Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research: What’s the Difference and How Do I Choose?

Deciding Between Quantitative and Qualitative!
Deciding between a quantitative and qualitative research method!

It’s almost November now, and if you’re a junior, you’re used to everyone asking you the same question: How’s your junior paper going? If your experience has been anything like mine, your initial reaction may be, “It’s great!” I’ve finally come up with a JP topic that interests me, I’ve already talked to (and received incredible advice from) my professors, and I’m in the process of mastering my Magic Research Statement. Getting started on my JP feels like a walk in the park!

But as November creeps nearer, my reaction to the JP question is a little less confident and a little more like, “Ummmm……” For me, this pause and sense of apprehension grow from two measly words that have plagued the minds of researchers for years: quantitative and qualitative. Sure, I may know what I want to research, but that still leaves me with the challenge of choosing my research method. How does one go about choosing between quantitative versus qualitative research anyways?

Before we make any hasty decisions, let’s take a quick step back and look at how the two methodologies are different from one another. When thinking about quantitative research, the first word that typically comes to mind is “numbers,” and that’s essentially right! As I learned in my junior seminar, quantitative research is a means of collecting data that can easily be quantified and/or coded in a computer program because it uses concrete variables. Qualitative research, on the other hand, analyzes data that cannot be easily quantified. Without the concrete variables in quantitative research, qualitative research relies on the interpretative analysis of the themes, patterns, and categories found in texts or interviews.

Now that the definitions are out of the way, you’re still probably asking yourself, “Which one do I choose?” For the most part, this answer depends on the specifics of your research. In my case, I’m doing a content analysis of gender progressive advertisements and my goal is to analyze how the type of product being marketed influences the script of the commercial. From this standpoint, I could go either way. If I chose the quantitative route, not only would I need over fifty ads to analyze, but I would also conduct my study in a way that focuses on concrete variables. For example, I might do an analysis of how many times the word “beautiful” is used in a commercial depending on what kind of product is being sold.

For the qualitative path, I would focus on fewer commercials and perform an in-depth analysis on the full scripts. Instead of just looking at one keyword, I might look for changes in themes between commercials for sports apparel and ads for body products. Another aspect to consider is your preference. Ask yourself, Which methodology do I feel more comfortable using? Which would I enjoy more? Not only is qualitative research more appealing to me because I prefer to closely analyze texts, but it’s also a better-suited methodology for getting more answers to my research question.

In the end, choosing between quantitative and qualitative research doesn’t have to be the end of the world. There are various arguments for why one format may be better than the other, like how a qualitative method would allow me to do more in-depth research for my specific topic. But know that choosing your methodology is about choosing which one you believe is a better fit for your research. Sometimes the answer may even be a combination of the two! Also, know that you’re not alone; your professors and adviser can help you sort out which methodology can best suit your needs. So the next time someone asks how you’re junior paper is going, you can answer confidently, knowing that you have a plan for how to conduct your research when you get back from break!

–Taylor Griffith, Social Sciences Correspondent