Friday, September 9, 2011

The New Meaning of "Quantitative" and "Qualitative" in Research Methods

Alan Bryman asserted that the terms “quantitative research” and “qualitative research” have come to denote more than just ways of gathering data and that the terms now represent divergent assumptions about the nature and purpose of research in the socials sciences. This term paper will argue for Bryman’s assertion and show agreement by proving that the two are more than just different ways of gathering data. This will be achieved by giving examples, comparing and contrasting the two research methods and logically and subjectively supplying arguments.

Research in general is any investigation intended at expanding human knowledge or to answer a question and to discover a previously unknown fact. There are two main ways of conducting research: quantitative research and qualitative research, though the likes of Bryman (1988) would add ‘mixed methods’ to this list.
Qualitative research, broadly defined, means "any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification" (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This type of research focuses on words and meaning of the research subject. Methods employed in this type of research include focus groups, intensive interviews and direct observation.

Quantitative research on the other hand is conclusive in its purpose as it tries to quantify the problem and understand how prevalent it is by looking for projectable results to a larger population. Quantitative research relies of statistical analysis of subjects’ responses which are then used to generalize the results onto a bigger population.

The two research methods were initially regarded as just ways of gathering data, they were used interchangeably but scholars started to differ and what followed was the widening gap between the two such that these days, the mere mention of a research method tells of the underpinning philosophy of the research and researcher in addition the purpose of the research.

Qualitative research has its roots in constructivism or interpretivism where truth is not universal but rather relative and subject to time and place, an assumption that rejects the very hub of quantitative research which believes in positivism where the truth is universal as is in the physical sciences. This epistemological difference makes the main difference between the two methods.

Interpretivism charges that because positivists can measure a part and conclude about the whole, they stand to miss some elements of the phenomena it’s why the part itself has to be studied in detail.

The qualitative researcher will inductively make conclusions while the quantitative researcher will use induction this to say the quantitative researcher will make conclusion about the bigger population by examining a small sample (deductive reasoning). The qualitative researcher will only speak about what they are studying and dare generalise.

From the differences in the underlying philosophy it is evident that the two methods are a miles apart, as if that is not enough, the rift between the two methods has also been transferred to the purpose of research itself as Potter (1996) says: “...two scholars who hold different beliefs [paradigms] may be interested in examining the same phenomenon but their beliefs will lead them to set up their studies very differently because of their differing views of evidence, analysis and the purpose of the research.” (P.36, quoted in Dominick and Wimmer, 2006: 114-115)

The ultimate aim of qualitative research is to offer a perspective of a situation and provide well-written research reports that reflect the researcher's ability to illustrate or describe the corresponding phenomenon. One of the greatest strengths of the qualitative approach is the richness and depth of explorations and descriptions.

This difference in underlying philosophy between the two methods of collecting data has crept into the minds of researchers and academicians and consequently affected their perceptions of the two. Qualitative research is now confined to college halls while the industry is at peace with quantitative methods.

Since qualitative research usually doesn’t build on existing theory, it is left to academics who have to develop the theory after which, quantitative researchers who usually are advertisers and marketers come to build on the research to design quantitative research on the theory. (Creswell and Clark, 2007 quoted in Johnson, 2008)

Qualitative research requires the participation of the researcher, and the questions are unstructured and open such that the research focus can change anytime. This is not permissible in quantitative research where the researcher distances themselves from the research and the fact that the other method has a high chance of being tampered with by subjective intonations of the researcher has made qualitative research even more weak among many researcher and hence condemned to university corridors.

The development of the two research methods also backs the Bryman's 1988 assertion. Initially research was quantitative and it was in the areas of the physical sciences, when social scientists began developing they found it difficult to explain behaviour using quantitative means and thus qualitative methods were born. (Morgan, 1983 quoted in Charoenruk [no year])

 This is an indication of the intended purpose; if the two were just ways of collecting data the earlier positivists could have developed qualitative methods. The fact that they were only developed after some vacuum was discovered means that they mean more than just data collection methods. It is a whole new way of researching not collecting data.

Despite some calls by the likes of Bryman that the dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative researchers is useless and that the mixed model should be championed after all, they argue, all research findings can be quantified or qualified, the two are very mutually exclusive as Dominick and Wimmer (2006) argue: “...although the methods maybe the same, however, the research goal, the research questions are quite different...” (p.115)

The two are so differentiated that they now represent two fronts: qualitative research is concerned with complex research questions of “how” and “why” and it deals with issues that seek to illustrate complex phenomena such as human behaviour; quantitative research on the other hand has come to be perceived as practical, asking questions such as “what” and “when,” simple and industry-friendly research that deals with simple question that attempt to describe group behaviour and to prove an existing theory.

For example it would be unheard of in some quarters to use qualitative research to try and find out the popularity of a radio program among a population, this because the question can best be answered by quantitative research. If the researchers then want to know why the program is popular they are ready to summon the qualitative guns.

By just hearing the two terms being mentioned, one knows what to expect. If it is qualitative, it probably is not an advertising or marketing question but rather in the field of ideology and similar abstract and complex areas.

Bryman himself conducted a survey in 2007 and found that his 1988 assertion was so deep rooted in researchers’ minds in the United Kingdom such that they couldn’t efficiently use the mixed methods model but rather chose between qualitative and quantitative according to their purposes and philosophical origins. (Bryman, 2007) this is proof that the two terms are now philosophies themselves, representing schools of thought among researchers and academicians.

In summary, therefore, in agreeing with the assertion by Bryman that the terms qualitative research and quantitative research now mean more than just ways of gathering data, the essay has exposed the philosophical differences, the purpose differences, the research questions variations and given examples of how the two are used today to confirm Bryman’s statement.


Bryman, Alan (2007) Barriers to Integrating Quantitative and Qualitative Research (Journal Article) Volume 1, Number 1 of 2007: Journal of Mixed Methods Research. Downloaded from:  http://www.pdfsearch .com 

Dominick, R and Wimmer, R (2006) Mass Media Research: An introduction (8th Ed) Sydney: Thomson Wadsworth
Gordon Marshall, (1998) (www document) Qualitative versus quantitative debate, retrieved from accessed: March 06, 2011
Holstein, James and Gubrium, Jaber, (2002) [www document] Qualitative Research Retrieved from:  accessed: 3 Mar. 2011
Johnson, Kevin (2008) Comparing and contrasting quantitative research methods, Nova South Eastern University.
Mora, Michaela (2010) (www document) Quantitative vs. Qualitative research – When to use which, retrieved from: , on March 06, 2011

Trochim, William (2006) (www document) The Qualitative Debate, retrieved from: , on March 06, 2011
GORDON MARSHALL. "qualitative versus quantitative debate." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. (March 6, 2011).

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