Quantitative versus Qualitative Research
An Attempt to Clarify the Problem

By Donna L. McKereghan
for Dr. Shann Ferch
February 11, 1998

It is easy to memorize a list of factors to use in distinguishing between quantitative and qualitative research paradigms. Quantitative research is objective; qualitative research is subjective. Quantitative research seeks explanatory laws; qualitative research aims at in-depth description. Quantitative research measures what it assumes to be a static reality in hopes of developing universal laws. Qualitative research is an exploration of what is assumed to be a dynamic reality. It does not claim that what is discovered in the process is universal and, thus, replicable.

What I have listed are only partial descriptors but, more importantly, they are ideals. A major problem arises for understanding and applying these ideals outside of the realm in which they were created. We do not live in an ideal world but in the real world. Actual research does not exactly fit ideal paradigms. Whether or not an exact fit, a on-to-one correspondence between reality and our idea of it is possible, it is certainly possible to widen or narrow the gap between them. Closing the gap is the goal of what Thomas Kuhn (1) refers to as a shift in paradigms.

A shift in paradigms is only possible when a body of knowledge develops or evolves to the point that the existing paradigm becomes increasingly inadequate to model it and another, more adequate paradigm is available or emerges. Relative to research paradigms, I am not aware of any newly developing paradigms. Until and unless more adequate paradigms appear, we must work with what we have. It may be possible to modify them in some way to render them closer to our contemporary concept of reality. Perhaps, in the process, a new paradigm of social research may take root.

One difficulty, among many, with the quantitative/qualitative research paradigm is that it exemplifies what philosophers call an "either/or dichotomy." Research must be either quantitative or qualitative. There are no other possibilities, despite the fact that there are several kinds of quantitative research and several divisions of qualitative research. From both experience and philosophical training, I have learned to be cautious of such dualistic thought.

Consider, for instance, the abortion issue. Prima facie, it seems clear that abortion is either right or it is wrong. In fact, Pro-lifers and Pro-choicers often dispute the issue in such simplistic, dual-dimensional terms. There are, however, other possibilities. (2) It may be a moral evil in more ways than it is good; it may be good only insofar as it does not lack or fail in specific qualities; or it may be good at one level while being morally reprehensible at another.

Similarly, questions about real, particular research projects may be difficult, perhaps even impossible to answer if our ideal paradigms are too impoverished to capture the fuller extent of real possibilities. No knowledge can be completely objective. Complete objectivity is complete ignorance. The subject or knower is always related to the object or known. The real question is the extent and nature of this relationship, not whether or not it is the case. Nor can what is known be totally subjective. The knowing subject always knows some object, the ""known." A more accurate and productive way of considering research would be as more quantitative than qualitative but never as quantitative as opposed to qualitative.

It is my opinion that the attempt to carry the clear demarcation between quantitative and qualitative research out of the ideal realm, the realm of ideas, and into the realm of the actual is what mainly accounts for the confusion of students who thought they understood the difference between quantitative and qualitative research until they began considering cases and details. It is important that we avoid reifying pure abstract concepts and treating them as if they are real rather than ideal. Quantitative and qualitative research are the ideal ends of a continuum along which actual research takes place. If each aspect of research were plotted along such different planes, our model (paradigm) of social research would be multi-dimensional, i.e., much richer and more complex. Parsimony is an admirable conceptual goal only insofar as it does not become conceptual poverty, as it seems to have become in the overly simplistic, dualistic paradigm of social research.

What follows is a graphic representation of research that includes only three dimensions. Another dimension might be symbolized by the addition of color shading and another by the use of texture. Admittedly, visual representation is limited by our ability to visualize a limited number of dimensions. The point of this diagram is not to propose a new mode of representing social research but, rather, to begin to illustrate the actual complexity and variation that is not well represented in the quantitative/qualitative paradigm.

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(1) Kuhn, Thomas. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(2) McKereghan, Donna. (1992). The Abortion Issue: Rules for the debate: some of them Kantian. Unpublished.


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