Qualitative and quantitative research: features, advantages and limitations

10/01/2023 | Santander Universidades

What kind of research would you use to test out a theory or hypothesis: qualitative or quantitative? And to understand something, such as what a certain demographic group thinks about a specific subject? Understanding the difference between both types of research is key not only to gathering useful data, but also to interpreting these and being able to use them for the necessary purposes. 

Now, to answer the questions posed above, quantitative research is used to test a hypothesis while, on the other hand, qualitative research is used to find out what people think. Do you know what each of them involves, what their features are and in which cases they're used? We explain it all to you in this article.

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Research methods: qualitative vs quantitative

Research methods are specific means of gathering and analysing data. In this sense, the first thing to do when planning how to conduct research is to decide which technique to use: qualitative or quantitative. However, the choice will depend largely on the subject to be addressed, the type of data required and the people or elements the data will be gathered from. 

The gathered data can be rendered in both numbers and words; hence the difference between the two types. What it comes down to is that quantitative research focuses on numbers and statistics, while qualitative research uses words and meanings. 

As mentioned, although there are certain differences, both qualitative and quantitative research are important for acquiring diverse types of knowledge. Below, we explain the features of each and when they can be used.

Quantitative research

Quantitative research is used to make sense of frequencies, patterns, means and correlations, understand cause and effect relationships, make generalisations and test or confirm theories, hypotheses or assumptions using statistical analysis. Therefore, the results are expressed in numbers or charts.  

Some of the tools used in quantitative research to collect data are:

  • Surveys or questionnaires: the surveys or questionnaires used pose a single set of closed questions to a large number of participants, or use scales to measure numerical data.
  • Experiments: this includes hypothesis testing in a laboratory, and testing of cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Observation: counting the number of times a particular phenomenon or event occurs or encoding observed data to express it in numbers.
  • Document selection: numerical data is gathered from financial reports or from counting word frequency.

Some of the main advantages are:

  • It's reproducible: standardised data collection protocols can be established, which can be used by other researchers to repeat the research. 
  • It's comparable: direct comparisons of the results can be made to reproduce the study in other contexts. 
  • It's analysable: large samples can be analysed using reliable methods, while formalised hypotheses can also be tested. 

However, quantitative research also has certain limitations:

  • It may be too superficial to analyse complex concepts. 
  • The approach it offers might fall short, given that the pre-set variables and measuring procedures might lead to other relevant observations not being taken into account when drawing conclusions. 
  • There may be structural bias, because missing data, inaccurate measurements or inadequate sampling methods can lead to erroneous conclusions.
  • Data collection and results may be affected, given that this is conducted out of context, for example, in unnatural environments or without taking historical and cultural context into consideration.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research involves gathering and analysing non-numerical data to understand concepts, opinions or experiences, as well as data about lived experiences, emotions or behaviours, with the meanings that people attach to them. For these reasons, the results are expressed in words. 

This type of research is based on the researcher's judgement, who must therefore carefully reflect on their choices and assumptions. This is a technique that's commonly used in fields such as anthropology, sociology, education and history, among others, because it helps them gain a better understanding of complex concepts, social interaction and cultural phenomena. Likewise, it can prove useful for exploring how or why something has happened, allowing events to be interpreted and helping to describe action to be taken.

Some of the tools used in qualitative research are:

  • Interviews: these can be structured, semi-structured or unstructured in-depth sessions with the researcher and a participant.  
  • Focus groups: several participants discuss a particular topic or set of questions. Researchers can act as facilitators or observers.
  • Observation: this can be in situ, in context or through role-playing.
  • Document analysis: questions or reports.
  • History: subjects orally relate experiences or memories to the researcher.

The main advantage of qualitative research is that it offers a flexible approach to research, as it can be adjusted to develop new knowledge. Additionally, it can be conducted with small population samples.

Meanwhile, qualitative research is difficult to standardise and does not allow for statistical analysis or mainstreaming to populations broader than the one under study. 

Mixed research

Both quantitative and qualitative methodology have their benefits and drawbacks. Hence, in some cases, it may be that neither research method offers enough information and, therefore, not enough data can be collected to address the needs of the study. In such situations, a mixed research approach can be taken.

Mixed research combines elements of qualitative and quantitative research to answer a question or hypothesis. Combining both methodologies helps to achieve a more comprehensive view, as it incorporates the benefits of each method: it offers a holistic approach that combines and analyses statistical data with more in-depth contextualised knowledge, as well as allowing findings from various sources to be verified. 


Qualitative and quantitative research: a common goal

Qualitative and quantitative research pursue the same goal: finding patterns in the data they gather in order to establish a relationship between the various components. Both methodologies are fundamental in supporting existing theories and developing new ones. 

Without doubt, learning how to apply them and understanding their use helps us to both better grasp what is happening and make informed decisions. Hence the importance of having the necessary skills and abilities to put these research techniques into practice.

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