Social/Behavioral inquiry can be approached in two ways- through a qualitative study or a quantitative study – depending on the type of problem the researcher needs to research. The researcher’s choice of one of these approaches will shape the procedures to be use in each step of the research inquiry. This paper will explore the many ways these two approaches are similar and different.
Basic Characteristics of Quantitative and Qualitative Inquiry To compare and contrasts quantitative and qualitative approaches, a researcher should consider the basic characteristics that distinguished qualitative from quantitative inquiry first. Qualitative inquiry uses descriptions rather than numerical measurements of behavior which characterized quantitative inquiry. Hence, in qualitative inquiry, different questions are asks in simplest terms that explores the processes that underlie human behavior using such techniques as interviews, surveys, case studies, and other personal techniques.
Moreover, qualitative research can be a powerful and appropriate nonexperimental way to explore an academic question rigorously, as when additional context is needed to explain phenomena missed by quantitative research methods. Quantitative inquiry on the other hand is an integral part of doing research, especially in the social and behavioral sciences. Quantitative research involves quantities, hence it’s full of numbers or it involved heavy statistical analysis.
Aside from these basic characteristics, more differences and similarities between quantitative inquiry and qualitative inquiry will become clearer if the historical high points in the development of each inquiry will also be explored. Historical Developments of Quantitative and Qualitative Inquiry Quantitative methods are rooted in positivism, sometimes referred to as positivistic empiricism, a philosophy whose adherents seek general and universal truths through objective inquiry (that is, inquiry unbiased by the researcher’s desires, beliefs, and values).
Empiricists trust their senses—both to learn about what is going on and to be the final arbiter of what is to be believed about the way the world works. Their orientation is deterministic; they reject choice (free will) for explaining human behavior, emphasizing instead forces (variables) acting on and usually beyond the control of individuals or groups (Davis & Sandifer-Stech, 2006). Emile Durkheim—who, for example, studied relationships between suicide rates and various statistical indicators of social disorganization in European countries in the nineteenth century—was a pioneer in quantitative social analysis.
As the designation suggests, for quantitative studies data are gathered either directly in numerical form (for example, ages of juvenile offenders, percent of population that identifies itself as Hispanic) or in other kinds of measurements that can be readily converted to numbers (such as questionnaire items that ask how strongly the respondent agrees or disagrees with a particular statement on a scale of 1 to 7). Data analysis relies heavily on statistical procedures.
Research reports include tables filled with numbers, graphs, equations, and probabilities associated with statistical tests of hypotheses. As a general rule, quantitative researchers tend to ally themselves more with the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and so on). On the other hand, qualitative methodologies originate from a variety of related philosophical traditions, including phenomenology and existentialism, whose partisans emphasize the individual’s subjective point of view (that is, the person’s more or less unique perception and understanding of the world).
Most qualitative researchers are nondeterministic; that is, they see humans as embedded in complex networks of meaning, exercising free choice and actively engaged in creating as well as changing their social worlds (Monteiro et al. , 2002). One of their principal methods is verstehen, or interpretive understanding, introduced into social science by Max Weber. Weber sought to understand the rise of capitalism in Western societies by examining the theology and social beliefs of members of certain Protestant Christian denominations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe.
Research Designs Associated with Quantitative and Qualitative Methods Qualitative Methods Field Research. Most field researchers conduct case studies on a small group of people for some length of time. Field research begins with a loosely formulated idea or topic. Next, researchers select a social group or site for study. Once they gain access to the group or site, they adopt a social role in the setting and begin observing. The researchers observe and interact in the field setting for a period from a few months to several years.
They get to know personally the people being studied and may conduct informal interviews. They take detailed notes on a daily basis. During the observation, they consider what they observe and refine or focus ideas about its significance. Finally, they leave the field site. They then reread their notes and prepare written reports. Field research is usually used for exploratory and descriptive studies; it is sometimes used for explanatory research (Silverman, 2000). For example, Fitchen used field research in Endangered Spaces, Enduring Places (1991).
She was interested in understanding the U. S. farm crisis of the 1980s. Her study was based on several rural counties in upstate New York and on 400 interviews or periods of observation that occurred between 1985 and 1990. On many days, she left home at 6:00 A. M. and spent the next 16 hours driving to or visiting people in the rural communities. Her interviews and observations took place at village cafes, feed mills, elementary schools, cow barns, town meetings, parades, social service agencies, county fairs, farm homes, and workshops for local teachers.
In addition to reading research reports on the farm crisis and changes in agriculture. Fitchen read the local newspapers, statistical profiles, reports of local agencies, records of local governments, and brochures put out by local groups. She interviewed local editors and reporters, farmers, public officials, teachers, storekeepers, veterinarians, retired people, and others—some of them several times during the five-year study. She interviewed some alone and others in small groups in many settings—over kitchen tables, on the street, in barns, in fields, in offices.
