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The quantitative VS qualitative research debate
“Quantitative research is like a bikini, it reveals a lot, but hides the essentials…”
Ton Robben, Professor of Anthropology at Utrecht University
“Qualitative research is like a fairytale, nice for the young and naïve, not for the grownup”
Maurits Masselink, LOBOS fellow & social psychologist
A good way to spice up any intellectual meeting with people from different research
disciplines is to bring up the question which approach has (greater) scientific value, the
quantitative or qualitative research approach. Usually this results in fierce debate where the
other’s approach is rejected and sometimes ridiculed (see above). Rarely any consensus is
reached in this kind of discussions, at most the agreement to disagree. The same thing can be
observed when looking at the scientific literature discussing the quantitative/qualitative
debate. The cause of this can be found in the seemingly mutually exclusive views on reality.
Quantitative research is primarily grounded on a positivistic view on reality. It
assumes that there is one single reality which can be objectively measured with the right tools.
Three principles are of vital importance, reliability, validity and generalization. To adhere to
these principles, data is preferably collected in strictly controlled experiments.
Qualitative research on the other hand is grounded on a interpretive or constructivistic
view on reality. This perspective assumes that reality is a social construct, formed in
interaction with the observer, therefore all observations are subjective. This subjectivity is
seen as positive and an integral part of all research. The role of the researcher is seen as
important and valuable, since only due to the interaction between observer and environment
reality exists. Therefore, data is gathered using interviews, observations and active
An interesting question is whether the different views of reality differ in their
definition of science. If this is the case, is it then still possible to have discussion about which
research approach has a greater scientific value? Related to this, what about combining the
approaches, the so-called mixed method, is this even defendable given the different views on
reality? How does one have to interpret the results of both approaches? (for one point of view
Apart from this more philosophical discussion, is there a difference in applicability of
either approach? Does one research approach has an advantage over the other depending on
the research question? For example, is qualitative research better able to grasp the deeper
feelings of people, or can cleverly designed quantitative research accomplish the same thing
Yet another interesting discussion point is the attention paid to the
quantitative/qualitative debate in educational programs. Although the whole debate is
interesting, most research field have embraced one of the approaches without room for debate.
This is reflected in the educational programs where students are more or less “indoctrinated”
with the dominant approach of the field. This results in a lack of knowledge about the possible
values of the other approach. Is it sufficient to educate students just about the “state of the art”
research approach within the field, or is it important to pay attention to the different
approaches and give the student more room to make an own decision?
Considering the questions raised above, where do you stand in this debate? To add a
last point, do you think the debate will be resolved? Will one approach prevail over the other,
will they remain standing next to each other or will they be combined in the future?
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