What is the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research?

Mary Smith
By Mary Smith. Updated: June 3, 2018
What is the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research?

The difference between qualitative and quantitative research is fairly simple, yet their consequences are diverse and often complicated. When we set out an experiment or set up some research, there are specific questions which need to be answered. Deciding whether to use qualitative or quantitative data depends on which is best employed to answer these questions. Some areas of research and data analysis will benefit from statistics and the collection of measurable data. Other data analysis requires an approach which will provide an in-depth understanding of topics which cannot be so easily broken down into numbers. oneHOWTO helps you understand what is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research to see which you should be using for a given research topic.

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  1. What is qualitative research?
  2. Types of qualitative research
  3. What is quantitative research?
  4. Types of quantitative research

What is qualitative research?

In solving a mathematical equation, you will most commonly need to use patterns and codes to provide as close to an exact answer as possible. Similar in many scientific studies, there are readings and statistics which will help you find the answers to research problems. However, with other areas of research, these more exact modes of research are not possible. You need to use a methodology which better reflects the subject. This means it is the quality of the research information, not the quantity which is more important.

If you are studying sociology you may need to research patterns of behavior between different cultures. Much of human behavior cannot be quantified by numbers. For example, we don't tend to quantify how much we love a person in percentages. Emotions, behavioral patterns and related themes need to be researched differently.

This is not to say that qualitative research is not scientific. It is simply an attempt to document and analyze data which we are unable to understand through numbers. Importantly, qualitative research asks the questions ‘why' and ‘how' when looking into a research topic, looking at data through the prism of these questions.

When setting out on a qualitative research project, you will often not use hypotheses in the same way. You are not looking for specific results, but rather looking to explore the larger situation and how it relates to other information. Hypotheses are more like propositions in qualitative research. The researcher may not even have any specific proposition before carrying out the study, rather coming across a phenomenon and trying to find a way to qualify it. Often they will stem from one theory and will either result in a support of this theory or the introduction of another.

Qualitative research exists to explore the meaning between different issues, experiences, cultures, phenomena and much more. It looks into the underlying reasons for these elements (the ‘why' aspect) and how this affects the motivations and opinions of individuals or groups. It also looks into the ‘how' aspect by researching how these experiences affect individuals and groups, how cultures interact and what repercussions certain phenomena have. The data analysis, therefore, is often more important in qualitative research than the hypotheses.

Types of qualitative research

It may still be a little difficult to grasp all the intricacies of qualitative research, so we hope the shed some more light on the subject by looking at the types of qualitative research which is used. These are research methods which do not look for measurements and readings in the same way as qualitative research, but they still can identify important trends and provide useful outcomes.


One of the most basic forms of qualitative research is the interview format. A researcher will take a subject and ask them questions related to the topic. This process often results in large magnitudes of raw data which needs to be analyzed and categorized. They may be telephone interviews, short questions or more in-depth interviews.

Case Studies

Case studies are when a report of an individual or circumstance is written up and a qualitative researcher uses this to discuss an overall phenomenon. For example, if you want to look at how drug abuse is affecting inner city populations, then you will do well to look at cases studies of individual drug users. Simple statistics of how many drugs are used are not going to give you the sane results and often won't be helpful in finding out solutions to related problems.

Field Research

This is often how you get case studies in the first place. Qualitative researchers will go out into the field and speak to individuals or institutions to obtain their raw data. This can be done through surveys and interviews, but also through simple observation.

Ethnographic Research

One of the many areas which benefits from qualitative research is anthropology. Ethnographic research is the study of a certain group or culture. It looks at issues within this society and answers through observation and data collection and analysis.

Ethical Inquiry

This involves looking at different phenomena through the filter of ethical considerations. It is a far reaching analysis which works to highlight or solve ethical issues in a given environment. There is often a philosophical element to this approach.

Participant Observer Research

This is when you become part of what you are researching. It is a problematic one which often leads to spoiled data as it is difficult to maintain objectivity. An example might be a police officer who infiltrates a criminal organization. Often the research will have been modified by experience and there are many ethical problems which will arise.

What is the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research? - Types of qualitative research

What is quantitative research?

Quantitative research is different from qualitative research in that it looks to find empirical statistical information to explain phenomena. It is more hypotheses driven and looks for specific answers to smaller questions than the larger, more holistic approach of qualitative research. It is usually applied to subjects which will benefit more to have a statistical approach, but there is of course much crossover between the two.

For example, qualitative research is often more useful in studying the trends of history or anthropology and the actions of a given people at a certain time. Quantitative research is usually more helpful in areas such as marketing, mathematics, political science or economics. However, this doesn't mean qualitative research can only be used for one and quantitative the other. There are many statistical analyses which can help give us a better idea of historical trends as much as an ethnographical analysis might.

As quantitative research involves providing statistical numeral data to help investigate a certain subject. They will involve samples and graphs. This helps to express empirical information (i.e. what is actually happening) in a way which can be useful to get an idea of specifics. For example, creating an average can help us to make estimations of how a certain phenomenon will proceed. However, statistics rarely provide a holistic understanding of a given subject and, in this way, are often limited.

Quantitative data is used more often to prove a single hypothesis, but this is also often a limitation when it comes to looking at others. Quantitative research looks at variables and how they relate to each other in a certain study. These variables are usually defined before the study or experiment is carried out. The outcome is predicted in the hypothesis and qualitative research usually exists to help prove or disprove this hypothesis. In this way, it becomes difficult to make general conclusions with quantitative research.

However, you often find people using quantitative research to help understand qualitative data. For example, while you make use interviews and surveys in qualitative studies, researchers often try to quantify the information provided. For example, many surveys will ask for answers on a scaled basis ('on a scale of 1 to 5 how much do you agree with the following statement'). This information is turned into statistics to get some more specific answers to problems.

Types of quantitative research

Quantitative research is often a little more technical in its data collection:


Perhaps the type of quantitative data collection which first springs to mind is the experiment. A hypothesis is set out, the variables (dependent and independent) are defined, the method carried out and the conclusions made. These conclusions will use statistics and numbers to support the outcomes.

Archival Research

Looking into statistics and numbers from previous studies to see how they influence current data. These are often used in conjunction with qualitative research.


Seems like a simple way of collection qualitative data, but it can get complicated. You may need to find new devices and methods to take the measurements and working out the variables can also be tricky.

Collecting Empirical Data

Again, while related to qualitative research, this involves taking empirical data and creating statistical trends to help understand a specific subject.

Observational Studies

Different from an experiment, but still using hypotheses and conclusion methods, observational studies do not interfere with the subjects. Instead they change the variables and see how the subjects respond, recording the outcomes to make their conclusions.

There are many different types of study which will benefit from an either/or approach, but many still which will use both qualitative and quantitative data collection and data analysis to achieve their outcomes.

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What is the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research?