In the social sciences there are two main styles of research – qualitative and quantitative. But is there one style of research that may be better? Let’s look at qualitative vs quantitative research.
Qualitative research is better when you want to look at the underlying reasons for something – maybe you want to know about why a certain group holds certain rituals, or why when placed in certain situations, people tend towards a certain kind of action. This kind of data can be found out by qualitative research.
Quantitative research is better for when you want to seek out specific features and classify them, to generalise results and to make statistical models to potentially explain things. This is useful if you want to know about things such as the difference in pay rate dependent on factors such as education, gender or race, or the political views of certain groups.
You’ll notice here we’ve not really answered the question, and that’s because neither research method is better than the other, they are just better at different things. You’ll certainly use one, the other, or maybe both if you do a PhD in the social sciences, so let’s take a look at which is better for certain goals or which is best to use in certain situations, shall we?
Do you have a large sample size and would like to find out general trends? Then quantitative research methods are for you. Using something such as a survey, you’ll gain plenty of data and have lots to work with and base theories on.
What about if you have a small sample group? Maybe qualitative methods are best for you – you can get in depth information and whilst it’s less easy to generalise, you can find out things more in depth.
Do you want to give a broad overview of something? Then you want quantitative methods – you want lots of participants, and data that you can generalise and extrapolate from.
Do you want insights into the thoughts behind something? Then you want qualitative – you can spend time drawing out the intricacies behind things from a smaller group of people, and look at trends.
Does your research involve surveys and experiments? That’s quantitative and should be analysed as such – you can use statistics, mathematical modelling and all sorts of numerically based wonders!
Or is it interviews, observation and discussion? Then it’s qualitative and you need to treat the data in this way – writing about it or talking about it in terms of theory, what you observed, and the implications of this.
Do you intend to present your data using tables, charts or mathematical models? Then you need to collect it using quantitative research methods in order to ensure the kinds of data you are getting are suited to this sort of presentation.
Maybe you’d prefer to discuss trends or describe various aspects? Then you can do qualitative research just fine, and write or talk about things in more detail, but without using statistics.
Is your goal to propose a theory, or a course of action? Then you want quantitative methods – you want to be able to use statistics or models to back up your intended goal.
Or is your goal to explore or investigate a certain area? Then qualitative is your best bet – you’ll be able to describe things, and maybe from there find a certain variable to move onto using quantitative methods.
As you can see, depending on a lot of factors, you may wish to choose one or the other. Of course, there is a problem with looking at it in this way – most researchers use a combination of the two. You can use qualitative methods to begin an investigation, and then quantitative to go further into it (possibility returning to qualitative methods if need be). Let’s say in psychology, you interview a few people about a trend of behaviour linked to stress caused by university. From this initial data, you may wish to draw certain conclusions. So you then set up a survey asking about specific variables highlighted in the initial interview, and then analyse the results. These results can then show you if there is a correlation between the variable you highlighted and stress. As you can see, you’d have used both kinds of research methods in order to come to these conclusions, and it’s therefore worth bearing in mind that both have their uses.