If you’ve browsed a university course catalog, you might have noticed research-themed classes and wondered, “What is qualitative vs. quantitative study?” For example, suppose you’ve explored National University’s regionally accredited nursing and healthcare programs. In that case, you may have come across classes with names like Quantitative Analysis (CLS 401), offered as part of our BS in Clinical Laboratory Science, or noticed program outcomes that include the ability to analyze qualitative and quantitative data.
Qualitative and quantitative data are broad categories covering many research approaches and methods. While both share the primary aim of knowledge acquisition, quantitative research is numeric and objective, seeking to answer questions like when or where. On the other hand, qualitative research is concerned with subjective phenomena that can’t be numerically measured, like how different people experience grief. Having a firm grounding in qualitative and quantitative research methodologies will become especially important once you begin work on your dissertation or thesis toward the end of your academic program. At that point, you’ll need to decide which approach best aligns with your research question, a process that involves working closely with your Dissertation Chair.
Keep reading to learn more about the difference between quantitative and qualitative research, including what research techniques they involve, how they approach the task of data analysis, and some strengths — and limitations — of each approach. We’ll also briefly examine mixed-method research, which incorporates elements of both methodologies.
What is Qualitative Research?
Qualitative research differs from quantitative research in its objectives, techniques, and design. Qualitative research aims to gain insights into phenomena, groups, or experiences that cannot be objectively measured or quantified using mathematics. Instead of seeking to uncover precise answers or statistics in a controlled environment like quantitative research, qualitative research is more exploratory, drawing upon data sources such as photographs, journal entries, video footage, and interviews.
These features stand in stark contrast to quantitative research, as we’ll see throughout the remainder of this article.
What is Quantitative Research?
Quantitative research tackles questions from different angles compared to qualitative research. Instead of probing for subjective meaning by asking exploratory “how?” and “why?” questions, quantitative research provides precise causal explanations that can be measured and communicated mathematically. While qualitative researchers might visit subjects in their homes or otherwise in the field, quantitative research is usually conducted in a controlled environment. Instead of gaining insight or understanding into a subjective, context-dependent issue, as is the case with qualitative research, the goal is instead to obtain objective information, such as determining the best time to undergo a specific medical procedure.
How Does Qualitative and Quantitative Research Differ?
How are the approaches of quantitative and qualitative research different?
In qualitative studies, data is usually gathered in the field from smaller sample sizes, which means researchers might personally visit participants in their own homes or other environments. Once the research is completed, the researcher must evaluate and make sense of the data in its context, looking for trends or patterns from which new theories, concepts, narratives, or hypotheses can be generated.
Quantitative research is typically carried out via tools (such as questionnaires) instead of by people (such as a researcher asking interview questions). Another significant difference is that, in qualitative studies, researchers must interpret the data to build hypotheses. In a quantitative analysis, the researcher sets out to test a hypothesis.
What’s the Difference Between a Qualitative and Quantitative Study?
Both qualitative and quantitative studies are subject to rigorous quality standards. However, the research techniques utilized in each type of study differ, as do the questions and issues they hope to address or resolve. In quantitative studies, researchers tend to follow more rigid structures to test the links or relationships between different variables, ideally based on a random sample. On the other hand, in a qualitative study, not only are the samples typically smaller and narrower (such as using convenience samples), the study’s design is generally more flexible and less structured to accommodate the open-ended nature of the research.
To help illustrate these differences further, we’ve provided a few examples of qualitative and quantitative research techniques below.
Sources of Quantitative Research
Some example methods of quantitative research methods or sources include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Conducting polls, surveys, and experiments
- Compiling databases of records and information
- Observing the topic of the research, such as a specific reaction
- Performing a meta-analysis, which involves analyzing multiple prior studies in order to identify statistical trends or patterns
- Supplying online or paper questionnaires to participants
The following section will cover some examples of qualitative research methods for comparison, followed by an overview of mixed research methods that blend components of both approaches.
