Comparison of Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods

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Abstract

The purpose of this study is to compare qualitative and quantitative approaches to research investigation in social science. After further examination of the relevant literature, a brief exploration of a mixed methods approach has also been taken into consideration within this paper. I discuss in detail about human perception and assumption and the impact that this can have on research investigation. I critically discuss and compare the differences of quantitative and qualitative research approaches, their underlying epistemological and theoretical different with an additional small focus on a mixed method approach. I consider the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches, the differences in the research design and methodologies and present a logical academic argument to detail my understanding. The findings presented show human perception can have a huge impact on many aspects within research.

Introduction

Human beings are naturally curious and inherently possess an inquisitive mind about how the world works and about what truth really is. Scientists have spent many years discovering new things about the world and filling in knowledge gaps which once existed. The process of research inevitably brings about change. The overarching idea of research investigation is based on an idea about how our world is perceived, and is used by social scientists to find out more about it; to deepen our understanding of our world.  

Everyone has a different opinion of what reality is to them and this is therefore why research investigation is a widely debated and complex process. Boethius (quoted in Patel, no date, p3) believed that ‘knowledge is not based on the thing known but on the nature of the knower’.  This highlights to us the significance of human assumptions in the research process and that each person can differ quite significantly in their belief system.  Kuhn (1970) believed that those whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards. Kuhn (1970) further states that a paradigm dictates, initially, not a subject matter but a group of practitioners. Research paradigms are all relative to someone’s epistemological and ontological assumptions and when a shared philosophical tradition is adopted to the research, a common paradigm can penetrate this research and influence the approaches and methodologies that they use.

A consideration of ontology and epistemology helps to build a holistic picture of how researchers perceive knowledge and how this knowledge relates to society with the methodologies used to discover the knowledge. Being aware of a researcher’s philosophical assumptions is important in influencing the entire research process.

Research Paradigm

Firstly, let’s consider the concept ‘paradigm’. According to Crotty (1998) a paradigm consists of four key components; ontology, epistemology, methodology and methods. A paradigm, according to Creswell and Poth (2017) is a basic set of beliefs that guides enquiries which he refers to as ‘worldviews’. Lincoln and Guba (1985) claim paradigms represent a refinement of what we think about the world, but cannot yet prove. Creswell and Poth (2017, citing Huff, 2009) discusses the importance of philosophy in research stating that the direction of our research and the outcomes is driven by our assumptions which consequently influence our chosen methodologies.

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Through my reading, I have had difficulty in consistently defining a set of paradigms due to the range of almost conflicting and, at times, slightly confusing theories. Creswell (2003) refers to paradigms as ‘worldviews’ which he believes to have four elements; post-positivism, constructivism, transformative and pragmatic. Guba (1990) refers to positivism as a separate entity from other paradigms such as post-positivism and constructivism. Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) talk about those paradigms discussed by Guba with an addition of pragmatism and (Shadish, 1995) talks about the concept of ‘logical positivism’. Bryman (2004) refers to positivism and interpretivism and differentiates these from its variations; phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. To clarify – and make myself feel slightly better – Morgan (2007) explains that social scientists can talk about ‘paradigms’ and each easily mean something entirely different. Morgan talks about four versions – each version treating paradigms as shared belief system – influencing the knowledge that researchers seek. He uses this concept of a paradigm as his main basis for discussion within his document. (Scotland, 2012) explains that different paradigms consist of differing ontological and epistemological views and therefore present differing assumptions of reality and knowledge which is embedded within their research approach. Kuhn (1970) details paradigms as epistemological stances which influences how research questions are devised and answered, concentrating on a practitioner’s views about the world within this philosophy of knowledge; affecting the research design and approaches (Morgan, 2007). The philosophical foundations of each paradigm can never be proven or disproven as everyone’s assumptions are speculation; opening up room for debate and inaccuracies. The ontological and epistemological differences within the paradigms, as stated previously, shape and scaffold their approach to the research which directly affects the methodologies and methods used within.

