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Qual Quant (2012) 46: DOI /s The distinction between qualitative and quantitative research methods is problematic Carl Martin Allwood Published online: 2 March 2011 Springer
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Qual Quant (2012) 46: DOI /s The distinction between qualitative and quantitative research methods is problematic Carl Martin Allwood Published online: 2 March 2011 Springer Science+Business Media B.V Abstract The distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is abstract, very general and its value is usually taken for granted. In contrast, this article attempts to show that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is unclear, poor and therefore of limited value and that its popularity risks leading to unfortunate consequences. Various arguments are presented for this conclusion. For example, it is argued that the heterogeneity of different stand-points on important issues among qualitative researchers (for example with respect to the use of quantification and causal analysis) makes the distinction as such unstable. Moreover, the presence of substantial overlap between many features of qualitative and quantitative research often makes it difficult to separate qualitative and quantitative research. It is also shown that three obvious ways of making the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research are unsatisfactory. Use of the distinction may restrict creativity in the development of new research methods and create confusion and unnecessary work. In general, it may be preferable not to conceptualize research approaches at such abstract levels as done in the context of qualitative or quantitative approaches. Instead, it is suggested that it is more fruitful to discuss the pros and cons of specific research methods, preferably in the context of specific research problems. Keywords The qualitative quantitative distinction Qualitative approach Quantitative approach Research approach The distinction between qualitative and quantitative research has had a remarkable breakthrough in the social sciences, including psychology. The contrast with quantitative research usually comes as part and parcel of the notion of qualitative research (e.g., Pope and Mays 1999). Since this distinction is usually taken for granted in the research literature it is of importance to scrutinize it critically. In this article I argue that the distinction is of limited value and attempt to explain why. C. M. Allwood (B) Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg, Box 500, Gothenburg, Sweden 1418 C. M. Allwood Most researchers will probably agree that good distinctions separate their constituent parts well, i.e., there is no or little overlap between the parts of the distinction, and that good distinctions are clear and unambiguous. The last mentioned criterion will be difficult to achieve if the two parts of the distinction are not defined in a clear and unambiguous way. Below I will argue and attempt to show different ways that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research does not live up to these criteria. Bryman (1984) noted that in the literature on the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research most of the comments on this topic have been formulated by researchers writing from the perspective of qualitative research or by authors who at least are engaged in qualitative research. The same appears to be the case today and the present article foremost utilizes such literature. Furthermore, as a caveat, it should be noted that this paper is not intended to argue against any specific qualitative or quantitative method or, against qualitative or quantitative research as such. In line with the approach taken here, I think that the pros and cons of research methods should be argued in relation to the specific research context that they are used in (including the research question posed and the resources available for the research), and not on a general abstract level. The history of the origins of qualitative research (under this label) can be, and has been, written in many ways (e.g., Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Flick 1998; Tesch 1990; Vidich and Lyman 1998). Under other labels there have been various philosophical precursors such as different schools of hermeneutics and of phenomenology and in the social sciences there have been precursors such as the participant observation research method in anthropology. Other early forerunners of the qualitative research approach occurred in the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century as a result of dissatisfaction of researchers in sociology with what they experienced as the prevailing dominance of research involving quantification of variables and statistical analyses. The researchers wanted to secure a legitimacy of the use of content analyses. Often labels such as soft data and hard data were used. The concept qualitative research started to spread during the 1950s and 1960s and became widespread in large parts of the social sciences during the 1970s and 1980s but in some disciplines such as psychology it did not gain momentum until the 1980s and 1990s (Allwood 2002; Rennie et al. 2002). Thespread ofthe distinction between qualitative and quantitative research appears to have followed as a consequence of this development, and earlier suggested contrasts, such as for example Wilhelm Dilthey s contrast between the Natural and the Human sciences, might have functioned as a thought-model. 1 Problems with the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research There are different signs that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is problematic and of limited value. One such sign, dealt with in the next section (Sect. 2) of this article, is that different versions of the qualitative research approach, as such, include methodological and philosophical stances that appear to contradict one another. Different versions of the qualitative research approach also attempt to characterize the characteristic properties of the qualitative approach and these characterizations are also quite heterogeneous. 