Business, psychology, marketing, criminal justice, and more all depend on evidence and information gleaned from research. Research skills are the key to informed decision-making: understanding how to source, analyze, and assimilate information effectively can be the difference between a successful decision or a disastrous one.
If you’re considering pursuing an online degree, you may have seen courses in qualitative or quantitative research methods listed among the required classes. If you’re not familiar with these terms, this article briefly explains the differences between the two types of research, and their uses for gathering information and decision-making.
The “quantitative” in quantitative research contains the word “quantity”—something that can be counted. So quantitative research includes any research methods that produce hard numbers which can be turned into statistics. Qualitative research methods answer questions beginning with words like “when,” “where,” “how many” and “how often.” The U.S. Census is an example of large-scale quantitative research in action: census-takers survey households and then use the data to help determine the number of Congressional districts in a state, or where to allocate federal funds.
Quantitative research methods, including surveys and controlled experiments, began in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), but now they’re found in nearly every professional field.
Market researchers conduct surveys to find out demographic information about their customers. Criminal justice programs compare different types of criminal offenders in terms of recidivism. Finance managers gather information about the performance of investments.
The evidence gathered through these methods can then be used in mathematical models to identify trends, or predict future performance.
While quantitative research can tell you when, where, and how often things happen, qualitative research looks at the “why” and “how.” Qualitative research produces observations, notes, and descriptions of behavior and motivation. Research methods in this category include:
- Interviews: either a series of structured questions, or allowing a subject to narrate their experience
- Focus groups: soliciting observations from groups of people who share a similar attribute (for example, a group of women over 40) to give opinions on a topic
- Reviews: combing through scholarly literature or other published writings to determine attitudes towards a subject
- Observation: researchers watch people on their daily routine and make notes or recordings documenting their behaviour
Qualitative research began in the social sciences. Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians all use qualitative research methods to this day. But now, so do market researchers, worker productivity experts, computer systems designers, and product developers. Basically, anyone whose job depends on understanding how people interact with things in their environment needs to perform qualitative research now and then.
Combining Research Methods
Naturally, you can use a mix of research methods to help gather comprehensive evidence or give a more complete picture of what it is you’re studying. For example, in a market research scenario, after gathering quantitative information about the number of people who’ve bought a product in the last six months, you can then conduct qualitative interviews to find out why they bought, or didn’t buy, the product, as well as how they’d heard about it.
Armed with both research methods, you are well on your way to making evidence-based decisions in any field related.
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