Approaches to Research

The research approach adopted, depends on the philosophical stance underpinning the research. Research approaches are plans and processes to build a deeper understanding about the research; moving a researcher from their initial assumptions into developing comprehensive methodologies, research design, data collection and analysis. The main point to deliberate when considering a topic of study, is which research approach would be best suited to where a researcher’s philosophical stance lies. It must also be taken into consideration that your audience may have different philosophical assumptions (Creswell and Poth, 2017) as they review and critique your research. According to Creswell (2003) doing your research is about more than philosophical ideas. These must be combined with broad strategies to research and key methods considered. More information will be shared about the inductive and deductive approaches to research.

Reflecting on the discussion on paradigms previously, it can be noted that each research approach discussed in the next section will possess differing and conflicting philosophical stances. Johnson and Christensen (2008) talk about three main approaches to research which include a quantitative approach, a qualitative approach and a mixed approach.  I will now go on to discuss and analyse quantitative and qualitative approaches, each in isolation and following this, I shall compare the approaches critically. I will finish by talking briefly about the concept of mixed methods approach to research.

Quantitative Research  

For many years, a positivist paradigm was the norm, and quantitative research was generally the dominant approach to research until around the 1980s. A positivist paradigm is a philosophical theory which believes that knowledge is learned through real events that can be observed, measured and explained with logical analysis (Positivist Paradigm, 2018). The nature of reality in quantitative research epistemology is objectivist – meaning that situations can be observed independent of personal experience. There is only one reality according to Lincoln & Guba (1985) from the positivists’ point of view; the knower and the known are independent and the emphasis is on the theory. A deductive scientific method is taken within this approach and the ‘top-down method’ is used, where the researcher tests hypotheses and theory with data (Johnson and Christensen, 2008) – moving from a general perspective to a more refined and specific one. The positivist paradigm is directed at explaining connections and relationships. Researchers aim to generate laws, to help them predict and generalise; this however, depends on the size of the groups of which data is being gathered. This enables researchers to understand the world enough, so we might be able to predict and even control aspects of it. The data gathered is usually collected through direct experience/observation and by collecting and analysing data researchers are able to convert it into measurable and numerical statistics; enabling the analysis of trends, patterns, relationships and conclusions to be drawn from this information.

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A philosophical perspective, based on realist ontology; positivists attempt to identify causes which affect outcomes in their research (Creswell and Poth, 2017). Creswell further explains that the process of quantitative research usually begins with an area of interest from the researcher. This is usually based on their ontological and epistemological ideas of the world. The researcher aims to test a theory about their idea by creating narrow hypotheses or questions and begins to plan and collect data which will support or disprove the hypothesis. Bryman (2004, quoting Blaikie, 2000, p58) states that ‘establishing research questions or hypotheses makes it possible to select research strategies and methods with confidence. In other words, a research project is built on the foundation of research questions’. Gorard (2003) places emphasis on the importance of a literature review within the quantitative research approach. Finding a good balance of theory and data is key to a good research project he explains. Quantitative research begins with a question or hypothesis where a literature review, which is an important step in formulating the research question or problem (Cooper, 1998) will help begin to fill the knowledge gap from the initial stages of the research. The knowledge gained from the literature review is not enough to define the problem adequately (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 2003). Using the background knowledge on the research topic, gained from the formation of a literature review, not only enables the quantitative researcher to carefully focus their hypotheses and questions for research, but also allows the researcher to draw relevant conclusions from the analysed data gathered from the methodology and methods chosen.

The design of the research is important. The design provides specific direction for the actions taken in the research process (Creswell, 2003). There are many variables to consider during the experimental design phase. The researcher should plan his methodology carefully to enable him to discover the information he needs in a strategic manner; gathering the data to help validate the researcher’s hypotheses or questions. The methodology is influenced by the specific paradigm underpinning the research. This then affects the data collection methods which are carefully considered during this phase (Silverman, 1993). A positivist will generally find they make use of quantitative data gathering tools – celebrating qualitative methods best suited to the project (Saldana, 2011). Quantitative methods for gathering data can range from field notes to surveys. Usually samples are gathered in large numbers; the researcher to be objective and unbiased where they try to find causal connections and relationships through objective measurement and quantitative analysis (Firestone, 1987). Each result will be interpreted differently by each practitioner as each of them thinks in a different way. Quantitative data can help link relationships between any variables and the outcomes of the research. This data can allow others to confirm the outcomes by replicating the analysis independently elsewhere (Dudwick, Kuehnast, Jones and Woolcock, 2006: p3). The final step is to write a report to show a researcher’s findings.

