Qualitative vs. quantitative

Q: Jim asks, “Am I correct in saying that the primary difference in purpose between qualitative research and quantitative research is the focus on understanding one individual (or small group) in depth as a key source of knowledge, versus understanding at a ‘shallow,’ supposedly more
objective level, a large number of people as the source of knowledge?”

A: Hi Jim,

Thanks for the very good question.

Here at Ethnographic Research, Inc. we try really hard not to give the impression that ethnography is a panacea. It is one type of research a large toolkit of methods, each to be used whenever the research objectives call for them. I think about these methods as existing on a continuum, rather than being divided into strictly “qualitative” and “quantitative.”

Having said that, there are a lot of differences between a more quantitative and more qualitative approach to understanding. However, I don’t think objectivity is one of those differences. I think the objectivity that is often attributed to more quantitative research is really a fallacy. The focus of ethnographic research can be on a person or a small number of people, but often the focus is on an action or an experience, read on for more on this.

In a very general way, there are a few primary differences between these the two approaches. These differences are probably best understood in the context of research goals. In other words, a researcher must first identify her/his research goals and then pick the method that will best meet those goals. Although this will not be an exhaustive list, I’ll summarize some of the differences between the two approaches. First, they provide a different type of snapshot of what is going on. The more quantitative approaches provide a wide angled picture of a phenomenon, while the more qualitative approaches provide a telephoto picture. This should not be confused with the quantitative approaches serving up more data points. It is just that the data points are of different types. A good ethnography will provide hundreds if not thousands of data points. Second, while quantitative approaches are usually better at answering very tactical questions, qualitative approaches are often better at answering more strategic, open-ended questions. I always say that ethnography is really good at answering questions about things that you couldn’t have predicted or hypothesized about—it is really good at uncovering new things. Michael Agar says that the beginning question of all ethnographic research is “What is going on?” Third, the more quantitative approaches are better for providing information that can be neatly plotted on the bell curve and succinctly summarized in an executive summary. Ethnographic findings are often messy and not easily summarized because the goal of most ethnographic work is to understand the context around a “thing” rather than just isolate the “thing.” I think this helps to explain the preference you have observed for quantitative data.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have additional questions.


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