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Empirical Research: Quantitative & Qualitative

This guide provides an overview of empirical research and quantitative and qualitative social science research methods.

What's the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative?

What’s the Difference Between Quantitative and Qualitative Methods?

Quantitative research is characterized by the gathering of data with the aim of testing a hypothesis. The data generated are numerical, or, if not numerical, can be transformed into useable statistics. They are used to quantify attitudes, opinions, and behaviors; and the aim is usually to generalize results from a sample to a larger known population. Quantitative data collection methods are more structured than qualitative data collection methods and sample sizes are usually larger. Common quantitative methods include surveys and experiments.

Qualitative research is primarily exploratory research. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. Qualitative research is also used to uncover trends in thought and opinions and to dive deeper into a problem by studying an individual or a group, usually using unstructured or semi-structured techniques. The sample size is typically smaller than in quantitative research. Some common qualitative data collection methods include focus groups, individual interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork.

Byrne, D. (2017). What’s the Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Methods?. SAGE Research Methods: Project Planner

Search SAGE Research Methods for resources about qualitative methods

Search SAGE Research Methods for resources about quantitative methods

Distinguishing Quantitative & Qualitative Methods

Quantitative Research

Qualitative Research

Tests hypotheses born from theory

Generates understanding from patterns

Generalizes from a sample to the population

Applies ideas across contexts

Focuses on control to establish cause or permit prediction

Focuses on interpreting and understanding a social construction of meaning in a natural setting

Attends to precise measurements and objective data collection

Attends to accurate description of process via words, texts, etc., and observations

Favors parsimony and seeks a single truth

Appreciates complexity and multiple realities

Conducts analysis that yields a significance level

Conducts analysis that seeks insight and metaphor

Faces statistical complexity

Faces conceptual complexity

Conducts analysis after data collection

Conducts analysis along with data collection

Favors the laboratory

Favors fieldwork

Uses instruments with psychometric properties

Relies on researchers who have become skilled at observing, recording, and coding (researcher as instrument)

Generates a report that follows a standardized format

Generates a report of findings that includes expressive language and a personal voice

Uses designs that are fixed prior to data collection

Allows designs to emerge during study

Often measures a single-criterion outcome (albeit multidimensional)

Offers multiple sources of evidence (triangulation)

Often uses large sample sizes determined by power analysis or acceptable margins of error

Often studies single cases or small groups that build arguments for the study's confirmability

Uses statistical scales as data

Uses text as data

Favors standardized tests and instruments that measure constructs

Favors interviews, observations, and documents

Performs data analysis in a prescribed, standardized, linear fashion

Performs data analysis in a creative, iterative, nonlinear, holistic fashion

Uses reliable and valid data

Uses trustworthy, credible, coherent data


From: Suter, W. N. (2012). Qualitative Data, Analysis, and Design. In Introduction to educational research: A critical thinking approach. SAGE Publications, Inc.,

Word Clues to Identify Methods

The words in this table can be used to evaluate whether an article tends more toward the quantitative or qualitative domain. Well-written article abstracts will contain words like these to succinctly characterize the article's content.




  • experimental
  • statistical
  • positivist
  • naturalistic
  • ethnographic
  • phenomenological
  • anthropological
  • interpretive
  • constructivist
Focus or Goals
  • describe with statistics
  • test theories
  • show relationships
  • predict
  • obtain a single true reality
  • develop understanding and meaning
  • describe naturally occuring behavior
  • describe multiple realities
  • structured
  • predetermined
  • specific
  • contrived
  • emergent
  • evolving
  • flexible
  • natural
  • holistic
  • experiments
  • questionnaires
  • surveys
  • structured observations or interviews
  • observations
  • open-ended interviews
  • field research
  • case studies
Data Analysis
  • deductive
  • statistical
  • interpretive
  • inductive
  • ongoing
  • searching for themes
  • text analysis

Adapted from: McMillan, J. H. (2012). Educational research: Fundamentals for the consumer (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

To read more about the keywords above, take a look at the reference works about research on the next tab on the menu.