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Qualitative and quantitative research

Authors: Claudia Zanini and Julia Amann (Swiss Paraplegic Research)

Quantitative and qualitative research methods are two different traditions, whereby quantitative research is about measuring things and qualitative research is more explorative, aiming to understand the 'insider' perspective of a phenomenon.

Quantitative and qualitative research are two different traditions, linked to different disciplines: quantitative research is traditionally linked to hard sciences (e.g. biology) and qualitative research to social sciences (e.g. sociology). Simply put, quantitative research is about numbers and aims to count and measure things, whereas qualitative research is about words and aims to understand the “insider" perspective of a phenomenon. You find below a table with the major distinctive characteristics of qualitative and quantitative research:

  Quantitative research Qualitative research
Key characteristics
  • Seeks to test assumptions (hypotheses) about phenomena (e.g. spinal cord injury)
  • Highly structured research
  • Usually a large number of participants, who are representative of the population of interest (e.g. persons with spinal cord injury)
  • Seeks to explore phenomena; often used in areas of research where only little is known about the subject of study
  • Semi-structured research
  • Usually a small, non-representative sample of the population of interest
  • Identify and measure causal relationships among things (X causes Y)
  • Generalize results from a sample to a given population
  • Compare groups
  • Numerically describe characteristics of a population
  • Describe and gain understanding of individual experiences and group norms (e.g. underlying reasons and motivations)
  • Explore phenomena from the insider perspective
Example of a research question “What is the relationship between online information and self-management of spinal cord injury?" “How do persons with spinal cord injury use online information to improve their self-management skills?"
Methods used E.g. surveys, questionnaires
=> Closed-ended questions
(e.g. “Do you think that online information is useful yes or no?")
E.g. interviews, focus groups, observation
=> Open-ended questions
(e.g. “What do you think about online information?")
Analysis Analysis of numerical data by means of statistics Analysis of data such as words (audiotapes, transcripts), pictures, or videotapes by means of specific methods (e.g. content analysis and conversation analysis)
Advantages & disadvantages Advantages:
  • Can help to establish causal relationships
  • Enables comparisons
  • Quantifiable results

  • Difficulty in defining the “right" questions
  • Allows the participants to respond in their own words
  • Enables the researcher to ask follow-up questions to explore the “why" or “how"

  • Does not allow generalizability of results
  • Experimenter bias: the researcher is part of the interaction and could influence it by his presence or by the questions he raises
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