Qualitative Research

Moving on from the early 1980s, there appeared to be a paradigm shift as many researchers began to challenge and question a quantitative approach to research (Morgan, 2007). This change in attitude came from the rising awareness that statistics and numbers would not meet the requirement to capture the depth of complex human interactions within the world. As the questions about quantitative research approaches increased, the development of a constructivist ontological stance was moving forward. The development of constructivist knowledge claims became more apparent in which qualitative research became more prominent.

Qualitative research is concerned with the nature of phenomena (Dieronitou, 2014). The nature of reality in qualitative research epistemology is subjective – meaning that the study can be viewed by a person, through their own perspective and personal experiences. It can take into account their emotional stance as well as their own bias.  Qualitative research is a personal process which is socially constructed, there is a focus on analysing the processes and what they mean – the focus, unlike quantitative research, is not to measure with numbers and statistics. Qualitative researchers want to learn from the group of participants’ experiences as they happen and through their own natural reactions, so the methods chosen by the researcher should allow for spontaneous discovery to support the intricate human interactions that occur. The data tends to be gathered through interviews, observations, focus groups and action research (Marshall and Rossman, 2006). The data gathered during the qualitative approach is data which is more comprehensive, focusing on a much smaller number of people compared with quantitative inquiry. Conclusions are reached through the validation of an outcome in one sample study being applied to another setting to see how results compare.

Qualitative analysis aims to capture the depth, breadth and complexity of people’s experience in their own terms (Labuschagne, 2003). Consequently, the process of qualitative research differs somewhat from a quantitative research approach. Because qualitative research is believed by many theorists to be socially constructed, the importance of spontaneous human interaction and involvement is significant. Where quantitative research aims to find evidence to prove or disprove a hypothesis, built on the gaps in their knowledge with which a literature review demonstrated; qualitative research usually begins with a problem observed in a setting. Similarly to a quantitative researcher, the problem is usually based on their ontological and epistemological ideas of the world. The researcher will use this problem to develop the core aims and objectives of the research. The research design and methodology are planned thereafter.

The design of the qualitative research is also important. Next I will go on to discuss some qualitative designs, however it is important to note that this list is non-exhaustive as I have only chosen only a few to define.

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According to Saldana (2011) qualitative research can possess a range of differing elements and styles within the design. Saldana talks about the element of ethnography where he explains it as observing and recording people in their own social surroundings to build an awareness of their culture over a prolonged period of time. Creswell (2003) explains that the process of ethnography can be quite flexible. Saldana (2011) goes on to discuss differing approaches to the design process of qualitative research through the element of grounded theory, which he defines as an analytic process of comparing small pieces of information to build a bigger picture and develop a greater understanding (Saldana, 2011). Grounded theory is a research design process where reliable characterising and cumulative coding cycles are involved to observe any categories that might begin to accumulate within the research – to build a bigger picture of the research data. Furthermore, Crewell (2003) explains that a researcher using grounded theory attempts to develop a general theory of a process, action or interaction within in the views of the participants of the study, which will enable the researcher to find out what the heart of the research is about (Morrow, 2005; Saldana, 2011; Wutich and Bernard, 2016). This methodology helps to generate a theory about the processes observed by a qualitative researcher (Saldana, 2011). Phenomenology is further discussed as understanding lived experiences from the participants, which can be seen as both a method and also a philosophy according to Creswell (2003). Qualitative methods for gathering data include personal interviews, participant observations, focus groups, personal accounts of individuals and personal constructs (Dash, 2005) and how a researcher considers the data from these methods, depends on the method used. Each result will also be interpreted differently by each practitioner as each of them thinks in a different way. Good qualitative research requires skill and a clear purpose. Unlike quantitative research, the problem identified at the beginning of the research is not one that needs an extensive literature review to develop a hypothesis.  

