Qualitative versus Quantitative Research Methods Essay

Qualitative versus Quantitative Research MethodsPart one – Qualitative research gives access to the true perspective of people in a way that quantitative research can never do; true or false.Polit and others (2001) rightly defined research as “a systematic inquiry that uses disciplined method to answer questions or solve problems” (p.4). From this definition, it is clear that the goal of any research is to create knowledge in the relevant field, to develop, refine and expand the horizon of what is known, and also attempt to proffer answers to the unknown, within the chosen field of study. Researchers achieve their goal of adding to knowledge either by broadening the scope of what is known, by adding new insights to present knowledge or by unravelling facts about the unknown. Therefore, to remain relevant and up to the task, researchers are continually in search of better methods to conduct their researches.

This fact is evident from the numerous philosophies that presently characterize research efforts in both sciences and the social science field (Steven and Robert, 1998; Denzin and Lincoln, 2000). There is no denying the fact that methods, procedures and processes employed in researches determine, to a large extent, the validity, reliability and utility of such research. In fact, it has been argued that if the purpose of research is to create knowledge in any given academic field, then, the method, procedures and philosophies adopted in carrying out the research, are therefore, the foundation of creating knowledge (Steven and Robert, 1998).

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In support of this contention, Benbasat and Weber (1996) assert that research methods shape the language ‘we use to describe what we know and intend to know about the world, and that this language shape how we think about the world’. This implies that deciding the best research methodology for any particular research effort is one of the most important decisions for a researcher. Quantitative and qualitative research paradigms are the two most popular research methods that have stood the test of time.

While these two research paradigms have been employed with success in Educational research, the battle of supremacy between strict adherents of both schools have been long drawn and heated. Although, it is generally accepted that quantitative methods provide well structured and standardized methods, process and tools that improve the validity of researchers, qualitative researchers have often pointed out that qualitative gives access to deep and true perspective of people and their actions in a way that quantitative research can never do. This paper, therefore intends to examine the philosophies, methods and processes that underpin these research paradigms, to illustrate that while qualitative research really do provide some in-depth insight into human actions, it does has its own flaws and shortcomings too.Qualitative research methods can be clearly differentiated from quantitative research methods, in sense that it is a research method which attempts to address every research question with a more holistic approach that respects, acknowledges and preserves the complexities of human behaviour and experience (Black, 1994).  As a research method, rather than classify and quantify natural phenomenon, qualitative research methods strive towards an in depth understanding of the human behaviour and the reasons that govern them.This research paradigm encompasses a wide array of research procedures that focus on how human beings – individuals, groups, cultures, societies, view and understand the world, and how they construct meanings out of their experiences.  It involves an attempt to understand the complex dynamics of the human behaviour and experience, as they determine and influence existence.

  Thus, instead of the ‘what, where, and when’ emphasis of quantitative research methods, the qualitative researcher strives to understand the reasons and influences behind various aspects of behaviours i.e., it studies the ‘why and how’ of natural phenomena (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000).  Seen from this perspective, qualitative research truly does provide a deeper meaning and better perspectives to social phenomena or events.  Schofield argues that qualitative research on education can not only be used to study ‘what is’ and ‘what may be’ but also explore possible visions of what could be.  By studying what could be, Schofield refers to, locating situations that we know or expect to be ideal or exceptional on some a priori basis and then studying them to see what is actually going on there (Schofield, 1989).

 The differences between the qualitative and quantitative research paradigms can be better explained on the basis on their different epistemological and ontological assumptions. Epistemology, in broad terms, refers to the nature of knowledge. In essence, it is a concept that is concerned with ‘how to achieve true knowledge’.  Epistemology questions the relation between the object of knowledge and the knowledge achieved, and in doing so, elaborates the influence of the subject on the process of achieving knowledge and the knowledge achieved (Niehaves, 2007 p 96).  Ontology, on the other hand, is the nature of reality, as perceived by the researcher. Ontology, is said to refer to the questioning of the existence of a ‘real’ world that is independent of our knowledge, it is therefore, regarded as a theory of ‘being’ (Christou, Valachis and Anastasiadou, 2007).Quantitative research methods are based on the objectivist ontological and epistemological assumptions.

Objectivists contend that social phenomena confront us as external facts that are beyond our reach of influence.  That all social phenomena exist beyond the control of social actors and their actions, and as a result, reality can be studied, measured and made into laws without the researcher influencing the outcome.  Qualitative research methods, on the other hand, are premised on interpretivists’ assumptions.  Interpretivists hold that there is no such thing as ‘objective reality’ that social phenomena are not only created by the actions and interpretations of social actors, but is also in a state of constant revision.The inference from the above is that quantitative research is characterized by two primary assumptions.  First is the assumption that research investigations should be concerned with only directly observable phenomena, and two is the hypothetical and deductive testing of theories.  That is, the quantitative researcher, after observation, establishes a hypothesis about the phenomenon under study and then tests it.

