Qualitative versus Quantitative Methods

Research and evaluation can take many forms, but can generally be separated into two types, including a combination of two types, qualitative and quantitative. In general, qualitative research generates rich, detailed and valid (process) data that contribute to in-depth understandings of the context. Quantitative research generates reliable population based and generalisable data and is well suited to establishing cause-and-effect relationships. The decision of whether to choose a quantitative or a qualitative design is a philosophical question as well as a pragmatic one. Which methods to choose will depend on the nature of the project, the type of information needed, the intended audience for the research, the context of the study, and the availability of recourses (time, money, and human).

It is important to keep in mind that whilst these represent two different philosophies, they are not necessarily polar opposites. In fact, elements of both designs can be used together in mixed-methods studies. Combining of qualitative and quantitative research is becoming more and more common for providing both rich and objective data.

Criteria Qualitative Research Quantitative Research
Purpose To understand and interpret social interactions To test hypotheses, look at cause and effect, and make predictions.
Group Studied Smaller and not randomly selected. Larger and randomly selected.
Variables Study of the whole, not variables. Specific variables studied.
Type of Data Collected Words, images, or objects. Numbers and statistics.
Form of Data Collected Qualitative data such as open-ended responses, interviews, participant observations, field notes, and reflections. Quantitative data based on precise measurements using structured and validated data-collection instruments.
Type of Data Analysis Identify patterns, features, themes. Identify statistical relationships.
Objectivity and Subjectivity Subjectivity is expected. Objectivity is critical.
Role of Researcher Researcher and their biases may be known to participants in the study, and participant characteristics may be known to the researcher. Researcher and their biases are not known to participants in the study, and participant characteristics are deliberately hidden from the researcher (double blind studies).
Results Particular or specialised findings that is less generalisable. Generalisable findings that can be applied to other populations.
Scientific Method Exploratory or bottom–up: the researcher generates a new hypothesis and theory from the data collected. Confirmatory or top-down: the researcher tests the hypothesis and theory with the data.
View of Human Behaviour Dynamic, situational, social, and personal. Regular and predictable.
Most Common Research


Explore, discover, and construct. Describe, explain, and predict.
Focus Wide-angle lens; examines the breadth and depth of phenomena. Narrow-angle lens; tests a specific hypotheses.
Nature of Observation Study behaviour in a natural environment Study behaviour under controlled conditions; isolate causal effects.
Nature of Reality Multiple realities; subjective. Single reality; objective.
Final Report Narrative report with contextual description and direct quotations from research participants. Statistical report with correlations, comparisons of means, and statistical significance of findings.

NB: The content in the above table was taken from the following sources:

Johnson, B., & Christensen, L. (2008). Educational research: Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches (p. 34). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lichtman, M. (2006). Qualitative research in education: A user’s guide (p. 7-8). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.