Research Philosophy: Quantitative vs Qualitative

Before discussing this topic, it is important to define few concepts to level-set all readers:

  1. Ontology: Theoretical assumptions about ‘what’ can be known
  2. Epistemology: Theoretical assumption about ‘how’ knowledge is derived
  3. Constructivism and Idealism: Social phenomena can be considered to be ‘constructed’, that is their meaning is created by shared understanding or interpretation of their nature. These constructions cannot exist outside or apart from those who give meaning to them, hence their nature is subjective, and particular to the interpretation given to them. This is also known as Idealism.
  4. Naturalism and Positivism: The principal approach associated with the application of natural science methods to social research is positivism. It is a philosophical approach to the creation of knowledge that can be characterised by the following. (1) an emphasis on empiricism – that is knowledge based on empirical observation (2) testing of theories (3) development of universal laws.
  5. Pragmatism: If the research is for decision-making, one can tacitly accept the possibility of a predictive or generalisable knowledge and will therefore proceed with a pragmatic position of what constitutes science and the possibility of knowing the world. Such a pragmatist approach views the selection of methods as the outcome of research objectives rather than the direct consequence of an epistemological position.

The discussion of a philosophical nature regarding how we know (epistemology) and more fundamentally the nature of the world (ontology) is inevitable. You can see that how we view ‘reality’ or the world ‘out there’ will strongly influence the methods we choose to investigate it. Asking questions about how we view the world is an explicit topic of study for some branches of social science, and consequently these questions are fundamentally more troubling to those investigating the social world than the physical or natural world (where the existence of an objective reality is commonly assumed and indeed a basic paradigm of the scientific method).

Researchers who adhere to a constructivist philosophy (also known as Idealism) therefore dispute the existence of an objective reality. If this is one’s standpoint, a research approach which adopts a naturalist approach (where the existence of an objective reality is uncontroversial) would be fundamentally inconsistent. A rejection of the methods of natural scientists is often termed anti-naturalism. Anti-naturalists would claim that the fundamental differences between the natural and social world (because humans have agency and assign meaning) mean that the extension of the natural science methods to the social world is inappropriate.

Researchers from a constructivist persuasion adopt interpretive methods which explore the world by investigating meaning as understood by social actors themselves. To do this, interpretivists employ qualitative methods which have an emphasis on language. However, whereas the adoption of a constructivist or antinaturalist position necessarily dictates the use of interpretive methods, some authors argue for (or implicitly accept) a role for interpretive methods within a naturalistic social science. This perspective may be held for two main reasons:

• People’s behaviour is not determined by their responses to objective facts, but by their responses to their own subjective understandings. In this context recognition of subjective realities can become a major part of otherwise positivist research as these subjective realities are an important part of the system.

• Many systems are highly complex and insufficiently understood, incorporating multiple social and natural processes and elements, so that their status and behaviour is both highly uncertain and contested by people holding information about different elements of the system. In such circumstances, it is not possible to know or state an objective reality, even if such an objective reality exists.

As a result of varying positions on these and other arguments, users of interpretive methods occupy a range of positions along a spectrum of epistemological positions from positivist to idealist. Questioning of the suitability of positivist science as a model for social inquiry has been a prominent theme in the social sciences over the past 30 or so years as postmodernism has become increasingly important in attitudes to politics, religious or other faiths, life styles and ‘progress’. Methodological debates in social science research are often characterised by an allegiance to quantitative or qualitative methods – where qualitative methods are the domain of the interpretivist and quantitative methods that of the positivist. However, rejecting positivism does not mean rejecting the idea of scientific research of the social. Unless a purist constructivist position is adopted – one which disputes the existence of a knowable world and the possibility of prediction and generalisation – interpretivist methods can play a part in an analytical science.

The establishment of systematic links between data and theory has been achieved with the aid of two general strategies:

  • Theory–then-Research: Known as a deductive reasoning, this forms the basis of positivist scientific enquiry. A deductive approach is characterised by a tightly structured design: research questions are highly specific, usually taking the form of hypotheses. Data are structured in advance: that is categories are pre-established (determined a priori). The setting of categories in advance assumes prior knowledge and understanding of an issue; more importantly, research categories reflect the researcher’s perspective.
  • Research–then–Theory: Known as an inductive approach, data play an active role in the development of theory. During this approach, data are usually unstructured at the point of collection; here categories, or themes, emerge from the data during analysis.

The deductive–inductive dichotomy is one of several used to distinguish quantitative and qualitative approaches to research. Again in practice the distinction may not be so clear; for this reason some methodologists have proposed the terms exploratory and confirmatory: quantitative research can be exploratory and qualitative research confirmatory. Quantitative research is typically associated with theory testing, that is a theory-first research approach, whereas qualitative research is more commonly associated with an inductive or theory-generation approach. However, there is no necessary connection between purpose and approach. Quantitative research can be used for theory generation and qualitative research can be used for theory verification.

Commonly ascribed characteristics of qualitative and quantitative approaches are summarised below, but bear in mind the warning that these distinctions are not absolute, but rather represent continua. Selection of methods should depend on the research question.

Combinations of methods or ‘hybrids’ may be needed where a piece of research has some features which are usually more associated with quantitative methods and other features which are usually more associated with qualitative methods. Thus, in practice, a research study may employ both quantitative and qualitative/interpretative methods in order to arrive at a better understanding of a problem; this is commonly known as mixed methods. For some researchers this is not possible due to fundamental divergence in epistemology and ontology. Many researchers, however, adopt a pragmatic approach which reflects an acceptance of what we have described as a spectrum of epistomological positions within interpretative (or qualitative) research. However, by combining methods as a route to increasing validity and reducing bias the researcher is employing a frame of reference which assumes a knowable reality (upon which we can make policy decisions) and thereby rejects an idealist or pure constructivist position. The combiner of methods therefore sees research design/planning as a case of choosing methods that best facilitate understanding of a problem, rather than adherence to particular approaches based on their theoretical underpinnings. Rather than drawing method from epistemology, a pragmatic approach emphasises ‘question to method’.


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