Differentiate Between Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Research

Differentiate between qualitative and quantitative methods in research - In his attempt to differentiate between quantitative and qualitative approaches, Dabbs (1982, p. 32) indicated that the notion of quality is essential to the nature of things. Quality refers to the what, how, when, where, and why of a thing—its essence and ambience. Qualitative research, thus, refers to the meanings, concepts, definitions, characteristics, metaphors, symbols, and descriptions of things. In contrast, quantitative research refers to counts and measures of things, the extents and distributions of our subject matter: how large a thing is, how many of them there are, or how likely we are to encounter one. This distinction is illustrated in Jackson’s (1968) description of classroom odors in an elementary school, data which defines a site in terms that we would not want to quantify. There are odors in our lives that recall specific places and times, just as there are songs or colors that can do the same. These memories evoke feelings based on their qualities, and not their quantities. Qualitative research strategies provide perspectives that can prompt recall of these common or half-forgotten sights, sounds, and smells.

 The meanings that we give to events and things come from their qualities. To understand our lives, we need qualitative research. But can we really measure the unquantifiable essences of the phenomena that imbue our lives? Can we ever, in a word, know? The answer is yes, though it is a qualified yes. We can study and measure qualities as collections of meanings, as a spectrum of states of being, but not as precise and solid objects. Qualities are like smoke; they are real and we can see them, but they won’t stand still for us or form straight lines for our rulers to capture. Clearly, qualitative research requires some specialized tools and techniques. 

Qualitative and quantitative methods give us different, complementary pictures of the things we observe. Unfortunately, because qualitative research tends to assess the quality of things using words, images, and descriptions and most of quantitative research relies chiefly on computers, many people erroneously regard quantitative strategies as more scientific than those employed in qualitative research. The error of thinking underlying this particular critique is that of confusing the study of imprecise subject matter with the imprecise study of subjects. For this reason alone, qualitative researchers need to be more precise, more careful in their definitions and procedures, and clearer in their writing than most other scientists. From my perspective, this means conducting and describing research that can stand the test of subsequent researchers examining the same phenomenon through similar or different methods. Qualitative research is a long hard road, with elusive data on one side and stringent requirements for analysis on the other. Admittedly, this means that students have a lot to learn and not a lot of room for errors. 

What are these qualities that we measure? Why don’t we quantify them? As for that second question, sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t. All qualities can be quantified up to a point, just as all quantitative data have qualitative aspects. To better understand that, let’s consider some of the qualities that we are good at measuring. 

One popular and important area of research concerns social norms—the normatively expected and informally enforced patterns of behavior that are widely shared within any given society. Norms are vital to daily life in a given society, as well as highly revealing about that society. But unlike rules, laws, and procedures, norms are almost never written down or named. This makes it a bit more difficult to study them. Nonetheless, they are visible to us as researchers for exactly the same reasons that they are visible to us as members of a culture. We find evidence of them everywhere. 

Jokes require and reveal norms. Much of the work of humor comes from surprising the listener by violating their expectations. Jokes reveal both the normatively expected and the normatively startling. Racist, sexist, and nationalistic jokes, for example, demonstrate the nature of conventionally held negative ideas that one group of people hold toward another. In the United States in the 1960s, for example, it was fairly conventional for newspapers to print cartoons or jokes whose humor depended on the stereotype that women were bad drivers. But there were probably no jokes at all about women as bad sign painters. Sign painting did not invoke or involve deeply held social norms. The driving jokes, however, reflected the normative assumption that most families had one car, that the car belonged specifically to the man of the house, and that his masculine prerogatives would have been threatened by “allowing” his wife to drive. At the same time, women did drive and on average had better road safety records than men. So there was unarticulated social pressure to continuously emphasize that driving was a naturally male thing to do, hence the jokes, and men’s appreciation of them. Over time, as more middle-class families with two adults became middle-class families with two jobs and two cars, most people got used to the idea that American masculinity was unharmed by sharing the road, and these jokes became less popular. (But they still show up once in a while.) We use qualitative methods to interpret the jokes and their underlying assumptions; we use quantitative measures to show that they have fallen out of favor. The rise and fall of a style of joke reveals subtle shifts in social norms over a period of a few decades. 

