The Difference between Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research

The technical and general understanding of the difference between qualitative and quantitative data is that quantitative data is in numerical form. Qualitative data is any data that is not in numerical form. Quantitative data is considered to be “hard” data which is measurable, verifiable, and “scientific”, or therefore more credible. Qualitative data is considered to be more nuanced than discrete numerical values allow, makes better consideration of context, and includes details that are left behind when numerical values are used.

The never ending battle between the hard approaches that allow only one or the other form of data in sociological research does more damage than good. There are just some entities in sociological research that cannot be completely identified and explained in numerical form. There are many entities in sociological research that can be symbolized through numerical constructs. As a result, the desire is for a combination of the two to be available for the sociological researcher.

Qualitative data, when defined as anything that is not in numerical form can include sociological concepts, representations of concepts, written descriptions, notes, logs and discussions, still and action photographic records, and records, themselves. Physical objects, symbols, statements, personal observations which record what the senses detected, and the infinite variety of real things and real people in the real world constitute qualitive data.

It can be said that all quantitative data is a result of qualitative data. Quantitative data is unreliable, undefined, and possibly meaningless if there is not clear description, proof and identity of origin, definition, verification of accuracy and completeness, exact formulas, and other written and physical referents which legitimize the value and intent of the qualitative data. It is one thing to use census data, but it is another to explain or describe how the data is collected, it’s accuracy, it’s flaws, and it’s value in representing the true and complete facts about a population.

No analytical tool that relies on manipulations of quantitative data is considered acceptable unless, at minimum, the raw data, the formulas used to make calculations, and the testing of output in the real world is completed. This process involves meticulous attention to journals, documentation, notes, and references that allow replication of the process by uninvolved and objective peers.

As a result, while quite different in nature, quantitative and qualitative methods are, by necessity, integrated in the process of social research that desires to be considered of the “scientific” approach.