• 3-minute read
  • 17th July 2016

Word Choice: Qualitative vs. Quantitative

‘Qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ aren’t exactly opposites, but they do describe very different research approaches used in various academic fields. To ensure clarity, you should avoid confusing them in your work.

Unfortunately, ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ are similarly spelled and not words we typically use on a day-to-day basis. This makes it very easy to mix them up. Luckily, we’re here to explain how ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ should be used.

Qualitative (A Matter of Quality)

The term ‘qualitative’ comes from the word ‘quality’, reflecting how qualitative research is interested in the subjective meaning or qualities of that which is being investigated.

It’s therefore a common approach in the human and social sciences, like sociology or anthropology, where understanding human motivations is crucial:

To investigate how subjects perceive purchase decisions, a qualitative approach was chosen.

Common qualitative methods include interviews, focus groups, direct observation and case studies; as a result, qualitative data is non-numerical.

A ‘focus group’ is the academic version of a friendly chat. [Photo: UBC LEAP/YouTube]

Quantitative (A Matter of Quantity)

In the same way that ‘qualitative’ concerns quality, the term ‘quantitative’ comes from the word ‘quantity’. As such, quantitative research is interested in things that can be quantified numerically.

With stats, graphs and whatnot. Numbers, basically.
With stats, graphs and whatnot. Numbers, basically.

Quantitative approaches are dominant in many fields, from the sciences to business studies, especially those in which statistical analysis is applied:

To determine projected expenditure, quantitative analysis was applied to the account data.

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Quantitative research methods aim for objectivity, so either use sensitive measuring instruments to gain accurate data (as in chemistry or biology) or numerical data gathered via things like polls, surveys and questionnaires (as in psychology, market research or sociology).

Qualitative or Quantitative?

The first issue here is knowing what kind of approach you’re using in your work. If you’re focusing on the meaning of human action or social trends, you’ll usually need to use a qualitative approach.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for objective, statistical information about something, your investigations will normally use quantitative methods.

Many studies also mix these approaches to some extent, but knowing the difference between the different research approaches within your project is still crucial.

Once you have a good sense of the type of research you’re conducting, it’s simply a matter of keeping the distinction between ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ in mind. Remember:

Qualitative (quality) = Concerned with subjective experience and human understanding

Quantitative (quantity) = Concerned with measurable numerical data and statistical analysis

Comments (2)
Peter Oyedele
28th June 2020 at 06:40
This is quite helpful. Thank you so much. Now, I have a concern, please. How each of this, qualitative and quantitative be stated in a research objective? I mean, I wish to know the right verbs to be used in stating each of them. I will appreciate your response to my concern. Thank you in anticipation of reading from you soonest.
    29th June 2020 at 10:24
    Hi, Peter. You might mention your methods in a research objective (e.g. to detail the steps you'll take to meet your overall research aims), so you could say whether you're using qualitative or quantitative methods there if applicable, but usually it is more of an issue in the methodology/study design section. I'm afraid I don't really follow you on the 'which verbs to use' question: 'qualitative' and 'quantitative' are adjectives, so they modify nouns. The verb or verbs in the accompanying sentence will depend what you're trying to say (e.g. in 'I will use quantitative methods', the verb is 'use').

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