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Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research - Twin Cities Library, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

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Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

"Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Such researchers emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning.

In contrast, quantitative studies emphasize the measurement and analysis of causal relationships between variables, not processes. Proponents of such studies claim that their work is done from within a value-free framework."1

Qualitative  |  Quantitative  |  Comparison Chart


When speaking of kinds of research, qualitative refers to studies of subjects that are hard to quantify, such as art history. The term qualitative research tends to be a residual category for nonquantitative research. The qualitative-quantitative distinction is often overdrawn. It is difficult to avoid quantitative elements in the most qualitative subject matter. For example, "The painter entered his 'blue period' in the 1890s." Qualitative components are crucial to most good quantitative research, which begins with theories, concepts, and constructs. 2

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

The major instrument for data collection and analysis is the qualitative researcher. Research is "in the field", conducting interviews, observing and recording behavior. Data is narrative (words), focused on the individual, human level. Rich detail and description are important. Research is concerned with process more so than outcomes and results and frequently subjective; the researcher immerses him/herself. Research design is flexible and evolving. 3

Research with Informants

What do my informants know about their culture that I can discover? What concepts do my informants use to classify their experiences? How do my informants define these concepts? What folk theory do my informants use to explain their experience? How can I translate the cultural knowledge of my informants into a cultural description my colleagues will understand? 3


Said of variables or research that can be handled numerically. Usually contrasted (too sharply) with qualitative variables and research. Many research designs lend themselves well to collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, and many variables can be handled either qualitatively or quantitatively. For example, naturalistic observations can give rise to either or both kinds of data. Interactions can be counted and timed with a stopwatch or they can be interpreted more holistically. 2

Characteristics of Quantitative Research

Questionnaires, inventories, and computers are used as data collection methods. Data is numerical, statistical. Large sample sizes are used to produce generalizations for a population. Research begins with a hypothesis-the goal being to explain a specific phenomena with numbers and objective data. Objective; the researcher observes but does not actively participate. Research design is structured and well-tested. 3

Research with Subjects

What do I know about a problem that will allow me to formulate and test a hypothesis? What concepts can I use to test this hypothesis? How can I operationally define these concepts? What scientific theory can explain the data? How can I interpret the results and report them in the language of my colleagues? 3

Side-by-Side Comparison Chart



Data is in the form of words, pictures or objects.

Data is in the form of numbers and statistics.

Inductive - based on reason that evaluates general propositions that are derived from specific examples.

Deductive - based on reason and logical analysis of available facts.

The researcher discloses biases, values, and experiences that may impact the interpretation of the results.

The researcher documents the results using objective language.

The investigator gathers data through interviews, observations, content analysis, etc.

Researcher uses tools, such as questionnaires or equipment to collect numerical data.

The design emerges as the study unfolds.

The researcher carefully designs all aspects of the study before actually collecting the data.

The researcher may only know roughly in advance what he/she is looking for.

The researcher knows clearly in advance what he/she is looking for.

What? Why?

How many?

Natural setting.

Highly controlled.

Quotes, bar and line graphs, and pie charts.

Pie charts, statistics, and graphs.

1. Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2000). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. Check availability.
2. Vogt, W. P. (2005). Dictionary of statistics & methodology: A nontechnical guide for the social sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. Check availability.
3. Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. Order through ILL.

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