For many, perhaps most, researchers, the choice of approach is straightforward. Research into reaction mechanisms for an organic chemical reaction will take a quantitative approach, whereas qualitative research will have a better fit in the social work field that focuses on families and individuals. However, some research problems can use either approach equally well, and for some problems combining the two approaches may yield findings that provide a better understanding of the issues than either approach can provide by itself.

In fact, qualitative and quantitative approaches to research have some important shared aspects. Each type of research generally follows the steps of scientific method, specifically:

  1. Choosing a research topic
  2. Constructing aims or hypotheses
  3. Selecting methods
  4. Collecting data
  5. Analysing data
  6. Interpreting data and drawing conclusions.

In general, each approach begins with qualitative reasoning or a hypothesis based on a value judgement . These judgements can be applied, or transferred to quantitative terms with both inductive and deductive reasoning abilities. Both can be very detailed, although qualitative research has more flexibility with its amount of detail.

All research (quantitative or qualitative) is based on some underlying assumptions about what constitutes “valid” research and which research methods are appropriate. In quantitative research, methods of observation are submitted to tests of reliability and validity to establish the credibility of these observations. This can be done using a range of methods, many of which are statistical. Qualitative research checks reliability and validity in the form of prolonged treatment, triangulation, and persistent observation.

Both approaches have their own ways of sampling. Random sampling (or stratified random sampling) is often preferred in quantitative research as it allows the researcher to pick a representation of a larger group and the results can be generalized to the larger group. In qualitative research, sampling is generally not random since the researcher is trying to find a subject, or group, that is especially suited to the topic area.

However, it is probably fair to say that qualitative and quantitative research approaches have more differences than similarities. The quantitative approach is “objective”, which means that it tries to be unbiased toward its subjects and has no interaction with a study's participants. The qualitative approach is just the opposite; the researcher, or observer, wants to be "in the shoes" of the participant, to understand the participant's experience. Qualitative research tries to understand the subject's viewpoint, and quantitative research counts and measures behaviour with scales, tools, or interventions. As a consequence, their approach and methods are different, leading to differences in research design. Quantitative approaches often focus on tightly controlled variables in a structured setting to provide an explanation of theories, with an emphasis on gathering and validating knowledge through systematic, objective observations. Qualitative approaches can have more flexible variables and tend to provide an in-depth description of a topic, or participant.

Selecting an appropriate design for a study involves following a logical thought process; it is important to explore all possible consequences of using a particular design in a study. As well as carrying out a scoping study, a researcher should familiarize himself or herself with both qualitative and quantitative approaches to research in order to make the best decision. Some researchers may quickly select a qualitative approach out of fear of statistics - it may be a better idea to challenge one's self. The researcher should also be prepared to defend the paradigm and chosen research method; this is even more important if your proposal, or grant, is for money, or other resources.


Ultimately, clear goals and objectives and a fit-for-purpose research design is more helpful and important than old-fashioned arguments about which approach to research is “best”. Indeed, there is probably no such thing as a single “correct” design – hypotheses can be studied by different methods using different research designs. A research design is probably best thought of as a series of signposts to keep the research headed in the right direction and should not be regarded as a highly specific plan to be followed without deviation.

iDevice icon Activity 9: Design or method?

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