Qualitative and Quantitative Concepts

in Proposal Writing: Similarities, Differences,

and Controversy

Cynthia A. Hunt

University of North Dakota

Many researchers ask, "Qualitative or quantitative research?" This paper will look at both types of study and the controversy surrounding which study type is better. It will also give the research student some guidelines about which to use.

What is Qualitative research?

There is no universal definition of qualitative research. In the literature of social science and applied professional fields, such terms as interpretive, naturalistic, constructivist, ethnographic, and fieldwork are variously employed to designate the broad collection of approaches that we call simply qualitative research (Locke et al., 2000). Qualitative research methods were developed in the social sciences to enable researchers to study social and cultural phenomena ( Myers, 1997). It is data that is usually not in the form of numbers. Qualitative research is an inductive approach, and its goal is to gain a deeper understanding of a person's or group's experience. According to Ross (1999), qualitative approaches to research are based on a "world view" which is holistic and has the following beliefs: 1) there is not a single reality. 2) reality based upon perceptions that are different for each person and change over time. 3) what we know has meaning only within a given situation of context.

There is no intervention, or control group used in qualitative research. It is naturalistic (Royse,1999) so that field researchers know what to ask and can change their line of questioning depending on the participant and his/ her response. The researcher uses inductive reasoning which is reasoning "from particular instances to general principles… One starts from observed data and develops a generalization which explains the relationship between the objects observed (Schriver, 2001)."

Qualitative research does not necessarily mean interpretive. It can be used in different paradigms. Qualitative research can be positivist, interpretive, or critical. This exemplifies the dynamic characteristics of this method. A study can be changed if a person or subject changes. For example, if a student is interviewing victims of sexual assault and one of the interviewees presents a journal to be read because he or she feels uncomfortable about the subject matter. The researcher can change the constraints of the study and still extract necessary contextual information about the victim's experience.

Qualitative research has alternative research methods and date collection methods. Examples of qualitative research methods are action research, case study, grounded theory, historical methods, and ethnography. Ethnography is the study of cultures in their natural settings (York, 1998). Grounded theory is designed to develop theory through a highly inductive but systematic process of discovery. A major focus is on the observation of similarities and differences in social behavior across social situations (York, 1998). Some examples of data collection methods are interviews, field of observations, diaries, and letters.

Scientists have some criticisms of qualitative research. Gibbs (1991) believes that "the untrained observer or the practitioner whose day to day involvement in intervention hinders objective analysis may base conclusions on vivid recollection of unrepresentative events, may misinterpret what really happened and may care so deeply about clients that judgement is clouded." He assumes that social work practitioners are unable to think like a researcher and unable to realize their own biases. He seems to conclude that a practitioner is too subjective to evaluate their interventions.

Some scientists argue that reliability and validity are difficult to prove when doing qualitative research. For the qualitative study reported by Belcher, this basic issue (reliability and validity) was addressed in three ways: prolonged engagement, persistent observation, and triangulation (York, 1998). Ross points out that "confrontational situations can arise. Participants might say (to the researcher), 'Don't write this down,' 'Just between you and me,' or I shouldn't have said that.'" (1999). Depending on the researcher's response, the subject or interviewee could shy away from the interview or observation and change the outcome of the study.

What is Quantitative Research?

Quantitative research is the time honored scientific method. It is about prediction, generalizing a sample to a larger group of subjects, and using numbers to prove or disprove a hypothesis. For a typical study using quantitative methods, researchers tend to draw a sample of persons at random from a broader population, if possible (York, 1998). This method utilizes strict control of variables and the focus is on static reality. The researchers are interested in generating data from a large sample of study subjects so they can generalize the conclusion to others (York, 1998). Quantitative research uses data that are structured in the form of numbers or that can be immediately transported into numbers (Ross, 1999). It is a very controlled, exact approach to research.

Quantitative research methods were originally developed in the natural sciences to study natural phenomena (Myers,1997). This type of research is used in many different fields, such as insurance, medicine, government, education, psychology, and law. The social work profession was built on these other disciplines, so it has historically used the quantitative approach to research. Examples of quantitative methods include survey methods, laboratory experiments, formal methods, and numerical methods. These methods are now being used in almost all social sciences.

There are three primary types of quantitative research designs, experimental, quasi-experimental, descriptive, and correlational. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies are designed to examine cause and effect. They study the effects of treatments by using tests or scales. Descriptive and correlational studies examine variables in their natural environments and do not include researcher imposed treatments (Ross, 1999). They examine the relationship between two variables using tests or scales. In quantitative research, validity and reliability can be measured numerically using such tests as inter-rater reliability and test-retest reliability.

This type of research also receives some criticism. Qualitative research is often criticized for being value-bound versus value free. Feminists evaluators have attacked what they call the 'myth' of value-free scientific inquiry (Janssen, 1999). All quantitative data is based on qualitative judgement…Numbers in and of themselves can't be interpreted without understanding the assumptions which underlie them (Trochim, 2001).

