Qualitative or Quantitative Research?

Qualitative research is an umbrella phrase that describes many research methodologies (e.g., ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenology, interpretive description), which draw on data collection techniques such as interviews and observations. A common way of differentiating Qualitative from Quantitative research is by looking at the goals and processes of each.

The following table divides qualitative from quantitative research for heuristic purposes; such a rigid dichotomy is not always appropriate. On the contrary, mixed methods studies use both approaches to answer research questions, generating qualitative and quantitative data that are then brought together in order to answer the research question.


Qualitative Inquiry Quantitative Inquiry


  • seeks to build an understanding of phenomena (i.e. human behaviour, cultural or social organization)
  • often focused on meaning (i.e. how do people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their understanding of the world?)
  • may be descriptive: the research describes complex phenomena such as: social or cultural dynamics, individual perception
  • seeks explanation or causation



  • Qualitative inquiry is often used for exploratory questions, such as How? or Why? questions.
  • How do breast cancer survivors adapt to their post-mastectomy body?
  • How is bereavement experienced differently by mothers and fathers?
    • Quantitative research aims to be more conclusive and pertain to larger populations, answering questions such as What? When? Where?
    • When should women have their first mammogram?
    • What is the relation between bereavement and clinical depression?


    • may be comprised of words, behaviors, images
    • the goal is data that can enhance the understanding of a phenomenon
    • can be manipulated numerically
    • the goal is precise, objective, measurable data that can be analyzed with statistical procedures


    • Because the goal is exploratory, the researcher often may only know roughly what they are looking for. Thus, the design of the project may evolve as the project is in progress in order to ensure the flexibility needed to provide a thorough understanding of the phenomenon in question
    • A central tenet of quantitative research is the strictly controlled research design in which researchers clearly specify in advance which data they will measure, and the procedure that will be used to obtain the data

    Data collection

    • researchers are themselves instruments for data collection, via methods such as in-depth interviewing or participant observation. Data are thus mediated through a human instrument
    • date often collected ‘in the field’: the researcher observes or records behavior or interviews the participants in their natural setting (e.g. a clinic, the family home)
    • tools are employed to collect numerical data (e.g., surveys, questionnaires or equipment)
    • research environment is often a controlled representation of reality

    Informant Selection

    • usually collected from small non-random samples (e.g., purposive samples, convenience samples, snow-balled samples)
    • not ‘measurable’ in a quantifiable or mathematical way
    • the aim is ensure that a sample is representative of the population from which it is drawn
    • gold standard is a random sample


    • often inductive: the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from the data gathered
    • often relies on the categorization of data (words, phrases, concepts) into patterns
    • sometimes this data will then be embedded in larger cultural or social observations and analyses
    • Often complexity and a plurality of voices is sought
    • often deductive: precise measurement, mathematical formula, testing hypotheses




    • The goal of qualitative research is to understand participants’ own perspectives as embedded in their social context
    • contextually based and thus do not seek generalizability in the same sense as quantitative research
    • Goal is prediction, generalizability, causality


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