Quantitative methods have their strengths and weaknesses. Discuss. Quantitative methods, like all social research methods, have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. This essay will attempt to critically assess those characteristics and draw a comparison between quantitative methods and qualitative methods. The quantitative versus qualitative debate is an interesting topic in Sociological studies. In Miles and Huberman’s 1994 book Qualitative Data Analysis, quantitative researcher Fred Kerlinger is quoted as saying, “There’s no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0”.
To this another researcher, Donald Campbell, asserts, “All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding”. This essay will look at both sides of the argument and provide a balanced conclusion. Social research methods in general can be divided into two main branches or schools, quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research involves measuring quantities of things, usually numerical quantities, while qualitative research involves the analysis of data such as words(e. g. an interview), pictures or objects. These different research methods are used by sociologists to gather data.
Both methods have their limitations and differences, which run deeper than the obvious distinction between quality and quantity. Quantitative research is depicted as the traditional scientific approach to research, driven by the positivist tradition which places considerable value on rationality, objectivity, prediction and control. Advocates of the quantitative approach could therefore be described as objective scientists. Qualitative research differs in that it emphasizes the importance of looking at variables in the natural setting in which they are found.
Interaction between variables are important and the interviewer is an integral part of the investigation. There are many researchers who favour one method over the other, based on methodology or their particular discipline or research tradition. There is another major difference between the two disciplines, and that is quantitative methods being deductive, while qualitative methods are inductive. What this means is that in quantitative research, a hypothesis is required before research may begin, whereas in qualitative methods, the esearcher may only know roughly in advance what he/she is looking for. The role of the researcher is in fact very different in the two methods. In quantitative research, the researcher is ideally an objective observer who neither participates in nor influences what is being studied. In qualitative research, however, it is thought that the researcher can learn the most by participating and being immersed in a research situation. These basic underlying assumptions of both schools of thought guide the types of data collection methods employed.
All research whether quantitative or qualitative are based on assumptions about what can be considered as valid research, and what research methods are deemed appropriate. When conducting research about peoples religious beliefs, quantitative methods such as a social survey may be deemed an appropriate choice. If you were doing a behavioural study however, qualitative methods would likely be favoured. Some researchers argue that quantitative methods are superior because they are objective and free from bias.
What is implied here though of course is that quantitative research reports reality, which is dependant on the test subjects answering the questions freely and truthfully. Qualitative research is influenced by the researcher’s political views. It could be argued that such freedom has no place in social science. Similarly it could be argued that this allows qualitative research a degree of flexibility which is lacking in quantitative research. This is not a balanced argument because outside the social sciences quantitative research is favoured.
For example, Government studies tend to opt for quantitative research because it mimics the research of their own agencies. So why is quantitative research generally viewed as the standard? There are five main methods of quantitative research; survey, experiment, statistics, structured observation and content analysis. A good example would be a survey of a father and son’s occupations. The independent variable would be the father’s occupation and the son’s occupation would be the dependant. This is because the father is the possible cause of the son’s occupation.
The results of such a study would be shown in a table of findings. The survey could look at manual and non-manual workers, and a random sample of 100 people could be used, depending on the researcher. This would be so the researcher could be confident within specifiable limits that any correlation is probably not a chance finding. An important point to make is that quantitative researchers do not like to change statements of correlation into casual statements. For example, quantitative researchers would not confidently state that a father’s occupation is significant cause of a son’s occupation.
For a descriptive study with a wide focus, the main interest should be estimating the effect of everything that is likely to affect the dependent variable, so you include as many independent variables as resources allow. For the large sample sizes that you should use in a descriptive study, including these variables does not lead to substantial loss of precision in the effect statistics, but the danger is that the more effects you look for, the more likely the true value of at least one of them lies outside its confidence interval.
For a descriptive study with a narrower focus, you still measure variables likely to be associated with the outcome variable, because either you restrict the sample to a particular subgroup defined by these variables or you include the variables in the analysis. Qualitative researchers try to correlate social and cultural construction, an issue ignored by quantitative research. Quantitative research is described by some as a quick fix, in that it involves very little or no contact with the ‘field’ or people.
Qualitative researchers do not like to make the assumption that quantitative techniques are the only way of displaying valid findings from qualitative research. A number of quantitative practices are seen as inappropriate by qualitative researchers. The idea that social science research can only be valid if based on numerical data is denied by these researchers. Those who criticize quantitative research argue that these assumptions have a number of defects. They believe the techniques mentioned earlier like random sampling and experiments are sometimes inappropriate.
They do not take into account behaviour in everyday situations for instance. Quantification can be useful but can conceal basic social processes. A good example would be when counting attitudes in a survey. People do not always have coherent attitudes to the topic being researched. People sometimes adopt an attitude but behave differently in practice. Statistics simply cannot measure all areas of social reality. Methods used by qualitative researchers are an example of the belief they can provide a deeper understanding of social phenomena than from quantitative data on its own.
There is no agreed doctrine for qualitative research, unlike quantitative research which inherently favours the natural science model. There are many branches, including feminism, postmodernism, and ethnomedology. There are some general preferences of qualitative researchers, which widen the difference between the two schools even more. They have a preference for qualitative data such as pictures and words to analyse, and also for naturally occurring data to be used. This means observing rather than conducting an experiment. There is also the issue of how reliable the explanations offered are.
An important part of qualitative research is interpretation, which opens up the question of researcher bias. Some researchers believe that qualitative and quantitative methodologies cannot be combined because the assumptions underlying each tradition are so vastly different. Other researchers think they can be used in combination only by alternating between methods; qualitative research is appropriate to answer certain kinds of questions in certain conditions and quantitative is right for others. And some researchers think that both qualitative and quantitative methods can be used simultaneously to answer a research question.
An example of this would be a study of computer-assisted writing classrooms carried out by Snyder (1995). The research was designed with quantitative methodology; the computer classroom was the treatment group and the traditional classroom was the control group. Both classes contained subjects with the same characteristics from the population sampled. Both classes followed the same lesson plan and were taught by the same teacher in the same semester. The only variable used was the absence or presence of the computers. Although Snyder set this study up as an experiment, she used many qualitative approaches to supplement her findings.
She observed both classrooms on a regular basis and conducted several interviews with the teacher both during and after the semester. This could be said to be using the best of both worlds in regards to research methods. It has become clear in this essay that both quantitative and qualitative research methods differ significantly and offer certain advantages and disadvantages. Quantitative researchers seek to provide answers in a balanced scientific way, they do not make assumptions from their findings. The latter can be seen as disadvantageous also, as it allows qualitative research to be more flexible and organic in it’s findings.
Qualitative researchers aim to provide a deeper understanding, but it is open to criticism due to its lack of scientific methods. Although quantitative methods are generally used as standard in a number of fields, it is wrong to say that it is the definitively superior model. Both methods provide good research when carried out correctly, and can be used in conjunction with one another in some situations. References Alan Bryman, Social Research Methods (Oxford University Press, 2001) John J Macionis & Ken Plummer, Sociology (Pearson, 1997)
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