Exploring Qualitative and Quantitative Research

In psychology, answers to our questions are not as succinct as in other types of sciences, and the findings essentially depend upon the underlying epistemology used. This essay seeks to define and examine the fields of qualitative and quantitative research. It will address the different epistemologies and methodologies of each paradigm, and aim to give you a brief overview of the two main research methods underlying scientific knowledge. Qualitative research is often only defined in contrast to Quantitative research; That is, it does not involve statistics, nor does it depend on the level of objectivity that characterises the quantitative approach. While quantitative research aims to categorise participants in numerical form by creating statistical models to answer specific hypothesises; Qualitative research does not start with a specific hypothesis, instead it seeks to understand behaviours, and experiences (McQueen & Knussen, 2013, p.422). Qualitative researchers tend to operate under different epistemological beliefs than that of quantitative researchers. Unlike quantitative researchers who use fixed instruments with little flexibility, Qualitative researchers allow questions to emanate and reshape themselves as the research unfolds (Krauss, 2005, p. 759).

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The qualitative researcher is engaged in the world they investigate, creating an unstructured and reflective element to the research, where the researchers’ knowledge, emotive interactions, and past experiences all form a part of the research (Ponterotto, 2010, p.583). According to Guba and Lincoln (as cited in Ponterotto, 2005, p.128) there are four main research paradigms: postpositivism, constructivism-interpretivism and the critical-ideological and positivism perspective. Of these four paradigms, positivism is solely adopted in the quantitative approach, whereas the three remaining paradigms are utilised in the qualitative approach (Ponterotto, 2010, p.581). Postpositivism is based on critical realism, and uses traditional qualitative methods, in as quantifiable manner as is possible.

Postpositivists believe that although there is a reality independent of human consciousness, one can never truly capture an objective view of this reality (Ponterotto, 2005, p.129). Postpositivists maintain that although the researcher may have some influence on the research, the maintenance of objectivity remains crucial in the research process (Ponterotto, 2005, p.131). Whilst the postpositive paradigm adopts a modified dualist/objectivist approach, the constructivism-interpretivism paradigm is based on relativism. Constructivists consider reality to be experienced differently by each individual, as opposed to being an external and singular reality. (Ponterotto, 2005, p.129). Ponterotto (2005) considers the constructivist paradigm as transactional and subjective, making the interaction between the researcher and participant cardinal in capturing the “lived experience”; with the researcher and participant, together, construct the findings from their interactions (Ponterotto, 2005, p.129-131). Like constructivists, the criticalists conclude that reality is constructed within a social-historical context, the difference being, that criticalists conceive reality through power relations and use their research to understand victims of oppression and seek to uncover structures of power (Ponterotto, 2005, p.130-131).

The researcher’s values play a key role, as participant empowerment and emancipation are the researcher’s goal. Relationships between researchers and participants are subjective and transactional with the relationship being dialectic in nature (Ponterotto, 2005, p.130-131). In contrast to the qualitative paradigms, the main feature of quantitative research is that it mirrors the natural sciences by adopting a positivist approach which is dualist and objective in nature. Positivism assumes the hypothetico-deductive method, that is, researchers start out with a research question and hypothesis, and then formulate a way of measuring or proving it (Ponterotto, 2005, p.128). Ponterotto (2005) further states that the aim of quantitative research is the prediction, and control of variables that can be expressed as mathematical formulas to determine functional relationships. These differing ontological approaches bring to pass differing methodological approaches. Methodology refers to the processes and procedures of the research. Research methods used include observation, interviews, focus groups, surveys, case studies, questionnaires and analysis of text (Ponterotto, 2005, p.132).

Observational research is non-experimental research where a researcher observes ongoing behaviour. It can be unstructured, semi-structured, structured, participant or non-participant (Wellington& Szczerbinski, 2007, p.80). Some limitations to this type of research are language and cultural barriers as well as the risk of observer bias, with one of the advantages being that the researcher gains access to information they normally wouldn’t have. Observation is typically used in qualitative research, but can be used in quantitative research prior to designing questionnaires (Wellington& Szczerbinski, 2007, p.80). As with observation, interviews and focus groups can be structured, semi-structured and unstructured, and can use photographs, notes, videos and tape recordings to improve data quality. Interviewing allows the researcher to guide and prompt things that we cannot observe, it also allows us to get an understanding of the participant’s account of the phenomenon (Wellington& Szczerbinski, 2007, p.86). Some limitations can be the use of vague questions, and excessive prompting and questioning by the interviewer, which can distort the quality of data.

Interviewing is typically utilised in qualitative research, but can be used in quantitative research using closed ended questions (Wellington& Szczerbinski, 2007, p.86). Another form of methodology is that of Case studies which are an in depth observations of a single subject, or a small group of individuals. Case studies are deemed useful in trying to understand complex psychological phenomenon that either are not well understood or cannot be replicated experimentally (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2012 p.55). Two concerns of using this methodology is observer bias and generalisability due to the small sample size, however, this can be overcome by using a multi-case-study method. This methodology is typically used in qualitative research, however, can also be used in quantitative research (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2012 p.55). As with case studies, questionnaires and surveys are a form of descriptive research. It involves questions about behaviours and beliefs using a larger sample size (Wellington& Szczerbinski, 2007, p.96). One limitation is the lack of interpretive opportunity, and unintended systemic bias.

