Chapter 3: Developing a Research Question

3.5 Quantitative, Qualitative, & Mixed Methods Research Approaches

Generally speaking, qualitative and quantitative approaches are the most common methods utilized by researchers. While these two approaches are often presented as a dichotomy, in reality it is much more complicated. Certainly, there are researchers who fall on the more extreme ends of these two approaches, however most recognize the advantages and usefulness of combining both methods (mixed methods). In the following sections we look at quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methodological approaches to undertaking research. Table 2.3 synthesizes the differences between quantitative and qualitative research approaches.

Quantitative Research Approaches

A quantitative approach to research is probably the most familiar approach for the typical research student studying at the introductory level. Arising from the natural sciences, e.g., chemistry and biology), the quantitative approach is framed by the belief that there is one reality or truth that simply requires discovering, known as realism. Therefore, asking the “right” questions is key. Further, this perspective favours observable causes and effects and is therefore outcome-oriented. Typically, aggregate data is used to see patterns and “truth” about the phenomenon under study. True understanding is determined by the ability to predict the phenomenon.

Qualitative Research Approaches

On the other side of research approaches is the qualitative approach. This is generally considered to be the opposite of the quantitative approach. Qualitative researchers are considered phenomenologists, or human-centred researchers. Any research must account for the humanness, i.e., that they have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that they interpret of the participants. Instead of a realist perspective suggesting one reality or truth, qualitative researchers tend to favour the constructionist perspective: knowledge is created, not discovered, and there are multiple realities based on someone’s perspective. Specifically, a researcher needs to understand why, how and to whom a phenomenon applies. These aspects are usually unobservable since they are the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the person. Most importantly, they are a function of their perception of those things rather than what the outside researcher interprets them to be. As a result, there is no such thing as a neutral or objective outsider, as in the quantitative approach. Rather, the approach is generally process-oriented. True understanding, rather than information based on prediction, is based on understanding action and on the interpretive meaning of that action.

Table 3.3 Differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches (from Adjei, n.d).

Quantitative Qualitative
Tests hypotheses that the researcher generates Discovers and encapsulates meanings once the researcher becomes immersed in the data.
Concepts are in the form of distinct variables. Concepts tend to be in the form of themes, motifs, generalizations, and taxonomies. However, the objective is still to generate concepts.
Measures are systematically created before data collection and are standardized as far as possible; e.g. measures of job satisfaction Measures are more specific and may be specific to the individual setting or researcher; e.g. a specific scheme of values.
Data are in the form of numbers from precise measurement Data are in the form of words from documents, observations, and transcripts. However, quantification is still used in qualitative research
Theory is largely causal and is deductive. Theory can be causal or non-causal and is often inductive
Procedures are standard, and replication is assumed. Research procedures are particular and replication is difficult.
Analysis proceeds by using statistics, tables, or charts and discussing how they relate to hypotheses. Analysis proceeds by extracting themes or generalizations from evidence and organizing data to present a coherent, consistent picture. These generalizations can then be used to generate hypotheses


Note: Researchers in emergency and safety professions are increasingly turning toward qualitative methods. Here is an interesting peer paper related to qualitative research in emergency care.

Qualitative Research in Emergency Care Part I: Research Principles and Common Applications by Choo, Garro, Ranney, Meisel, and Guthrie (2015)

Interview-based Qualitative Research in Emergency Care Part II: Data Collection, Analysis and Results Reporting.