Absences also reveal norms. Reviewing the content of American newspapers, for example, demonstrates that crime, politics, and entertainment are very important elements of what is considered newsworthy. Yet, analyses of the crime coverage show a preponderance of attention to violent crime and “street” crime. White-collar crime is rarely mentioned at all, or only appears under the heading of “business news.” It seems that the normative perception of crime does not include the kinds of economic crimes committed by people with money, unless those people are politicians or celebrities. Normatively, crime is associated with violence and indirectly with poverty. Similarly, sports coverage routinely incorporates athletic accomplishments, medical issues that threaten one’s ability to play, and sports contracts. But relatively little of it mentions endorsements, even though many athletes literally wear their endorsements on their sleeves. It seems that only some parts of the business of sports are widely perceived as related to sports. Other aspects are placed in different categories. We (as a society) come to recognize a certain cluster of things as belonging to the same category, and actively “split” other related things off into different categories, thereby creating “islands of meaning” out of the haphazard whirlwind of things in our lives (Zerubavel, 1996). We include 18-year-olds in our mental category for “adults,” but not 17-year-olds. These meanings might be codified into dictionary definitions that emphasize what is included. But it takes more work to recognize those things that have been excluded. 

According to a study by Harold Garfinkel, one of the most immediate and effective ways to demonstrate the existence of norms is to violate them and observe the results. A pattern of absences might or might not indicate that the exclusion of some class of events or people is considered normal. But what happens when the usually excluded category is included? 

Consider American movies. Not only are most of the main characters straight, white, and presumably Christian men, but most of the random secondary characters seem to be as well. Women are introduced where the plot requires a woman, as is true with nonwhites, gay characters, and others who are defined by their differences from the norm. But is this evidence of norms at work, or just preferences and prejudices within a specific industry? One clue comes from those occasions when a film violates this expectation by broadening the field of actors. When a character is cast with a black actor (or defined as gay), is there pushback from viewers and critics? Is the casting decision derided as “stunt” casting, even if the story does not require that the character be white (or straight)? If no ethnic or demographic characteristics are required for the part, the popular assumption is that the person will be whatever is most normative. Thus, the expectations reveal the norms, and the objections to their violation, when they occur, reveal the expectations. 

Similar processes are at work in colleges, where professors who include a diversity of materials are criticized by some students for this. To add some sense of quantity to this, professors who assign a majority of readings from white or male authors, with a small number of works by women or nonwhites, frequently report some number (a minority) of student evaluations accusing them of antimale or antiwhite bias, as though the mere presence of any nonwhite expert or woman scholar is inherently suspect.  Now it is important to note that usually the majority of students don’t complain, the professors are not punished, and the classes continue to run. No free speech rights are on the line. The point is not that the faculty is prevented from teaching the work of black authors or anyone else. The point is that some members of the dominant culture think that such a thing as diversity is odd. The fact that they would make an issue of it demonstrates the presence of the social norms; their complaints reveal what they expected to find. 

In each of these cases, I am describing how the existence of specific social norms may be demonstrated through the qualitative analysis of what we call social artifacts—things produced or performed by people in the normal course of their lives. Two very important points need to be emphasized about these examples. First, I am not describing a single event as evidence of social values, but rather a regular and familiar pattern of events. Individual cases may not mean very much. We tend to look instead at multitudes of cases. And second, these cases reveal the existence of specific norms, and not the number of people who adhere to them, the strength of people’s belief in them, or the likelihood of encountering them. That is, we can’t quantify this data based on the kinds of studies described here. That sort of question requires different sorts of studies.