Quantitative or Qualitative Research: Two Perspectives (part 1)

Research can be either quantitative or qualitative, and can even have aspects of both.  These two approaches differ first in their orientation of reality, their object of study, and their methods of analysis and generalizability.

Reality Orientation –  Quantitative researchers believe that reality exists separately from the self, and therefore it can be measured and quantified in a reasonably consistent manner across situations (a perspective known as positivism).  This would be true as long as the similar samples are used (i.e. coming from the same population) and the same variables are measured in the same manner.   And, this appears to be true.  Think of something as simple as descriptive statistics, such the mean and standard deviation, and how they are the about the same sample after sample.  Or think of how many studies have been replicated, using the same sampling methods and measurements of course, with the researchers finding the same outcomes.

Things like this can make us believe that the quantitative researchers are right, that reality really is separate from us and can be measured objectively.   But isn’t there always some bit of error involved in estimation, prediction, or even description?   Sure there is.  If our goal is to explain the variance in the DV by using/manipulating other variables (IVs, covariates, predictors), do we ever explain all of that variance?  No, there is always some we can’t explain and that is known as error.   We pass that off as a failure to include all of the relevant variables, which is typically true.

Or maybe the qualitative researchers are right.  They believe that reality is a social construction, and therefore subjective (a perspective known as interpretivism).  Since it is, it will continuously change depending on who is involved and depending on the situation.  Therefore it cannot be measured independently of the researcher (the etic perspective) or even independently of the participants (the emic perspective).  This viewpoint makes things like similar sample means meaningless.  Whereas quantitative researchers are careful not to interact with their participants, so they don’t “contaminate” the results, qualitative researchers tend to become involved with their participants.  In fact, they believe it is impossible to do otherwise because of the co-construction of reality.

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