Main differences in research types

Quantitative and qualitative data analysis are equally important, but you need to know which one to use and when. Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Suppose you want to know how a group will vote in an election. You are faced with a classic decision to collect qualitative versus quantitative facts.

One method allows you to ask voters open-ended questions that encourage them to share how they feel, what issues are important to them, and the reasons why they will vote a specific way. The other allows you to ask closed-ended questions, giving respondents a list of options. You then convert that information into statistics.

Neither method is more appropriate than the other, but they serve different purposes. Learn about the key differences between qualitative and quantitative research and how to use them.

What is qualitative research?

Qualitative research aims to explore and understand the depth, context, and nuances of human experiences, behaviors, and phenomena. This methodological approach emphasizes collecting rich, non-numerical information through methods such as interviews, focus groups, observations and content analysis.

In qualitative research, the emphasis is on uncovering patterns and meanings within a specific social or cultural context. Researchers delve into the subjective aspects of human behavior, opinions and emotions.

This approach is particularly valuable for exploring complex and multi-faceted issues, providing a deeper understanding of the complexities involved.

Common qualitative research methods include open-ended interviews, which allow participants to express their thoughts freely, and thematic analysis, which identifies recurring themes in the data.

Examples of the use of qualitative research

The flexibility of qualitative research allows researchers to adapt their methods based on emerging insights, promoting a more organic and holistic exploration of the research topic. This is a commonly used method in social sciences, psychology and market research.

Here are just a few ways you can use qualitative research.

  • To understand the people who make up a community: If you want to learn more about a community, you can talk to them or observe them to learn about their customs, norms and values.

  • To research people’s experiences within healthcare: While you can certainly look at statistics to gauge whether someone is positive or negative about their healthcare experiences, you may not get a deep insight into why they feel that way. For example, if a nurse went above and beyond for a patient, he might say he was satisfied with the care he received. But as medical professional after medical professional fires someone over several years, they will receive more negative comments.

  • To investigate the effectiveness of your marketing campaign: Marketing is a field that typically collects statistical data, but can also benefit from qualitative research. For example, if you have a successful campaign, you can interview people to find out what appeals to them and why. If you discover that they liked the humor because it shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously, you can try to repeat that sentiment in future campaigns.

Types of qualitative data collection

Qualitative data captures the qualities, characteristics, or attributes of a subject. It can take several forms, including:

  • Audio data: Recordings of interviews, discussions or other auditory information. This can be useful when dealing with past events. Setting up a recording device also allows a researcher to stay in the moment without having to take notes.

  • Observational data: This type of qualitative data analysis allows you to record behavior, events, or interactions.

  • Textual data: Use oral or written information collected through interviews, open surveys, or focus groups to learn more about a topic.

  • Visual data: You can learn new information through images, photos, videos, or other visual materials.

What is quantitative research?

Quantitative research is a systematic empirical study that involves the collection and analysis of numerical data. This approach attempts to understand, explain, or predict phenomena by collecting quantifiable information and applying statistical methods for analysis.

Unlike qualitative research, which focuses on non-numerical, descriptive data, quantitative research data includes measurements, counts, and statistical techniques to draw objective conclusions.

Examples of the use of quantitative research

Quantitative research focuses on statistical analysis. Here are a few ways you can use quantitative research methods.

  • Studying a city’s employment rates: Through this research you can gauge whether patterns exist over a period of time.

  • See how air pollution has affected a neighborhood: If highway construction has increased air pollution in a neighborhood, you can collect data to learn about the health impact on area residents. For example, you can see what percentage of people developed breathing problems after moving to the neighborhood.

Types of quantitative data

Quantitative data refers to numerical information that you can measure and count. Here are a few metrics you can use.

  • Heights, yards, volume and more: You can use different measurements to gain insight in different types of research, such as finding out the average distance employees are willing to travel for work or calculating the average height of a ballerina.

  • Temperature: Measures in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. Or, if you’re looking for the coldest place in the universe, you can measure in Kelvin.

  • Turnover figures: This information allows you to view a store’s performance over time, compare one company to another, or find out what the average amount of sales is in a specific industry.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research: 3 Key Differences

Quantitative and qualitative research methods are both valid and useful ways to collect data. Here are a few ways they differ.

  • Data collection method: Quantitative research uses standardized instruments, such as surveys, experiments, or structured observations, to collect numerical data. Qualitative research uses open methods such as interviews, focus groups or content analysis.

  • Nature of the data: Quantitative research involves numerical data that you can measure and analyze statistically, while qualitative research involves exploring the depth and richness of experiences through non-numerical, descriptive data.

  • Sampling: Quantitative research involves larger samples to ensure statistical validity and generalizability of the findings to a population. In qualitative research, it is better to work with a smaller sample size to gain deep insights into specific contexts or experiences.

Benefits of combining qualitative and quantitative research

You can study qualitative and quantitative data at the same time. This method, also called mixed-methods research, offers several advantages, including:

  • A comprehensive concept: Integration of qualitative and quantitative data provides a more comprehensive understanding of the research problem. Qualitative data helps explain context and nuances, while quantitative data provides statistical generalizability.

  • Contextualization: Qualitative data helps contextualize quantitative findings by explaining the why and how behind statistical patterns. This deeper understanding contributes to more informed interpretations of quantitative results.

  • Triangulation: Triangulation involves the use of multiple methods to validate or confirm findings. By combining qualitative and quantitative data, researchers can cross-verify the results, increasing the overall validity and reliability of the study.

This article was created using AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Qualitative vs. Quantitative: Key Differences in Research Types

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