Sources of Qualitative Research
Researchers can use numerous qualitative methods to explore a topic or gain insight into an issue. Some sources of, or approaches to, qualitative research include the following examples:
- Conducting ethnographic studies, which are studies that seek to explore different phenomena through a cultural or group-specific lens
- Conducting focus groups
- Examining various types of records, including but not limited to diary entries, personal letters, official documents, medical or hospital records, photographs, video or audio recordings, and even minutes from meetings
- Holding one-on-one interviews
- Obtaining personal accounts and recollections of events or experiences
Mixed Methods Research
In addition to the purely qualitative and quantitative research methods outlined above, such as conducting focus groups or performing meta-analyses, it’s also possible to take a hybrid approach that merges qualitative and quantitative research aspects. According to an article published by LinkedIn, “Mixed methods research avoids many [of the] criticisms” that have historically been directed at qualitative and quantitative research, such as the former’s vulnerability to bias, by “canceling the effects of one methodology by including the other methodology.” In other words, this mixed approach provides the best of both worlds. “Mixed methods research also triangulates results that offer higher validity and reliability.”
If you’re enrolled as a National University student, you can watch a video introduction to mixed-method research by logging in with your student ID. Our resource library also covers qualitative and quantitative research methodologies and a video breakdown of when to use which approach.
Analyzing Qualitative and Quantitative Data
When it comes to quantitative and qualitative research, methods of collecting data differ, as do the methods of organizing and analyzing it. So what are some best practices for analyzing qualitative and quantitative data sets, and how do they call for different approaches by researchers?
How to Analyze Qualitative Data
Below is a step-by-step overview of how to analyze qualitative data.
- Make sure all of your data is finished being compiled before you begin any analysis.
- Organize and connect your data for consistency using computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS).
- Code your data, which can be partially automated using a feedback analytics platform.
- Start digging deep into analysis, potentially using augmented intelligence to get more accurate results.
- Report on your findings, ideally using engaging aids to help tell the story.
How to Analyze Quantitative Data
There are numerous approaches to analyzing quantitative data. Some examples include cross-tabulation, conjoint analysis, gap analysis, trend analysis, and SWOT analysis, which refers to Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
Whichever system or systems you use, there are specific steps you should take to ensure that you’ve organized your data and analyzed it as accurately as possible. Here’s a brief four-step overview.
- Connect measurement scales to study variables, which helps ensure that your data will be organized in the appropriate order before you proceed.
- Link data with descriptive statistics, such as mean, median, mode, or frequency.
- Determine what measurement scale you’ll use for your analysis.
- Organize the data into tables and conduct an analysis using methods like cross-tabulation or Total Unduplicated Reach and Frequency (TURF) analysis.
When to Use Qualitative or Quantitative Research
Simply knowing the difference between quantitative and qualitative research isn’t enough — you also need an understanding of when each approach should be used and under what circumstances. For that, you’ll need to consider all of the comparisons we’ve made throughout this article and weigh some potential pros and cons of each methodology.
Pros and Cons of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research has numerous strengths, but the research methodology is only more appropriate for some projects or dissertations. Here are some strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research to help guide your decision:
- Pro — More flex room for creativity and interpretation of results
- Pro — Greater freedom to utilize different research techniques as the study evolves
- Con — Potentially more vulnerable to bias due to their subjective nature
- Con — Sample sizes tend to be smaller and non-randomized
Pros and Cons of Quantitative Research
Quantitative research also comes with drawbacks and benefits, depending on what information you aim to uncover. Here are a few pros and cons to consider when designing your study.
- Pro — Large, random samples help ensure that the broader population is more realistically reflected
- Pro — Specific, precise results can be easily communicated using numbers
- Con — Data can suffer from a lack of context or personal detail around participant answers
- Con — Numerous participants are needed, driving up cost while posing logistical challenges
Develop Your Research Skills at National University
If you dream of making a scientific breakthrough and contributing new knowledge that revolutionizes your field, you’ll need a strong foundation in research, from how it’s conducted and analyzed to a clear understanding of professional ethics and standards. By pursuing your degree at National University, you build stronger research skills and countless other in-demand job skills.
With flexible course schedules, convenient online classes, scholarships and financial aid, and an inclusive military-friendly culture, higher education has never been more achievable or accessible. At National University, you’ll find opportunities to challenge and hone your research skills in more than 75 accredited graduate and undergraduate programs and fast-paced credential and certificate programs in healthcare, business, engineering, computer science, criminal justice, sociology, accounting, and more.
Contact our admissions office to request program information, or apply to National University online today.