Quantitative Approaches Social Research

Social research can involve quantitative or qualitative design depending on the nature of the study and the motivations and objectives of the researcher. Both the research designs are suited to social research, and social researchers can employ either method in their studies. However, their distinct qualities means that some studies can be conducted with qualitative research, such as those that are more complex and multi-layered; while others that are more inclined towards measured outcomes will benefit from quantitative approach. This essay discusses and compares qualitative and quantitative approaches to social research. This essay also discusses ethics in social research.

Approaches to social research can be quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods, Research design has been defined as “types of inquiry within qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches that provide specific direction” (Creswell, 2013, p. 12). Social researchers can therefore choose to formulate their research design with either qualitative or quantitative approach. They may even choose mixed methods research, although this approach is not within the scope of this essay and will not be discussed here. Within social research, researchers are not restricted in the design that they finally choose, as the purpose of the design, whether quantitative or qualitative, will depend on the researcher’s objectives, research philosophy and even the research questions or the hypothesis that the researcher formulates at the beginning of the research (Creswell, 2013).


Sarantakos (1998) listed the some of the key characteristics of qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research has been characterised as including an inductive approach, which leads to theory building, subjective approach to design, openness and flexibility of the design, researcher’ closeness to the respondents, low level of measurement and use of explicative data analysis. Quantitative research has been characterised as deductive approach which involves theory testing, objective approach to design, closed and planned design, distance from the respondents, high level of measurement, and use of reductive data analysis. Some of these characteristics do appropriately describe one kind of research approach over the other; however, in some areas there is more overlap between qualitative and quantitative approach than mentioned by Sarantakos (1998).

To explain this further, it would be appropriate to say that qualitative approach is more subjective in nature, and more focused on theory building as compared with the objective, and theory testing characteristics of quantitative research (Opoku, Ahmed, & Akotia, 2016). However, it would also be worthwhile to note that with reference to inductive and deductive approaches, qualitative and quantitative research may both involve inductive and deductive approaches and it is not necessary that qualitative research design will not involve deductive approach and quantitative approach will not involve inductive approach (Collis & Hussey, 2009).

Bryman and Bell (2015) note that generally, if the researchers are conducting positivist research, their research design will involve quantitative research, whereas in the case of interpretivist research, the researcher is likely to choose qualitative approach (Bryman & Bell, 2015). Scholarship on this point differs from this conclusion. Qualitative research may not necessarily be interpretative, as the researcher may choose to not be guided by interpretivism (Myers, 2013). Myers (2013) states that qualitative research may be critical, positivist or interpretative. In other words, it is not necessary that positivism will guide only quantitative research. Collins (2010) also agrees with this as he writes that positivism may be used to guide qualitative research design as well. However, in the case of interpretivism, it may be more appropriate to say that this would guide the researcher to choose qualitative and not quantitative research design. This is so because interpretivism is critical of the use of scientific method in social research and emphasises on the epistemological consideration of the researchers’ views, which is more aligned to qualitative research approach and not quantitative research approach (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2012).

It may be necessary to explain why quantitative and qualitative approaches differ so significantly on interpretivism. Collis and Hussey (2009) write that qualitative approach is generally associated with interpretivism although qualitative approach may also be related to other philosophical approaches. The reason why a special link exists between qualitative research and interpretivism is because of this approach being ideal for those social research studies that are more interpretative in nature due to the involvement of multiple narratives and a need to allow epistemological epistemological consideration of the researchers’ views so as to discern the messages in the multiple and complex narratives that are at times involved in social research (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2012). Unlike qualitative research studies that involve non-numerical and at times complex multiple narratives, quantitative research studies involve numerical and quantitative data, which is not amenable to interpretivism. Qualitative research is different from quantitative research as it generally seeks to derive relationships between research variables and it emphasises on the social meanings of constructs as viewed by participants (Neuman, 2013). All of this lends the qualitative research method more amenable to interpretivism. Therefore, qualitative and quantitative research approaches are contrasted on applicability of interpretivism, although other research philosophies can be used by either qualitative or quantitative research approaches.

