Monday, 14 March 2022

Qualitative vs Quantitative research

It is always interesting to consider what different authors consider are the differences between qualitative and quantitative research.

Padgett (1998) considers the key distinctions between the two methodological approaches, and sets out the key characteristics of qualitative research as being: 

  • "Inductive" (p. 3) is being data-led, allowing the data to spring from the findings (Braun & Clarke, 2013), which Padgett suggests seeks to discover theory but not to test existing theory (1998). Inductive research amplifies the findings from "observed cases to [...] other, unobserved, cases or [...] to [...] cases of the same kind" (Jupp, 2006, p. 146).
  • "Naturalistic inquiry, in vivo" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). This refers to a broad group of qualitative methods and approaches, which Padget terms a 'family'; where some members get on much better, including "ethnography, grounded theory, narrative analysis, constructivism, phenomenology, cultural studies, [and] postmodernism" (1998, pp. 1-2), than with others. Think non-laboratory, non-experimental design; think researching a living organism.
  • "Uncontrolled Conditions and Open Systems" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). The lack of control and the open-endedness is due to the inductive nature of the research: this is not a lab experiment where variables can be selected or eliminated. Qualitative research exists in the messy nature of naturalistic inquiry
  • "Holistic; Thick Description" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). This is narrow but rich data, sometimes termed 'an inch wide and a mile deep'. The participant data is complicated, with a lot of internal connections which takes a lot of time to analyse; and there aren't so many participants (Braun & Clarke, 2013). Thick description is the deep, layer upon layer "interpretation [...from the researcher, which is] deeply embedded in the contextual richness" of the participants' lives (Jupp, 2006, p. 300). Think micro-cases contextualising participant lived experience. 
  • "Dynamic Reality" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Methods may grow and evolve as the project rolls out to take account of unexpected findings; plus the method is likely to take longer as - despite planning - effectively qualitative research has to be made up as we go along (Braun & Clarke, 2013)
  • "Researcher as Instrument of Data Collection" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Qualitative research largely requires "personal involvement and partiality [... so ]subjectivity [and] reflexivity" are key tools which need to be used well (Braun & Clarke, 2013, p. 4)
  • "Categories Result from Data Analysis" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). The researcher interacts with the data, seeking "wholes and holes" (Suter, 2011, pp. 348-349), to highlight patterns in our data which we can categorise and then will lead to inductive findings.

What is interesting is that there are two aspects of qualitative research that Padgett does not detail, which are today considered key characteristics. firstly that qualitative research uses words - written or spoken - as data; and secondly that the research results are usually not generalisable, but are about "understand[ing] and interpret[ing] more local meanings; recognis[ing] data as gathered in a context; sometimes produc[ing] knowledge that contributes to more general understandings" (Braun & Clarke, 2013, p. 4).

Whereas quantitative approaches are:

  • "Deductive" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Springing from a "general model of science" relating to "hypotheses and theories [where] particular occurrences can be deduced and [...from that deduction, then] predicted and explained" (Jupp, 2006, p. 138). Tends to test theory, rather than create it (Braun & Clarke, 2013)
  • "Scientific Method/Decontextualizing" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). This approach is about creating distance and objectivity so that measurement of specific, selected variables can take place
  • "Controlled Conditions with Closed Systems" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Padgett suggests that "quantitative research favors a 'closed system' approach where every effort is made to neutralize the effects of the observational context (including the observer)" (1998, p. 2)
  • "Particularistic" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Selected, targeted research of selected variables or hypotheses
  • "Stable Reality" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Stripping out variables and context to focus the research solely on the element being examined
  • "Standardized Data Collection Instruments" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Further reducing variation
  • "Categories Precede Data Analysis" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3). Determining coding, categories and analysis tools in the planning, prior to commencing the research.

The idea is that the 'heart' of qualitative research is "a bricolage, a pieced-together, tightly woven whole greater than the sum of its parts" (Padgett, 1998, p. 3).

It is always interesting to examine the differences between the two schools of thought.



  • Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful Qualitative Research: A practical guide for beginners. SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Jupp, V. (2006). The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods. SAGE Publications Ltd
  • Padgett, D. K. (1998). Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research: Challenges and rewards (Vol. 36, p. 3). SAGE Publications, Inc. 
  • Suter, W. N. (2011). Introduction to Educational Research: A Critical Thinking Approach. SAGE Publications, Inc.

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