What is the difference between qualitative, quantitative, and mixed research?

You are embarking upon your dissertation journey, completed the required coursework, and now the project begins! During your studies, you learned of two primary methodologies: qualitative and quantitative. Today, let’s explore the high-level basics for both. Now, remember, your dissertation should be simple in focus and clearly based upon the gap that you identified in the literature, based upon noted limitations and recommendations for future research! 

Quantitative Research

When compiling and analyzing data, this methodology deploys numbers and statistics, while qualitative research explores with words and meanings. Both are critical for gaining different types of knowledge.

Quantitative research is expressed in numbers and graphs. It is used to test or confirm theories and assumptions. This type of research can be used to establish generalizable facts about a topic.

Common quantitative methods include experiments, observations recorded as numbers, and surveys with closed-ended questions.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is presented in words. It is used to understand concepts, thoughts or experiences. This type of research enables you to assemble in-depth insights on topics that are not well understood.

Common qualitative methods include interviews with open-ended questions, observations described in words, and literature reviews that explore concepts and theories.

The below table provides a visual representation.

Quantitative and qualitative research use different tools to collect and analyze data, and they allow you to answer different kinds of research questions.


qualitative quantitative and mixed methods

Data collection methods

Quantitative and qualitative data can be collected using various methods. It is important to use a data collection method that will help answer your research question(s).

Many data collection methods can be either qualitative or quantitative. For example, in surveys, observations or case studies, your data can be represented as numbers (e.g. using rating scales or counting frequencies) or as words (e.g. with open-ended questions or descriptions of what you observe).

However, some methods are more commonly used in one type or the other.

Quantitative data collection methods

  • Surveys: List of closed or multiple choice questions that is distributed to a sample (online, in person, or over the phone).
  • Experiments: Situation in which variables are controlled and manipulated to establish cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Observations: Observing subjects in a natural environment where variables can’t be controlled.

Qualitative data collection methods

  • Interviews: Asking open-ended questions verbally to respondents.
  • Focus groups: Discussion among a group of people about a topic to gather opinions that can be used for further research.
  • Ethnography: Participating in a community or organization for an extended period of time to closely observe culture and behavior.
  • Literature review: Survey of published works by other authors.

When to use qualitative vs. quantitative research

A guideline for deciding whether to use qualitative or quantitative data is:

For most research studies, you can choose a qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approach. Which type you choose depends on, among other things, whether you’re taking an inductive vs. deductive research approach; your research question(s); whether you’re doing experimental, correlational, or descriptive research; and practical considerations such as time, money, availability of data, and access to respondents.

Research question:  How satisfied are students with their studies?

Quantitative research approach

You survey 300 students at your university and ask them questions such as: “on a scale from 1-5, how satisfied are your with your professors?”

You can perform statistical analysis on the data and draw conclusions such as: “on average students rated their professors 4.4”.

Qualitative research approach

You conduct in-depth interviews with 15 students and ask them open-ended questions such as: “How satisfied are you with your studies?”, “What is the most positive aspect of your study program?” and “What can be done to improve the study program?”

Based on the answers you get you can ask follow-up questions to clarify things. You transcribe all interviews using software like NVIVO and try to establish common themes

Mixed methods approach

You will deploy interviews to find out how satisfied students are with their studies. Through open-ended questions you learn things you never thought about before and gain new insights. Later, you use a survey to test these insights on a larger scale.

One can also begin with a survey to determine the overall trends, followed by interviews to better understand the root causes behind the trends.

Steps to analyze qualitative and quantitative data

Qualitative or quantitative data alone cannot confirm anything, but has to be analyzed to uncover meaning in relation to the research questions. The method of analysis is differentiated for each type of data.

Analyzing quantitative data 

Quantitative data is grounded in numbers. Simple math or more advanced statistical analysis is used to discover consistency in the data. The results are then represented in graphs and tables.

Applications such as Excel, SPSS, or R can be used to calculate things like:

  • Average scores
  • The number of times a particular answer was given
  • The relationship  between two or more variables
  • The reliability and validity of the findings

Analyzing qualitative data

Qualitative data is more difficult to analyze than quantitative data. It consists of text, images or videos instead of numbers.

Some common approaches to analyzing qualitative data include:

  • Qualitative Analysis: Identifying the occurrence, position, and meaning of words or phrases
  • Thematic Analysis: Closely  exploring the data to identify the main themes and patterns
  • Discourse Analysis: Examining  how communication works in social contexts

In summary, this article has presented a high-level review of common methods used in dissertation research. To learn more, join us — we are here to coach and guide you to success! Schedule your free strategy call today!

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