The two basic approaches to research are commonly known as quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research typically counts and measures things, and derives meaning out of the data by analyzing it using statistical models. Qualitative research, by its name, is a way of gathering descriptions, perspectives and other detailed information by in-depth study of the issue and its stakeholders. Let us explore which research method is suitable in what context and if the approaches need to be used exclusively of each other.
Numbers don’t lie, but do they give the complete picture?
Quantitative research often enjoys greater popularity over its counterpart because numerical data is accepted as precise, while qualitative study is sometimes seen as abstract or lacking in precision.
Advantages of quantitative research
- Gathering quantitative data is relatively economical compared to qualitative inquiry.
- Quantitative research can provide precise, numerical data and allow quantitative predictions.
- Since quantitative research can be rendered electronically, it is useful for surveying a large population. For instance, mobile based data collection tools like Collect can be easily deployed to collect accurate quantitative data.
- Where research is rendered manually, research staff need not be specially skilled since they don’t have to engage participants to get responses or observe their reactions. They just need to record participants’ responses.
- Numerical data can be analyzed easily, quickly and economically, and standardized data allows for statistical comparisons
Disadvantages of quantitative research
- One of the limitations of quantitative research is its inability to draw insights on social behaviors and motivations for actions, which are key for developing products or programs.
- Data gathered is often one-dimensional and may not take into account the various aspects of the data or contextualize it.
Let’s understand this with a simple example. Say that an NGO that works towards rehabilitation of runaway children needs to track the success of their rehab program.
Using quantitative research, the NGO will be able to gather data on how many children ran away from their homes in a particular year, major reasons for doing so, how many were rehabilitated, what percentage of rehabilitated children ran away again, satisfaction scores of those who were settled back, etc.
However, this research will not effectively be able to get insights on the conditions of the kids’ homes; what the kids considered as a secure, loving environment; motivations and psychology behind rehabilitated kids running away again; effectiveness of the NGO’s counseling program; and answers on what the NGO needed to really do for the program to be a success.
Why qualitative research is an indispensable tool in program development
As data becomes critical for social sector spending decisions, qualitative research throws light on social and behavioral aspects, and can determine how programs must be designed and delivered.
For instance, earlier this year, the government of India launched the Swachh Bharat initiative to achieve an Open Defecation Free India. In order to deliver on this mission, the government would need to collect data about:
- Where toilets need to be built
- Places where toilets are built but unused
- Reasons why existing toilets are not being used
In this case, if the government had commissioned a research on toilet usage, a quantitative survey would enumerate the number of toilets constructed per block in every district in each state, gather usage-related data and provide top reasons for non-usage. However, without a qualitative survey, it would be hard to understand some of the real reasons for non-usage — such as the difficulty in changing lifelong habits, belief that defecating in the open is healthier, and so on — and suggest solutions to increase intended usage.
Thus, a complete study of both the (numerical) usage data and qualitative insights on user perceptions would be an effective way to frame policy on sanitation and decide spending towards building toilets and running awareness campaigns.
However, qualitative research is not just for the social sector. Qualitative research is also important in commercial product and program development studies, since it probes socio-cultural and psychological parameters that are key to understanding user needs, gaps, behavior patterns and use cases. Qualitative research seeks answers by investigating the issue and stakeholders in social settings. Such insights on user stories and behaviors are critical to improving products and programs, finding answers to problems or providing information to assist in decision-making.
Points to consider while using qualitative research
Critics of qualitative study often call the approach unscientific since its success is heavily dependent on survey design, tool selection, skill-sets of researchers and costs involved. Numerical interpretation of qualitative data is also questioned.
However, the way research objectives are designed and research is conducted affects both types of research, and unscientific study affects outcomes, whatever the approach used. On the critique of numerical interpretation, data obtained from qualitative studies can be converted to numbers through a process of encoding, though this may be a costly exercise. To work around the issue of budget in qualitative study, researchers can select a tool that fits their pocket best.
Interviews, participant observation, and focus groups are popular picks as qualitative research tools, but they typically get restricted by sample size. Other tools like case-study evaluation, document and textual analysis, historical analysis (historiography), and more can also be used to supplement the tools mentioned earlier, but they might end up making the study expensive.
The researchers’ skills continue to be a key factor in qualitative research as individual biases, perspectives and understanding of researchers can make or mar a study. As a best practice, qualitative researchers should be encouraged to objectively observe and document behaviors, opinions, needs, pain points, and other information given out by respondents without biasing the information they think will be meaningful.
When to use qualitative research
Most studies dealing with human beings need an investigation of social settings, observation of participants in their settings and an understanding of their socio-economic, behavioral and cultural contexts. In these cases, a mixed research survey may be the best approach, since it would provide both numerical data and rich qualitative perspective.
In addition, qualitative research is imperative in the preliminary stages of an investigation, when researchers need to gather information that can predict a pattern or trend.
In advanced stages, qualitative research makes the study richer by bringing out deeper insights. Qualitative research is also useful as an exploratory tool when you know that a product or program is not delivering but have little or no idea about the reasons.
In short, qualitative research is indispensable. Choosing quantitative research just because it provides specific, numerical interpretations may paint an incomplete picture, thus adversely affecting decision making.