I don’t know how many times I’ve read that qualitative research is for the why, and quantitative research is for the what. That’s just wrong.
We love qualitative research for its ability to deeply dig into people’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When people take part in focus groups and personal interviews, a good moderator can make people divulge their most private selves. To do this well, to gain a thorough understanding of a good range of reasons why people do, think, or feel things requires ‘large’ sample sizes (let’s say 30 means large) and lots of time (let’s say a couple hours each) with research participants. It’s not a simple task and not every research project has the time or money to do this in the most fabulous way possible. But at the end of all that, we’ll have discovered a bunch of reasons ‘why.’
But to be fair, quantitative research is also extremely capable of digging deeply into people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions to discover the whys. A highly skilled researcher can help people realize and share these feelings, even with a questionnaire that is heavily quantitative. To do this well, questionnaire designers can create thoughtful, thorough, and well-developed questions that allow people to divulge their inner-most thoughts and feelings about even the most private and sensitive topics. A well-designed quantitative questionnaire can reveal the why.
We don’t need to silo qual into ‘why’ and quant into ‘what.’ Both approaches to research can uncover the why and the what as long as the researcher is an expert who is focused on answering their specific question and obtaining quality data. It’s not that we should try to hit every qual question with a quant solution, or every quant problem with a qual solution. We simply need to be more aware that both qualitative and quantitative approaches do a great job of discovering the who, when, where, how, what, AND why of human behaviour.
So if it’s not the why, what is the real difference between qual and quant research? There is just one. Quantitative research quantifies. If your research intent is to understand frequencies among a population, to predict to a population, or to run an experiment, the only option you have is to conduct quantitative research. This assumes that, as part of that research, you will achieve a (somewhat) random sample of the population to which predictions will be made. That’s it. Numbers.
As we always try to do, the right research method is the one that is best suited to answer the research problem. Let’s not automatically choose qual because we need to know ‘why.’ Let’s choose qual because it is the best solution for the problem.