Fitchen scheduled some of the interviews, but others began by chance when she stopped to ask directions or was stuck in a small cafe on a rainy afternoon. The interviews were informal, tailored to the interviewee, and open ended (i. e. , without a fixed set of questions or answer categories). She did not use a tape recorder but took extensive field notes during or immediately after her field visits. Fitchen discussed many themes—how rural people see themselves, rural poverty, the impact of large corporations locating plants in small towns, local results of social service cuts, and so forth.
She reported: Conducting this research has been exciting and fun, and I have genuinely enjoyed listening and probing. Many of my informants have enjoyed the interaction as well: Many commented that they were pleased to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story. (Fitchen, 1991:285) Historical-Comparative Research. Historical comparative research examines aspects of social life in a past historical era or across different cultures. Researchers who use this technique may focus on one historical period or several, compare one or more cultures, or mix historical periods and cultures.
This kind of research combines theory with data collection. As with field research, a researcher begins with a loosely formulated question, refining and elaborating on it during the research process. Researchers often use a mix of evidence, including existing statistics, documents (e. g. , books, newspapers, diaries, photographs, and maps), observations, and interviews. Historical comparative research can be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory and can blend types, but it is usually descriptive (Denzin &Lincoln, 1994).
An example of historical-comparative research is the study by Anthony Marx (1998) who conducted a comparative-historical study of race in the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. His initial goal was to understand racial mobilization in South Africa, which led him to examine African American protests. He soon asked why legal institutions of racial domination, Jim Crow segregation in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa did not develop in Brazil, which also had a large subordinate African population.
Marx spent six years examining the histories of the three nations, traveling to numerous research centers, archives, and libraries in each country, and he interviewed hundreds of people in English and Portuguese in the three countries. He concluded that the pattern nation formation was critical. The government-supported racial division and legal forms of domination arose in countries that had violent conflict among Whites (the U. S. Civil War and Boer War). It was a way to unify all Whites around national goals and override regional, political, and class differences among them.
This form of racial oppression shaped how Blacks politically mobilized to gain inclusion as full citizens. Quantitative Methods Experimental research. Experimental research is the logic and principles found in natural science research. Experiments can be conducted in laboratories or in real life. They usually involve a relatively small number of people and address a well-focused question. Experiments are most effective for explanatory research. In most experiments, the researcher divides the people being studied into two or more groups.
He or she then treats both groups identically; except that one group but not the other is given a condition he or she is interested in: the “treatment. ” The researcher measures the reactions of both groups precisely. By controlling the setting for both groups and giving only one the treatment, the researcher can conclude that any differences in the reactions of the groups are due to the treatment alone (Simon & Burstein, 1985). An example is the experimental research of Bohm (1990) to learn whether making a public commitment to an opinion prevents attitude change.
In a previous experiment, he gave one group of students extensive information about the death penalty issue and gave none to another group. He measured support for the death penalty with a questionnaire that students completed in private. Both groups initially showed strong support for the death penalty. After several months, however, the group receiving extensive information on the death penalty greatly lowered their support for it. The other group did not change. In a second experiment, Bohm again divided students into two groups.
Subjects in the experimental group enrolled in a special class on the death penalty, whereas the control group students enrolled in other courses. This time, he measured death penalty opinions by having students publicly state their opinions in each class session. In contrast to the large opinion change in the experimental group that he found in the earlier experiment, Bohm found no change during the semester and no difference between the experimental and control groups.
He concluded that making their opinion public inhibits people from changing it, even when they are confronted with overwhelming factual information in support of making a change. Surveys. Survey techniques are often used in descriptive or explanatory research. A survey researcher asks people questions in a written questionnaire (mailed or handed to people) or during an interview, then records answers. He or she manipulates no situation or condition; people simply answer questions.
In survey research, the researcher asks many people numerous questions in a short time period. He or she typically summarizes answers to questions in percentages, tables, or graphs. Surveys give the researcher a picture of what many people think or report doing. A survey researcher often uses a sample or a smaller group of selected people (e. g. , 150 students), but generalizes results to a larger group (e. g. , 5,000 students) from which the smaller group was chosen (Babbie, 1989). Survey research is widely used.
Following is an example of it in the state of Georgia, where a political controversy arose over the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag, which was added to the flag in 1956. Reingold and Wike (1998) wanted to learn whether the symbol was connected with pride in a “New South” identity, as some argued, or was it an indirect expression of racism, as others claimed. In fall 1994, the Applied Research Center of Georgia State University surveyed a random sample of 826 Georgia residents by telephone in the “Georgia State Poll. The authors had three questions on New South identity and two questions on racial attitudes.
They also asked about other factors (e. g. , education, age, sex, race, urban or rural residence, political party, born in the South, etc. ). The authors found clear racial divisions; three-fourths of Whites wanted to keep the Confederate symbol, whereas two-thirds of African Americans wanted the flag changed. Their data analysis revealed that New South identity was not related to the flag issue; if anything, it was associated with favoring a change in the flag.
