The qualitative vs. quantitative research debate started in the 1970s. It’s all about epistemology(1), a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Qualitative research is described as ‘interpretivism’ i.e. non-scientific and subjective. Quantitative research is ‘positivism’ i.e. scientific and objective.
But there is an academic argument that the two methods cannot and should not work together.
“The chief worry is that the capitulation to “what works” ignores the incompatibility of the competing positivistic and interpretivist epistemological paradigms that purportedly undergird quantitative and qualitative methods, respectively”(2). Blah, blah, blah…
Qualitative and quantitative research lines are blurring
The blurring of lines between qualitative and quantitative research has gone on for some time. How many times have you attended focus groups and a done a quick ‘tally’ of responses to gain some quantitative guidance? Or, within an omnibus, included a few open-ended questions to add a little more colour? Superficial instances perhaps, but evidence of ‘blurring’ nonetheless.
A possible reason overlap is not fully acknowledged is because many believe the disciplines still run separately? Another is because qualitative and quantitative researchers are defined at birth? And never the twain shall meet? It is true that many researchers train under one discipline and that most large research organisations run separate quantitative and qualitative departments.
However, from hard-won experience it is possible to marry both approaches and gain extra benefits. There is room for a new model, a qualitative and quantitative research hybrid. Here are some examples:
Qualitative with added quantitative
Qualitative research discussions often include a few ‘subjective’ answers to questions where it is sometimes difficult to discern differences in meaning. For example, whether there are differences in meaning are between ’like’ and ‘love’ or ‘great’ and ‘good’ etc. Whether when two people says they ‘like’ something, they mean the same thing? Numeric measures, such as a simple likert scale (3) provides more decision-making substance.
Rather than asking consumers who ‘likes’ what, by asking them to state product purchasing intent, or to select a number of ‘would definitely try or buy’ product ideas helps focus time and energy on the ideas that matter. This is a more useful ‘gate’ in a typical NPD process. It better helps assess marketing implications and potential. When developing new products this can help save thousands of hours and pounds by not barking up the wrong tree!
Quantitative with added qualitative
Quantitative data uses open-ended questions to explain the numbers. But in many cases it doesn’t explain anything because respondents fail to fill in the boxes or just write two or three words. Data is also costly to code and cumbersome to analyse.
However, combined qualitative and quantitative research can assess and improve products and more. In a recent study, respondents tasted and critiqued a number of competitive food products. Research was undertaken in a high traffic place so people could be recruited off the street into a hall. With some support from a moderator, consumers completed a simple questionnaire to assess relative appeal, brand fit, and opportunities for product improvement as well as reasoning.
The same techniques can assess service ideas, communications and packaging. For example, at the pack refinement stage when a clear read on shelf stand-out, and reasoning is required. By co-opting a minimum of 100 consumers to check a mocked-up retail fixture. By identifying the appealing packs and critiquing them within the visual noise of a fixture provides a numerical assessment of stand-out. Adding in a qualitative discussion to deconstruct and reconstruct the pack elements provides understanding and guidance for improvement.
1. The debate does not have to be about qualitative vs. quantitative research as there are roles for both.
2. Combined qualitative-quantitative research offers the benefits of both research methods. Dial either up or down to gain answers from ‘why’ questions as well meaningful numbers. Within this it is also possible to establish quotas for consumer types. And save time and money too. So do you need understanding or numbers? Or both? A creative research agency should help you get the most for your money.
1. What is Epistemology? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology
2. Howe Kenneth R. PhD – Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, Boulder. Against the qualitative-quantitative incompatibility thesis (or dogmas die-hard), Educational Researcher 17(8) 10-16 1988
3. What is a Likert scale? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likert_scale