Quantitative or Qualitative methods?

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“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

 

Quotes:

1 Psychology A2 – The Complete Companion.

2 http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/qualdeb.php

Other useful links:

http://www.edu.plymouth.ac.uk/resined/qualitative%20methods%202/qualrshm.htm#1

 

http://www.okstate.edu/ag/agedcm4h/academic/aged5980a/5980/newpage21.htm

 

http://www.isast.org/proceedingsQQML2009/PAPERS_PDF/Devi-Understanding_the_Qualitative_and_Quantatitive_Methods_PAPER-QQML2009.pdf

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4 responses »

  1. The Little Albert experiment did allow Watson to conclude phobias were conditioned, however there are many problems with this study. It did allow for further research by Jones (1924) and Wolpe (1958) into desensitising and relaxing those suffering from phobias in an attempt to treat them, but at what cost? Reviews evaluating the experiment have shown flaws in its reliability and validity (Samelson, Franz.,1980; Paul and Blumenthal, 1989; Lazarus, Arnold. A., 1991). There are also huge ethical implications in the study. Was it ethical to induce a phobia of what extended beyond just a white rat to all fur and even a Santa beard, in the interest of understanding the conditioning theory more clearly. The 11 month old child was not unconditioned of his phobia and would likely have had a lifelong effect. There is also the distress the child was put under on numerous occasions. The child could not give consent, could not stop participation, nor understand or have the reason of the experiment explained. Should this have been allowed? Does the discovery of science for the good of the many mean that the welfare of the individual should be placed as a second priority?

    (References note: the comment section is not allowing me to post with the links for the online references, for further details on the links please contact me).

    Samelson, Franz. (1980). J.B. Watson’s Little Albert, Cyril Burt’s twins, and the need for critical science. American Psychologist, 35(7): 619-625. [Online]

    Paul, Diane. B., and Blumenthal, Arthur. L., (1989). On the trail of Little Albert. The Psychological Record, 39(4): 547-553. [Online]

    Lazarus, Arnold. A., (1991). A plague on Little Hans and Little Albert. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 28(3): 444-447. [Online]

  2. The Little Albert experiment did allow Watson to conclude phobias were conditioned, however there are many problems with this study. It did allow for further research by Jones (1924) and Wolpe (1958) into desensitising and relaxing those suffering from phobias in an attempt to treat them, but at what cost? Reviews evaluating the experiment have shown flaws in its reliability and validity (Samelson, Franz.,1980; Paul and Blumenthal, 1989; Lazarus, Arnold. A., 1991). There are also huge ethical implications in the study. Was it ethical to induce a phobia of what extended beyond just a white rat to all fur and even a Santa beard, in the interest of understanding the conditioning theory more clearly. The 11 month old child was not unconditioned of his phobia and would likely have had a lifelong effect. There is also the distress the child was put under on numerous occasions. The child could not give consent, could not stop participation, nor understand or have the reason of the experiment explained. Should this have been allowed? Does the discovery of science for the good of the many mean that the welfare of the individual should be placed as a second priority?

    (References note: the comment section is not allowing me to post with the links for the online references, for further details on the references please contact me).

  3. Quantitative data does not provide the depth and detail sometimes required. It can also oversimplify reality and human experience (Flanagan, Hartnell & Murray, 2009) Can it therefore be reductionist? However, is it harder to interpret subjective views and make sense of results? Freud , albeit absurd, had some very detailed case studies, such as ‘Little Hans’ but these could not be applied anywhere else as qualitative data can be so personal to the participant it makes it difficult to generalise the results. I think a combination of the two types of data is best. One aim of psychology is to improve the quality of peoples’ lives, so you need results that have depth and detail, can be generalised, but that are also statistically significant and correct for the population.

  4. Quantitative data in my opinion is ok in terms of collecting data quickly; for example 100 people are asked what colour they prefer; results that isn’t going to matter too much on that data, because realistically the probability factors come into this debate.
    Just because you have asked 100 people and have the information to duplicate figures across the population, doesn’t mean the outcome will be the same at all?

    Especially where Psychology is concerned or any form of science, Qualitative methods should be used, as there can be no question or discrepancies from the findings.

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