Deciding between a quantitative design and a qualitative design for your study
Choosing whether you will carry out a quantitative or a qualitative research project is one of the questions that many early career researchers (ECRs) struggle with the most. Both approaches have their own benefits and challenges, so it is vital to give full consideration to the choice between each design. This article will help you to work out which approach you should use for your project. But first, let’s take a look at the difference between the two approaches.
Quantitative design vs. qualitative design
Quantitative research collects numerical data, such as reaction time, rating scales and temperature. Therefore, quantitative design is used more in STEM disciplines.
Qualitative research focuses on people’s experiences. This type of research focuses primarily on collecting non-numerical data by using people-centred methods (such as conducting interviews or surveys, or other forms of data gathering involving direct participant observation), and then studying these data to form an impression of the trends or patterns contained in it. Therefore, qualitative design is used more in SSAH disciplines.
Note: There is also mixed-methods design, which combines elements of both quantitative design and qualitative design. Therefore, it is likely to be used in interdisciplinary projects. However, this warrants a separate discussion and is not covered here.
Now that we’ve seen the essential differences, let’s explore how you should decide between the two types of design.
1. Determine the nature of the data you are seeking
Based on the above knowledge, you should ask yourself this simple but most important question:
Would the question you are trying to answer be best addressed with numbers or through people sharing their experiences or opinions with you?
Once you are clear about the type of data you wish to obtain, there are some other considerations.
2. Consider the kind of supervision you will receive
As an ECR, it is important that you have the support of an experienced researcher to help you to execute and complete your project. So as you are planning your research design, you should also consider what supervision is available to you. It could be extremely difficult to complete a quantitative project if the only guidance you will be receiving is from a supervisor or principal investigator (PI) whose research interests are mainly qualitative.
Also, it is a good idea to have discussions as early on as possible with your supervisor and/or PI. Discussing the different approaches that you are considering can be helpful for narrowing down your available options.
3. Consider the needs and circumstances of your participants
Also consider the needs and particular circumstances of your intended participants. If you are working with a group of people who would find traditional experiments more difficult to complete, it might be better to conduct informal interviews with them, to enable them to share their experiences in a way that would work better for them. Alternatively, some groups may find it much easier to fill in some questionnaires or respond to stimuli than to have long discussions about the issue(s) you are studying.
By considering these different points, you will be able to make an informed decision as to what kind of approach will be the best fit for your project. Remember that different questions will need different approaches. So, as you’re planning your research design, it’s always a good idea to consider the same questions from different perspectives.
Read next (second) in series: How to design a quantitative research study
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