How to Choose your own Adventure when it comes to Research
10/28/15 / Kate Darwent
One of the things we’ve been doing at Corona this year that I’ve really enjoyed is resurrecting our book club. I enjoy it because it’s one way to think about the things we are doing from a bigger picture point of view, which is a welcome contrast to the project-specific thinking we are normally doing. One topic that’s come up repeatedly during our book club meetings is the pros and cons of different types of research methodology.
Knowing what kind of research you need to answer a question can be difficult if you have little experience with research. Understanding the different strengths and weaknesses of different methodologies can make the process a little easier and help ensure that you’re getting the most out of your research. Below I discuss some of the key differences between qualitative and quantitative research.
Qualitative research usually consists of interviews or focus groups, although other methodologies exist. The main benefit of qualitative research is that it is so open. Instead of constraining people in their responses, qualitative research generally allows for free-flowing, more natural responses. Focus group moderators and interviewers can respond in the moment to what participants are saying to draw out even deeper thinking about a topic. Qualitative research is great for brainstorming or finding key themes and language.
Qualitative data tend to be very rich, and you can explore many different themes within the data. One nice feature of qualitative research is that you can ask about topics that you have very little information about. For example, you might have a question in a survey that asks, “Which of the following best describes this organization? X, Y, Z, or none of the above.” This quantitative question assumes that X, Y, and Z are the three ways that people describe this organization, which requires at least some knowledge. A qualitative research question for this topic would ask, “How would you describe this organization?”. This is one of the reasons why qualitative research is great for exploratory research.
The primary weakness of qualitative research is that you can’t generate a valid population statistic from it. For example, although you could calculate what percent of people in focus groups said that Y was a barrier to working with your organization, you couldn’t generalize that estimate to the larger population. However, if you just wanted to identify the main barriers, then that would be possible with qualitative research. So even if 30% of focus group participants reported this barrier, we don’t know what percent of people overall would report that same barrier. We would only be able to say that this is a potential barrier. It’s important to think carefully about whether or not this would be a weakness for your research project.
The main goals of quantitative research are to estimate population quantities (e.g., 61% of your donors are in Colorado) and test for statistical difference between groups (e.g., donors in Colorado gave more money than those in other states). With quantitative research, you’re often sacrificing depth of understanding for precision.
One of the benefits to quantitative research, aside from being able to estimate population values, is that you can do a lot of interesting statistical analyses. Unlike a small sample of 30 people from focus groups, a large sample of 500 survey respondents allows for all sorts of analyses. You can look for statistical differences between groups, identify key clusters of respondents based on their responses, see if you can predict people’s responses from certain variables, etc.
There usually is not one single best way to answer a question with data, so thinking through your options and the benefits afforded by those options is important. And as always, we’re here to help you make these decisions if the project is complicated.