  If the field observation matches the hypothesis, it is true and becomes a theory, if not, it is considered false and dropped, assuming, throughout the process, that the researcher is neutral and of no influence, whatsoever, on the outcome of the phenomena or object being studied (Stange and Zyzanzki, 1989).  This stance informs the statistical orientation of quantitative methods.  A good example here would be the case of bullying in elementary schools.

Relying on quantitative methods, a researcher could just establish a representative sample of the total student population, measure (through counting or any other statistical procedure) the incidence of bullying among the sample and from such result of such data make generalisations about the rate and prevalence of bullying in the concerned and all similar schools. This tendency to reduce everything into figures and assume that anything that cannot be observed and measured does not exist, to a large extent, accounts for the narrow and restricted view of quantitative methods (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000).Quantitative research is often presented as starting from a hypothesis, and then collecting and analyzing of data in order to test it.  This is not an entirely accurate characterisation of the way much quantitative research is actually carried out.  Researchers may begin with not only an interest in explaining a particular phenomenon, but also with ideas as to what the explanation might be.  They will almost always develop those ideas as the research progresses, or they may have to abandon them entirely or reformulate them during the course of the investigation Hammersley, 2007 p.

165).  Qualitative researchers usually do not start with a specific hypothesis to be tested.  Their ideas are more general and uncertain in character and it is not uncommon for them to change, or at least to be refined and become more specific over the course of their enquiry (Hammersley, 2007 p. 114).In contrast, qualitative researchers see problems with the epistemological stance of the quantitative researcher.

  They believe that no such objective reality exists and that the ‘dualism’ of the subject and object proposed by objectivists is deceptive and nonexistent. They argue that social phenomena are individual constructions, it is therefore, impossible to study social phenomena without being part of it. Therefore, qualitative researchers take an insider position; they see themselves as part of the research process and the research results as interpretations, meanings or explanations of phenomena rather than generalisable laws and theories (Christou, Valachis and Anastasiadou, 2007).This epistemological stance of qualitative researchers is borne out of their perception of ‘reality’ as subjective and person influenced.

  They believe, as a result, that the subject and the object of a study cannot be separated.  For qualitative researchers, it is normal for the values, opinions and perceptions of the researcher to influence research findings, since such results are established through the interaction between the researcher and the object of inquiry, and the interpretation of such interactions by the researcher (Myers, 2000).Three distinctive features of qualitative research methods have been identified. One, qualitative studies take an explorative nature instead of just measuring and quantifying events.

In fact, in most cases, the best part of a qualitative research is spent on defining and refining the research problem as new data are collected. Two, qualitative research make use of unstructured, and sometimes, informal data collection such that no forma analytical method is adopted either during data collection and analysis or during result presentation. Third, qualitative data relies heavily on subjective constructions and interpretations of experiences and realities instead of statistical analysis (Study Guide).Again, three broad research orientations within the qualitative paradigm have been identified. The first research orientation is known as ‘Investigating experience’. This research orientation is more heavily influenced by the interpretivist’s philosophy of subjective reality i.e.

the importance of understanding people’s experiences as they see it. This research approach emphasises that the best way to fully understand human behaviours and actions is to try to see the world through their worldview. This is based on the contention that people’s perspectives and experiences shape the reality they construct. And that to fully understand individuals and group, the several experiences that shape their worldview must be investigated. This approach is generally useful in understanding the conditions of misunderstood, deprived or less privileged people. For example, such qualitative research could be useful in understanding the conditions of deviant children, minority ethnic parents, working class or young offenders, using unstructured interviews or focal groups where the subjects are encouraged to share their experiences and perceptions freely.

The other qualitative research orientation is more penetrative than investigative. Instead of relying on individual’s experiences as they see and narrate it, this approach attempts to find out exactly what people do and why they do it. Again, this orientation is based on the assumption that people do not always do what they say they do. That people tend to set up fronts to, consciously and unconsciously, to hide what they do, feel or believe.

For example, a qualitative research investigating bullying would not achieve much if it decides to ask people if they do bully, because it real sense, very few people would admit to doing something that is socially construed as wrong, nor would teachers own up to racist attitudes and tendencies when interviewed. This approach therefore takes on a more penetrating method using document analysis and more aggressive interviewing.The third approach is more of an extension of the second. This approach concerned with investigating ‘how the accounts people give of themselves’, their experiences and actions either through interviews, in documents or through observation, are ‘discursively constructed, and how they may be constructed to fulfil certain purposes’. This constructivist orientation emphasises the tendencies of human beings to construct experiences based on limits of their linguistic capacities It is argued that this discursive orientation has motivated several research types in the education field. One problem with this approach is that there no consensus on the type of data collection appropriate for this type of study. However, while reliance on field notes by researcher is completely ruled out, researchers have often used transcriptions of naturally occurring discussions or written documents for data collection methods (Study Guide)Obviously, the several approaches to gain a holistic view of social events and phenomena that qualitative methods offer, in a way, presents the true perspective and better insights into human behaviours and/or social events.  However, that does not imply that qualitative research is a homogeneous research approach or that it does not have its own shortcomings.

