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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 is Empirical Research?

Empirical research is based on observed and measured phenomena and derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief. 

How do you know if a study is empirical? Read the subheadings within the article, book, or report and look for a description of the research methodology

Some scholarly journals use a specific article layout called the IMRaD format to communicate empirical research findings. Such articles typically have 4 components:

  • Introduction: sometimes called literature review - what is currently known about the topic - usually includes a theoretical framework and/or discussion of previous studies
  • Methodology: sometimes called research design - how to recreate the study - usually describes the population, research process, and analytical tools
  • Results: sometimes called findings - what was learned through the study - usually appears as statistical data or as substantial quotations from research participants
  • Discussion: sometimes called conclusion or implications - why the study is important - usually describes how the research results influence professional practices or future studies.

Key characteristics of empirical research to look for:

  • Specific research questions to be answered;
  • Definition of the population, behavior, or phenomena being studied;
  • Description of the process used to study this population or phenomena, including selection criteria, controls, and testing instruments (such as surveys);
  • There are two basic research processes or methods in empirical research: quantitative methods and qualitative methods (see below for more about these methods).

(based on the original from the Connelly LIbrary of LaSalle University)

Quantitative Methods

Quantitative Research

A quantitative research project is characterized by having a population about which the researcher wants to draw conclusions, but it is not possible to collect data on the entire population.

  • For an observational study, it is necessary to select a proper, statistical random sample and to use methods of statistical inference to draw conclusions about the population. 
  • For an experimental study, it is necessary to have a random assignment of subjects to experimental and control groups in order to use methods of statistical inference.

Statistical methods are used in all three stages of a quantitative research project.

For observational studies, the data are collected using statistical sampling theory. Then, the sample data are analyzed using descriptive statistical analysis. Finally, generalizations are made from the sample data to the entire population using statistical inference.

For experimental studies, the subjects are allocated to experimental and control group using randomizing methods. Then, the experimental data are analyzed using descriptive statistical analysis. Finally, just as for observational data, generalizations are made to a larger population.

Iversen, G. (2004). Quantitative research. In M. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman, & T. Liao (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social science research methods. (pp. 897-898). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Qualitative Methods

Qualitative Research

What makes a work deserving of the label qualitative research is the demonstrable effort to produce richly and relevantly detailed descriptions and particularized interpretations of people and the social, linguistic, material, and other practices and events that shape and are shaped by them.

Qualitative research typically includes, but is not limited to, discerning the perspectives of these people, or what is often referred to as the actor’s point of view. Although both philosophically and methodologically a highly diverse entity, qualitative research is marked by certain defining imperatives that include its case (as opposed to its variable) orientation, sensitivity to cultural and historical context, and reflexivity. 

In its many guises, qualitative research is a form of empirical inquiry that typically entails some form of purposive sampling for information-rich cases; in-depth interviews and open-ended interviews, lengthy participant/field observations, and/or document or artifact study; and techniques for analysis and interpretation of data that move beyond the data generated and their surface appearances. 

Sandelowski, M. (2004). Qualitative research. In M. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman, & T. Liao (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social science research methods. (pp. 893-894). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.