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Qualitative vs Quantitative Research; It’s all about Epistemology!

Qualitative vs. quantitative research

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. Whereas quantitative research is ‘positivism’ i.e. scientific and objective.

Qualitative vs quantitative research pros and cons

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”. Blah, blah, blah…

Prof. Kenneth R. Howe (2)


Qualitative vs quantitative research lines are blurring

The blurring of lines between qualitative and quantitative research has gone on for some time. Though 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 study, 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 that the qual and quant research disciplines still run separately. Another is because qualitative and quantitative researchers are defined at birth. And thus never the twain shall meet? This is because many researchers train under one discipline and most large research organisations run separate quantitative and qualitative departments.

Nevertheless from hard-won experience it is possible to marry both approaches and gain extra benefits. Thus 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 solicit a few ‘subjective’ answers to questions where it is difficult to discern differences in meaning. For example, when respondents say they ’like’ and ‘love’ something. Or that something is ‘great’ and ‘good’. In these instances, when two people say they ‘like’ something, they may not mean the same thing. So seeking numeric measures, using a simple likert scale (3) better distinguishes the ‘wheat from the ‘chaff’.

So rather than asking consumers who ‘likes’ what, asking them to say who ‘would definitely try or buy’ product ideas clarifies product purchasing intent. This is a particularly useful in a typical NPD ‘gate’ process. It helps better assess market potential and marketing implications. Thus, when developing new products this can help save you barking up the wrong tree. And could also help you save thousands of hours and pounds!

Quantitative with added qualitative

Quantitative research allows the inclusion of open-ended questions to explain the numbers. However, 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. For example, in a recent study, respondents tasted and critiqued a number of competitive food products. Research was conducted in a high traffic place so people could be recruited off the street into a hall. With some support from a moderator, consumers also completed a simple survey to assess relative product appeal and brand fit. Also opportunities for product improvement as well as reasons why. Thus providing substantial data and understanding.

The same techniques can assess service ideas, communications and packaging. For example, at the pack refinement stage, to give a clear read on shelf stand-out, and reasoning. Firstly, by co-opting a minimum of 100 consumers to check a mocked-up retail fixture. Then by identifying the appealing packs and critiquing them within the visual noise of a fixture provides a numerical assessment of stand-out. Finally, adding in a group discussion to deconstruct and reconstruct the pack elements adds understanding and guides improvement.

Research Inspiration

1. The debate does not simply have to be about qualitative vs quantitative research as there are also many other types of market research services. Yet each has a different role, application and benefits.

2. Combined qualitative-quantitative research offers the benefits of both qual and quant research methods. So dial either up or down to answer ‘why’ questions as well as gain 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? Choose a creative research agency to help you get the most for your money.


1. What is 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?