Data are organized into two broad categories:
♦ Qualitative Data: Information that is difficult to measure, count or express in numerical terms. An example of qualitative data would be how safe a resident feels in his or her apartment.
♦ Quantitative Data: Information that can be expressed in numerical terms, counted or compared on a scale. An example of quantitative data would be the number of 911 calls received in a month.
Qualitative research explores attitudes, behavior and experiences through such methods as interviews or focus groups. It attempts to get an in-depth opinion from participants. As it is attitudes, behavior and experiences that are important, fewer people take part in the research, but the contact with these people tends to last a lot longer.
The strength of qualitative research is its ability to provide complex textual descriptions of how people experience a given research issue. It provides information about the “human” side of an issue – that is, the often contradictory behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships of individuals. Qualitative methods are also effective in identifying intangible factors, such as social norms, socioeconomic status, gender roles, ethnicity, and religion, whose role in the research issue may not be readily apparent. When used along with quantitative methods, qualitative research can help us to interpret and better understand the complex reality of a given situation and the implications of quantitative data.
Qualitative Research Methods
The most common qualitative methods are participant observation, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. Each method is used to obtain a specific type of data.
♦ Participant observation is appropriate for collecting data on naturally occurring behaviors in their usual contexts.
♦ In-depth interviews are optimal for collecting data on individuals’ personal histories, perspectives, and experiences, particularly when sensitive topics are being explored.
♦ Focus groups are effective in eliciting data on the cultural norms of a group and in generating broad overviews of issues of concern to the cultural groups or subgroups represented.
Quantitative research generates statistics through the use of large-scale survey research, using methods such as questionnaires or structured interviews. If a market researcher stops you on the streets, or you fill out a questionnaire that has arrived through the mail, this falls under the umbrella of quantitative research. This type of research reaches many more people, but the contact with those people is much quicker than it is in qualitative research.
♦ The main focus is on measuring 'how much is happening to how many people.'
♦ The main tools are large scale surveys analyzed using statistical techniques. Quantitative measurable indicators relevant to the pre-determined hypotheses are identified and combined into questionnaires.
♦ Questionnaires are then conducted for a random sample or stratified random sample of individuals, often including a control group.
♦ Causality is assessed through comparison of the incidence of the variables under consideration between main sample and control group and/or the degree to which they co-occur.
♦ In large-scale research projects teams are composed of a number of skilled research designers and analysts assisted by teams of local enumerators (©2005 Linda Mayoux).
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Inquiry
The key difference between quantitative and qualitative methods is their flexibility. Generally, quantitative methods are fairly inflexible. With quantitative methods such as surveys and questionnaires, for example, researchers ask all participants identical questions in the same order. The response categories from which participants may choose are “closed-ended” or fixed. The advantage of this inflexibility is that it allows for meaningful comparison of responses across participants and study sites. However, it requires a thorough understanding of the important questions to ask, the best way to ask them, and the range of possible responses.
Qualitative methods are typically more flexible – that is, they allow greater spontaneity and adaptation of the interaction between the researcher/evaluator and the study participant. For example, qualitative methods ask mostly “open-ended” questions that are not necessarily worded in exactly the same way with each participant. With open-ended questions, participants are free to respond in their own words, and these responses tend to be more complex than simply “yes” or “no.”
In addition, with qualitative methods, the relationship between the researcher/evaluator and the participant is often less formal than in quantitative research. Participants have the opportunity to respond more elaborately and in greater detail than is typically the case with quantitative methods. In turn, researchers have the opportunity to respond immediately to what participants say by tailoring subsequent questions to information the participant has provided. To read more about using data, click here.