Quantitative Approach Vs Qualitative Approach

I will now look at both approaches discussed earlier and begin to build a comparative analysis of the strengths and potential weaknesses of each. Quantitative and qualitative research have been viewed for many years as two separate entities. Quantitative and qualitative approaches to research vary in their principles and their processes. Both approaches vary in the logical structure of the process – the research design, the methods used and how conclusions are drawn from each. Qualitative and quantitative researchers also have differing paradigmatic ideas – which initially seems problematic in terms of a pragmatic approach to research, which will be discussed later in this paper. Let us begin by first considering the paradigmatic contrasts that appear between the two approaches.

Paradigm Comparison

Many qualitative researchers have different epistemological assumptions compared with quantitative researchers. These provide the basis for the entire research. Quantitative researchers believe in the positivist paradigm. Quantitative research is associated with objectivity – where a range of observers agree on what is being observed (Johnson and Christensen, 2008). Quantitative research tends to be deductive – where a conclusion follows from questions or hypotheses agreed at the beginning of the process. Qualitative research tends to be inductive –understanding the meaning of individuals or groups (Creswell and Poth, 2017). However, according to Patel (n.d) some quantitative research can be more inductive just like some qualitative research, although usually inductive – allowing for social exploring – can also be used to support a rigid, deductive hypothesis too. Interestingly however, Kuhn (1970) states that there can be a ‘sort of’ scientific research without paradigms completely. Morgan (2007) disregards the notion of the earlier claim by Kuhn that a positivist paradigm in the social sciences existed at all, and believes that it did not dominate social science research. He believes it to be an interpretation of history rather than a statement about real information and facts. Is it therefore possible to question whether these different paradigms even exist? Could there be potential for them to be amalgamated? Or like Kuhn begins to explain in an aspect of his discussion, which is backed up by Morgan’s drastic claim, can these paradigms be omitted altogether? Further discussion can be found later in this assignment.

The Research Design

Quantitative and qualitative approaches to research differ in the way that the research is planned, controlled and conducted. Prior to the mixed methods approach – which will be discussed later, the two approaches to research depend on a researcher’s philosophical stance as a practitioner. Positivists believe that quantitative methodology is carefully designed to remove subjective elements from their inquiry – highlighting the value of neutrality (Dieronitou, 2014). On the other hand, Marshall and Rossman (2006) argue that in qualitative research, because the researcher tends to be more personally involved in the research, certain qualitative approaches can run the risk of being biased or too reflective of the researcher’s own prejudgements or assumptions. Does this then impact on the validity of the research? Creswell and Poth (2017) state that remaining objective is an important part of any skilled inquiry. Is it possible for a qualitative researcher to plan and design a research inquiry which remains neutral?

It could be possible that both quantitative and qualitative approaches may find this difficult because a researcher is only human. It could therefore be argued that all researchers naturally possesses predetermined individual perceptions and assumptions that automatically make all research methodology bias. Could it be further argued then, that qualitative research methodology may perhaps have more of an advantage in controlling this? Since qualitative research allows for some flexibility within the methodology (Saldana, 2011) could it be possible that qualitative researchers, because of their higher involvement within the research, can repair any ‘damage’ as it evolves? Or can a better way of designing the research be found?

Quantitative research methodology is planned to test the initial hypotheses or questions at the start of the research, using carefully planned data gathering tools. Creswell and Poth (2017) believes that an advantage to quantitative design is the gathering of data which makes it easy to generalise and replicate the findings for future inquiries. It can be argued that because qualitative design is a more socially complex process, where the researcher uses their assumptions are their own unique interpretations of the data collected (Creswell and Poth, 2017) and create their own individual meaning during the analysis phase, implying that this process is a much more complex one. It would therefore appear from this discussion that qualitative design is much more difficult to replicate compared to quantitative methodology. In the defence of qualitative methodology, Tsai, et al., (2016) discuss an advantage to quantitative research is that the data gathered can be anonymised and the statistical codes used during this process which can be easily shared and replicated (Gandrud, 2013; Peng 2009). So it appears that the question now is more about the data collection tools used and the way that the data is considered and analysed.