Surveys and questionnaires are largely used in quantitative research using close ended questions, but can be used in qualitative research using open ended questions. (Wellington& Szczerbinski, 2007, p.96). The main difference between the fields of study emerge when we look at the methodologies of data analysis. Frost (2011) identifies four main methods of data analysis in qualitative research, these are grounded theory, interpretive phenomenology (IPA), discourse analysis, and narrative analysis. Grounded theory entails creating categories and themes and then conducting comparative analysis to generate hypothesis. IPA analyses data by endeavouring to make sense of the participant’s experiences by coding reoccurring patterns and meanings throughout the text. Discourse analysis involves analysing and deconstructing spoken, written, or any significant semiotic event and assigning meaning to it. Narrative analysis focuses on the way people use stories to interpret and give meaning to the world and provides a useful way for the researcher to explore and describe realities (Frost, 2011, p. 19-94).

Two other forms of methodology commonly used, but not discussed here, are ethnography and action research. (McQueen & Knussen, 2013, pp.430-433). Conversely, the core concepts of quantitative research are generalizability, reliability, objective measurement, and validity, coupled with three types of research methods including correlational designs, experimental designs, and descriptive designs (VanderStoep & Johnson, 2008 pp.91-108). Whereas correlation and descriptive designs involves identifying the relationship between two variables, experimental designs allow researchers to make claims of casual inference, which looks at which variable is the cause and which is the effect (VanderStoep & Johnson, 2008 pp.91-108). Quantitative data is analysed using statistical analysis which is made up of descriptive and inferential statistics, and include the, T-test, correlation, standard deviation, mode, mean, and median and chi-square (VanderStoep & Johnson, 2008 pp47-100). In summary, qualitative and quantitative research methods have a lot to offer in psychological research, but with every research approach there are strengths and weaknesses. Whilst some theorists argue that psychological research can be distorted by subjectivity, others argue that not all human behaviour and thinking is always strictly logical.

Whilst qualitative methods are more time consuming and harder to carry out, they emphasise validity and data quality; and while quantitative methods are often thought of as rigid and providing limited data, it ensures reliability (Hayes, 2000 pp. 169-170). It can be seen from the above discussion that different research questions, require different research approaches. Susan O’Neill (1999) conducted a qualitative case study to examine facets of a women’s personality and subjectivity in her interpretation of living with OCD. The research was conducted in two semi-structured interviews. In the first interview the participant was asked to tell her story about living with OCD. A discursive analysis was then conducted on the narrative and presented to her in the second interview; she was then asked to analyse her reactions to the analysis and provide further clarifications, which identified different aspects of personality of OCD sufferers not previously identified. This study demonstrates the value of using reflexive interviews in order to get a deeper understanding of the participant. In contrast, a study conducted by Porche et al. (2012) in which cognitive performance was tested in methadone patients would not be suitable for qualitative methods. This research utilised tasks to measure psychomotor performance, memory, attention and executive function.

Due to the nature of the research and measurement tools used, it would only be suitable to undertake this research as quantitative. In conclusion psychological researchers should clearly understand the study’s purpose and goals before looking at methodology and paradigms to ensure they use a paradigm suitable for the research goal or even consider using mixed research designs. It is also important to understand that the quality of the research is anchored to the correct use or combination of research paradigms, which ultimately should complement and support the research goal (Ponterotto, 2005, p.132).

Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2012). Psychology: 3rd Australian and New Zealand edition. Brisbane: John Wiley & Sons. Frost, N. (2011). Qualitative research methods in psychology: Combining core approaches. Retrieved from Hayes, N. (2000). Doing psychological research. Buckingham: Open University Press. Krauss, S. E. (2005). Research paradigms and meaning making: A primer. The Qualitative Report, 10(4), 758-770. Retrieved from
McQueen, R. A., & Knussen, C. (2013). Introduction to research methods and statistics in psychology: A practical guide for the undergraduate researcher (2nd ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. O’neill, S. (1999). Living
with obsessive-compulsive disorder: A case study of a woman’s construction of self. Counselling Psychology Quarterly 12(1) 73-86. doi: 10.1080/09515079908254079 Ponterotto, J. G. (2002). Qualitative research methods: The fifth force in psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 30(3) 394-406. doi: 10.1177/0011000002303002 Ponterotto, J. G. (2005). Qualitative research in counseling psychology: A primer on research paradigms and philosophy of science. Journal of Counseling Psychology 52(2), 126-136. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.52.2.126 Ponterotto, J. G. (2010). Qualitative research in multicultural psychology: Philosophical underpinnings, popular approaches, and ethical considerations. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(4), 581-58. doi:10.1037/a0012051 Porche, H. K., Umbricht, A., Klevkamp, B. A., Vandrey, R., Strain, E. C., Bigelow, G. E., & Mintzer, M. Z. (2012). Comparison of cognitive performance in methadone maintenance patients with and without current cocaine dependence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 124 (1-2) 167-171. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2011.12.009 Wellington, J. & Szczerbinski, M. (2007). Research methods for the social sciences. Retrieved from VanderStoep, S.W., &Johnson, D. D. (2008). Research methods for everyday life: blending qualitative and quantitative approaches. Retrieved from

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