  In fact, the qualitative approach to research is a loose collection of several different research philosophies, which in some cases; do not even share anything in common.  The various research philosophies subsumed within the qualitative paradigm includes ethnography, ethnology, oral life history, case study, focus groups, conversation analysis, phenomenology, portraiture and so on (Laws and Marcus, 2003). And this different research approaches adopts different research orientation, and consequently, methods.The meeting point between these different research approaches is that they all seek to understand human experiences, how they construct meanings from these experiences and knowledge and how these constructed meanings and beliefs influence actions (Myers, 2000).  Outside this, these different approaches adopt different data collection methods and different data analysis methods. For example, ethnographic research approaches are more interested in the meanings and descriptions people give to their cultural world, and thus providing them with the opportunity to describe their experiences in their own terms. Ethnographic methods concentrate on the routine, daily lives of people within their cultural settings, and allows for a number of views to be examined at the same time.  This approach makes use of field notes, participant observations or interviews as data collection methods.

On the other hand, phenomenology is concerned with individual lived experiences and thus makes use of interviews, focus groups as data collection methods (Polit, 2001).However, one significant problem with qualitative research is that there is no unity of methods, there is no generally accepted methods to ensure research reliability and validity. More problematic is the fact that there is no standardized process or procedures of presenting research results. Put together, these shortcomings reduce the utility of qualitative research compared to the standardized methods of quantitative research.One of the strongest problems with qualitative research is its reliance on small sample populations. Because personal opinions and/or experiences of individual participants, which is usually collected through interviews, questionnaires, observation or any other qualitative process, must be analysed in depth to isolate common themes and experiences, qualitative researchers are forced to depend completely on small samples. This dependence on small samples renders most qualitative researches incapable of generalising their research findings and conclusions (Myers, 2000).

Further, the qualitative researcher is only capable of investigating one phenomenon at any particular time, relying on in-depth analysis of the opinions and perceptions of a small sample. Of course, the larger the sample size is, the greater the problem of analysis.These facts limit the usage of qualitative research to less complex social issues.

  Compared with quantitative researches where facts are gathered and measured using  large samples that is representative of the entire population, where pains are taken to accurately measure and analyse facts so that the results can be generalised to the entire population and where the same results can be achieved over and over again, if the same sampling and statistical procedures are followed (Weber, 2004); and one cannot help but conclude that even if qualitative research does offer better perspective in some cases, this is not generally so, as its limitations are just too numerous.ConclusionQualitative and quantitative research methods are to very important and popular research paradigms. Both methods have greatly enriched educational research, in several ways. Since quantitative studies are overtly concerned with statistical measurements and generalisable laws and theories, some researchers believe that qualitative research offers better and in-depth insights into human actions, behaviours and experiences. However, while qualitative research methods, indeed, tend to provide a true perspective of human experiences through its in-depth insights into human behaviours, it is befuddled with several inconsistencies and shortcomings that could make it less attractive as the research method of choice. Quantitative methods, in contrast, offer standardized processes and procedures that improve the rigor, validity and utility of research results, thus compensating for whatever is lost in research insight and perspectives.  For some qualitative researchers, quantitative method is simply inappropriate for studying the social world.  Others may make use of numerical data in some form, but do not use highly structured forms of data collection or statistical analysis as a central part of their work.

There are also some quantitative researchers who dismiss qualitative work as little more than the recording of subjective impressions that have little if any value in answering important educational questions.  But a considerable number of modern educational researchers today see qualitative and quantitative approaches and the methods they typically employ as complementary (Hammersley, 2007 p171).  It should be clear that both methods have advantages and disadvantages and the results from the different methods can complement one another (Hartley and Chesworth, 2000).ReferencesBlack, N (1994). Why We Need Qualitative Research, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 48 Number 2, Pages 425–426.Benbasat, I, and Weber, R (1996) Research Commentary:  Rethinking Diversity in Information System Research, Information Systems Research, 7(4), 389-399.

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Eisner, Elliot W., & Peshkin, Alan (1989). Qualitative Inquiry in Education: The Continuing Debate. New York: Teachers College Press.Hammersley, Martyn & Course Team (2007). E891 Educational Enquiry: Study Guide. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Hammersley, Martyn (editor, 2007).

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