Audience Dialogue

Qualitative or quantitative research?

A question that our clients often ask is "Should I commission quantitative or a qualitative research?"

William Trochim, in his excellent Knowledgebase, makes the point that, for two reasons, there's little difference between the approaches:

So the real difference between qualitative and quantitative is not so much the method, but the researcher's approach.

Despite that, some methods are more quantitative (e.g. surveys, automated counting), and other methods are more qualitative (e.g. in-depth interviews and gruop discussions). However there can be qualitative surveys - using mostly open-ended questions. There can also be quantitative group discussions (using the consensus group technique).

Our advice: choose a more quantitative method when most of the following conditions apply:

And choose a qualitative method when most of these conditions apply: Two extreme examples: In reality, most topics of research fall between the two extremes. Our position, in general, is that it's best to take both approaches. Quantitative data enumerates, and qualitative data explains.

When a budget is large enough, it's useful to alternate between qualitative and quantitative research. A good general approach is:
1. Begin with a set of consensus groups, to see what's on the minds of respondents in the topic area.
2. Turn the statements from the consensus groups into a set of attitude questions, and include these in a survey.
3. Interpret the survey results with a series of 20 or 30 in-depth interviews, to gain an understanding of the issues.
4. This may throw up some new questions, which can be asked in a follow-up survey.

After several cycles, alternating between qualitative and quantitative research, you'll have a thorough understanding of the topic.

But there's often no need to do several pieces of research, because (as Trochim points out) almost every research method can be either qualitative or quantitative. A survey can include a lot of open-ended questions, a series of in-depth interviews can use a random sample and collect hard data, and consensus groups (drawn from a random sample) will always collect both types of data.