Research Methods: Qualitative versus Quantitative Approaches to Gathering Evidence

The following are transcripts of parts one and two of the podcasts which you can find here.

University of Leicester Research Methods podcasts

Part 1

One of the decisions that researchers need to make when approaching any project is related to how they intend to gather their evidence and an important consideration at this stage relates to whether or not this will entail a qualitative or a quantitative approach. Or in some cases – a mixture between the two.

So this podcast talks through some of the factors that can help guide that decision and identifies when and why a particular approach to gathering evidence may be considered to be appropriate.

The type of approach that you decide will be most appropriate is going to depend on a number of different things. So it will depend, for example, on the theoretical approach that you’re taking to research. It will depend on your own world view, and the aims and objectives of the particular project that you’re completing.

It will also be dependent to some degree on your own interests and your own preferences. So we’ll come on to talk about these in a little bit more detail within this podcast. What I do want to clarify at the beginning is that I’m not trying to tell you in any way that one approach is necessarily better than another.

Some general advice that I want to pass on is to avoid some of the myths that you might occasionally hear about qualitative and quantitative methods. The first of these myths – as I’m referring to them here – is the tendency for people to think that qualitative research is somehow an easy option. So because it doesn’t involve the same level of complex statistical techniques, some people tend to think that conducting qualitative research is going to be easier or quicker.

The first thing I would say in relation to that is that qualitative research is often actually more time consuming than quantitative research and it can involve a lot of detailed and rigorous analysis of perhaps interview data or whatever type of data that you’re collecting.

The second is that I wouldn’t want you to feel afraid or put off from conducting quantitative research because of the statistical component, because quite often – as you’ll hopefully become aware as you develop on this course – that statistics aren’t as complex or as difficult as you might think they will be.

Another thing to avoid is the myth that qualitative research is somehow less scientific or perhaps isn’t going to get published as easily as quantitative research.

So it’s important that we try to move beyond these myths and to focus on what are the important considerations, and the important questions that we ought to be asking when determining the most appropriate approach to use for our research.

I’ve mentioned that there are some theoretical considerations here. To give you an example of that, if we’re approaching an area in which there is a lot of existing theory and our research is aiming to test that theory either by proving or disproving an existing hypothesis, that kind of theory testing is associated generally with the quantitative techniques. Whereas if we’re approaching an area that’s relatively new and we’re looking to build up a theory based on a more inductive process, then we might want to think about using a qualitative approach as being more appropriate here.

So the question that we might want to ask ourselves at this stage is, are we looking to test an existing theory? Or are we looking to develop and build a new theory? And the answer to that question can put us in the right direction in terms of whether qualitative or quantitative approaches might be most appropriate.

There are other considerations. So I mentioned that your own world view is also likely to be relevant here. I don't think it’s appropriate to go into great depth about different world views, but some of the guiding principles would be whether or not as a researcher we believe that there is one single reality. So, can we go out there and test in an objective manner whether or not a particular hypothesis can be accepted or rejected?

If this is the case, then we might be looking at using more quantitative approaches. Whereas we might want to take a more subjective approach and say, there’s not necessarily one, real, singular reality, but there are multiple realities and it’s up to us as researchers to investigate some of these different perspectives on certain issues and to think about this in a more illustrative way, in which case we might be moving more towards the qualitative approaches.

Part 2

So once you’ve given some consideration to these general issues, you then need to set out your own research questions and to think about what’s going to be the most appropriate in answering those questions. At this point, I think it’s going to be helpful to give you a few examples.

If your research question involves working with large numbers of individuals, or if you’re trying to get an overview of the topic where you’re trying to generalise, or if you’re looking at rather complex questions which require predictions – so does one variable have a predictive effect on another variable, for example? All of these sorts of questions are going to be most appropriate for quantitative methodology.

Alternatively, your questions may be more focused around a small and specialised sample of individuals, rather than trying to give an overview of a topic. You might be wanting to explore in depth, perhaps a new area of research or just perhaps something where you want to really get a more detailed understanding and a deeper insight into a certain issue. In these cases, a qualitative approach would be more appropriate.

Just to illustrate this with an example, say you were working with an organisation and you wanted to explore the impact of a new policy or a new procedure that had been implemented within that organisation. There are different ways that you could approach that. One way might be to decide that you would like to get an overview of that topic. So you would like to ask a number of individuals – as many as possible within that organisation – how they feel towards certain aspects of that policy. And if this was the case, then you would probably be looking at implementing quantitative approaches.

However, rather than taking an overview, you could decide that you’re more interested in exploring in depth in a smaller number of employees how they think and how they feel about that policy, in which case a qualitative approach could be taken.

The qualitative approach is obviously allowing you to explore these issues in much more depth and allowing you to gain more detailed information. However, because you will therefore be using a smaller, more specialised sample, you will have to give some thought to the impact on the generalizability of these results.

So the message that I’m trying to get across here is that each approach has its own advantages and its own disadvantages. What’s important is that you’re basing your decision on what’s most appropriate to your own piece of research and the questions that you’re trying to answer.

What you might find useful is to take a structured approach to this and once you’ve got your research questions set out, try to think of alternative ways of answering those questions. So if you were to use a quantitative approach, what would be some of the advantages and some of the disadvantages? Similarly, if you were to use a qualitative approach to answer those questions, are there different strengths and different weaknesses? Which is going to be most appropriate for your own particular piece of research?

Some of you may be wondering why this podcast seems to be focusing on qualitative versus quantitative approaches, rather than considering how these two different types of data can perhaps be mixed to provide a mixed methods approach to your research. Certainly there are many advantages to taking this kind of approach. Sometimes mixing a dataset can allow us to get a better understanding of the issue at hand, because it allows us to not only look in depth using qualitative techniques, but then also to look across a greater number of individuals using more quantitative approaches.

Now, the reason that I haven’t focused specifically on mixed methods here is because when you come to look at your dissertation, it’s unlikely that you will be looking to take a mixed methods approach, purely because of the amount of time that you have to complete your master’s projects and it’s better to stay realistic about what you can achieve during this time.

However, if you do decide that you want to take a mixed methods approach, then my advice to you would be to make sure that this is going to be necessary and appropriate in order to achieve your aims and to make sure that it is actually adding something to use both of these different approaches.

I would also suggest that you think very carefully about the reasons why you’re using both and how you’re going to combine the different types of data. So it’s not just about the fact that you will be collecting qualitative and quantitative evidence, it’s also how you’re going to analyse that, how the two are going to be linked into each other, and how you’re then going to write that up. With mixed methods approaches, there are a number of things that you need to consider.

Whether we’re gathering qualitative or quantitative evidence, there are a number of different methods that you can use in order to gather that data. We’re certainly not restricted to using only surveys or interviews. However, because these methods tend to be the ones that are most frequently used certainly by master’s students, those are the ones that the rest of the podcasts within this mini series will focus on, to provide you with a little bit more information about gathering evidence using these particular methods.

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