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Methods for Collecting and Analysing Data

The research approaches differ in the preferred ways of gathering data and the way that the data is analysed, presented and validated. The design principles and structure need to be carefully planned and considered to ensure that the right information is gathered and analysed in a strategic manner to support the validation process of the researcher’s problem, question or hypothesis. According to Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) there are six different methods for collecting data. These include, interviews, observations, questionnaires, focus groups, tests and secondary data. Researchers choose the methods to collect the data which they believe will get the best results from the participants of the research. The tools used to collect this data should be carefully considered.

Quantitative research is deductive, structured and controlled. Quantitative data is usually gathered to measure the impact, amount or frequency (Saldana, 2011; Firestone, 1987). Labuschagne (2003) explainsthat the advantage of the quantitative approach is that it measures a large amount of people and their reactions/ideas/opinions within a limited set of questions. This therefore provides the researcher with a large set of results which allows for a simple and reliable collection and comparison of numerical data. It allows for variables to be examined, measured and transferred into numerical data to help analysis. Horkheimer (1972) criticises quantitative research and the positivist paradigm, suggesting that failing to take into consideration human values, cultural beliefs and morals is wrong. Humans are people with emotions and beliefs and if we disregard this when they are at the heart of our research then are we missing a vital component of the research process? Qualitative research, on the other hand, is inductive, exploratory and open-ended which relies on spontaneous human interactions. Qualitative data is usually gathered to deepen a researcher’s understanding of something; to build in a researcher’s own inference, empathy and perception which helps to enrich the research (Saldana, 2011). As we know, it is impossible for a researcher to completely remove themselves from the research because they are only human. However, if positivists would accept the notion of their research approach not being wholly objective, does this mean that positivists could argue against Horkheimer’s criticism? Or can it be argued that researchers’ own emotions influence and impact negatively towards the validity of the data? A discussion surrounding the implications of validity and bias arises later in this section.

Qualitative data can be analysed in a more holistic manner compared to quantitative research. Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) believe that qualitative coding of data can be sorted by scores on a quantitative measure. In doing so can allow the researcher to notice trends, patterns in a numerical fashion which can help provide a better insight into the initial research problem, hypothesis or question. The added bonus of quantifying some of the qualitative data is that the researcher can represent the bigger picture – a more holistic picture of the data and reasons for the patterns and trends. This is an advantage to the qualitative research approach, however the potential question is, would the intersection of the two methods still allow the qualitative researcher to remain within their own philosophical views and beliefs? If the researcher is still allowed to explore human interactions and the social constructivist concept, then I do believe that this remains within their paradigmatic beliefs. Further to this discussion, Morrow (2005) noted that dealing with people is a challenge. People are complex beings with a range of emotions, opinions and cultural beliefs. This means that the knowledge that qualitative researchers can develop from the approach that they take, are complex, can be ‘large’ sample sizes (for the depth of data being gathered and analysed these samples would be considered ’large’) and responses to the data collection instruments can be varied quite significantly. Creswell (2003) would argue that this complex volume of information can potentially blur the researcher’s focus on what they are truly looking for in their research.  

Validity, Reliability and Bias

It is paramount that as a researcher, your philosophical stance, the methodology, methods and analysis are trustworthy and valid. Your paradigmatic underpinnings throughout the entire research are embedded throughout. Gorard (2003) believes that currently in time, a solely quantitative approach to research can often be quite a weak approach to research. He also believes there to be many social science journals which are full of basic arithmetic errors due to the statistics and numerical values being largely unchecked. This begins to make me wonder how trustworthy this is as an approach to research and question the reliability of the data presented from the use of these methods.

Labuschagne (2003) explains that many scientists who regularly participate in quantitative research believe qualitative research to be unclear and almost ‘not real’. Qualitative research situations tend to be viewed by one person – relying on their sole personal experience, emotion, and bias. Positivists believe that it is their job as researchers to put aside their opinions and biases in order to remain objective. As discussed earlier, it is unclear exactly how this objectivity can be monitored and measured – whether the approach can be fully, authentically objective. Morrow (2005, citing Scriven, 1972) explains that it is not right to associate objectivity with quantitative and subjectivity with qualitative as, Morrow continues to explain, all research is subject to bias.

