The quantitative vs. qualitative research debate has been going on since the 1970s. Apparently it’s all about epistemology, a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Quantitative research is defined as positivism i.e. scientific and objective. Qualitative research is interpretivism i.e. non-scientific and subjective.
Summary of quantitative vs. qualitative research pros and cons
But there is an academic argument that the two methods cannot and should not work together.
“The chief worry is that the capitulation to “what works” ignores the incompatibility of the competing positivistic and interpretivist epistemological paradigms that purportedly undergird quantitative and qualitative methods, respectively”(1). Blah, blah, blah…
Haven’t quantitative and qualitative research started to overlap already?
The blurring of lines between quantitative and qualitative research has gone on for some time. How many times have you attended research groups and a done a quick ‘tally’ of responses to gain some quantitative guidance? Or, within a quantitative omnibus, included a few open-ended questions to give a little more colour? Superficial instances admittedly, but evidence of ‘blurring’ nonetheless.
Perhaps the reason overlap has not been fully acknowledged is because many believe the disciplines still run separately? Or is it because as you become a ‘quali’ or a ‘quanti’ researcher you are defined or compartmentalised at birth?! So never the twain shall meet? There is some truth in this as many researchers tend to train under one discipline and most large research organisations run separate quantitative and qualitative departments.
However, from someone “on the ground”, as a qualitative researcher (and perhaps somewhat fearsome of quantitative research) it is possible to marry these two approaches together and get extra benefits. There is room for a new model, a better hybrid of qualitative and quantitative research. Here are some examples:
Qualitative with added quantitative
Qualitative research discussions often include a few ‘wishy-washy’ answers to questions. Thus it can be difficult to discern differences in meaning. For example, in what one person says they ‘like’ versus another, as well as in overall shades of ’like’, ‘love’ etc. Using simple quantitative measures, such as a rating out of 10, provides much more clarity and decision-making substance.
For example, used within a new product development (NPD) process it offers a more useful ‘gate’ enables better short-listing and prioritisation. It also helps make sure you are not wasting thousands of hours and pounds barking up the wrong tree!
Quantitative with added qualitative research
Quantitative data uses open-ended questions to explain the numbers. But in many cases it doesn’t explain anything because respondents have failed to fill in the boxes or the responses are insufficiently detailed. The data can also be costly to collect and cumbersome to analyse.
However, designing more creative qualitative-quantitative research can assess and improve products. From food and drink to media and beyond. In a recent project, respondents tasted and critiqued a number of competitive food products. Research was undertaken in a high traffic places so people could be recruited off the street into a hall. After gathering consumers’ responses on a questionnaire we understood their reasoning as well as brand fit and opportunities for product improvement.
This work was hugely beneficial in providing clear guidance and recommendations for product and brand refinement. It was also very cost-effective. The same techniques apply equally to services as well as products.
It’s the same with packaging research, for example, at the pack refinement stage when a clear read on issues such as stand-out, and reasoning is required. By co-opting a minimum of 100 consumers to check a mocked-up retail fixture rotated with current and proposed new packs and asking them to complete a short questionnaire. By identifying the appealing packs and critiquing them within the visual noise of a fixture, a numerical assessment of stand-out is obtainable. Adding in a qualitative discussion allows deconstruction and analysis on the pack elements. Also reconstruction of the ideal pack design.
Concluding the quantitative vs. qualitative research debate, there will always be a role for ‘pure’ quantitative and qualitative research approaches. However pigeon-holing research into either quantitative or qualitative is unnecessary.
It is possible, nay easy, to design quantitative-qualitative research to offer the benefits of both. By so doing you can gain face-to-face consumer contact and understanding as well as meaningful numeric responses. Within this it is possible to set quotas for consumer types. It is also possible to realise time and cost savings. Marketers just need to decide what they really need. Do you need understanding or numbers? Or both? A creative research agency should guide and inspire their client, even if it goes against what’s specified in the brief.
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(1) Against the quantitative–qualitative incompatibility thesis (or dogmas die-hard) by Kenneth R. Howe, Ph.D – Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, Boulder Published in the Educational Researcher 17(8) 10-16 1988