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Qualitative vs. Quantitative

I’ve been looking for a better way to explain the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. Saying that qualitative researchers work with words and quantitative ones work with numbers doesn’t quite do it. Neither does explaining that qualitative researchers use interviews and focus groups to collect data while quantitative researchers use surveys and checklists.

If you’re like me, your intuitive sense of how qualitative and quantitative studies differ is stronger than any definition or description you can come up with. We know it’s more than the difference between words and numbers but have a hard time pinpointing those deeper distinctions.

Recently, while reading Robert Stake’s The Art of Case Study Research for a project, I found some guidance. In a chapter called “The Nature of Qualitative Research” Stake details several distinctions between qualitative and quantitative research. They apply to all qualitative work, not just case studies.

The more I read, the more Stakes’ words resonated with my intuitive notions and experience in the field. I soon found myself teasing out the distinctions in Stake’s narrative. Here are ten I thought were worth sharing . . . and remembering for the next time the question comes up.

1. Understanding vs. Explanation

Qualitative researchers seek “understanding of the complex interrelationships” while quantitative researchers seek “explanation and control.”

2. Non-causal vs. Causal

Qualitative studies describe “things happening more or less at the same time without expectation of causal explanation.” Quantitative studies aim to establish cause and effect.

3. Unique vs. Generalizable

Qualitative researchers “treat the uniqueness of individual cases and contexts as important to understanding.” On the other hand, quantitative researchers endeavor to “nullify context to find the most general and pervasive explanatory relationships.”

4. Continual Interpretation vs. Summative Interpretation

During data collection the qualitative researcher continually exercises subjective judgment, constantly analyzing and synthesizing data. In standard quantitative designs interpretations are stifled until all the data are collected and statistically analyzed.

5. Unlimited Variables • Limited Variables

Qualitative research questions are designed to seek out relationships—unanticipated as well as expected—among a broad set of variables. Quantitative questions examine relationships among a small number of predetermined variables.

6. Field Talent • Design Talent

In qualitative work, the most talented researchers must be the ones out in the field “directly in contact with the phenomenon and making subjective claims as to the meaning of the data.” In quantitative work, talent is most beneficial when allocated upfront in instrument development and controlled questioning.

7. Holistic • Targeted

“Qualitative inquiry is distinguished by its emphasis on a holistic treatment of phenomenon.” Quantitative studies target one discrete piece of the whole.

8. Allow • Create

Qualitative researchers allow things to happen naturally; quantitative researchers create situations to test their hypotheses.

9. Critical Uniqueness • Comparative Uniqueness

In qualitative research, uniqueness is established through the “collection of features and sequence of happenings critical to understanding a particular situation.” Alternatively, uniqueness in quantitative research is established by comparisons made to a number of other pre-determined variables.

10. Patterns • Co-variation

Qualitative research is grounded in patterns and themes. Quantitative researchers rely on correlation and co-variation to validate findings.

The line between quantitative and qualitative is always a little fuzzy, says Stake. There is no pure version of one or the other.  And, of course, we all know that a marriage between the two is most ideal. But having an understanding of the essential differences between qualitative and quantitative methods can help in choosing the optimum study design and in balancing the two approaches. Or, in explaining the benefits of one or the other to those who ask.

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