In a recent blog post, Howard Aldrich argued that social scientists should drop the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. I want to push back here and argue that there are important differences between the two methods which must be recognized to ensure high quality research. To be sure, the starting point of the discussion should be recognition of the underlying unity of research methodology, about which Charles Ragin has written eloquently. Quantitative and qualitative methods are both tools for advancing theory and knowledge. But these methods advance theory in distinct, complementary ways. To realize the full potential of research methodology requires recognizing these differences.
Over the past year, I’ve met with many doctoral students and junior faculty in my travels around the United States and Europe, all of them eager to share information with me about their research. Invariably, at every stop, at least one person will volunteer the information that “I’m doing a qualitative study of…” When I probe for what’s behind this statement, I discover a diversity of data collection and analysis strategies that have been concealed by the label “qualitative.” They are doing participant observation ethnographic fieldwork, archival data collection, long unstructured interviews, simple observational studies, and a variety of other approaches. What seems to link this heterogeneous set is an emphasis on not using the latest high-powered statistical techniques to analyze data that’s been arranged in the form of counts of something or other. The implicit contrast category to “qualitative” is “quantitative.” Beyond that, however, commonalities are few.
Here I want to offer my own personal reflections on why I urge abandoning the dichotomy between “qualitative” and “quantitative,” although I hope readers will consult the important recent essays by Pearce and Morgan for more comprehensive reviews of the history of this distinction. For a variety of reasons, some people began making a distinction more than four decades ago between what they perceived as two types of research – – quantitative and qualitative – – with research generating data that could be manipulated statistically seen as generally more scientific.