Strengths and Limitations of Quantitative and Qualitative Approach Critics of qualitative research say that the detailed, intimate information and insight gained through participant observation comes at a very high cost. The very nature of participant observation limits the scope of a study to relatively small groups or severely circumscribed sociocultural scenes. It requires that the researcher invest a great deal of time in the field and commit substantial financial resources to sustaining this long-term engagement (Miles & Huberman, 1997).
Because it typically involves only one or two researchers in prolonged, direct contact with those being studied, the impact of the personal characteristics of the researcher may be substantial, and questions may well arise as to the validity and/or reliability of the observations. One may wonder, for example, whether a different participant observer (for example, an observer of a different sex, race, ethnicity, personality, ideology, and/or theoretical orientation) might connect with the group or the scene in a different way and emerge with quite a different cultural description.
Then, too, there is the practical problem of minimizing the impact of the researcher’s presence on the behavior of those who know they are being observed, as well as the difficult ethical issues of disguised research, maintaining the subjects’ anonymity and obtaining their voluntary, informed consent. In some cases (for instance, people or groups engaged in serious illegal behavior) the known researcher may be denied access entirely.
And though those being observed usually get used to the observer’s presence fairly quickly and resume their normal routines, even when access is permitted, entry to particular groups, scenes, or activities may be restricted. In addition, unless one can legitimately assume great uniformity within a larger group or culture, the results obtained from studying a single small group or local scene should not be generalized. A small sample, especially if it is selected without procedures designed to enhance its representativeness, is always suspect if the ultimate purpose is to learn something about a larger population from which it was drawn.
Finally, there is always some risk that a participant observer will, in the process of group or scene immersion, abandon the researcher role and “go native. ” Doing so may not be in any way deleterious to the former researcher, of course, but the possibility of doing so does remind us that the researcher’s role is different and that maintaining some distance between researcher and those being observed is important (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). .
Quantitative studies lend themselves to large-scale projects, involving, for example, thousands of crime victimization survey respondents, assault rates from all the counties in a state, or age distributions of municipal police departments in cities with populations over a million worldwide. Many studies use data already gathered by governments or other official or semiofficial agencies. Many also use mailed questionnaires or closed ended telephone interview schedules (Davis & Sandifer-Stech, 2006).
Using these techniques and resources, a great deal of information can be assembled for relatively little cost in either time or money. Furthermore, large data sets permit complex analyses, which tease out subtle relationships among variables. Many quantitative research projects are examples of descriptive research (such as, Uniform Crime Report [UCR] or the National Crime Victimization Survey [NCVS]); many are explanatory (for example, studies seeking causal relationships between patrol frequency and crime rates or between family background and delinquency).
In either case, reports typically contain lots of numbers and the researcher’s commentary about what the numbers mean (Delucchi, 2006). Many of the problems most difficult for qualitative researchers are more easily managed in quantitative research. The researcher’s ethical obligations concerning anonymity and voluntary informed consent are relatively easy to fulfill. Carefully implemented sampling strategies make the findings more generalizable to larger populations.
The personal characteristics of the researcher are largely irrelevant and most likely unknown to those being studied. The social and physical distance between the researchers and their subjects makes it easier to maintain at least some forms of objectivity. Because the information-gathering process is standardized through printed questionnaires or interview schedules, the reliability of the process is increased and in some cases, the degree of reliability can be fairly accurately measured (Glafshani, 2003).
Critics of quantitative research doubt that numbers, no matter how numerous or ingenious in their derivation and manipulation, can adequately convey the richness and complexity of human behavior. They are extremely skeptical of determinism in almost any form, insisting that it ignores what is most unique about humans: their capacity for making choices and deliberately acting, not just being acted upon. Furthermore, the distance between quantitative researchers and those being studied may contribute to a kind of objectivity, but a great deal is sacrificed in the process, according to the critics.
They cite the inevitable oversimplifications and distortions in the empiricists’ reliance on a few categories or variables taken out of the context that gives them meaning. Quantitative approaches, the critics say, cannot possibly capture the passions, ambiguities, subtleties, and complexities of humans’ everyday lives. They note the superficiality of data gathered from government reports or from simple, categorical choices (“choose A, B, or C”) on a questionnaire. Furthermore, the validity of the data so gathered is suspect.
Government or other agency records can be manipulated by administrators who desire to look good, for example, and people may easily lie in response to questionnaires and telephone interviews. Response rates are often quite low, raising issues about the representativeness of the respondents, which thereby threatens the generalizability of the results (Glafshani, 2003). In short, from the qualitative practitioners’ perspective, quantification, because it has a scientific aura, is more likely to give the researcher false confidence than it is to reveal anything interesting or useful about human conduct.
Now, what can we make of all this? Clearly, important issues are at stake in the contrasts between qualitative and quantitative approaches to research. Careful thought and vigorous debate about the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches will and should continue. No doubt, some research questions require qualitative methods whereas others require quantitative ones. No doubt, too, future researchers will continue to find themselves more or less firmly in one camp or the other.