot of data, and to infer generalisability – which is more suitable to infer when a large sample is used.
Qualitative methods are the opposite to quantitative. They focus not on numerical data, but written results and the meanings of these results. Qualitative research is “all about exploring issues, understanding phenomena, and answering questions” (Gill Ereaut).
A wide range of research methods use this this design: focus groups, semi-structured and unstructured interviews, cast study, observation, questionnaires with open-ended questions, and any method of data collection which gives non-numerical data.  Much qualitative research occurs through ethnography-this is where the researcher becomes involved in or part of the group they are studying. There are four types of involvement: participant or non-participant observation (where the researcher becomes a participant in the group or where they do not) and covert or overt observation (where the group know they are being studied and who the researcher is, or where they are not aware that they are being studied).
This type of research design is inductive – the research is conducted first and then a hypothesis is derived from the results found, then more research is conducted to further validate the hypothesis.
Analysis of qualitative data is quite different to quantitative analysis. All of the data is transcribed from however it has been recorded e.g. video recorded, tape recorded. Two of the main methods used to do this are discourse analysis and grounded theory. In both of these methods, the participant’s responses are studied in depth (as well as their use of  language, tone of voice and any pauses or distractions), and reoccurring themes are noted for each participant.
It is worth noticing that qualitative design uses less participants, sometimes an in depth study of just one person (case study), and therefore findings cannot be easily generalised to the general population.
When deciding which research design to use, there will be advantages and disadvantages to both…
Quantitative methods will produce lots of data that are reliable and can be generalised. It is an objective and unbiased way of researching. Results can be easily and quickly understood through the use of graphs showing correlations. However a correlation between variables is all that can be shown, cause and effect cannot be proven. Quantitative methods do not take into account individual differences between participants – one participant’s responses could have totally different motives and reasons to another’s responses, but they are measured in the same way. This is an advantage in qualitative methods where each participant’s responses are understood fully and measured individually. Often qualitative methods provide a basis for quantitative ones, as qualitative design ends in the creation of a hypothesis which is needed for quantitative testing to begin. Qualitative methods allow the reasons behind people’s behaviour to be uncovered, which is what psychology is all about isn’t it? There are drawbacks to using the qualitative design too…you can find out why a person is the way they are but not why everybody else who displays similar behaviour is like that too – it is subjective. The issue of subjectiveness can also be applied to the researcher for example in observation, a researcher may class sudden outbursts as erratic, but another researcher may class it as energetic and out-going. This is why these methods are often unreliable.
In conclusion, the quantitative research design is best for generalising research results, and providing conclusions about large sections of the population.  Also, this method should be used when you want to generate reliable data – however it is not always valid as it occurs in experimental conditions which are controlled. It is also easily presented to the whole population through statistical graphs. The qualitative research design is best when you want to generate rich data which tells you about aspects of personality and behaviour of one or a small group of people. It is very useful when you want to generate valid findings, as it occurs in natural/field settings.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Comments for Wendy « PSUCF0

  2. I agree that each method is more adjusted to the type of data you are dealing with. For example you could not use the quantitative method to fully appreciate an emotion that was being studied, in that event you would use qualitative. Qualitative is looked down upon as being unscientific, as opposed to the quantitative method used by the natural sciences. Yet it is a necessary method to be used in subjects such as psychology, where the item that is being studied may well be due to many different and obscure factors.

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