Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods

Basic approaches to research

According to Welch & Wood (2010), there is a seemingly inevitable tendency to divide research methods into two distinct types. The labels used for the first typology include quantitative, positivist and objectivist. Labels for the second typology include qualitative, social constructionist, phenomenological, interpretivist and relativist. Welch & Wood note that the various labels used for the first typology above do not have different meanings.

This contrasts with the second typology where the labels may different meaning associated with the contexts in which they are used. However, these differences tend to be glossed over by the implicit assumption that there are only two basic types of research. Welch & Wood note that acknowledging these differences impacts significantly on the preference of research methodologies among researchers (2010).

Despite any differences that may exist in the contextual meaning of the various labels associated with qualitative research methodologies, there is a consensus among researchers that qualitative and quantitative methods can be used together. In this context, the two methods complement each other in achieving the stated research problem. This has led to the birth of mixed research methodology or mixed model research methodology.

Different research methodologies are appropriate in certain fields and business applications. In the context of research in small firms, Shaw (1999) justifies the appropriateness of phenomenological study. Shaw notes that small firms’ research involves the study of human action and behavior (1999). In this context, small firms’ research is primarily concerned with the nature of the reality in social world.

In this social world, the human subjects are endowed with the ability to think for themselves, comprehend their own behavior and possess an opinion about the social world of which they are a part. This contravenes the necessity to approach the study of small firms from an exterior perspective as advocated by the positivist approach.

Definition of concepts

In order to understand and contrast the qualitative and quantitative research paradigms, it is important to understand the different notions and meaning associated with them. Different scholars develop these different notions and meanings over time.

Ospina (2004) perceives qualitative research as a form of systematic enquiry into meanings. In this regard, systematic infers an element of planning based on agreed rules by the members of the qualitative research community. This type of research is interested on the empirical meanings of the everyday experiences. In this context, the researchers also try to understand how others make sense of their experience.

On the contrast, Golafshani (2003) notes quantitative research utilizes experimental methods and qualitative measures to test hypothetical generalizations. Quantitative research also puts a lot of emphasis on the measurement and analysis of causal relationship between variables. United Nations’ World Food Programme (UNWFP) notes that the differences in the two paradigms lie in their approaches and the type of questions that they seek to answer (n. d).

Qualitative and Quantitative paradigms: the antagonistic schools of thought

There exists an erroneous perception that quantitative methods possess more objectivity than qualitative methods (UNWFP, n.d). However, recent developments have seen a change of attitude by the researchers. This change of attitude is informed by the acknowledgement that both approaches have their distinct objective and subjective qualities.

There are several differences in the quantitative and qualitative research paradigms. The two research paradigms use different research approaches to solve the research problem. Qualitative research uses a naturalistic approach to solve the given research problem (Golafshani, 2003). On the other hand, the quantitative research uses logical positivism. The two research paradigms seek to answer different questions.

The quantitative research seeks to answer the questions of who, how much and how many (UNWFP, n.d).On the other hand, qualitative research seeks to address the questions of how and why (UNWFP, n.d). For instance, quantitative research can be practical in an epidemiological study where the rates in populations are calculated. On the other hand, qualitative research can be ideal when investigating the causes of increased cases of gender-based violence in a particular region or state.

Secondly, the nature of questions in these methods varies. Quantitative research mostly puts to utility direct and close-ended questions. In this context, informants are expected to give short answers. This approach has its own disadvantages in the sense that it limits the informants’ participation in the research. The magnitude to which the informants participate and are able to offer their explanations and perceptions is severely limited (Ravindran, 2008). On the contrary, qualitative research mostly applies the indirect, projective and open-ended questions, which presents the respondent with a chance to express his/her opinions, reasons and judgments.

Thirdly, these paradigms differ on the level of the researcher’s participation. In quantitative research, the researcher is considered an element outside the actual research (UNWFP, n.d). In this context, the results are expected to be replicable no matter who conducts the research. This is mostly evident in natural science researches.

On the contrary, the qualitative methods are designed to provide the researcher with the perspective of the target audience members (Sprenkle, 2005). This is possible through interaction with the study subjects in order to understand their thoughts, cultures and perspectives.

The interaction of the researcher with the target audience is one aspect that makes qualitative research ideal for small firms’ research (Shaw, 1999). Shaw argues that the young and emergent nature of small firms coalesced with the peculiar characteristics of the human participants involved in the study suggest that a qualitative approach is the most ideal (Shaw, 1999). This approach allows the small firms to be viewed in their entirety and permits the researchers to get close to the participants, penetrate their realities and interpret their perceptions.

The participation of the researcher overflows to the methods of data collection. In this context, Shaw (1999) argues that the researcher’s decision to use himself as the ‘instrument’ for collecting data is influenced by the qualitative research approach adopted. It is also influenced by the exploratory nature of the research. In terms of data analysis, the aim of qualitative research is to generate a comprehensive understanding of the research problem (Sprenkle, 2005)

Another major difference between quantitative and qualitative approaches is the type of information the two approaches provide. Qualitative approach seeks to capture the complexity of issues in their interrelatedness rather than in discrete variables (a holistic approach) (Care, n.d). This justifies the applicability of the qualitative paradigm in the study of small firms.In this context, Shaw (1999) argues that the social world cannot be reduced to isolated variables such as space and mass.

Therefore, any effective study in the social world must be observed in totality (Ravindran, 2008). In relation to small firms, the reduction of the process of creating, developing and growing small firms to individually measurable variables is an unfortunate undertaking, which ignore(s) the real problems in order to fit neat packages.

In terms of methodology, a flexible research design is utilized in the qualitative research on small firms, which allows findings to emerge in a natural way (Shaw, 1999). Qualitative paradigm is often an inductive process of inquiry- discovering, letting issues evolve and looking for patterns. This is characteristic to exploratory research conducted in qualitative paradigm. In the small firms’ research, Shaw (1999) observes human behavior and action as it occurs in everyday life. This is one major justification for using qualitative method. On contrast, the quantitative paradigm is mostly deductive, that is based on pre-determined questions and hypothesis.


CARE , n.d, Assessing and Comparing Qualitative and Quantitative methods. Web.

Golafshani , N 2003, Understanding Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. Web.

Ospina, S 2004, Qualitative Research. Web.

Ravindran, R 2008, Operations research methodologies, CRC press.

Shaw, E 1999, ‘A guide to the qualitative research process: evidence from a small firm study’ Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 59-70.

Sprenkle, D 2005, Research methods in family therapy, Guilford press.

United Nations World Food Programme, n.d, Choosing Methods and Tools for Data Collection. Web.

Welch, M & Wood, C 2010, ‘Are ‘Qualitative’ and ‘Quantitative’ Useful Terms for Describing Research?’ Methodological Innovations Online, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 56-71.