1 When the characterization of the quantitative approach, as further commented on below and as is often the case, is left undone or is taken to be the complement of the features of 1 I will not, as such, discuss notions of quantitative research here except for its relation to the qualitative approach as this is depicted in the literature on, and from, the qualitative research approach. Distinction between qualitative and quantitative research methods 1419 Table 1 Examples of the heterogeneity of qualitative research methods Issue/dimension Variation Generalizability of results Great/small possibilities to generalize results Epistemological approach Empirism/rationalism Structure Structured/holistic Interest in regularities Great interest/small interest (more interpretation oriented) Use of quantification (e.g., numbers) No quantification/quantification Causal explanation Legitimate (and possible)/not legitimate Characteristic properties of qualitative methods Different suggestions (see Table 2) the characterization of the qualitative approach, the heterogeneity of the qualitative approach tends to destabilize the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research. A further indication that the distinction is problematic is that attempts to separate qualitative and quantitative research approaches by means of their phenomena, research methods or research philosophy are as I will try to show, when scrutinized, not very convincing. This is the focus of Sect. 3 of the article and in Sect. 4, before the conclusions, I critique the use of a split between the natural sciences and the human sciences as a way to legitimate the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research. Finally, in the conclusions, I give some further reasons as to why I think it is unfortunate that the distinction has received such great spread in the social sciences in many countries. Examples of other authors that previously have critically discussed problems with the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research are Bryman (1984, 1995)andHammersley (1992, 1996). 2 2 Heterogeneity of the qualitative approach Some examples of the heterogeneity within the qualitative research approach are shown in Table 1. For example, qualitative methods differ with respect to their view on the possibility/desirability of generalizing the results of one s research to other places, times and categories of individuals. Some methods, for example the empirical phenomenological method of Giorgi, have large ambitions to generalize. The goal of this type of methods is to identify one, or a small number of, essence gestalts (fundamental gestalts) for a certain phenomenon, for example a genuine learning experience in life (Giorgi 1975, see also e.g., Bullington and Karlsson 1984). Other approaches or authors advocate great caution or total rejection of the interest, or the possibility, to generalize research, for example Alvesson and Kärreman (2000) and Masters et al. (2006). Mason (1996) is an example of an author making the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research whose views appear to be located somewhere in the middle of the dimension concerning to what extent it is possible to generalize research results. Qualitative researchers also differ with respect to their stance on epistemological rationalism and epistemological empiricism, that is, if one argues that the influence of the researcher on the research results is (and possibly thinks that it should be) large (rationalism) or small (empirism). Hermeneutically inspired research methods that tend to highlight the importance of the researcher s pre-understanding exemplify epistemological rationalism. An example of 2 Other authors that have expressed criticism of the distinction are Pope and Mays (1999, p. 5) wrote there is a growing recognition within sociology that the qualitative-quantitative distinction may not be helpful or even accurate. 1420 C. M. Allwood Table 2 Different opinions about the characteristic properties of qualitative methods (1) No statistics or other forms of quantification are/should be used (Strauss and Corbin 1998) (2) The qualitative approach is emancipating (Hamilton 1998) (3) The qualitative approach is a naturalistic (i.e., not laboratory based) interpretive approach (Denzin and Lincoln 1998) (4) Words are data (Tesch 1990) (5) Meaning contents are the study object (Pope and Mays 1999) (6) The qualitative approach is radically interpretivist and constructivist (i.e., it assumes that there is no reality independent of the investigation (Sale et al. 2002,p.45)) a clearly empirically oriented method is Grounded theory (Glazer and Strauss 1967) and another example is some versions of discourse and conversation analysis, for example, the discourse analysis approach that Alvesson and Kärreman (2000) call discursivism, (i.e., detailed studies of verbal assertions in specific situations). Other aspects also differ within the qualitative research approach. I will here rely on the work by Tesch (1990) who compiled a list of 26 qualitative methods and arranged these methods on a dimension from structured to holistic. The structured methods tend to focus on delimited parts of the studied phenomenon and to be systematic and controlled. When using holistic methods the researcher tries to intuitively grip his or her whole experience and these methods are often unstructured and fantasy- and theory inspired. Tesch (1990) also argued that qualitative methods vary in their interest in regularities and patterns, where some methods search for regularities and patterns in the data while the aim of other methods primarily is to interpret meaning and actions, often in their broader social and historical context. Moreover, writers taking a qualitative approach also differ in their attitudes towards the use of numbers and other types of quantification.strauss and Corbin (1998) argued that statistics or other forms of quantification should not be, and are not, used in qualitative research. In contrast, for example, Maxwell (2010) andschwandt (1997) argued that qualitative research may well use different forms of quantification. Yet a further example of heterogeneity in the qualitative approach is the issue of causal analysis. Some authors in the qualitative approach think that causal explanation is inappropriate in the qualitative approach (e.g., Guba and Lincoln 1989 cited in Gelo et al. 2008), and others like Maxwell (2004a,b)) argue that causal analysis is legitimate and do-able in the qualitative approach. There also exist great differences in opinion among qualitative approaches as to the important characteristics of qualitative research. Table 2 provides six examples of different views. These different ideas as to the characteristic properties of the qualitative research approach are often conceptually independent of one another. Thus for example, an ambition to conduct emancipatory or naturalistic research is fully compatible with (and is often aided by) the use of statistics. Emancipatory and naturalistic research also does not presume one another. In addition, a researcher clearly does not need to adhere to all of these definitions, and so might not be classified as a qualitative researcher by some qualitative researchers although he or she subscribes to one of these definitions. In spite of their difference, all the authors cited in Table 2 seem to assume that there is a quantitative approach that is not characterized by the suggested characteristic properties of the qualitative approach. Furthermore, all of the authors implicitly assume that there are no more than two approaches to research although this is not (to this author s knowledge) Distinction between qualitative and quantitative research methods 1421 explicitly discussed. 