Another difference or contrast between qualitative research and quantitative research in social research is that the former involves flexibility in formulating the research design, while the latter is more structured and rigid. In social science research, this difference would mean that qualitative research approach would be more suited to complicated social research studies, or studies that involve multiple narratives. As qualitative research is more flexible, it can be adapted to fit the demands of complex studies. Quantitative research will not be suited to such studies because of its inability to depict multi-layered information (Walliman, 2015). On the other hand, where social research is conducted to explore empirical data or to arrive at measurable outcomes, then quantitative research will be more appropriate as compared to qualitative research because of the numerical data collection and analysis involved (Walliman, 2015). Therefore, another area of contrast between qualitative and quantitative research approaches is that the former is more suited to social research involving complex and multi-layered narratives, while the latter is more suited to empirical research and research seeking measurable outcomes. Yet another area of contrast between the qualitative and quantitative research methods is that qualitative research is not based on pre fixed methods or hypotheses, and may generally involve the formulation of research questions as opposed to hypotheses (Willis & Jost, 2007, pp. 53-54). On the other hand, quantitative research will usually see the researcher formulating hypotheses.

The strategies of qualitative research may include action research, case study research, ethnography, and grounded theory and methods may include interviews, surveys, questionnaires, case studies, focus groups, to name a few (Gill, Stewart, Treasure, & Chadwick, 2008). Interviews are a commonly used technique in social science research and are particularly suited to qualitative research approach as the latter is flexible enough to involve use of in-depth interviewing techniques which can be useful in complex and multi-layered social research (Gill, Stewart, Treasure, & Chadwick, 2008). In the context of social science research, researchers may find qualitative research particularly useful where they want to gain insight into the participants’ views, opinions, and experiences, as qualitative research will allow the use of interview techniques, where researcher may be successful in “leading the way with well-prepared, thought-through questions, and following the interviewee through active, reflective listening” (Broneus, 2008). Interviews are particularly linked to the qualitative tradition and one does not find the use of this method in quantitative research.

Another method of qualitative research which is not seen in quantitative research is that of focus groups, which allows the researcher to collect the data through questioning and leading interaction within the members of the focus group (Söderström, 2011, p. 148). The reason why focus groups are appropriate to qualitative research and not to quantitative research is that the former is flexible so allows freedom and informality within the discussion, which cannot be done in the rigid designs of quantitative research (Gill, Stewart, Treasure, & Chadwick, 2008).

As quantitative research approach is more focused on numerical data, some of its methods may be appropriate only to quantitative research and not to qualitative research. As Bryman and Bell (2015) write, the term quantitative is used to describe a data collection instrument like questionnaire or any analysis technique like regression that use numerical data. As quantitative research involves use of numerical data for both data collection as well as analysis, these methods may be more appropriate to this kind of research where association is with figures, numbers and statistics (Bryman & Bell, 2015). Experimental research and surveys are also more appropriate to quantitative research (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2012). These methods are more appropriate to quantitative research as these allow use of great control by the researcher over the variables (Houser, 2014, p. 52).

Not all methods are appropriate only to qualitative research and some are common to both qualitative and quantitative research. As example of such common method is case study method, which can be used within both qualitative and quantitative research methods (Myers, 2013). A case study involves the study of the characteristics of a single individual unit and get in depth information on the individual unit of study, which may be a person, organisation, or event (Bryman & Bell, 2015). To briefly summarise the discussion on specific methods of data collection in quantitative and qualitative research, it may be stated that while some of these methods, such as interviews, which are unique only to qualitative research, and regression, which is unique only to quantitative method, there are also some methods that are common to quantitative and qualitative research, such as, case studies.

Both qualitative and quantitative research studies need to achieve validity of findings, although in the case of qualitative research, this may be more necessary when the data is subjective as in qualitative research studies. Both qualitative and quantitative research can improve the validity of their findings through the use of method of triangulation, which involves the use of different data sources to arrive at the same findings and the validity is improved because the same findings are observed in analysis of different data sets (Bamberger, 2000). Triangulation was generally considered to relevant to qualitative research, but the method of triangulation is also being used in quantitative research in social science research (Bamberger, 2000, p. 14). Quantitative research design can also include triangulation by allowing the researcher to compare different survey findings with each other, or by comparing findings in a survey with the census data (Bamberger, 2000, p. 14). In both quantitative and qualitative research, triangulation can be used to improve the validity of the findings of the research (Bamberger, 2000).

As can be summarised at the end of this discussion, qualitative and quantitative research studies can both be similar in some respects, such as, in the methods that are used for collection of data or the methods that can be used in improving the validity of the research findings. Both these approaches can also be similar in the research philosophies that can guide the researcher to create a research design. It may also be noted that in spite of some contrasts in the nature of these two research methodologies, social scientists should be able to conduct both types of research studies (Haberfeld, King, & Lieberman, 2009).

The next part of the essay will discuss ethics in social science research. Henn, Weinstein, and Foard (2005) have observed:

“All research raises ethical issues. When we talk about ‘ethics’ in social research we are addressing those issues that concern the behaviour of the social researchers and the consequences that their research brings to the people they study” (p.68).

