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January 7, 2004

quantitative and qualitative methods

I've recently seen two almost identical charts explaining the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. One was shown at a conference, the other presented in a graduate level methods textbook. I didn't save the charts, unfortunately, but this is how I recall them. (Similar charts can be found on the Web, e.g., here and or at the bottom of this page.)

quantitative qualitative
detached engaged
value-neutral partial/committed
claims objectivity admits subjectivity
seeks general findings denies that general rules apply in cases
describes the mean looks for exceptions, complications
pulls factors out of context describes situations holistically
assumes certainty presumes uncertainty
distinguishes causes from effects does not presume to isolate causes

I think this is a very misleading way to draw the distinction. Quantitative research means mathematical analysis; qualitative research means descriptions in words. The use of math requires quantification and a large enough sample to generate statistically meaningful results. The use of descriptive language requires enough detail about cases to generate insightful narratives or portraits. Both approaches are useful. Neither method implies positivism (a strict distinction between facts and values, or between facts and opinions), nor does either method imply skepticism or postmodernism. One can use quantitative methods--such as surveys and statistical analysis of the results--in a deeply engaged, critical, "political" way, without any illusions that one is objective. Or one can use qualitative methods--such as in-depth interviews--in a highly "positivistic" spirit (thinking that one has no values or biases and no axes to grind). Charts like the one above appeal to very general beliefs (or prejudices) about epistemology and drive us to favor either quantitative or qualitative methods. Instead, I think we should simply ask what can usefully be counted in particular cases, and what cannot.

January 7, 2004 10:17 AM | category: none


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