Similarities and Differences

Despite the either/ or approach to this paper thus far, qualitative and quantitative research have some shared aspects. Each type of research generally follows the steps of scientific method. Those steps are 1) Choosing research topics 2) Constructing hypotheses 3) Selecting methods 4) Collecting data 5) Analyzing data 6) Interpreting data and drawing conclusion (Schriver, 2001). They have the same beginnings. Each begins with qualitative judgements 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 (Myers, 1997). In quantitative research, methods of observation are submitted to the tests of reliability and validity to establish the credibility of these observations (York, 1998). This can be done by inter-rater reliability, test-retest reliability, criterion validity, content validity, etc.. Qualitative research checks reliability and validity in the form of prolonged treatment, triangulation, and persistent observation, as mentioned earlier.

Both methods also have ways of sampling. Random sampling is preferred in quantitative research. This 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 not random. The researcher is trying to find a subject or group that are especially suited to the topic area. For example, studying attitudes about a county's service delivery to AFDC recipients, the researcher might seek out families that receive AFDC in the county. It would be futile to get a random sample of all families in the county.

Qualitative and quantitative research 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 behavior with scales, tools, or interventions. As we see, their approach and methods are different. The research design of these two vary, as well. Quantitative focuses on tightly controlled variables in a structured setting to provide an explanation of laws. Its emphasis is on gathering and validating knowledge through systematic, objective observations (Schriver, 2001). On the other hand, qualitative research can have more flexible variables and is more dynamic. Qualitative researchers provide students with an in-depth description of a topic or participant. Experience cannot be quantified into fundamental elements (Schriver, 2001).

The Debate

Most research texts and literature discuss the debate or controversy over using qualitative or quantitative research. Locke et al.(2000) Point out that certain departments (and even whole institutions) do not consider qualitative research as an acceptable form of inquiry. It is possible that some agencies and organizations may not wholeheartedly accept qualitative research because it is not traditional. The student or researcher writing a proposal for one of these agencies or organizations would be wise to check into this. Some researchers equate the dominant, traditional view as patriarchal and masculine. This is the same paradigm where the scientific method belongs.

According to Bertrand Russell in Schriver (2001), "the scientific attitude of mind… involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know- it involves the suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we became subdued to the material, able to see frankly, without preconceptions, without biases, without any wish except to see it as it is." One could hypothesize that the traditional or quantitative approach could be sexist or that the researchers presenting the data in past studies were sexist. Quantitative research has no value or place for hermeneutics or interpretation. Alternative ways of knowing and of evaluating what is worth knowing offer essential avenues for social workers to gain a more complete understanding of humans, our behaviors, and the social environments we construct and inhabit (Schriver, (2001).

The debate between these two types of research is similar to the differences between the positivist and naturalist paradigm. Positivist, like traditional research, believes that the researcher and subject are independent, a dualism (Schriver, 2001). The naturalist axiom believes that there is no way to separate the researcher and participant, and that people and relationships are always in a state of change. Many researchers doubt that structured questionnaires capture consumer or implementers' attitudes toward the quality or nature of the services they receive or provide (Janssen, 1999).

Quantitative research focuses on the norm. Qualitative can focus on more unusual situations, focus on the "standard deviation." Generally, social workers do not work with only norms, but work with people that have unusual circumstances or hardships. Qualitative research may have a better fit in the social work field that focuses on families and individuals. However, quantitative research can help evaluate practice interventions. Which should be used?

Many resources say both. While some evaluators and researchers believe that qualitative and quantitative methods are mutually exclusive, evaluators are increasingly combining the two methods to yield findings that provide a better understanding of program dynamics than either approach can provide by itself (Janssen, 1999). Qualitative research may give us a rich, multi-dimensional view of a topic or phenomena. We may need to have numbers to support our reasoning for delving into a project and obtaining the financial resources necessary for a study. There is little point in proposing any research that would be unable to be carried out for lack of funds. Because qualitative research takes an enormous amount of time, is very labor intensive, and yields results that may not be as generalizable for policy-making or decision-making, many funding sources view it as a "frill" or as simply too expensive (Trochim, 2001). Hence, the need for quantitative research.

Guidelines about choosing qualitative or quantitative approach

The choice of qualitative or quantitative means of observation (measurement) should be guided by the nature of the research question and the existing knowledge about it (York, 1998). Ross (1999) points out that selecting an appropriate design for a study involves following a logical thought process… A calculating mind is required to explore all possible consequences of using a particular design in a study. A student researcher should first pick a topic and do a literature review to explore all facets of the topic. Some literature on qualitative research suggests the timing of a literature review be flexible. This way your data collection can be less subjective. However, this could be risky if you do not know much about your selected topic. You may want to check with an advisor about this.

The student researcher should familiarize himself or herself with both methods of research. Some social work students may be quick to jump to qualitative research out of fear of statistics. It may be a better idea to challenge one's self. The student 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. In the end, clear goals and objectives is more helpful and important than which type of research is employed.


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