Therefore, ethical issues are concerned with two things: the behaviour of the researchers during the process of the research, and the consequences of the research on the people thar are studied in the research. Consideration of ethics has become a prominent issue in social research as ethics are also meant to ensure the respect to the participants and maintenance of balance of power between the researcher and the participants (Henn, Weinstein, & Foard, 2005). It is also important to note that ethics have come to become important because the advanced nature of computer technology allows social research to become far more intrusive and penetrating than before (Henn, Weinstein, & Foard, 2005, p. 67). These changes require more attention to be given to the ethics of social research and the researcher needs to ensure that consideration is given to the ethical concerns that may be involved in the particular research.

Balance of power has not always been central to social research as reported by Henn, Weinstein, and Foard (2005) who write that it is when balance of power shifted to citizens, that there was more involvement of ethics in social research as prior to that citizens had little say in what was investigated, and by whom and how it was investigated. Now, with the shift in the power relations, there is also a greater effort made to ensure that the ethics of social research are considered seriously.

Ethical considerations in social research can vary with the nature and kind of research and its participants. In general, ethical considerations in research involve concerns around informed consent, ensuring non-harm to the participants, concerns around power relations between the researcher and the participant, to name a few.

If interviews are conducted in a qualitative research, the researcher is required to get the informed consent from the participant, which would involve first intimating the nature of the research and the purpose and objectives of the research and also the process of the interview, so that the participant is aware of the necessary details before he gives his consent for the interview (Dowling, 2010, p. 29).

Generally, researchers achieve this ethical goal by providing a detailed information sheet prior to the interview. As interviews and other processes involving participants may also involve power relations, the researcher is also required to minimise such power relations so as to not adversely affect the research findings (Fras, 2012). Mathews (1998) emphasises on the need to make a participant feel valued and respected in the research process; this can be achieved by allowing the participants to also ask questions when such questions come in their mind and clarify their doubts as and when necessary. Some researchers also send summary of findings to participants in a personal email so that participants do not feel “denigrated to little more than tokens” in the research process and are able to see how the data they provided was reported by the researcher (Mathews, 1998, p. 316).

Ethical research may mean different things in different contexts, which are primarily related to the nature of research or the participants. Thus, in research involving post conflict studies, where participants of the research may have undergone some trauma, ethics of the research will concern sensitivity to the situation and the people caught in it, so that the complex challenges of post conflict research are met without harming the participants in any way (Bowd & Ozerdem, 2010). Ethics of research may differ greatly in studies involving children, where children are the participants in the research. In such studies, the researcher has to face the issue of questions not being understood by the children, or the responses of the children not being understood by the researcher (Mahon, Glendinning, Clarke, & Craig, 1996). Researchers in such studies also need to be mindful of the fact that they will have to construct questions in a way that can be easily related to by the participants (Mahon, Glendinning, Clarke, & Craig, 1996). Therefore, ethical concerns will involve designing a study that is age appropriate.

In all kinds of research studies, certain ethical principles remain constant, be these involving adults, young children, post conflict situation, or other such situations. These principles are related to informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity (Orb, Eisenhauer, & Wynaden, 2001). Informed consent was discussed above. Anonymity of the participants and confidentiality of the information given by the participants are the other principles that need to be observed by the researcher (Orb, Eisenhauer, & Wynaden, 2001). Another important principle is that the background of the study and the purposes of the study should be informed to the participants (Brinkmann, 2014). The principle of preventing harm to participants is also common to different kinds of social research studies. Harm to participants relates to the possible physical or psychological harm that can be caused to the participants (Henn, Weinstein, & Foard, 2005). Finally, deception has to be avoided in studies as this compromises the validity of the research. These principles remain constant in all kinds of research studies involving participants.

To conclude this essay, both qualitative and quantitative research studies are possible in social research. Qualitative research has its own merits and values as does quantitative research, and which research will be selected by the researcher, will depend on the objectives of the research, the philosophical approach of the researcher, and the research questions that are formulated by the researcher. There are some significant differences in qualitative and quantitative research, such as, qualitative research being more subjective and quantitative research being more objective. However, that does not mean that the quality of the findings will be compromised in one or the other research. Moreover, there are also some similarities, in that both research approaches can utilise common methods of data collection, such as, case study, while some methods remain more appropriate to one rather than the other kind of research. Ethics are important consideration in all social research projects, however, they become more central to studies that involve participation by individuals. Ethics are meant to protect both the interest of the researcher as well as participant.

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