Qualitative vs. Quantitative: Key Differences in Research Types

By: Yara Simón  | 
Colleagues sit on a sofa and have a casual meeting with coffee and a laptop
Quantitative and qualitative data analysis are equally important, but you need to know which one to use and when. Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Let's say you want to learn how a group will vote in an election. You face a classic decision of gathering qualitative vs. quantitative data.

With one method, you can ask voters open-ended questions that encourage them to share how they feel, what issues matter to them and the reasons they will vote in a specific way. With the other, you can ask closed-ended questions, giving respondents a list of options. You will then turn that information into statistics.


Neither method is more right than the other, but they serve different purposes. Learn more about the key differences between qualitative and quantitative research and how you can use them.

What Is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative research aims to explore and understand the depth, context and nuances of human experiences, behaviors and phenomena. This methodological approach emphasizes gathering rich, nonnumerical information through methods such as interviews, focus groups, observations and content analysis.

In qualitative research, the emphasis is on uncovering patterns and meanings within a specific social or cultural context. Researchers delve into the subjective aspects of human behavior, opinions and emotions.


This approach is particularly valuable for exploring complex and multifaceted issues, providing a deeper understanding of the intricacies involved.

Common qualitative research methods include open-ended interviews, where participants can express their thoughts freely, and thematic analysis, which involves identifying recurring themes in the data.

Examples of How to Use Qualitative Research

The flexibility of qualitative research allows researchers to adapt their methods based on emerging insights, fostering a more organic and holistic exploration of the research topic. This is a widely used method in social sciences, psychology and market research.

Here are just a few ways you can use qualitative research.

  • To understand the people who make up a community: If you want to learn more about a community, you can talk to them or observe them to learn more about their customs, norms and values.
  • To examine people's experiences within the healthcare system: While you can certainly look at statistics to gauge if someone feels positively or negatively about their healthcare experiences, you may not gain a deep understanding of why they feel that way. For example, if a nurse went above and beyond for a patient, they might say they are content with the care they received. But if medical professional after medical professional dismissed a person over several years, they will have more negative comments.
  • To explore the effectiveness of your marketing campaign: Marketing is a field that typically collects statistical data, but it can also benefit from qualitative research. For example, if you have a successful campaign, you can interview people to learn what resonated with them and why. If you learn they liked the humor because it shows you don't take yourself too seriously, you can try to replicate that feeling in future campaigns.

Types of Qualitative Data Collection

Qualitative data captures the qualities, characteristics or attributes of a subject. It can take various forms, including:

  • Audio data: Recordings of interviews, discussions or any other auditory information. This can be useful when dealing with events from the past. Setting up a recording device also allows a researcher to stay in the moment without having to jot down notes.
  • Observational data: With this type of qualitative data analysis, you can record behavior, events or interactions.
  • Textual data: Use verbal or written information gathered through interviews, open-ended surveys or focus groups to learn more about a topic.
  • Visual data: You can learn new information through images, photographs, videos or other visual materials.


What Is Quantitative Research?

Quantitative research is a systematic empirical investigation that involves the collection and analysis of numerical data. This approach seeks to understand, explain or predict phenomena by gathering quantifiable information and applying statistical methods for analysis.

Unlike qualitative research, which focuses on nonnumerical, descriptive data, quantitative research data involves measurements, counts and statistical techniques to draw objective conclusions.


Examples of How to Use Quantitative Research

Quantitative research focuses on statistical analysis. Here are a few ways you can employ quantitative research methods.

  • Studying the employment rates of a city: Through this research you can gauge whether any patterns exist over a given time period.
  • Seeing how air pollution has affected a neighborhood: If the creation of a highway led to more air pollution in a neighborhood, you can collect data to learn about the health impacts on the area's residents. For example, you can see what percentage of people developed respiratory issues after moving to the neighborhood.

Types of Quantitative Data

Quantitative data refers to numerical information you can measure and count. Here are a few statistics you can use.

  • Heights, yards, volume and more: You can use different measurements to gain insight on different types of research, such as learning the average distance workers are willing to travel for work or figuring out the average height of a ballerina.
  • Temperature: Measure in either degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. Or, if you're looking for the coldest place in the universe, you may measure in Kelvins.
  • Sales figures: With this information, you can look at a store's performance over time, compare one company to another or learn what the average amount of sales is in a specific industry.


Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research: 3 Key Differences

Quantitative and qualitative research methods are both valid and useful ways to collect data. Here are a few ways that they differ.

  • Data collection method: Quantitative research uses standardized instruments, such as surveys, experiments or structured observations, to gather numerical data. Qualitative research uses open-ended methods like interviews, focus groups or content analysis.
  • Nature of data: Quantitative research involves numerical data that you can measure and analyze statistically, whereas qualitative research involves exploring the depth and richness of experiences through nonnumerical, descriptive data.
  • Sampling: Quantitative research involves larger sample sizes to ensure statistical validity and generalizability of findings to a population. With qualitative research, it's better to work with a smaller sample size to gain in-depth insights into specific contexts or experiences.


Benefits of Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Research

You can simultaneously study qualitative and quantitative data. This method, known as mixed methods research, offers several benefits, including:

  • A comprehensive understanding: Integration of qualitative and quantitative data provides a more comprehensive understanding of the research problem. Qualitative data helps explain the context and nuances, while quantitative data offers statistical generalizability.
  • Contextualization: Qualitative data helps contextualize quantitative findings by providing explanations into the why and how behind statistical patterns. This deeper understanding contributes to more informed interpretations of quantitative results.
  • Triangulation: Triangulation involves using multiple methods to validate or corroborate findings. Combining qualitative and quantitative data allows researchers to cross-verify results, enhancing the overall validity and reliability of the study.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.