Constructivists believe that this just is not possible to escape bias. If both approaches hold different philosophical beliefs which lie in the foundations of the research approaches, then the concept of objectivity is already invalid. The qualitative researcher needs to demonstrate that their personal interest will not affect the study in terms of bias (Marshall and Rossman, 2006) as well as attempt to develop a method of triangulation. However, Morrow (2005) explains that some researchers will try hard to control or manage elements of subjectivity however, depending on the paradigmatic underpinnings, they may embrace subjectivity and use it as data.

Triangulation is split into two separate terms according to Johnson and Christensen (2008). They discuss methods triangulation and data triangulation. A qualitative researcher looking to enhance the validity of their research could use methods triangulation where they use more than one method (grounded theory, phenomenology etc). Or they could use a range of data gathering tools, discussed earlier in this section.

Ethical Implications

Prior to conducting any research, ethical and moral considerations must be carefully planned and explored in depth. Ethical attitudes can be difficult to measure. Maccoby (1976, cited in Kidwell and Kidwell, 2007) identified different head/heart characteristics to which Kidwell and Kidwell talk about the danger of an imbalance between heart and head. They suggest that this would demonstrate a lack of concern about ethics if the imbalance was in the ‘head’ region. A qualitative researcher has an ethical obligation to discuss ethical issues and how she will approach them (Marshall and Rossman, 2016). This is because qualitative research produces words. Special care should be taken, ethically and morally, to check that the words spoken by the participant are correct from the person who spoke them and not based on the researcher’s interpretation of the words. Tsai et al. (2016) discuss the difficulty with qualitative research and anonymity as it is less efficiently anonymised to prevent any breaches of confidentiality. A quantitative researcher generally deals with numbers and statistics which poses less of a threat to a breach of ethical rules. It is easier for a quantitative researcher to keep data anonymous. It does not mean however that quantitative research is a more ethical process than qualitative. It just means that ethical awareness should be carefully considered in both approaches.

Mixed Methods and Conclusion

It appears that through the comparison of both these approaches that there seems to be a number of common themes. According to Newman and Benz (1998, cited in Creswell and Poth, 2017) the situation now, in this moment in our lives as practitioners, is less qualitative versus quantitative and more about how research approaches lie somewhere on a continuum between the two. Creswell and Poth (2017) see a distinct form of qualitative inquiry where quantitative and qualitative research can be linked in what they define as ‘mixed methods’.

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Some key differences between qualitative and quantitative research paradigms mostly lie in the epistemological and ontological assumptions. If this is true then how can merging these two approaches work? Morgan (2007, citing Smith and Heshusius, 1986) explains their strong beliefs about constructivism and positivism and how the two are considered by them to be completely separate entities which should not be combined. Other researchers like Lincoln & Guba (1985) believe that qualitative and quantitative approaches to research are not able to be combined. (Creswell, 2003) believes that if the researcher is careful and skilled in what they do, then there should be no problem in combining the two approaches.

As discussed in depth previously, it is known that quantitative and qualitative research methods address different research designs. Dieronitou (2014) believes that there are aspects within these approaches which complement each other and could be combined. Morgan (2007) discusses the importance of first considering whether or not these research approaches are possible, in paradigmatic term before tackling the question of whether a combination of them is desirable. However, Creswell (2003, citing Patton, 1990) states that knowledge claims in mixed methods come from actions and situations and focuses on finding solutions to problems. The main point of this approach is really the research problem. Furthermore, researchers can use any approaches to research which best suit their research needs. Practitioners who are under these knowledge claims are called pragmatists. Pragmatists open up the world of research to a much more free inquiry which focuses on finding a breadth of solutions to research problems using a wide range of approaches and instruments to collect and triangulate the data. Pragmatism appears to be a forward-thinking concept for detailed, reliable research which appears to be changing the world of research rapidly.

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