While quantitative research measures things, qualitative research weighs up the meaning and significance of social experience. It tends to ask ‘why’ rather than just ‘how many’. Greenhalgh illustrates the difference between quantitative and qualitative research through an anecdote, told to her by a colleague. A small child comes running excitedly from the garden shouting, ‘Mummy, Mummy the leaves are falling from the trees!’ Her mother responds, ‘Really, darling? What else can you tell me?’ ‘Well,’ says the child, ‘in the first ten minutes four leaves fell off and in the next ten minutes seven fell off. I’ve made them into piles.’ This child will grow up to be a quantitative researcher. A second child equally excited about the leaves runs to her mother but when asked for more details replies, ‘Well, some leaves are big and flat and some are small and sort-of curled up and they seem to falling off some trees and not others. Why is that Mummy?’ This child will grow up to be a qualitative researcher. [Greenhalgh, 2006, 167, adapted].
Quantitative research generally addresses large research populations compared to qualitative research. Our experiment was a very unusual example of quantitative research in this regard! One of the advantages of quantitative research is precisely the big numbers of subjects it can include. Qualitative research tends to study small numbers of people but does so in depth.
A quantitative researcher assumes the world can be studied independently of our subjective impressions of it. By contrast, in qualitative research the researcher has to acknowledge their own role in the research and their own perspective and values. This is because they are part of the process of meaning making that the research describes.
Too much can be made of the difference between the two types of research, however. Robson, in his thorough review of research methods in social research tells us that most social research blends together qualitative and quantitative methods [Robson, 1993]. The same study, for example, will review population statistics about people who misuse drugs as well as explore the meaning drug use has for the people involved. Whether it is quantitative or qualitative both involve research as systematic enquiry.
In social care you will probably find many examples of qualitative research. This is largely because our work is about understanding the lives of individuals and their communities. Qualitative research helps us tailor our work more closely to the experiences and circumstances of people who use services.
The website Research Mindedness in Social Work and Social Care provides an excellent glossary that includes many key research terms including definitions of ‘emancipatory research’, ‘feminist research’, ‘biographical research’ and ‘grounded theory’ among many others [RESMIND, 2009]. The link can be found here and is also listed along with a number of useful books, articles and internet resources in the list of references at the end of this object.