Qualitative research methods aren’t as scientific as quantitative methods.

Qualitative and quantitative research methods are familiar to all us, with the stereotypical view of many being that quantitative research has more of a scientific grounding than qualitative. I will try to explain whether such a stereotype is justified.

Firstly, it is important to mention what the basic differences between the two are. Quantitative research refers to the empirical investigation of social and human behaviour via mathematical, statistical and computational techniques. Whereas, qualitative researchers aim to gather in-depth information on human behaviour and reasons that govern that behaviour, choosing rather to focus on collecting information from case studies. An example of this would be Freud, who regularly produced massively detailed case studies on his patients. But is one really more scientific than the other?

From a general standpoint, research is deemed scientific if it investigates a phenomena, looking to acquire new knowledge or expand on previous knowledge. From this, we can assume that both of these methods have a case for being scientific, as both look to do just this, with the phenomena being human behaviour.  However, it is also said that for research to be scientific, researchers need to construct a hypothesis; test that hypothesis; analyze the data; and then communicate the results. From this you could be mistaken for thinking that both qualitative and quantitative research can be considered scientific. However, a major difference between the two is that qualitative research is inductive and quantitative research is deductive. In qualitative research, a hypothesis is not needed to begin research. Whereas, all quantitative research requires a hypothesis before research can begin. Therefore, this would explain the reason why qualitative research is often critisised for being unscientific.

It would seem that such a stereotype is justified, but we shoud not presume that qualitative research is not useful. Many talk about Freuds’ influence in psychology. How his theories, although flawed, were groundbreaking for his time, and in many ways acted as a springboard for future theories to be formed. All such work came from in depth, qualitative research, which, although may not be scientific, can still have huge relevance in the world of psychology.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Hi, well done on a great blog post.

    Your descriptions of qualitative and quantitative data are very well fleshed out, and the use of examples of research from each side was very well done. You did a good job of describing the pros and cons of both sides. However, i feel that you could have included a broad definition of what is seen as scientific to clarify what sort of criteria needs to be fufilled in order for something to be deemed scientific. Your conclusion was great, and i must say i agree with you on this topic.

    Reply

  2. its clear you’ve put a lot of thought into this, i agree completely with what you’ve put that although qualitative methods are not scientific they are highly relevant and needed to help explain and beef out theories and research. a paper i would suggest looking at is Johansson, Risberg and Hamberg (2003), who conduct a meta-analysis of this very argument 🙂 happy researching!

    Reply

  3. A thought-provoking and insightful post, with a clear introduction and conclusion which resulted in your argument being persuasive and effective (it definitely confirmed by belief that although qualititative methods cannot really be deemed as truly scientific, they are still crucial in psychology). Your definition of qualitative methods being individuals observed behaviour, thoughts, and feelings, and quantitative being more numerical in basis was detailed and clearly understood!

    The point you made regarding Freud and his case studies being qualitative methods is important – Freud produced some ground-breaking ideas as a result of these case studies and have enabled psychologists to gain a fuller understanding of human behaviour, particularly concerning the unconscious mind. It would have added to your argument about the importance of qualitative methods in the construction of theories if you had mentioned one of the case studies that Freud based his theories on. An example could have been Little Hans, on which Freud argued the existence of the Oedipus Complex (Freud, 1909).

    Your detail into the scientific method and how qualitative methods do not adhere to this method is also interesting, but could have been further expanded. The fact that qualitative methods tests participants and then produces theories to support the data clearly violates the scientific method and therefore raises the fundamental question of whether qualitative methods are scientific. This is a significant problem due to the fact that it makes the investigation extremely difficult for others to replicate. This is a crucial aspect in science, as scientific theories are subjected to a continual cycle of testing in order to promote the best possible explanation for a particular phenomenon. However, as you quite rightly noted, the role of qualitative methods in constructing theories is invaluable. It is my view that for the best possible research to take place, qualitative methods should be used to construct theories and then quanitative methods used to empirically test them.

    Another aspect which would have added strength to your argument that qualitative methods, although useful, are not as scientific as quantitative methods could have been the issue of generalisability. Due to the small numbers of participants and the fact that much of the information obtained is only relevant to the individual in question, qualitative methods are challenging to generalise. This is an issue due to the fact that the idea of scientific research is to provide findings that will benefit us, if findings are not generalisable, this can not occur.

    You also failed to mention the issue of subjectivity in qualitative methods. Individuals thoughts and behaviours are very specific and it is therefore difficult for researchers to correctly interpret data obtained. The difficulty in interpretating qualitative data correctly can result in incorrect assumptions being made and potentially important findings being missed. This can be addressed through inter-rater reliability, whereby multiple researchers observe behaviour, make interpretations, and compare the findings. However, this is time-consuming and still lacks the reliability of quantitative methods. Furthermore, with qualitative data there is a more significant risk of participants displaying socially desirable traits to the researcher to prevent being judged or make themselves be seen in a more appealing light. This can again result in incorrect assumptions being made and important detail being lost.

    Congratulations on a great blog! Happy Christmas!

    Reply

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