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Qualitative research is descriptive in nature, with data obtained using unstructured or semi-structured techniques such as individual depth interviews, group discussions, case studies, or observations. On the other hand, quantitative research is statistical in nature, with data obtained using structured techniques such as online questionnaires, on-street or telephone interviews.
Qualitative research focuses on thoughts and opinions of a small target group that remains non-representative of its class. The data from such research help gain an in-depth understanding on the subject, and of the underlying reasons and motivations for an action. Quantitative research identifies variables and the relationships and interdependencies among such variables. It measures the incidence of views and opinions on a random sample of population, to generalize the results from the sample to the universe.
Qualitative research usually takes place in a natural or real-life setting, whereas quantitative research usually takes place in artificial laboratory-like conditions that may not reflect real life situations. For instance, a qualitative case study involves making observations of the actual situation, whereas a quantitative questionnaire or survey elicits the views of the respondents outside the actual work settings, and require a high degree of validity for acceptance.
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Which Comes First?
In business research, both qualitative and quantitative research has its relevance, and finds application simultaneously. Qualitative research either precedes quantitative research and establishes a hypothesis for validation through a quantitative study, or follows quantitative research to make the quantitative data clear and powerful.
Qualitative research is explorative or investigative in nature, and its findings are not applicable across the universe. For instance, if a qualitative case study on a store finds that 75 percent of customers are repeat customers, applying the same across all stores requires formulating a hypothesis that says likewise, and undertaking a quantitative study to validate the hypothesis using tools such as questionnaires and a random sample of customers across different stores.
Conversely, qualitative researchers seek answers for the “why?” questions, remaining unsatisfied with the answers that a quantitative study may generate. For instance, if a quantitative study that states 75 percent of customers do not return to a store, a follow up qualitative study may examine the stores’ systems and policies, layout, staff competencies, and other factors, to explore the reasons why most customers do not return.
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The real life applications of business research suggests that comparing qualitative vs quantitative research, businesses tend to veer towards the quantitative as such data seem more powerful, substantial, and objective. This is a fallacy. A good business research needs to collect both qualitative and quantitative data to gain a proper and in-depth understanding of the subject of research.
Consider a hypothetical study on making improvements in the floor design of a supermarket. This might first require qualitative tools such as deploying focus groups, case studies and observations to determine how customers go around looking for items, congestion at the billing tills at various times, and other characteristic features. Such data by itself might not be of much use, unless substantiated with quantitative information that seeks the extent of customer satisfaction or annoyance with the store layout and waiting times, comparisons on waiting time at billing tills during peak hours at other stores, and so on.
Both qualitative and quantitative methods are indispensible in business research, and one method usually supports and props up the other. A good business research design incorporates the use of both these methods as required.
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- Snap Surveys. “Qualitative vs Quantitative Research.” http://www.snapsurveys.com/techadvqualquant.shtml. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
- EnquiryLearning. "Qualitative versus Quantitative Research." http://www.enquirylearning.net/ELU/Issues/Research/Res1Ch2.html. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
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