“Both quantitative and qualitative data may concern thoughts and feelings or any aspect of behaviour; the difference lies in the form the data takes.” 1
This question has been at the centre of methodological debate for centuries. Whether you are interested in cold, hard facts or prefer to understand and interpret meanings, it is important to realise that one method cannot exist without the other. This is why these two different methods are vital when thinking about the ways in which we study psychology.
Quantitative methods have their philosophical roots in positivism and logical empiricism. By producing numerical data, they can show trends to reveal causal relationships between variables. Using quantitative methods such as questionnaires and structured interviews, researchers have more control over variables and are able to use large samples, which can be representative of a larger population. This kind of data can be used to create averages; using the mean, median and mode. It can also be used to visually display data in tables and graphs, making it easy to spot trends and patterns. Quantitative methods can be used to test hypotheses and produce empirical data; this is favoured by biological psychologists as it supports the idea that psychology is science.
However, these facts may all sound very impressive, but do quantitative methods and data just skim the surface? Experiments that are favoured by quantitative researchers have been criticised for being conducted in a false environment, such as a laboratory. These experiments are not natural, so are the results ecologically valid or representative? It has been argued that quantitative researchers have a narrow outlook, by oversimplifying theories and results; they ignore the thoughts and feelings of the individual.
Qualitative methods on the other hand focuses much more on depth and detail, putting much more emphasis on the individual rather than mass population. Qualitative researchers favour naturalistic and ethnographic experiments, meaning that they can observe people in their natural environment. Rather than looking at empiricism, they concentrate much more on symbolic interactionism between people and understanding the meanings behind actions. Instead of using massive samples, qualitative researchers prefer smaller samples that are more personal instead of random e.g. a Case Study. One famous case study would be Watson and Rayners research involving Little Albert. This experiment showed much more depth and detail about phobias than any survey or questionnaire could. This experiment was natural, not artificial, and allowed the researchers to understand deeper meanings and be more subjective.
However, these natural settings mean that there is a lack of control. As the researchers are being so subjective, their presence could affect the behaviour of the participants and therefore the results. It is very difficult to generalise from qualitative data, as the samples are usually small as they are concentrated so much on the individual that they cannot represent the larger population. As these methods are so unstructured, they tend to be less reliable than quantitative data as they are harder to repeat. The fact that the data collected is non-numerical means that it is difficult to detect patterns and trends, making it harder to prove or disprove hypotheses.
Personally, I favour Qualitative methods as they focus much more on the depth and detail, and less on statistics and numbers. The results gained from qualitative methods have been proven to be more revealing and interesting, stating why rather than just giving bare facts. However, it is important to realise that these two methods are not mutually exclusive. The line between them is much less distinct than we think; to do good research the methods must be mixed and combined together.
“All qualitative data can be coded qualitatively, and all quantitative data is based on qualitative judgement.” 2
1 Psychology A2 – The Complete Companion.
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