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Research | Research Methods | Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

Research Methods | Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

Before starting out, it is important to consider whether your research question would best be answered using a broadly qualitative or quantitative approach. This is an important distinction to make, as it will determine the design of your study through from your initial literature review and recruitment of participants to data collection and analysis.

  • Quantitative research, as the name suggests, is usually concerned with trying to quantify phenomena; it asks questions such as ‘how long’ or ‘how many’ and is usually the paradigm with which pharmacists are most familiar.

  • Qualitative research attempts to establish how people interpret their experiences and the world around them; it asks ‘what does it feel like’ or ‘what does x think about y’. It aims to gather data in as natural a setting as possible (e.g. participants’ homes or schools), in contrast to quantitative research, which is often performed in artificial or experimental environments (e.g. laboratories).

Qualitative research can be used to gather preliminary data to inform the design of quantitative projects.

When you’ve established whether your question falls under the qualitative or quantitative heading, then you need to think about your Study Design, how you are going to undertake your Data Collection and from whom, and how you will Analyse your results.

You can click on the hyperlinks to read about these aspects in more depth but briefly quantitative research collects data through questionnaires, surveys, validated scoring systems (e.g. the Hospital Anxiety & Depression Scale), and other clinical outcome measures (e.g. blood pressure, weight loss). In contrast qualitative researchers use direct observation, interviews and focus groups.

With respect to deciding who you are going to recruit into your study, if you’re using a quantitative approach then you normally would want to recruit your study sample from the whole potential population randomly. For example, if you wanted to measure knowledge about medicines on a cardiology unit, the population is all the patients on the unit – your sample should be randomly chosen from that population. Each patient should have an equal chance of being in your study sample.

However, if you are using a qualitative approach, then you would normally adopt a purposeful sampling strategy. This means that you target the participants who you think would be most informative for the purpose of your research question; they may have had a particular experience that you are interested in, or be influential in your pharmacy service development.

Finally with regard to Data Analysis, quantitative research generally involves the use of Statistics to summarise the data generated, and to make inferences from it. This can be performed fairly efficiently with the help of several commercially available computer packages.

In contrast qualitative data analysis is a time-consuming process. The data often take the form of transcripts of interviews or focus groups, or field notes from observing a particular interaction. Depending upon the researcher’s theoretical standpoint, they may try to look for themes within the data, to enable them to describe a phenomenon or develop a theory about a particular experience.

In summary, it is essential that you consider whether your research question would be best answered using a qualitative or quantitative approach at the outset. Study design, selection of participants, data collection and analysis will all be influenced by this decision.

Further reading that covers both qualitative and quantitative research

If you’re just getting started:

  • Smith FJ. Conducting your pharmacy practice research project. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 2005.

If you’re more advanced:

  • Bowling A. Research methods in health. 2nd ed Maidenhead: Open University Press; 2002.

Further reading for qualitative research

If you’re just getting started:

  • Greenhalgh T, Taylor R. How to read a paper: Papers that go beyond numbers (qualitative research). British Medical Journal 1997; 315: 740-743.

  • Pope C, Mays N, editors. Qualitative research in health care. 2nd ed. London: BMJ; 2000. (The chapters in this book are on the BMJ website for free).

  • Morse JM, Richards L. Read me first for a user’s guide to qualitative research. London: Sage Publications; 2002.

If you’re more advanced:

  • Creswell JW. Qualitative inquiry and research design – Choosing among the 5 traditions. London: Sage Publications; 1998.

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