Quantitative or Qualitative Research: Two Perspectives (part 3)

Approaches to research fall under two main types: that of qualitative and quantitative. As I mentioned in the the previous two posts, these two approaches differ in their orientation toward reality.  The quantitative researchers view reality as being separate from the self, thereby allowing it to be studied and measured more or less objectively.  But the qualitative researchers conceive of reality as being co-created by those involved in that reality.  Of course, these differing approaches will affect not only researchers’ object of study, but also their methods of analysis and generalizability.

Analysis and Generalizability –  Before gathering data, quantitative researchers have some idea of how they can expect the variables to fit together based on theory or previous research.  From this basis, they form hypotheses or predictions, sometimes called research purposes.  But the qualitative researchers gather data first, both from the perspectives of their participants and their own perspective.

After data is gathered, regardless of method, it needs to be analyzed (although keep in mind that qualitative researchers usually begin analysis while they are gathering data).  Quantitative researchers calculate descriptive statistics, and then use inferential tests to either support, or fail to support, their hypotheses.  If their hypotheses are supported by their data, it is then used to infer what would likely occur in the population the sample was drawn from, under the same conditions. (Notice that “under the same conditions” reflects the “reality as separate” belief.)  The final step is to write the results of the study as objectively as possible. There is some room for personal interpretation in the discussion section of the report, but mostly their report is expected to be objective.

But for the qualitative researchers, “same conditions” cannot be had because of the social construction of reality, therefore data analysis is much different.  Qualitative data may be examined for recurring themes, patterns, and other evidence of the participants’ having “made meaning” of the situation.  Anything that comes from the emic perspective is considered data, as is that from the etic perspective.  Remember, co-construction of reality necessitates the etic perspective, so the researcher’s interpretation as the outsider is important data.

In some forms of qualitative research (grounded theory), the researchers may develop theories or models from the data they have collected.  In other types, they find evidence of the meanings behind theories until they exhaust their data (theoretical saturation) and then analysis is done.  Still others use only their own interpretation and judgment (reflective analysis) as the data analysis method.  However analysis occurs, the outcomes are expected to be interpreted by the reader, and it is the reader’s judgment that determines whether the results are applicable to other similar situations.  (More construction of reality?)

So which approach is better?  Quantitative or is qualitative?  The answer is that neither is better than the other because each approach complements the other.  This is best seen in mixed methods approaches to research.

Mixed Methods Research –

A true mixed-methods study will have some qualities of both types of research.  In some studies, the quantitative part comes first, in others the qualitative part comes first, and in others they are (more or less) simultaneous. The arrangement that suits the research best should be chosen.  Another consideration whether qualitative or quantitative methods are emphasized more.  Hanson, Creswell, Plano-Clark, Petska, & Creswell (2005) lay out 6 types of mixed-methods designs.  Readers interested in conducting their research from this approach should consult this article, and others like it, to see whether their research goals can be met through mixed methods.

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