The Qualitative versus Quantitative Debate
In Miles and Huberman's 1994 book Qualitative Data Analysis, quantitative researcher Fred Kerlinger is quoted as saying, "There's no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0" (p. 40). To this another researcher, D. T. Campbell, asserts "all research ultimately has a qualitative grounding" (p. 40). This back and forth banter among qualitative and quantitative researchers is "essentially unproductive" according to Miles and Huberman. They and many other researchers agree that these two research methods need each other more often than not. However, because typically qualitative data involves words and quantitative data involves numbers, there are some researchers who feel that one is better (or more scientific) than the other. Another major difference between the two is that qualitative research is inductive and quantitative research is deductive. In qualitative research, a hypothesis is not needed to begin research. However, all quantitative research requires a hypothesis before research can begin.
Another major difference between qualitative and quantitative research is the underlying assumptions about the role of the researcher. In quantitative research, the researcher is ideally an objective observer that neither participates in nor influences what is being studied. In qualitative research, however, it is thought that the researcher can learn the most about a situation by participating and/or being immersed in it. These basic underlying assumptions of both methodologies guide and sequence the types of data collection methods employed.
Although there are clear differences between qualitative and quantitative approaches, some researchers maintain that the choice between using qualitative or quantitative approaches actually has less to do with methodologies than it does with positioning oneself within a particular discipline or research tradition. The difficulty of choosing a method is compounded by the fact that research is often affiliated with universities and other institutions. The findings of research projects often guide important decisions about specific practices and policies. The choice of which approach to use may reflect the interests of those conducting or benefitting from the research and the purposes for which the findings will be applied. Decisions about which kind of research method to use may also be based on the researcher's own experience and preference, the population being researched, the proposed audience for findings, time, money, and other resources available (Hathaway, 1995).
Some researchers believe that qualitative and quantitative methodologies cannot be combined because the assumptions underlying each tradition are so vastly different. Other researchers think they can be used in combination only by alternating between methods: qualitative research is appropriate to answer certain kinds of questions in certain conditions and quantitative is right for others. And some researchers think that both qualitative and quantitative methods can be used simultaneously to answer a research question.
To a certain extent, researchers on all sides of the debate are correct: each approach has its drawbacks. Quantitative research often "forces" responses or people into categories that might not "fit" in order to make meaning. Qualitative research, on the other hand, sometimes focuses too closely on individual results and fails to make connections to larger situations or possible causes of the results. Rather than discounting either approach for its drawbacks, though, researchers should find the most effective ways to incorporate elements of both to ensure that their studies are as accurate and thorough as possible.
It is important for researchers to realize that qualitative and quantitative methods can be used in conjunction with each other. In a study of computer-assisted writing classrooms, Snyder (1995) employed both qualitative and quantitative approaches. The study was constructed according to guidelines for quantitative studies: the computer classroom was the "treatment" group and the traditional pen and paper classroom was the "control" group. Both classes contained subjects with the same characteristics from the population sampled. Both classes followed the same lesson plan and were taught by the same teacher in the same semester. The only variable used was the computers. Although Snyder set this study up as an "experiment," she used many qualitative approaches to supplement her findings. She observed both classrooms on a regular basis as a participant-observer and conducted several interviews with the teacher both during and after the semester. However, there were several problems in using this approach: the strict adherence to the same syllabus and lesson plans for both classes and the restricted access of the control group to the computers may have put some students at a disadvantage. Snyder also notes that in retrospect she should have used case studies of the students to further develop her findings. Although her study had certain flaws, Snyder insists that researchers can simultaneously employ qualitative and quantitative methods if studies are planned carefully and carried out conscientiously.