3 Again, the nature of the quantitative approach is not explicitly discussed, but it seems to be taken for granted that it is the complement of the qualitative approach and as a consequence, that its nature depends on what is assumed to be characteristic of the qualitative approach. Thus, one of the problems with the distinction between a qualitative and a quantitative approach is that the distinction is unstable, since the characteristics of quantitative research is usually treated as a side effect of how one describes the qualitative approach. Furthermore, as described next, the indirect consequences for what is characteristic of the quantitative approach often seem unsatisfactory. Accordingly, depending on which of the six suggestions for the important characteristics of the qualitative approach rendered above is favoured, it would imply that what is characteristic of the quantitative approach is that it, either (1) quantifies (but many authors, for example, Schwandt 1997, argue that this is also done in the qualitative approach, at least to some extent!), (2) is not emancipative (but this surely varies in all research and is presumably not a function of if the approach is qualitative or quantitative but rather of how the results are used!), (3) is not naturalistic or interpretative (but surely quantitative studies are often carried out outside of the laboratory and clearly research results and data, such as the participants statements, are interpreted in much research that would not usually be classified as qualitative!), (4) can not use words as data (but this is obviously done also in much quantitative research!), (5) does not treat, or study, meaning contents (but this is often done, for example by help of multidimensional scaling or other more or less advanced statistical methods), or, (6) assumes that there is an independent reality irrespective of whether it is investigated (interpreted) or not. 4 One reason for the anomalous issues we encounter in this context may be that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches is too simplistic and abstract to meaningfully capture what the properties of different research methods under the respective labels of qualitative and quantitative have in common. 3 Three general ways of making the distinction The distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches can be made in different ways. Threesuch waysare: (1) to focusonone part of the research process that is then called qualitative or quantitative, (2) to describe specific research methods as either qualitative or quantitative, and (3) to distinguish between a qualitative and a quantitative research philosophy (Allwood 1999). It is often unclear which of these three ways is used, and sometimes an author makes use of two or more of these within the same text without clarifying this. These three ways are next described in turn. 3 The same authors are presumably well aware of the multitude of philosophical traditions in the social sciences but they do not appear to consider this in the present context. 4 A final example of attempts to find characteristics of qualitative and quantitative approaches is that of Maxwell (2004a,b) who, following the lead of other authors, distinguished between variance theory which he links to the quantitative approach, and process theory (qualitative approach). Variance theory deals with variables and the correlations among them, it is based on the analysis of the contribution of differences in values of particular variables to differences in other variables. and Process theory, in contrast, deals with events and processes that connect them; it is based on an analysis of the causal processes by which some events influence others. Process explanation, since it deals with specific events and processes, is less amenable to statistical approaches. (2004b, p. 248). This suggestion for how to understand the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches may be controversial to many authors who see themselves as working in the quantitative approach and longitudinal research (for example in developmental and life-span psychology) using sophisticated statistical methods. Such research illustrates why making the distinction in this way may not be unproblematic. 1422 C. M. Allwood 3.1 The distinction as relating to a part of the research process Some important components of the research process are the phenomenon researched, the data- collection methods used, the results of the data collection (the data), and the data analysis methods used. These are sometimes seen as either qualitative or quantitative. A problem with seeing a specific part of the research process as either qualitative or quantitative is that this does not seem to fill the meaning of what is usually meant with qualitative or quantitative research. Furthermore, it is often not clear with respect to the specific part of the research process whether it is reasonable to see it as either qualitative or quantitative. This is illustrated below. In this paper I, as the elementary default, fall-back meaning of qualitative assume the term qualitative to mean that a studied phenomenon is related to (associated with) one or more categories (for example as done in content analysis) and the default meaning of quantitative to be that entities are dealt with in terms of an ordinal, interval or quote scale level of analysis. 5 Next each of the mentioned components of the research process is discussed more specifically. Any phenomenon has both a qualitative and a quantitative aspect in the sense that it can be categorized and that it has some degree of much-ness (see e.g., Sandelowski et al. 2009). The identity of any phenomenon (including e.g., attributes and components) is qualitative, but it always has a quantitative aspect (how much of it is there). It is odd to imagine that a phenomenon can be purely quantitative, that is, that it is not something. One and the same data-collection method can usually be used to collect both qualitative and quantitative data. For example, questionnaires can contain both open-ended questions and numerical scales and questions in interviews can concern both numerical aspects (e.g.
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