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Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research; The Great Debate? The Result is In!

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.  Conversely, 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 perhaps it is because as 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 a single discipline. In addition, 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. Thus, 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 failed to fill in the boxes or the responses were insufficiently detailed. The data can also be costly to collect and cumbersome to analyse.

However, combined qualitative-quantitative research can both 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 in order to recruit people off the street into a hall. Then after gathering consumers’ responses on a questionnaire, we understood their reasoning as well as revealed brand fit and new product development opportunities.

This work was hugely beneficial in providing clear guidance and recommendations for both brand and product development. It was also very cost-effective.

Taste testing Cornish Pasties

Retail applications

These techniques also apply to other categories, and challenges. For example, to assess packaging, or merchandising. When refining packaging, a clear read on issues such as stand-out, and reasoning is required. By co-opting a minimum of 100 consumers to review a mocked-up retail fixture rotated with current and proposed new packs and 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. Subsequent qualitative discussion then allows deconstruction and analysis of the pack elements. Also reconstruction of the ideal pack design.

Marketing Inspiration

Concluding the quantitative vs. qualitative research debate, there will always be a role for ‘pure’ quantitative and qualitative research approaches. However, research doesn’t need pigeon-holing into either quantitative or qualitative methods.

It is possible to design quantitative-qualitative research to offer the benefits of both. In so doing you gain face-to-face consumer contact and understanding as well as meaningful numbers. Within this it is possible to set quotas for consumer types while also realising time and cost savings. Marketers just need to decide what they really need. So do you need understanding or numbers, or both? A creative research agency should guide and inspire you, even if it goes against what’s specified in the brief.

Get in touch for a bespoke qualitative-quantitative research proposal to meet your needs.


(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

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