Quantitative or qualitative?
Pat McNeill compares two kinds of data used in social and educational research.
Essentially, there are three ways in which a social or educational researcher can collect evidence:
- by asking questions;
- by observing behaviour and interaction;
- by analysing documents and information that have already been recorded by others.
Each of these methods can be used to collect either quantitative data (in the form of numbers) or qualitative data (usually in the form of words, often quoted directly from the people being studied, but sometimes in other forms, such as images). Different types of research, with different purposes and different contexts, and researchers from different theoretical backgrounds, will tend to favour one or the other kind of data, though many will use a combination of the two.
Some research aims to collect primary quantitative data about people's social or material circumstances, or about how they live their lives, or about their attitudes or beliefs. In these cases, the researcher will usually carry out a survey of a representative sample of the population being studied. The questions may be presented in the form of a questionnaire, possibly delivered through the post or online, or a structured interview, where the researcher asks the questions face-to-face and notes the responses. The responses are classified into pre-set categories and analysed using a range of statistical techniques.
A large amount of secondary quantitative data is available in the official statistics that are published by government and its agencies. Some of this data is collected through surveys (e.g. the British Cohort Survey from which Bynner and Parsons derived much of their data) and some through routine administrative procedures (e.g. the number of adult learners enrolled on programmes in a year).
Researchers whose purpose is to understand and describe the meaning of social action and experience for the people involved will tend to favour qualitative data. They argue that people are active, conscious beings who act with intention and purpose because of the way they make sense of the social situation they are in. For example, a class of learners is not just a number of people enrolled on a particular programme; it is a group of people each of whom perceives himself or herself as a member of a class in a particular setting at a particular time and who acts accordingly, thus both responding to the setting and creating and maintaining it. Social phenomena are created by people who share an understanding of the situation, so researchers need methods that enable them to get at these shared understandings.
Researchers who want to collect primary qualitative data will often use observation, which may be either participant or non-participant, and either covert or overt. They may also use interviews but these will tend to be unstructured; the researcher has a relatively informal conversation with the participant but asks a lot of questions and ensures that the discussion focuses on the topic that is being researched. The respondent is encouraged to express themselves in their own terms rather than respond to preset questions.
Qualitative secondary data often takes the form of letters, diaries and other personal documents, as well as film, video and TV. These can be interpreted and analysed in terms of their meanings, symbols and use of language.
'Hard' or 'soft'?
Quantitative data is sometimes described as 'hard' and qualitative data as' soft'. Such terms imply that quantitative data is somehow more reliable and valid than qualitative data and that it is safer to base policy and expenditure on 'hard' data than 'soft'. While it would obviously be foolish to reject this view altogether, it is equally foolish to discount the most important aspect of human experience- that we act and react as conscious, thinking and reflective beings, not as objects in the world. The most effective policies will take account of a wide variety of evidence, whether it is 'hard' or 'soft'.